Ranking the Top 5 Defensive Pairings in the NHL
A strong defense is vital to an NHL team's success. That's especially true during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when having a strong pair of defensmen can be as crucial as a top-scoring forward line or a reliable starting goaltender.
Every team employs varying defensive systems, depending in part on roster depth. The foundation of that system is the top pairing of defensemen. They are the two blueliners who tend to log the most minutes per game. They see action in five-on-five situations, on the power play and on the penalty kill.
Some teams may be stronger on one side of their blue line. For example, the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning have three of the NHL's best defensemen in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev. Because they all play on the left side, however, they are often paired with right-side blueliners who, though reliable, aren't of the same skill level.
Most top defensive pairings have a similar setup. However, some NHL teams have found the right balance. Here's our ranking of the NHL's five best defensive pairings this season. The names are listed in order of their position (left defense, right defense) on their respective blue lines. Awards, experience, performance and time together as a pairing factored into the compilation.
5. St. Louis Blues: Torey Krug and Colton Parayko
The St. Louis Blues defensive corps took a big hit when longtime captain and blue-line stalwart Alex Pietrangelo signed with the Vegas Golden Knights in October. However, they quickly addressed that loss by signing former Boston Bruins rearguard Torey Krug and pairing him to open this season with Colton Parayko.
These two have the makings of one of the league's best defensive duos.
What the 5'9", 186-pound Krug lacks in size he makes up for in offensive talent and hockey smarts. A skillful puck-moving defenseman, he was a reliable point producer for the Bruins. Krug reached the 40-point plateau in six of the past seven seasons, including three 50-plus point-performances.
Parayko, meanwhile, is a big, all-around blueliner. The 6'6", 230-pounder tallied 28-plus points in each of his previous five NHL campaigns. He was second to Pietrangelo in time on ice per game (23 minutes) last season, led the Blues in blocked shots (106) and was sixth in hits with 87.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones
A lack of scoring punch has forced the Columbus Blue Jackets to rely more on an aggressive defensive system, and it's enabled them to become a perennial playoff contender. Crucial to their system are defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.
The left-side defenseman of the duo, Werenski made a memorable debut in 2016-17. He tallied 47 points to set a franchise record for rookies and was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy. A highly skilled, mobile blueliner, the 6'2", 218-pound Werenski tallied 40-plus points in three of the past four seasons. He's second to Jones in ice time since joining the Jackets, averaging 22 minutes and 32 seconds per game.
Jones, meanwhile, is a proficient all-around defenseman. The 6'4", 213-pounder is the workhorse of the Jackets defense. He logs big minutes in all situations, leading the club since 2016-17 with 24:44 of average ice time per game. Over the same period, he's been their leader in takeaways (189), sits second in blocked shots (503) and exceeded 40 points three times.
3. Dallas Stars: Esa Lindell and John Klingberg
A deep defensive corps played a big role in the Dallas Stars' surprising march to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. While 21-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen is a rising star, Esa Lindell and John Klingberg remain the Stars' top pairing.
Lindell, 26, is the better all-around blueliner of the two. The 6'3", 215-pound Finn was second among Stars skaters in average ice time (23:25) last season. He also led the Stars in short-handed ice time (3:48) per game and blocked shots with 127. Lindell contributes to the offense too, having tallied 23 or more points in each of the past three seasons.
Despite being hampered by injuries the past two seasons, Klingberg remains a superb offensive blueliner. He netted 40 or more points in each of his first five seasons and still managed 32 points in 58 games last season. Klingberg also finished second to Heiskanen in playoff team scoring with 21 points. He led all Stars defensemen in power-play ice time per game (2:33) and was third (22:10) in time on ice per game.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton
After a decade as an also-ran, the Carolina Hurricanes are on the rise in the Eastern Conference. Their top-pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton has played a significant role in that improvement. Slavin finished fifth among voters last season for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is given to the league's best all-around defenseman, while Hamilton finished seventh.
Slavin, 26, is the Hurricanes' top all-around defenseman. Since 2018-19, the 6'3", 207-pound blueliner leads the Hurricanes in ice time per game (23:12), blocked shots (246) and takeaways (167). He's reached the 30-point plateau in each of the past four seasons, including a career-best 36 points in 68 games last season.
Hamilton might have finished higher in the Norris voting if a broken leg hadn't derailed his regular season. With 40 points in 47 games, he still finished fourth among the Hurricanes' leading scorers, marking the fifth time in the previous six seasons the 6'6", 229-pounder reached the 40-point plateau. He's averaged 23:12 of ice time per game since last season and leads the Hurricanes in power-play ice time per game (3:10).
1. Nashville Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis
The Nashville Predators are renowned for their deep defensive corps. Such notables as Shea Weber, P.K. Subban, Seth Jones and Ryan Suter patrolled their blue line over the years. In recent seasons, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis have formed one of the league's best pairings.
Josi won the James Norris Memorial Trophy last season. An elite blueliner, the 30-year-old reached or exceeded 40 points in each of the past seven seasons, including a career-high 65 points in 2019-20 to lead the Predators in scoring. Nashville's captain also led his club last season in time on ice per game (25:47) and in blocked shots with 108.
The 5'10", 180-pound Ellis is smaller than his 6'1", 201-pound partner, but he's a solid all-around defender. He's exceeded the 30-point plateau in each of the past five seasons despite being hampered by injuries in 2017-18 and 2019-20. Ellis was second to Josi last season in average ice time (23:30) and ranks among the Predators' leaders in blocked shots (571) and takeaways (172) over the past five seasons.