The Best Defensemen in the League

(Justin Tang | Credit: AP)

When fans and pundits talk about the best defensemen in the National Hockey League, names like Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, and Adam Fox are usually recited. But those are not really the best defensemen in the league, no matter what everyone seems to be parroting. Now each of those defensemen put up points at an unprecedented pace. Makar alone has 63 points this season. While this is an awe-inspiring feat and should be celebrated, recently, defensive prowess has become entangled with and synonymous with great offensive performances by defensemen. In other words, those considered the best defensemen in the league are often defensemen who put up a lot of points but are not necessarily good on defense. Makar has a 66% wins above replacement (WAR) score when playing defense. This WAR score is much lower than Makar’s more defensively inclined counterparts.

Devon Toews, Makar’s defense partner, has an 88% WAR score in the same field. Toews is better at playing defense, a defenseman’s job, but Toews is not considered the better defenseman on the Makar-Toews pairing. Defensive defensemen often enable and assist their offensive counterparts while receiving very little praise. They are better at playing defense but are not awarded year after year for their hard work and skill. They are even left out of the conversation for best defensemen in casual discussions among friends and on podcasts. So let’s talk about shut-down defensemen and give them the spotlight they so deserve. 

JFresh Hockey released a ranking of defensemen with the lowest defensive WAR (see above) and almost all of the players on this list are notable puck-moving defensemen. Many times these defensemen despite having worse defensive stats are touted as top talents. John Klingberg and Alex Pietrangelo notably are two examples. Pietrangelo specifically was picked in the first three selections to make the Canadian Olympic team when NHL players were still supposed to go to the Olympics. He is paid quite generously by the Vegas Golden Knights and was one of the top defensive free agents only a couple of seasons ago. Yet his defensive impact is negative. Klingberg is another highly touted d-man and is one of the biggest pieces of trade bait for this coming deadline but again has no positive defensive impact statistically. These offensive defensemen often fetch top dollar in trades. Many say that Klingberg who is a pending UFA will require at least a first-round pick to acquire which is a very high price for a d-man who doesn’t play defense. 

Jfresh Hockey also produced a list of the top ten defensemen in the league (see above), including Devon Toews near the top. Toews is arguably the perfect example of why defensive defensemen should receive more attention and value. Toews makes these simple and small but absolutely crucial defensive moves which take the pressure off of Makar to do the same. Makar not having that burden allows him to get deeper in the offensive zone and take more scoring chances. Toews ensures that Makar doesn’t have to compromise his offensive prowess for defensive play. At the same time, Makar could be a top-tier defender; he is unique because of his ability to generate points. 

This can be seen on the stats sheets even more in the case of Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rielly’s defensive WAR is abysmal, but he doesn’t look like a defensive liability when partnered with solid stay-at-home guys like Brodie and Jake Muzzin. JFresh Hockey, who produces some of the best statistical evaluations of every player, analyzed Rielly’s underlying numbers Tweeting, “The Rielly tradeoff has always been that he is an excellent puck-moving offensive player but a liability when it comes to preventing scoring chances against. That is especially true this season, and without Muzzin and Brodie playing elite defensive hockey.” Muzzin and Brodie use their defensive abilities to enable Rielly, maximizing his offensive upside while also hiding the many deficits in his game. Rielly has a 0% defensive WAR, yet Leafs fans are not always raging about how bad his pairing looks on the ice, and that is because Brodie always steps up big in the defensive zone and picks up the slack for Rielly. That is the beauty of a defensive defenseman; they anchor a pairing. They can be used with another shut-down style player to create a “shut-down pair,” or they can be paired with a puck-moving defenseman to make a pair that is a net positive on defense but still generates offense. 

Stay-at-home defensemen are not just assets because they elevate and enable those they play with. They are such valuable assets all on their own. Their impact is complicated to see because while puck-moving defensemen might rack up points and highlight-reel goals, the shut-down d-man’s impact is not seen. Maybe the beauty of the defensive defensemen is that they limit chances so thoroughly there are no high event memorable moments involving them. In other words, they make sure that they never show up on the wrong side of highlight reels. Their impact doesn’t make highlight reels because it stops the eye-catching goals, breaks up odd-man rushes, clears the zone, and prevents the opposing team from getting set up for scoring chances. It isn’t eye-catching, but you can see it on the stat sheet and feel the impact on the ice. Because these vital plays lack the needed razzle-dazzle to catch eyes, these shut-down D-men keep their team secure in their lead but receive very little attention or praise for how well they play every game. 

That being said, shut-down defensemen can score like any other skater. Toews has scored 12 goals and has 44 points on the season. He plays with one of the best lines in hockey and with one of the top offensive blue-line talents, so of course, he can still generate chances. They just aren’t the focus of his game. Toews isn’t considered the top scoring threat on his pairing, but he can still score. Even though he is incredibly defensively responsible, it doesn’t mean he is incompetent offensively. That is possibly the biggest misconception. Because a defenseman’s game does revolve around scoring, they are viewed as less of an asset, but a shut-down defensemen’s prowess is not measured in the number of points they have on the season. It is quantified in their contributions to overall team success: they maintain leads, keep the team calm, and reduce the shots against attempts while they play. 

Shut down d-men are great stand-alone pieces and better the play of those who play with them. So with all of that being noted, why is there no award for the best defenders in the league? The Norris trophy often goes to the d-man who has the most points, and even if they don’t have the most points, the award for best defensemen in the league is always gifted to an offensive defenseman. However, an offensive defenseman is not the best at playing defense in the NHL. There needs to be an award equivalent for defensive-defensemen to award the hard work and unsung talent of those players playing shut-down defense. They are the actual best defenders in the National Hockey League; they should reap the benefits of their efforts. Puck-moving defensemen cannot play their best without the presence of a stay-at-home d-man, so why should one skillset be rewarded but not the other? 

Hockey fans and pundits alike need to rethink how they view defensemen and their role on teams. Defensive defensemen are the best defenders in the league, and they deserve to be valued and awarded just like their puck-moving counterparts. The definition of and award for best defensemen in the league needs to include the true front runners; the defensemen who actually play defense the best.

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