Ranking the 10 Best 2-Way Defensemen in the NHL for 2016-17 Season
Ranking the top two-way NHL defensemen is a difficult challenge to take on. It's extremely hard to give value to all the statistics available when judging the defensive component of a blueliner's game. The offense is easy, and plenty of the league's top scorers make this list.
In order to be considered a two-way player, though, there needs to be more than just 50-point potential. We've come to realize shot blocks and plus-minus are all relative. Blocking pucks means you don't have it in your possession, and keeping it away from an opponent is a critical part of playing good defense in today's NHL.
Being a strong possession player who can skate quickly enough to recover from rushes or mistakes is a trait you'll notice for many of the following players. They are also intelligent students of the game who are constantly learning. Their bodies and stick positioning make them difficult to beat in one-on-one battles. And for some, there is a physical edge that offers a great deal of value in defending.
A track record of winning battles against the game's best forwards goes a long way toward pushing some of these names up the list. There will be some notable omissions from that top group of scorers. For example, the Arizona Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the best defensemen out there but has yet to join the penalty-kill unit as a regular. The same goes for burgeoning superstar John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.
One thing was for sure when assembling a list of the 10 best two-way defensemen in the NHL for the 2016-17 season: Hits and blocked shots must be backed up by some advanced stats to pass the test.
Here is a prediction for the coming season. Feel free to add your own list and debate the merits of this one in the comments section.
Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks: An emerging force, Hampus Lindholm was fourth among all defensemen with a 57.29 SAT percentage. He's a 30-point defenseman, but we're predicting bigger things from the 22-year-old in an increased role if the Anaheim Ducks trade away Cam Fowler or Sami Vatanen. He's already the guy tasked with taking on the top opponents.
P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: There's no doubt the 2013 Norris Trophy winner is one of the best offensive forces on the back end. P.K. Subban's totals the past three seasons are second only to the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson. He's a bit of a risk-taker, and when one of those risks backfires, it can make him look bad. One of those contributed to his time with the Montreal Canadiens coming to an end with a trade to the Nashville Predators.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: A beastly offensive force, the 31-year-old Brent Bruns nearly hit the 30-goal mark and finished second in scoring by a defenseman with 75 points in 82 games. He finished seventh in average minutes per game, playing key roles on the power play and penalty kill. He also ranked fourth in takeaways.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang finished fourth in the Norris voting last season thanks to an impressive output of 67 points in just 71 games. He's more than an offensive wizard, though, taking on top competition on an otherwise dismal Pittsburgh Penguins defense and driving possession from the point.
10. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
What he did in 2015-16: Dustin Byfuglien had 19 goals and 53 points in 81 games last season, posting a plus-four rating along the way.
Why he's on this list: Nothing says defense like a pile of bodies in your wake. Byfuglien is a wrecking ball of a human being. The Winnipeg Jets zone is hostile to any opponent looking to cross the blue line when the 6'5", 260-pounder is on the ice. He ranked sixth among all defensemen with 222 hits credited last season, but in terms of resulting impact, he was probably first. His physical play helped him lead the way with 73 takeaways as well, a dozen more than Karlsson in second.
The offense is there too. Byfuglien has flirted with or reached 20 goals in his last three seasons, and he ranked eighth in scoring among defensemen and in a tie for seventh with five-on-five contributions (netting 34 of his 53 points at even strength).
He's a strong possession player who had a 53.89 SAT percentage last season and averaged the eighth-most even-strength minutes at 19:50, adding more than a further five minutes split between the power play and penalty kill. At five-on-five, he has the league's fifth-best points-per-60 average among defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes, with 1.25 for every hour on the ice.
Bottom line: Byfuglien's physical play and work on the boards in his own end aren't often recognized as much as the goal-scoring and bullish offensive rushes he's made over his career, but the big man is a well-rounded player who doesn't get enough credit for what he does on his own side of the red line.
9. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
What he did in 2015-16: Erik Karlsson was a Norris Trophy finalist last season thanks to an incredible offensive display, with 16 goals, 66 assists and 82 points in 82 games.
Why he's on this list: Karlsson has always been an offensive dynamo but over time has been criticized for a lack of defensive awareness. He's one of the players who benefits most from the prevalence of advanced metrics and has grown into one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. Karlsson is the only member of the Ottawa Senators to have an SAT percentage of more than 50 percent in close games last season, with a 50.80.
