The Bruins have a shit defense. It's been the biggest issue with the team for a couple years. I am a Bruins fan. I write about the Bruins. I mostly write about advanced stats. As a result, I have thought way, way too much about defenseman related analysis these past couple seasons. I have made rankings and models and charts upon charts upon charts. It's really almost embarrassing how much time I have devoted to cracking the code on how to analyze defensemen.
So, with my big interest in defensemen, when the NHL network published a list of the top 20 defenseman right now, I was very interested.
As you might imagine, if it was a good list, I wouldn't currently be writing this article.
I'd like to shit on this list, but I'll refrain for now. I'd like to first give my own list, and open myself up to be shat upon. I'll base my list on the 2 or so years I've spent obsessing over defenseman stats. So, yes, there will be stats. It'll mostly be stats. I'm sure the comment section will love that.
Speaking on stats, there's a few things I've learned in the past 2 years while obsessing over defensemen. They are:
- Advanced stats are better at measuring defense than you think. Maybe better than measuring offense. There's nothing like individual points or goals in defense that have reputability issues. When you adjust for everything, like quality of teammates, ice time, quality of competition, and shot quality, a lot of defensemen show their true colors.
- Defensemen will be continually misvalued by their point totals. They don't work like forwards. Defensemen usually only record a point on around 30% of goals scored while they're on the ice and max out at 50-60% for the best of them. By contrast, forwards tend to bottom out around that point. So, when you see forwards point total, you know that accounts for most of the offense that player generated. But for a defenseman, you have no idea. That's because it's not a defenseman's job to score, it's their job to make sure their forwards can score.
- Size bias doesn't work the way you think it does. There's plenty of small defensemen who many acknowledge to be good at defending. There's not many big D who are played just because they're big. But, when it comes to playing in their own end, very few ever acknowledge that big D can be bad at that too. It's an easy mistake to make. What you usually see of defense is the big hits and the net front battles. You don't see the subtle stuff that often ends up making a much larger difference. The end result is that, if a guy is big and scores a lot, they're always thought of as an "all-around" defenseman. People don't acknowledge that a player like Byfuglien or Weber can be just as, if not more, one dimensional than a guy like Karlsson.
- It's really hard to analyze defensemen. Almost no top defensemen is uniformly good at everything, they almost all have their faults. Beyond that, the "eye test" and advanced stats tend to disagree quite heavily when it comes to defensemen because so much of what makes a good defenseman is the subtlties. No one notices the subtle, little things because they're, well, subtle and little.
So, my ranking's not going to be a raw WAR model output ranking, as that's rather silly. The variance on those models makes something like a top 20 ranking a bit useless. I'll be taking a number of 5 on 5 GAR-lite models into account, along with special teams play, utility to their team for special talents, and, yes, the occasional usage of the eye-test if it's useful as a tie breaker.
Before I begin, I'll go over some of the stats I'll be using, and some necessary vocab.
RelTM stats - RelTM stats are a way of adjusting for the kinds of teammates a player gets to play with. It averages how much better or worse a player's teammates were with him that without him, and then weights each of those performances by the TOI the players had. If a player plays with Bergeron and Marchand, it'll measure how much better Bergeron and Marchand were with that player than without him.
No, it's not the same as raw rel stats. A shitty fourth liner won't boost your RelTM stats if you never play with them.
Yes, it has problems judging players, especially defensemen, who play a large percentage of their minutes together. For example, Roman Josi and Shea Weber's RelTM stats look almost identitcal, because they're almost never apart.
If you've got a question, please read about it here. If you don't have a question, please read about it anyway. It's a really important method used by hockey statters, and if you're interested in hockey in any way, you'd be doing good by yourself to read it.
qndCorsi - I thing I did here. This, along with xGD60RelTM, will be my main method of assessing how well a defenseman plays at 5 on 5.
xGD - Expected goal differential. Read about expected goals here. Essentially, it's expected plus minus. Made up of 5 things:
- Expected goals caused by extra shots against vs. what an average player would have allowed given the same minutes
- Expected goals created by extra shots for vs. what an average player would have generated given the same minutes
- Expected goals caused by shot quality against vs. what an average player would have allowed given the same minutes
- Expected goals created by shot quality for vs. what an average player would have generated given the same minutes
- Expected goals created by individual shooting talent vs. what an average player would generated given the same minutes.
Klingberg is at the same end of his career as Klefbom, but definitely the opposite kind of player. Whereas Klefbom is a traditional, minute eating defensive defenseman, Klingberg is more like a 5th man PP specialist that just got really, really, REALLY good. He's not as good at driving possession as Klefbom, but his 5 on 5 offensive production is top tier.
