Predicting the 10 Best Defensive Pairings in the NHL in 2016-17

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2016

Predicting the 10 Best Defensive Pairings in the NHL in 2016-17

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Teams have to rely heavily on impact defensemen to drive results in the cap-era NHL, and that usually means a top-flight defender playing the tough minutes with a talented but lesser partner. There are times when these marriages work so well the pairings last for years, but teams have a difficult time spending major dollars on two defensemen earmarked for the same minutes.

    The best pairings this coming season are all somewhat similar to the Los Angeles Kings' partnership of Drew Doughty and Brayden McNabb—an impact defender and an emerging, less expensive talent as his partner. It is a way for NHL teams to spread out the quality and depth on the roster while also having value players—such as McNabb—fill vital roles.

    Here are the 10 best NHL pairings for 2016-17, with a special emphasis on quality play for extreme cap value. Rankings are based on possession metrics, offensive output, current cap hit and projected roles.

10. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Alec Martinez of the Los Angeles Kings is an effective two-way player who is capable if unspectacular in all disciplines. His time on ice has progressed each season, with his 21 minutes in 2015-16 representing a career high.

    Jake Muzzin also has the ability to move the puck, and he possesses a good shot from the point. Muzzin's strength comes in positioning and the ability to win puck battles and in support along the wall.

    What They Bring

    Muzzin and Martinez were very successful in the possession department last season, posting 55.6 percent at even strength. This is a more traditional pairing—a puck-mover and a more classic defender—and the pairing is effective albeit in just over one season together.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Both men are signed long term and in their playing primes, so the pairing could be around for a long time. Drew Doughty plays the toughest minutes, so the role of the Muzzin-Martinez pairing is to thrive against lesser competition—and the early results are encouraging.

9. T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    The Pairing

    T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames is a quality NHL defender who is wildly underrated based on his level of fame. Brodie is exceptional in moving the puck either by himself or with an outlet pass and anticipates well on offense and defense.

    Brodie's parter, Mark Giordano is one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the NHL. His 21 goals last season included 11 at even strength, nine on the power play and a shorthanded marker.

    What They Bring

    The pairing did not fare well in possession—just 49.8 percent at even strength last year—but were extremely successful in moving the puck up the ice. The Calgary counterattack—a deadly weapon—begins with fantastic stretch passes from defenders such as Brodie and Giordano. Both men can also carry the puck with aplomb.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Both men are signed long term, although Calgary has a cap crunch, and that could mean an expensive contract gets sent out in the next year or so. As long as the two men are together, Calgary should be considered dangerous the moment either man gains possession and looks for an outlet. A lot of Calgary's offense comes from its defensemen, with Giordano and Brodie being the most explosive pairing.

8. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Ryan Ellis of the Nashville Predators is an exceptional puck-moving defender, one of the very good modern defensemen who are more focused on getting the puck out of the zone under control than bashing in the opponent. He is undersized but very capable as an NHL defender.

    Mattias Ekholm is a bigger defender—6'4'', 215 pounds—who can also move the puck effectively. Although his coverage is excellent, Ekholm is not a bruiser and is often criticized for not using his size enough.

    What They Bring

    The Predators duo retrieve the puck, find an outlet and get the puck moving in a good direction—dozens of times a game. The pairing had a 56.2 percent possession edge at even strength in 2015-16, and both are intelligent players with an ability to identify good solutions in the defensive zone.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Nashville smartly locked Ekholm up through 2022 and will no doubt do the same with Ellis when his contract is up after the 2018-19 season. In the meantime, the duo will likely remain the league's best second pairing, diffusing offensive sorties and sending the puck in a good direction, under control.

7. Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot, Ottawa Senators

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    The Pairing

    Erik Karlsson is the best offensive defenseman in the game. The Ottawa Senators defender led the league in assists during 2015-16, the first defender to do it since Bobby Orr in the 1970s.

    Marc Methot is a throwback defender—a pure defensive player who is charged with keeping the opponent and the puck from getting to the front of the net. He had some injuries over the last couple of seasons but remains an effective veteran.

    What They Bring

    The Senators rely on this pairing for effective play and solid possession numbers, but it did not happen last season. In their combined 928 minutes, the pair delivered only 48.1 percent in even-strength possession. That number was a deep dive compared to the 55 percent total of 2014-15, and that is the expectation for the coming year.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Ottawa is relying on a lot of things to come together this season, including an uncertain second pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci. One thing the organization should be able to count on is the top pairing, led by Karlsson's fantastic skills and the traditional defense of Methot. It is a decidedly unusual pairing but has a track record of success.

6. Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks is one of the most famous defensemen of his generation. Keith has played in 122 playoff games and over 800 regular-season games. He's also won three Stanley Cups.

    Niklas Hjalmarsson is less famous, but he has been a quality defender for over 500 regular-season games, as well as 124 in the playoffs. Hjalmarsson is less offensive than Keith, but he delivers a reliable and dependable game.

    What They Bring

    The Blackhawks have enjoyed a great deal of success over the last decade, with Keith and Hjalmarsson a big part of the story. Although the pairing's possession number slipped a year ago—they were at 51.3 percent together—the combination remains effective.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Chicago is making some changes in the defense this coming season, with Brian Campbell back and young Michal Kempny pushing for playing time. The Blackhawks should contend for the Stanley Cup again, and the pairing of Keith-Hjalmarsson will no doubt play a major role.

5. Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators is one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game. His trade from the Montreal Canadiens this summer was a blockbuster deal that fans are still discussing.

    Roman Josi was Shea Weber's partner a year ago—the two played almost 89 percent of their minutes together at even strength last year—and he may get first chance to play with Subban. Although it isn't an ideal fit—two puck-movers on the same line is unusual—the potential firepower is incredible.

    What They Bring

    Both men are deadly effective with the puck, either passing the biscuit or transporting it up the ice. Both are extremely mobile and both can play defense. Subban is more physical, and one would have to stay home while the other moves up the ice, but the dynamic possibilities are worth pursuing.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Chances are the Predators settle on a more traditional set of pairings, dividing Josi and Subban in order to improve depth and give the team more structure. If Josi and Subban could learn to play together—and it may take some time—Nashville could have an impact transition pair good enough to bring the Stanley Cup to Tennessee.

4. Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a fantastic puck-moving defender with elite skills. He was a major player in the Penguins' drive for the Stanley Cup and is a quality veteran.

    Olli Maatta is just 22 but plays a mature, effective style that involves quick decision-making, quality passing and effective transition. Although injuries have plagued his career so far, when healthy, Maatta can be counted on to play effectively in all situations.

    What They Bring

    In 674 minutes together last season, the pairing delivered a 55.4 percent possession number at even strength. Additionally, Letang scored 14 points and Maatta had nine points during the their time together with both sides having six men on the ice.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Letang is signed through the summer of 2022 and Maatta has a contract that expires the same year. Pittsburgh may choose to break up the tandem—they are effective apart—but the transition game and offensive vision these two men can deliver is a formidable package.

3. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is an outstanding defender who is among the league's best at the age of 25. He finished No. 7 in Norris Trophy voting a year ago and is a vital part of the team's blue line.

    His partner last season—Anton Stralman—is also a quality veteran with a wide range of skills. The Lightning worked the two men together, as well as extended time apart, but they are extremely effective together.

    What They Bring

    The veteran pairing can defend extremely well but also bring the puck up smartly and contribute offensively. In the 766 minutes played together, the pairing had a 56.6 percent possession number at even strength—with both men contributing offensively. Hedman scored 10 points when on the ice with Stralman, who posted 14 when paired with Hedman at even strength. It was an outstanding duo in 2015-16.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Tampa Bay is locked in for a deep run in the playoffs again, and it may win the Stanley Cup in 2017. A big part of that success will no doubt come from these two men, who are effective together and apart. Last season, the Lightning used them together effectively at even strength, and it is a good bet we will see it again.

2. Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, Anaheim Ducks

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Hampus Lindholm of the Anaheim Ducks is an emerging talent and one of the best young players in the game. He has improved substantially in his three NHL seasons and provides a complete skill set to his team. It is not hyperbole to say he is one of the most valuable young assets in the game.

    Josh Manson was Lindholm's most common partner a year ago, and 2015-16 was his first complete season. His cap hit is $825,000 for the next two years, so he is an extreme value contract if able to play on this pairing.

    What They Bring

    The pairing is young and emerging but was deadly effective a year ago. In the 805 minutes spent together, Lindholm and Manson had a 59.9 percent possession number. For a tandem with so little actual NHL experience to deliver that kind of result is outstanding—and if they can duplicate it in 2016-17, the Ducks should be strong Stanley Cup contenders.

    There is a question mark surrounding this pairing, as Lindholm is a restricted free agent, and the season is not far away. Getting him under contract—long term is preferred—is a major pressure point for the Ducks' season.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Anaheim is producing tremendous defensive talents at a rapid clip, but Lindholm is something special. His success with Manson represents one of the truly promising young pairings in the NHL, and there is a good chance the duo play together again this year.

    There is no doubt the key is Lindholm, and if the Ducks choose to give him a different partner, the results should be similar—and could be better. At 23, Lindholm might be the best NHL player casual fans have never heard of, but that is unlikely to last much longer.

1. Drew Doughty and Brayden McNabb, Los Angeles Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Pairing

    Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings is 26 and at the height of his game. With a cap hit of $7 million and a Norris Trophy on his resume, he is one of the most capable two-way defenders in the NHL at this time.

    His partner is Brayden McNabb, who carries a cap hit of $1.7 million and far fewer accolades. He was acquired by the Kings from the Buffalo Sabres in 2014 before establishing himself as an NHL player—in a move that looks to have paid off. 

    What They Bring

    The top pairing for the Kings is brilliant in even-strength possession. In the 1,095 minutes the two men played together in the discipline, Los Angeles had possession 60 percent of the time. Considering the quality of opposition this tandem faces, that total could be considered the most impressive in the entire NHL last year.

    Los Angeles as a team performs at about 56 percent—the No. 1 possession team in the NHL. The combination of Doughty and McNabb tilted the ice more than normal even for the top team in the league—while also facing tough opposition.

    Figuring out how much credit to give Doughty is impossible, although no one argues he is driving the results. We can say that McNabb is more than a hanger-on and that both men benefit from each other's skills.

    Outlook for 2016-17 and Beyond

    Every team needs a top pairing that can handle the opposition's best, and for the Kings the Doughty-McNabb pairing is the perfect fit. Fans should expect another dominant performance at even strength and a successful year in the possession department.

    This tandem could provide Los Angeles with terrific performances for the next two seasons and at less than $9 million per season. At the end of the 2017-18 season, McNabb will be due a substantial raise and Doughty will be eligible for free agency one year later.

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.

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