Ranking the 10 Best NHL Defensemen on the Power Play

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IDecember 24, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best NHL Defensemen on the Power Play

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    Montreal's P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov combined for 49 power-play points last year. That's incredible! While they are clearly the best power-play pairing, individually, neither is the league's best defenseman. Who is?

    To answer that question in a manner that's free of personal bias, we're using hockey analytics. All NHL defensemen were ranked by their average power-play scoring rate over the past three seasons through this past weekend's games.

    Only those who managed at least 300 minutes of power-play time were considered, which means that players like Torey Krug and Andy Greene were not considered.

    Based on reputation, Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty were the list's most prominent absences, but the closest near misses were actually Niklas Kronwall, Ryan Suter, Kimmo Timonen and Kris Letang.

    While many of the players in the top 10 come as no surprise, it was quite a shock to see who finished on top. Turn over to start with No. 10, and see if you can guess who came in at No. 1 by the time you get there.

    Raw data from NHL.com, all sums and averages are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. Please note that all references to rankings are among defensemen only.


10. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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    Key Stats: 1.38 Goals/60 (ninth), 3.45 Assists/60

    Power-Play Role: A defenseman/forward whose 6'5" frame can be placed in front of the opposing net to screen the goalie, deflect shots and bury rebounds.

    Why He's Here: While there are a few arguments to make against Byfuglien's inclusion in this top-10 list, he has one important and uncommon skill that justifies it. It's his ability to be successful either on the point as a defenseman, or down deep as a forward.

    Perhaps it's unfair to the other defensemen that Big Buff's scoring has been boosted by the time he serves as a forward. It could also be questionable to include anyone from a team that is currently ranked 25th with a 15.1 success percentage, and was dead last in 2012-13 at 13.8 percent.

    Regardless of these concerns, and regardless of where he plays, the bottom line is that the large 28-year-old consistently gets his name on the score sheet. Over the past three seasons, Byfuglien's 12 goals is tied for fifth among defensemen, his 30 assists is tied for 10th, and overall, he's ninth with 41 points. This year, he's tied for third with four power-play goals and 13 points, and he was also third in 2010-11 with eight power-play goals. That's good enough for me.

9. Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers

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    Key Stats: 0.79 Goals/60, 4.05 Assists/60 (fourth)

    Power-Play Role: A quintessential power-play quarterback who makes stars of his partners, like former Panther Jason Garrison, whose 15 power-play goals over the past three seasons are third-most among defensemen.

    Why He's Here: In a clear case where a player's numbers match his reputation, Brian Campbell can be viewed as the bar that all power-play specialists need to surpass in order to be considered elite.

    Over the past three seasons combined, Campbell leads all defensemen with 681 minutes of power-play time, 46 assists and 55 points. Previously he topped 20 assists three out of the first four seasons following the 2004-05 lockout. He was third among NHL defensemen with 28 assists and 33 points on the power play in 2007-08, led the NHL's blue lines with 30 assists and 31 points with the man advantage in 2011-12, and was third last year with six power-play goals and 17 points.

    The Panthers may have the worst power play this year at just 10.7 percent, but it was 20.4 percent last year (sixth) and 18.5 percent the year before (seventh). Based on the rest of their roster, this was almost exclusively thanks to their high-priced, puck-moving defenseman: Brian Campbell.

8. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 1.27 Goals/60, 3.68 Assists/60 (ninth)

    Power-Play Role: A young quarterback on a team that structures its entire power play around their defensemen.

    Why He's Here: The St. Louis Blues are potentially the one team with a pairing that can challenge Montreal's P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, who were described in the opening slide as the league's best power-play partners.

    Not only is Alex Pietrangelo effective with fellow youngster Kevin Shattenkirk, but he has also worked the man advantage to great effect with speedy veteran Jay Bouwmeester. The Blues are consequently fifth in the NHL right now with a power-play percentage of 21.9 percent.

