Predicting the 10 Best Defensive Pairings in the NHL in 2015-16

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2015

Predicting the 10 Best Defensive Pairings in the NHL in 2015-16

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    In the salary-cap era, it's becoming more and more commonplace for NHL teams to lean on one key pair of defensemen to carry more than their fair share of the load behind at the back end.

    These players usually log enormous amounts of ice time in all situations—five-on-five, killing penalties and on the power play. They're usually expected to chip in offensively, but their biggest responsibility is to eat up minutes when the opposition's top threats are on the ice, neutralizing scoring chances and setting the stage for opportunities for their own teammates.

    Heading into the 2015-16 season, here's a look at the 10 pairings that'll be hard to miss. They'll be scoring, hitting, checking—and they'll rarely leave the ice.

10. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek: Arizona Coyotes

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a smooth-skating 24-year-old who led all NHL defensemen with 23 goals last season.

    Ekman-Larsson will be reunited with 32-year-old stay-at-home defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who returned as a free agent over the summer after the Arizona Coyotes dealt him to the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline.

    What They Bring

    Potential. Ekman-Larsson is evolving into one of the NHL's biggest offensive threats from the back end and has shown good chemistry with his reliable partner.

    Ekman-Larsson ranked second among defensemen in 2014-15 behind Erik Karlsson with 262 shots on goal and was 10th among defensemen with an average of 25:12 per game, according to NHL.com. He's also extremely durable, having missed just two games in his first five NHL seasons.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Further improvement. Though he flies under the radar in the Arizona desert, Ekman-Larsson is one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game. Think of him as a lower-profile Erik Karlsson.

    In the upcoming season, expect to see Ekman-Larsson challenge for the scoring lead among defensemen as the rebuilding Coyotes climb out of the Pacific Division basement.

9. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon: Minnesota Wild

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Though Ryan Suter has played huge minutes and been a defensive stalwart while paired with Jonas Brodin for the past two seasons, coach Mike Yeo is trying to pump up Suter's offense by pairing him right-shooting Jared Spurgeon this season, according to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

    Suter's now 30 years old, while Spurgeon's just 25. Checking in at just 5'9" and 176 pounds, the former sixth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders is coming off back-to-back 25-point seasons and scored a career-high nine goals in 2014-15, according to NHL.com.

    What They Bring

    If Yeo's hunch proves to be correct, this new pairing should help provide better balance throughout Minnesota's blue-line pairings. 

    Yeo's concern about Suter's offense is justified. He has never scored in double digits and chipped in just two goals last season—his lowest total since his rookie year with Nashville back in 2005-06. No matter how many minutes he plays, that's not enough production from a team leader with a cap hit of more than $7.5 million a season, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

    Nevertheless, Suter's defensive talents earn him a spot on this list, and Yeo clearly sees something that makes him think that Spurgeon will be able to handle first-pairing duties. Despite his small stature, he's a good skater who gets involved in the play and makes smart decisions.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    This pairing should be interesting to track during the early stages of the season. Spurgeon could spark improved output from Suter while freeing up left-shooting Brodin to join a solid second pairing with Matt Dumba on the right side.

8. Marc Methot and Erik Karlsson: Ottawa Senators

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    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Two-time Norris Trophy-winner and Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson is now 25 years old. He led all defensemen with 66 points in 2014-15. His preferred partner, Marc Methot, is now 30. His January return from early-season back problems helped stabilize the Senators blue line as they made their successful push for the playoffs last spring.

    What They Bring

    Offense and leadership. Karlsson generates more offense than any other defenseman in the league, and he finished third in average ice time last season at 27:15 a game, according to NHL.com.

    In late January, Chris Hofley of the Ottawa Sun pointed out that "While there's no denying Karlsson's offensive abilities, having Methot on the ice at the same time gives Karlsson the freedom and protection to do what he does best." Little did he know at that time how right he was—and how the Senators' fortunes were about to improve down the stretch.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Excellent. The Senators are coming into the new season on a high after such a successful finish last year, with plenty of reason for optimism. Karlsson and Methot should continue to eat up ice time and help put points on the board as the Sens aim to solidify their spot among the best teams in the Atlantic Division.

7. Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban: Montreal Canadiens

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    The Pairing 

    Lifelong Montreal Canadien Andrei Markov will turn 37 in December. He continues to anchor one of the NHL's most effective defense pairings alongside 26-year-old P.K. Subban, who won the Norris Trophy in 2012-13.

    What They Bring

    Big minutes and plenty of offense, especially on the power play. Subban finished the 2014-15 season ranked sixth among defensemen with 26:12 of ice time per game, while Markov wasn't far behind in the 13th spot at 24:54, according to NHL.com.

    With a lights-out goaltender in Carey Price holding down the fort behind them, Markov and Subban combined for a total of 110 points last season, 46 of which came with the man advantage.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Markov and Subban could see a little less ice time this season thanks to Montreal's improved defensive depth—a change that should only help their game.

    The Habs are hoping that small tweaks will help put them over the top in their quest to become Stanley Cup champions while Price is in his prime.

6. Jake Muzzin and Drew Doughty: Los Angeles Kings

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    The Pairing

    At age 25, Drew Doughty is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and two-time Norris Trophy finalist who finished second in time on ice last season at 28:59 per game, according to NHL.com.

    Since 2012-13, Doughty has played primarily with Jake Muzzin. Now 26, Muzzin has good size at 6'3" and contributed a career-best 41 points last season.

    What They Bring

    Doughty's outstanding two-way play has been integral to the Los Angele Kings' championship runs, as well as to two Olympic gold medals for Team Canada. He skates tirelessly, checks relentlessly and is always involved in the play.

    Working with Doughty, Muzzin has evolved into a solid top-pairing defenseman in his own right. The two combined for an impressive 97 points last season.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Doughty was told at his season-ending exit meeting last spring that the Kings' goal is to reduce his ice time to 25 minutes per game, according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.

    It's now clear that Slava Voynov is returning to Russia and won't be rejoining the Kings, according to NHL.com, which will put additional strain the team's defensive depth. It will be a tall order for Christian Ehrhoff to carry enough of a load to allow Doughty more time on the bench. 

5. Roman Josi and Shea Weber: Nashville Predators

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Three-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber is now 30 years old and coming off a dislocated kneecap injury that ended his season early in last year's playoffs. He's partnered on the Nashville Predators' top defensive pairing with 25-year-old Roman Josi, who placed fifth in Norris voting in 2014-15 after a career-best season of 15 goals, 55 points and a plus-15, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

    What They Bring

    Big minutes and solid two-way play. Both Josi and Weber finished in the top five in ice time last season, averaging more than 26 minutes a game. With 100 points between them, they're a pair that contributes quite equally, both offensively and defensively.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    A further shift in the balance of power. As Weber starts to show signs of age due to his heavy workload and physical playing style over the years, Josi is coming into his prime.

    The understudy will eventually overtake the leading man as Nashville's No. 1 defenseman, but for the moment, Weber continues to play at a very high level. Josi's growth is nothing but good news for the future of the Predators.

4. T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano: Calgary Flames

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    The Pairing

    In some circles, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames were regarded as the best defensive pairing in the NHL last season—until Giordano's season-ending biceps injury in late February.

    Originally undrafted, Giordano started playing Norris Trophy-caliber defense around the time he was named Calgary's captain two years ago, after the departure of Jarome Iginla. Giordano will turn 32 in October, so he's the mentor to 25-year-old T.J. Brodie, who put up a career-high 41 points last season. Just six of those points came after Giordano was injured.

    What They Bring

    The Flames' unlikely path to the 2015 playoffs started with the strong play of Giordano and Brodie early in last season.

    "They care so much," an unnamed Western Conference team's pro scout told Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun two weeks into the 2014-15 season. "They play hard every shift. Brodie’s got a lot of upside still, and he’s going to get better. And Giordano, so far this season, he’s been exceptional."