Bottom line: The Sens captain is growing as a player and has been among the top three in takeaways by a defenseman the past three years—finishing with the second-most last season, with 61. Don't let his impressive point totals trick you into thinking he's awful in his own zone. Getting a playoff matchup against a top forward and excelling would go a long way toward bumping up his ranking a year from now.
8. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
What he did in 2015-16: Drew Doughty had 14 goals, 51 points and a plus-24 rating in 82 games last season, winning his first Norris Trophy as the NHL defenseman who demonstrated the best all-around ability.
Why he's on this list: Doughty has the talent and vision to be one of the top two or three point producers from the blue line but sacrifices some of the offensive freelancing to stick with the Los Angeles Kings game plan. He averages nearly 30 minutes a game and plays big roles on both the power play and penalty kill. He ranked fifth in plus/minus and was the top possession defenseman in the league with a 58.89 SAT percentage last season. If a high Corsi rating was the only criterion, Doughty would top this list.
He does have some flaws, though, and occasional mental letdowns have shown he's not always the most cautious or well-positioned in his own end. He also doesn't get credited with many turnovers—managing just 10 last season while tacked with nearly 100 giveaways. That's the biggest disparity among any of the players on this list. However, you could look at that combined with his possession metrics and decide he doesn't create takeaways because his team always has the puck when he's on the ice.
Bottom line: Doughty won the Norris for a reason. His top-10 scoring, hard and important minutes in all situations and the fact he's only 26 and getting better have him projected among the best of the two-way D-men in the NHL for years to come.
7. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
What he did in 2015-16: Shea Weber was one of just four NHL defensemen to score 20 goals last season, putting up 51 points in 78 games for the Nashville Predators.
Why he's on this list: Weber flips between shutdown defenseman to offensive weapon with relative ease. He's not the smoothest skater but uses his intelligence and positioning to ensure he's in a spot to eliminate threats in the defensive zone. His physical presence is intimidating for anyone coming down the wing, which is one of the elements the Montreal Canadiens were lacking on the back end before they traded for Weber in June.
The former Preds captain plays as much on the penalty kill as he does on the power play and earns about half his points on the man advantage. Like Chicago Blackhawks rearguard Duncan Keith, Weber starts as much in the defensive zone as he does on the offensive side but still ranks top 10 in scoring at the position. His possession numbers aren't top tier, but they are still positive and should improve with the move to the Habs.
Bottom line: Weber has a lot to prove to a difficult-to-please fanbase in Montreal, and he will be extra motivated to show it how valuable he is at both ends of the ice. He will likely produce one of his most physically intimidating and offensively impressive seasons in years.
6. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
What he did in 2015-16: Alex Pietrangelo had seven goals, 30 assists and 37 points in 73 games last season for the St. Louis Blues. He also posted a plus-10 rating.
Why he's on this list: The new Blues captain did not have his best offensive season last year thanks in part to the nine games he missed with injury and a real step forward in his defensive shutdown abilities against the best the opposition had to offer.
Pietrangelo did manage to do a lot at even strength, however, with the league's 25th-best points-per-60 average, at .98. His 41 takeaways ranked 14th last season, and he started more than 53 percent of his shifts in his own end. His goalies' combined save percentage when he was on the ice was .945—an indication of how well the 26-year-old does suppressing quality shots against.
He will play for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey in September, and his NHL coach, Ken Hitchcock, told the Blues website how impressive his young cornerstone defender is at that level.
“There’s a trust from the coaching staff that you can put him out against the best players in the world all the time and you’re still going to have an advantage," Hitchcock said. "That’s a great feeling standing on the bench, knowing you have a guy that can go a little bit further than the person he’s playing against, no matter what that person’s skill level is."
Bottom line: Pietrangelo hasn't yet played his best hockey, and his emergence in the playoffs this spring, combined with the captaincy, could springboard him into Norris contention again just a couple of years removed from a fifth-place finish in the voting, per Hockey-Reference.com.
5. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
What he did in 2015-16: A knee injury shortened Duncan Keith's campaign, but he had nine goals and 34 assists for 43 points, along with a plus-13 rating through 67 games.
Why he's on this list: Keith starts the majority of his shifts in his own zone, yet he still produces elite offensive numbers. And the sheer volume of his minutes is impressive, as he performs on the top power-play and penalty-kill units. His shot-attempt percentage rating isn't as dominant as some of the others on this list, but he was still in the top fifth in the league at the position, at 52.27 percent.
Keith ranked 25th last year in assists per 60 minutes of play at even strength, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. He's able to use his skating ability to recover quickly from offensive rushes and shut down the opposition.