At 5 on 5, the Stars have a rather weird way of deploying their D. Last year, Klingberg and Gologoski were given the most minutes, but they were mostly easy ones. They were played in the O zone against weak competition. In those "up 1, defensive zone face offs with a minute to go" situations, it was Demers and Oduya who got sent out there. As a result, Klingberg's offensive numbers are probably a little inflated. Not by much at all, but it's something to think about.
It's the special teams where Klingberg cleanly beats Klefbom. Neither is that great on the PK, so it's a moot point. Where as Klefbom has a lot of trouble generating chances from the point, Klingberg is one of the best in the league. He outplayed his team mate Alex Gologoski, and had a similar PP P/60 to noted American Hero Torey Krug.
The Stars definitely have something special in this kid.
18. Aaron Ekblad
Ekblad is a player with almost no flaws. His offensive production isn't top-tier, but it's still well above average. Same with his stop generation. But at the NHL level, he plays almost perfect defense. For a guy who isn't old enough to drink, that's insane. There's just no questions with this kid's game. Play him in any situation, and he's going to excel. And again, he's only going to get better.
The questions come up when you look at his defensive partner. He played with Brian Campbell, who'll well talk about a bit farther down on this list. He's a very, very good player. They played enough minutes together to warrant questions about who stirred the drink. But, they played enough minutes apart to answer that question. Yes, Campbell was better, but even playing with bad partners like Gudbranson and Kulikov, Ekblad excelled. It won't be long before Ekblad is definitely the better player.
Ekblad's special teams play wasn't that bad, or that good. He generated about an average number of points/60 on the power play last year. He took a good number of PK minutes, but Kulikov and Gudbransson absorbed most of them for his team. Still, in the time he did play he wasn't half bad. If I were to do this list again in a year or two, expect Ekblad to easily crack the top 10.
17. Kris Letang
Letang is a bit of a misunderstood D. Despite being used like a big, shutdown minutes eater this year in the playoffs, he didn't really perform like one. Instead, his stats are more reminiscent of a 1 dimensional PP specialist. Dude's got some issues. He's only slightly below average in shot suppression, but he allows a lot of very dangerous shots. He's got some of the worst shot quality against on this list.
People don't talk about it much, but at 5 on 5, the Pens are definitely a "defense by committee" team. Letang doesn't really get the hardest starts on the team. That honor goes to Dumolin and Lovejoy. In fact, despite getting less minutes overall, if you were to look at the kinds of minutes given you'd think that Dumolin was the Pens no 1 D, not Letang. He's the real classic shutdown minutes eater on the team. But I digress.
If Letang is only a 1 dimensional player, it's a helluva dimension. His individual points/60 aren't anything that'll win him any awards, but he's way more than that. His positive shot rate for impact laps his negative shot quality against impact 4 times over. It's pretty insane. Unlike the two players ranked below him on this list, Letang is a special teams giant. On the PP, Letang is incredibly dangerous. He's a serious offensive talent, even better than Klingberg. He eats a crapton of minutes on the PK, too, and does well with them.
The only thing keeping Letang from being higher on this list is his 5 on 5 play in his own end. Admittedly, that's a pretty fucking big thing if you're supposed to be a top 20 defenseman. But his positive impacts are so intense that it easily makes up for his flaws.
16. Dustin Byfuglyien
Big Buff is a big boi with a big shot who gets big goal totals. You'll notice that the little dot for goals scored/60 in the above chart is missing. That's because his goal scoring rate is so high it doesn't fit on the chart. He gud at scoar gol. And he plays a lot of those goal-making minutes, too. Higher than Niskanen.
His possession game, though? Good. Nowhere near enough to get him into the top 20, though. His shots for rank him above other standouts like the previously discussed Letang, but his defensive issues are, well, issues. About as bad as Klingberg, all things considered. His offense, though, is on a different level.
As for special teams, he plays a surprising number of minutes on the PK. He doesn't lead his team, but he's got enough to lead a few others. As for the PP, he's not as much of a monster as you'd think. He plays a crapton of minutes there, but last year he didn't do much with it. His P/60 was average to below average, and he barely scored any goals of his own. His on-ice shooting percentage was also very low, so expect him to a bit better next year.
15. PK Subban
I'M FINALLY ALLOWED TO SAY NICE THINGS ABOUT PK SUBBAN
Subban is a good defenseman. And elite number 1 defenseman. He's better than Shea Weber, who's not going to be making an appearance on this list.
Subban's biggest strength is his possession game. He's much better than Buff. He doesn't have the goal scoring resume of Buff, sure, but his own individual production is nothing to sneeze at. His powerplay production was much better than Buff's last year, about as good as Klingbergs. His PK time was about the same.
14. Brent Burns
The trio of Buff/Subban/Burns is kind of hard to talk about individually. They're all the same kind of player. Heavy offensive production, not good defensively, but they still manage to tip the possession scales the right way.
