Ranking the 8 Best Defensive Forwards in the NHL Today

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2021

Ranking the 8 Best Defensive Forwards in the NHL Today

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    Since 1978, the NHL has annually awarded the Frank J. Selke Trophy "to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game." A number of great players, including Bob Gainey, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk, have won this award multiple times.

    Several of today's best defensive forwards have also been honored with the Selke, with the most recent being Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. Others include Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron and Vegas Golden Knights winger Mark Stone.

    The top defensive forwards in today's NHL tend to be excellent two-way players, capable of shutting down their opponent's best scorers while also generating offense. They log big minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill, especially late in a game when their team is trying to protect a lead.

    Here's our ranking of the eight best defensive forwards in the NHL. Selke nominations, time on ice per game, shot-attempt percentage and takeaways were among the items factored into this ranking. You can express your view on this topic in the comments section below.

8. Mitchell Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Mitchell Marner's impressive offensive numbers over his first five NHL seasons tend to draw the most attention. Over the past four seasons, the 24-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs winger finished first or second in team scoring each year. He's never had fewer than 61 points in any of those campaigns.

    Marner's offense overshadows his improved defensive play over the past two seasons under Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. During that period, he was second on the Leafs in takeaways with 117 and second among their forwards with 78 blocked shots. He also led their forwards by averaging 2:05 in short-handed ice time per game.

    Marner's defensive game garnered praise from The Athletic's Scott Wheeler on March 2 and the Toronto Star's Mark Zwolinski on Apr. 29. He finished 10th in last season's Selke Trophy voting and could become a finalist one day if his defensive game continues to improve.

7. Phillip Danault, Los Angeles Kings

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    After five-and-a-half seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Phillip Danault signed a six-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings in July. It was during his tenure with the Canadiens that the 28-year-old center established himself among the league's best defensive forwards. He regularly faced off against the opposition's top lines and played a key role in the Habs' surprising march to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

    Danault led all Canadiens forwards last season in average short-handed ice time (2:17) and faceoff win percentage (52.5). He was second among the Habs in puck possession with a shot-attempts percentage of 58.4 among teammates with at least 40 games played.

    During his tenure in Montreal, Danault led their forwards in faceoff win percentage, (53.8), short-handed ice time per game (1:59) and total blocked shots with 226. He finished second with 190 total takeaways and shot-attempts percentage (56.5). He also put up respectable offensive stats, reaching 40-plus points three times.

6. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Most of the top defensive players tend to be centers because of the big minutes their position demands. However, there are wingers capable of playing a strong defensive game. The most notable is Vegas Golden Knights right winger Mark Stone.

    Since his full-time NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators in 2014-15, Stone is the undisputed master of the takeaway, totaling 639. He led the league last season in that category (58) for the fifth time in seven years. The 29-year-old winger also led all Golden Knights forwards with 19:04 of time on ice per game and finished third with 33 blocked shots.

    Stone's aggressive forechecking and impressive ability to strip opponents of the puck made him a Selke Trophy finalist in four of the past five seasons. It would not be surprising to see him among the candidates for that honor in 2021-22.

5. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

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    The face of the Florida Panthers, Aleksander Barkov's two-way skills played a crucial role in the club's rise to being among last season's top NHL teams. Those efforts also made him the first player in franchise history to win the Selke Trophy.

    Since cracking the 50-point plateau for the first time in 2015-16, Barkov is the Panthers' overall points leader with 405. His offensive skills are impressive, but his ability to intercept passes and strip opponents of the puck should keep him among this season's Selke candidates.

    Barkov, 25, was the Panthers' puck-possession leader last season with a shot-attempts percentage of 58.6. Among their forwards, he was their leader with 39 takeaways, time on ice per game (20:56) and faceoff win percentage (54.9). He was also second in blocked shots with 37 and fourth in short-handed ice time, averaging 1:26.

4. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

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    A mainstay at center for the Philadelphia Flyers since 2011-12, Sean Couturier made his mark earlier in his career for his defensive play. He was recognized for that aspect of his game with the Selke Trophy in 2019-20, joining Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke (1983) and Dave Poulin (1987) among the only Flyers to take home that award.

    Since his breakout performance as a Selke candidate in 2017-18 through last season, Couturier led all Flyers forwards with an average time on ice of 20:56, ranking seventh among NHL centers. He also led them during that period in short-handed ice time per game (2:04) and blocked shots with 152 and was the team leader in total takeaways with 156 and puck possession with a shot-attempts percentage of 54.6.

    In recent years, the 28-year-old has increased his offensive production, including 76-point performances in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Despite missing 11 games last season, he still finished fourth among Flyers scorers with 41 points. Nevertheless, it's his solid 200-foot game that ranks him among the league's best defensive forwards.

3. Anze Kopitar. Los Angeles Kings

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    The past seven seasons have been difficult for the once-mighty Los Angeles Kings, who have missed the playoffs five times during that period. Despite those difficulties, team captain Anze Kopitar remained not just their best player but also among the best two-way forwards in the league. Winner of the Selke Trophy in 2016 and 2018, he was also a finalist in 2014 and 2015.

    Last season, Kopitar led the Kings with a 57.3 faceoff win percentage. He was second among Kings skaters in time on ice per game (21:11) and short-handed ice time (2:04) and third in puck possession with a 51.4 shot-attempts percentage. Kopitar was also second among Kings forwards with 37 blocked shots and fifth in the league in short-handed faceoff win percentage—among those with at least 100 short-handed draws—at 55.2.

    The Kings' decision to rebuild with youth and their depletion of veteran talent in recent years hasn't had a significant adverse effect on Kopitar's defensive stats. He's also still a talented offensive center, tallying 50 points in 56 games last season. The 34-year-old remains a reliable, invaluable, all-situation forward.

2. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues

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    One of the NHL's least penalized players, Ryan O'Reilly won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2013-14 and has been a finalist on three other occasions. He also received the Selke Trophy in 2019 and was a finalist the following season.

    The 30-year-old put up solid defensive numbers last season. He led his the St. Louis Blues with 43 takeaways and faceoff win percentage (58.8). O'Reilly also led all Blues forwards with 20:45 in time on ice per game, short-handed ice time (2:02) and puck possession with a shot-attempts percentage of 51.7. He also finished second in short-handed faceoff win percentage (55.8) and defensive-zone win percentage (55.4).

    O'Reilly also tallied 54-plus points in nine of his previous 12 NHL seasons. His ability to play a strong two-way game while never picking up more than 18 penalty minutes per season speaks volumes for his all-around skills. It's why he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2019 and why he's among the NHL's best defensive forwards.

1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    Hall of Famer Bob Gainey is the only player to win as many Selke Trophies as Patrice Bergeron. The Boston Bruins captain picked up the award in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017. He's also been a finalist six other times since 2011-12, finishing second to Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier in 2020 and Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov last season.

    A look at Bergeron's stats last season explains why the 36-year-old remains well-respected for his defensive play. He led the Bruins in puck possession with a 62.5 shot-attempt percentage and in faceoff win percentage with 62.3, including a 58.9 short-handed win percentage. He also led all their forwards with 36 blocked shots and finished second among all skaters with 35 takeaways.

    Bergeron also remains a dangerous scoring threat, with 48 points in 54 games last season. He's not just one of the game's most complete players but also the standard by which all of today's top defensive forwards are measured.

                     

    Stats via NHL.com. Additional information via Hockey Reference.

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