    The Flames' heart and tenacity was the backbone for their success last season, even after Giordano went down.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Giordano's expected to be fully healthy heading into the new season, so he and Brodie will rekindle their magic as the top pair in what's now perhaps the deepest blue-line group in the NHL.

    For their part, the Flames are committed to this pairing for many years to come. Brodie signed a five-year contract extension last October, according to NHL.com, while Giordano inked a six-year extension of his own in August, per Mike Battaglino of NHL.com.

3. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi: New York Rangers

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    The Pairing

    Captain Ryan McDonagh and longtime partner Dan Girardi helped anchor the New York Rangers as the NHL's third-best defensive record and earn a Presidents' Trophy in 2014-15. The team might even have earned its second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final if McDonagh hadn't broken his foot during Game 4 of its third-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    What They Bring

    Both lifelong Rangers, the 26-year-old McDonagh and 31-year-old Girardi aren't as offensively dynamic as many of the other pairings on this list. Quite simply, they're a pain in the behind for other teams' top forwards to play against. 

    McDonagh and Girardi both play big minutes and show good hockey sense. They also dig deep to give their team everything they have, as McDonagh demonstrated when he stayed in the lineup during the playoffs after breaking his foot.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    With Henrik Lundqvist continuing to provide a topnotch last line of defense for the Rangers, McDonagh and Girardi should have another excellent season. 

    In early September, McDonagh told Howie Kussoy of the New York Post that his foot is fully healed and that he's feeling more comfortable as he heads into his second season as team captain.

    "It’s something that’s feeling more natural now and a part of me, trying not to change who I am, just try and be a good teammate, someone guys can look for as an example on and off the ice and bounce questions off about what it’s like to be a New York Ranger and what we’re trying to accomplish here."

2. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Pairing

    The 2015 NHL postseason was a coming-out party for hulking 6'6" defenseman Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning—a playoff star paired with former New York Ranger Anton Stralman.

    Stralman provided a career-high 30 points in his first season with the Lightning. After a hot start, Hedman was limited to 38 regular-season points in 59 games due to three separate injuries, most notably a broken finger that sidelined him for 18 games.

    What They Bring

    Stralman and Hedman are the only all-Swedish pairing on this list, which also includes standouts Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson. Nicklas Lidstrom's legacy shines bright among the next generation of blueliners to emerge from his homeland.

    Stralman's now 29—a journeyman who has made incremental improvements in his game every year, despite playing a relatively passive style. Hedman brings the snarl to this pairing, with a mean streak that matches his superb skating and outstanding instincts at both ends of the ice.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    Hedman and Stralman showed they were able to raise their games as needed as the Tampa Bay Lightning advanced deeper and deeper into the playoffs last spring—a discovery that coach Jon Cooper and general manager Steve Yzerman must have been thrilled to make.

    Hedman's entering his seventh NHL season—and he doesn't turn 25 until December. He's poised to be the elite defenseman who takes the biggest step forward in 2015-16.

1. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook: Chicago Blackhawks

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    They may be old news, but during the 2015 playoffs, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks proved once again that there's no better defensive pair in the NHL.

    Keith earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league's best playoff performer, leading all defensemen with 21 playoff points. He played more than 31 minutes a night, according to NHL.com, as he and his Chicago Blackhawks captured their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

    What They Bring

    Now 32, Keith's tireless play makes him one of the toughest defensemen in the league to play against—and his clutch timing makes him offensively lethal. The less-heralded 30-year-old Seabrook brings the size to the pairing at 6'3" and 220 pounds as well as the big point shot.

    Both Keith and Seabrook are important figures in the Blackhawks dressing room. On September 17, Seabrook joined Keith as an alternate captain, replacing the departed Patrick Sharp, according to CSN Chicago.

    Outlook for 2015-16

    The Chicago Blackhawks suffered Stanley Cup hangovers after their last two championships, primarily as a result of roster turnover due to salary-cap limitations. 

    This season should be no different. Keith and Seabrook will carry a heavy load on a retooled blue line that comes back without top-four stalwart Johnny Oduya.