While PK got the nod over Buff by having better possession metrics and better PP production, Burns is the middle child of the group possession wise. But, he's very clearly the best of the group when it comes to individual production, both at 5v5 and on the powerplay. His PP P/60 and 5v5 P/60 were both head and shoulders above the other two. The dude scored 27 goals as a defenseman. His PK time wasn't really all that significant.
None of these 3 guys is an all around player. They all have holes, some bigger than others. But Burns is clearly the best of the group.
13. Duncan Keith
Duncan Keith is also a bit of a misunderstood D, similar to Letang. In a lot of ways, he's not really "the shutdown guy" for the Hawks. That goes to Hjarlmarson, who gets totally hammered when it comes to minutes. Keith may play more raw minutes, but he plays a lot more on the power play and in more predatory situations. But his volume of minutes, and his resulting overall impact, is where his true value lies.
That's not to say his raw /60 impact on his team isn't good. His xGD60RelTM is higher than anyone ranked below him on this list except for Oscar Klefbom. Combining that with his sheer volume of play, he's easily one of the best defenseman in the league.
His special teams play is nothing to sneeze at. He's not legendary on either the PP or the PK but he's clearly a first unit player in both situations.
I'm still a tad salty about his 2014 Norris, but his 2015 Conn Smythe was a very deserved award.
12 & 11. Jake Muzzin and Drew Doughty
I'm just going to write about these two guys together.
Jake Muzzin is a good defenseman. Some would argue that he's the best defenseman on the LA Kings. I'm not going to argue that today.
The main contribution both of these guys make is their 5 on 5 possession play. Both do that real well. Muzzin's possession metrics are excellent, as are his shot quality ones. His xGD60RelTM is the highest of anyone on this list so far, above Keith and Klefbom and even above teammate Doughty. That's damn good. It's why a lot of people would say Muzzin is the better player.
Drew Doughty's main knock at five on five is shot quality against. He lets up some really, really bad chances. Like, worse than a lot of guys who get characterized as offensive defensemen. Of course, he makes up for this by never really having to play in his own zone. But still, defending well is kind of important if you're a defenseman.
But that whole "playing in your own zone" thing. Muzzin and Doughty have similar possession metrics, but the difference is in their qndCorsi. Doughty's qndCorsi total is almost twice as high as Muzzins, indicating he plays more and harder minutes. You may argue that Muzzin is the one who deserves to get those minutes, but he didn't, and the impact Doughty made in those minutes can't be understated.
Special teams play is where Doughty really pulls ahead. This isn't to say that Muzzin isn't also great on special teams, but Doughty is decisively far ahead in many ways. People don't really ever talk about it but his PP P/60 was freakin' elite last year, well about 5. More than anyone below him on this list aside from Burns. He also plays a crapton of PK minutes, more than Muzzin, but not by much.
At the end of the day, I have to give it to Doughty. But neither of these guys are breaking the top 10.
10. Chris Tanev
Chris Tanev is the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL. He's good at doing the defenseman things. His shot suppression prevents 0.3 goals per 60 RelTM compared to an average player. That's a fuckton. The next highest mark by a defenseman is Brian Campbell's 0.19. That's what us fancy math nerds call an "outlier". No one is in the same tier as Tanev when it comes to shot suppression.
Why is he rarely given credit for this? Part of it is the same as Klefbom. The Canucks are shit at defending as a group, so you don't really expect them to have a star shutdown defenseman. But they do. Here he is. Existing.
The downside is, well, everything else about him, really. He's kind of shit at generating offense, below average for a D. His point production is non existent. His PP production is pretty shit. He's a really great penalty killer, though, and he eats minutes like they're wonderful pieces of salt water taffy. But that raw 5 on 5 defense that he plays just makes up for so much.
9. Hampus Lindholm
Hampus Lindholm really, really doesn't like playing in the defensive zone. He tries his hardest to never, ever do it. He's pretty successful with that. He's so successful that he led all D last year in qndCorsi, showing that the Ducks relied on him to play his game in a large number of tough minutes.
Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson were defensive rocks for the Ducks last year. Their emergence on the Ducks blueline is what turned them from a talented scoring team that relied on points from big names like Getzlaf and Perry into a more well-rounded team that can dominate on possession. The importance of having an elite number 1 D who can tilt the ice like this can't be understated.
His 5v5 points/60 weren't really anything to write home about. But his PP points/60 were elite, putting up 5.24 points for every 60 minutes of play. By comparison, Brent Burns put up 5.25. The kid is impressive. Likewise, he led his team in shorthanded time on ice.
In a few years, Lindholm could easily be the best defenseman in the West.