    As for the 23-year-old himself, Pietrangelo is one of only 12 defensemen to score at least 10 power-play goals over the past three seasons. He first broke out in 2011-12, when he was fifth among NHL defensemen with 18 assists and fourth with 24 points.

    Though his exact position might be debated, there's really no question that he belongs somewhere in the top 10.

7. Mike Green, Washington Capitals

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    Key Stats: 1.43 Goals/60 (sixth), 3.56 Assists/60

    Power-Play Role: Hammers shots from the point and complements the incredible scoring talent of Alexander Ovechkin like no other defenseman.

    Why He's Here: There's no question that Mike Green gets a boost from playing with Ovechkin on one of the league's best power plays. Washington is currently second in the NHL with a 26.1 percent power play, and they led the league last year with 26.8.

    Green's big years were from 2007-08 through 2009-10 where he scored a combined 36 goals and 60 assists. Wow! In 2008-09, he led NHL defensemen with 18 power-play goals and was second with 38 points. In 2009-10, he led the league's defensemen in goals (10), assists (25) and points (35) with the man advantage. Those last two seasons, he was on for 126 power-play goals, of which he was personally involved in 73.

    It isn't all just ancient history. Last year, Green finished ninth among NHL defensemen with 19 power-play points, and the 28-year-old's goal-scoring rate over the past three seasons is surpassed by only five defensemen. Of course he owes a lot of his scoring to his teammates, but no other defensemen would have been capable of taking such full advantage of the situation.

6. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens

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    Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 1.39 Goals/60 (eighth), 3.61 Assists/60

    Power-Play Role: The veteran half of the league's top power-play pairing.

    Why He's Here: Does Andrei Markov really deserve to be on this list, or is he being boosted by his partner?

    While it can be hard to separate his recent contributions from those of P.K. Subban, Markov had plenty of success when he was on his own. In the first four seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, for instance, Markov scored a combined 28 goals and 99 assists with the man advantage. He led NHL defensemen with 10 power-play goals in 2007-08 and with 32 assists and 39 points in 2008-09.

    Markov remains an elite power-play presence even today at age 35. He is one of only 12 defensemen to score at least 10 goals over the past three seasons. Last year, he led all NHL defensemen, including Subban, with eight power-play goals, and trailed only his Norris-winning partner with 15 power-play assists and 23 points.  

    Without Subban, he might not wind up among the power-play scoring leaders, but he'd still make the top 10. 

5. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    Key Stats: 1.29 Goals/60 (10th), 3.70 Assists/60 (eighth)

    Power-Play Role: The heart and quarterback of Montreal's power play, thanks to amazing chemistry with his partner Andrei Markov.

    Why He's Here: P.K. Subban has an amazing talent for working with the man advantage, and he could easily work his way higher up this list.

    Over the past three seasons, Subban is one of only four defensemen to score 14 power-play goals, or to record 40 assists, and he is one back of Brian Campbell for most points with 54. He is also second to Campbell with 648.7 minutes of power-play time.

    Subban is second among defensemen this year with 12 assists and 14 points. He was second last year with seven power-play goals, and he led NHL defensemen with 19 assists and 26 points. He even led NHL defensemen in power-play goals as a rookie in 2010-11 with nine.

    The only thing stopping the 24-year-old from moving up the list is making more of his minutes. While he is still top 10 in both goals and assists per 60 minutes, there are a few players who are even higher.

4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Key Stats: 0.73 Goals/60, 4.29 Assists/60 (second)

    Power-Play Role: Ottawa's potent puck-moving, power-play quarterback. Interestingly, his younger partner Patrick Wiercioch actually scores at a slightly higher rate, but in far less action.

    Why He's Here: The 23-year-old Swede is potentially the best playmaking defenseman in the NHL right now, especially with the man advantage. He also has a great slap shot, though not one that has resulted in many goals. All of this makes it very easy to craft an argument in favor of ranking Erik Karlsson in the top four. 

    Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen on the power play with 14 assists and 16 points this year. In 2011-12, his last full season, he was second with 25 assists and 28 points on his way to the Norris trophy. Over the past three seasons combined, he has 41 power play assists, which is third among defensemen, as are his 48 points.

    The real debate is whether Karlsson is better than P.K. Subban, who is also young, similarly styled and has a Norris trophy of his own. Since Karlsson's numbers match Subban's, but without the benefit of someone like Andrei Markov by his side, the tie goes in his favor.

3. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 1.03 Goals/60, 4.01 Assists/60 (fifth)

    Power-Play Role: The offensive-minded catalyst on an otherwise Hitchcock-structured defensive team.

    Why He's Here: Alex Pietrangelo may be a better all-around defensemen, but when down by a goal late in the game, Kevin Shattenkirk is the one you want on the ice. Especially with the man advantage!

    The margin of difference is admittedly incredibly small. The scoring gap between third-place Shattenkirk and his eighth-place partner is just 0.36 points per 60 minutes. That works out to barely two points over a full 82-game schedule.

    Shattenkirk's primary advantage over Pietrangelo is his playmaking. His 31 power-play assists are eighth among defensemen over the past three seasons, and he's currently tied for fourth with 11 assists. Even at age 24, Shattenirk has both the intelligence and the talent to get the puck to the right place at the right time.

2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    Key Stats: 2.18 Goals/60 (second), 2.94 Assists/60

    Power-Play Role: The whole show. Moves the puck up the ice, brings it into the zone, sets up plays and has a cannon of a shot. Does absolutely everything, and often all by himself.

    Why He's Here: Shea Weber, who most people had probably figured for first, is incontrovertibly the most effective power-play defenseman of the recent past. Nashville is seventh in the NHL with a 21.0 power-play percentage, and one look at the roster will tell you that it's all due to one man. Nashville actually led the league with 21.6 percent when he last had some help (Ryan Suter) back in 2011-12.

    Weber's 20 power-play goals are most among defensemen over the past three seasons combined, three more than Zdeno Chara (who is not on this list). His 47 points are fifth. In terms of power-play goals, he tied for fourth among defensemen in 2008-09 with 10, was fourth with seven in 2009-10, and led all defensemen with 10 in 2011-12. That was the year he finished sixth among defensemen with 22 points, and he was on the ice for 47 power-play goals, second overall in the NHL (including forwards).

    This year, Weber is leading all NHL defensemen with seven power-play goals and is tied for third with 13 points. With this long and incredible legacy of power-play scoring, who could possibly be ranked higher? A former teammate, but as it turns out, and not the one you think.

1. Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Key Stats: 1.10 Goals/60, 4.97 Assists/60 (first)

    Power-Play Role: Toronto's No. 2 power-play defenseman, feeding Dion Phaneuf's monster cannon and Phil Kessel's laser-like wrister.

    Why He's Here: Is this a joke? Or a trick caused by a small sample size of ice time?

    Cody Franson has played just as much as players like Mike Green over the past three seasons combined, but he has 33 points to his 28. Those 33 points are just one less than respected power-play quarterbacks like Keith Yandle, Alexander Edler and Sergei Gonchar, all of whom have way more ice time. And it's also three more points than power-play masters Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty. Among defensemen, Franson is 47th in power-play ice time but 21st in points over the past three years.

    In just his second season on the top unit, Franson is currently tied for second among NHL defensemen with 12 power-play assists and for third with 13 points. For all their other struggles, Toronto is still fourth in the NHL with a 23.1 power-play percentage, so he must be doing something right.

    It may seem crazy, it may be a result of small sample sizes, and it may be more of a testament to his partner Dion Phaneuf, but the numbers are there. Is he the best? Probably not, but Toronto definitely scored a major coup by signing the 26-year-old Franson to a one-year, $1.2 million deal.


    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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