Bottom line: The addition of another good two-way player in Brian Campbell rounds out the group of defensemen in the Blackhawks' top four, but they will lean on Keith to do much of the hard work against the top players. With the potential for a little more rest between shifts, though, his offensive numbers may spike again, making him even more dangerous.
4. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
What he did in 2015-16: Ryan Suter tied a career high with eight goals and set new ones with 43 assists and 51 points to finish in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen last term for the second time in five years.
Why he's on this list: Suter has long been considered one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league. Once overshadowed by Shea Weber in Nashville, he's shown he's capable of keeping opponents away from his net on his own with the Minnesota Wild the last four seasons. The 31-year-old was one of only five Wild players with a positive possession rating last year and ranked 21st among blueliners with 36 takeaways.
He was second only to Drew Doughty in total average minutes and was a plus player despite his team's struggles.
Bottom line: Criticism in the past when thinking about Suter as a top two-way defender has been on the offensive side of things. Now he's cracked the 50-point mark, he has opened eyes and proved he's capable of being a top-10 scorer among blueliners.
3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
What he did in 2015-16: Victor Hedman had 10 goals, 37 assists and 47 points in 78 regular-season games last year with a plus-21 rating. He added four goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning get to the Eastern Conference Final.
Why he's on this list: The Lightning seem to manage his minutes. Even though he plays in all situations, he averages slightly more than 23 minutes per game. But he sure makes the most out of them. His 56.76 SAT percentage ranked him seventh among all defensemen last year, and he was fourth among those who played at least 1,000 minutes with a 1.27 points-per-60 rating—behind Karlsson, Burns and T.J. Brodie.
Bottom line: Not only does Hedman drive possession for the Bolts, but his playoff performances, such as his head-to-head matchup with the New York Islanders' John Tavares, also showed he can shut down the league's best players. Hedman had four goals and eight points in the second-round series while helping to keep Tavares to a single goal and two points, shutting him out completely in the final four games.
2. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
What he did in 2015-16: The captain of the Calgary Flames, Mark Giordano had a career-high 21 goals and 35 assists for 56 points.
Why he's on this list: Giordano is one of the most well-rounded defenseman in the league, and after three stellar seasons, people are finally taking notice. Healthy for a full non-lockout season for the first time since 2010-11, Giordano had 21 goals and 56 points in 82 games last season to finish sixth in scoring among defensemen. His 45 takeaways were good for the eighth-best record in the league among defensemen last year as well.
He is a tactician who studied for years on how to improve positioning to become the incredible defender he is. The offense has come on in a huge way the past few seasons. In 207 games the last three years, Giordano has 46 goals (more than half of his career total), 105 assists and 151 points. Only Karlsson, Burns and Letang have averaged more points per game in that span, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
Bottom line: He's had to work hard for his status as one of the NHL's best defensemen, and that full effort on every shift of every game is what makes him great. The 32-year-old seems to get more impressive with age. A 20-goal scorer from the blue line who can be counted on in front of his own net is priceless.
1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks
What he did in 2015-16: With eight goals, 31 assists and 39 points through 67 games, Marc-Edouard Vlasic was on his way to an epic season before a lower-body injury sidelined him for a big chunk of the stretch toward the playoffs.
Why he's on this list: Despite the injury trouble, it was a big offensive breakout season for Vlasic, who was already renowned for his ability to shut down top players across the league. Now the offensive numbers have hit the upper tier, more have seen just how impressive his game is in all areas of the ice. Only offensive stud Burns topped Vlasic in ice time for the San Jose Sharks last year. Vlasic led the way in shorthanded play and was second in power play time among Sharks defensemen.
He was top 40 in SAT percentage, driving possession more than many probably believed. One of the first four defenders picked for Team Canada's World Cup roster, the country's GM Doug Armstrong talked about what it is Vlasic does so quietly and effectively as he was shadowing Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.
"He kills plays as well as anyone defensively in the game,” Armstrong told Michael Traikos of the National Post. "He’s a guy that has mastered the nuances of the game. I like to say that he’s a quiet assassin. He quietly goes about his business and kills you.”
Bottom line: Vlasic is so effective you rarely notice him on the defensive side of things. He made everyone pay attention of the offense this year, though, with a 1.21 points-per-60 minutes average that tied him with Subban for seventh in the NHL. That's even more impressive when you consider he starts only 44 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, less than any other player on this list. He's not flashy, but he's dominant. His numbers over a full season next year should be even greater.
All stats via NHL.com unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats rankings based on players who played at least 40 games in 2015-16