8. Brian Campbell
Brian Campbell has had a very odd career arc. He started out as a high flying, smooth skating offensive defenseman who'd take risks and rack up the points. As he's aged, his game has changed dramatically. He's now a veteran shutdown D, and one of the best in the league at that too. His possession metrics are top tier. He played in all situations in Florida, with then-rookie Aaron Ekblad. That top pairing is the primary reason why the Panthers managed to win the division last year.
His 5 on 5 production isn't what it used to be. It's just not that great. His PP production is pretty bad too, but his PK performance is exceptional. All in all, at this stage in his career, he's a great top pairing possession driving shutdown D.
7. Anton Stralman
Imagine Brian Campbell, but a little bit better at everything and a few years younger. That's Stralman.
He's arguably the best 5 on 5 D in the league. He was number 1 in xGD60RelTM last season. That's big. Really, really big.
He was signed for 4.5 mil in free agency.
He's still not even his team's best D.
All bow to the Yzerplan.
6. Jared Spurgeon
No, Ryan Suter isn't appearing anywhere on this list. Spurgeon is better.
Spurgeon is a player who doesn't really have weaknesses, but he does have strengths. His shot generation is insane and his overall possession game is top tier. He's got no shot quality questions, and his point production at 5 v 5 is also nothing to sneeze at. He plays in all situations and gets a crapton of minutes, as shown in his high qndCorsi.
What throws Spurgeon above other elite D who's main asset is possession, like Lindholm, Stralman, and Campbell, is his special teams play. He's not his team's best penalty killer, as that honor goes to Suter. He may not even be better than Scandella. But his PP production is insane. His PP P/60 is the highest out of anyone on this list. He was 5th for ALL defensemen last year for PP P/60. None of the 4 guys above him have anywhere near the 5 on 5 defending ability that Spurgeon does, and that's why he's a top 10 D in the league.
5. Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman gets to play with Anton Stralman and doesn't drag him down at all. They put up very similar possession numbers. Hedman does have some shot quality against issues, but his pros heavily, heavily outweigh that single con. First off, his 5 on 5 production is nearly off the charts. Literally, you almost can't see where he is on the chart I posted, he's that good. While you may expect him to produce the same way on the PP, he doesn't. His team mate, Stralman, has a higher P/60 than he does. He kills penalties well, though.
I really, really don't like that this guy, and Stralman, are in the same division as the Bruins. Get out of here.
4. Mark Giordano
Gio is crazy underrated. How he hasn't won a Norris is beyond me. He's similar to Klefbom and Tanev in that he doesn't get much credit because he plays for a shit team in a relatively small, western market. The only time he got a lick of credit was in 2014-15, where he and TJ Brodie strapped their shit team on their backs and pulled them into the playoffs.
Possession wise, Gio is one if not the best D in the world. Actually, if you told me you thought Gio was the best 5 on 5 D in the league, I'd be hard pressed to argue. The only guys with a similar combination of 5 on 5 scoring chops and possession game are Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman. All 3 of them, however, have small but important shot quality against issues.
In special teams, Gio is a bit of a different story. As you'd expect with such a prolific 5 on 5 scorer, his PP P/60 is very high. His PK work, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. He eats lots of minutes, but he's not the best PKer in the world, and it shows in his teams sub par PK% and his own individually bad PK stats.
We're getting to the "he's perfect but slightly below average at killing penalties" part of the list
3. Erik Karlsson
if you have Karlsson as your number 1 D in the world, I can't fault you. It's hard to argue against how incredible he is. Hell, if you wanted to say he deserved the Hart last year, I wouldn't fault you, either.
In terms of his total xGD, which is essentially expected plus minus, Karlsson was a +18.5. The next highest guy was +15.5. That alone should speak to his monumental impact last year. That number takes into account his shitty shot quality against. Even with that, his overall impact was still just that much higher than the next guys. His /60 stats, though, weren't the best ever. There were a couple guys with an xGD60RelTM that were higher than Karlssons, including Anton Stralman, who also made an appearance on this list.
One thing people seem to forget about is just how many raw minutes
You may assume that in his unprecedented season last year, he had some incredible P/60 numbers.
Yes, his 5v5 P/60 was the highest among all D. But compare his 1.57 P/60 at 5v5 to Victor Hedman's 1.24. He wasn't really that much better there. His PP P/60 was also pretty mediocre. Compare his 4.03 P/60 on the PP to Doughty, Spurgeon, and Letang, who all had around 5.8 P/60. Most of the guys on this list outclass him here.
What they don't outclass him on, however, is PP time. It's normal for a team's no. 1 D to have about 180-190 minutes.
Karlsson had 370.
That's insanity. His 5 on 5 ice time was also ridiculous, coming close to 1800 minutes. He, Drew Doughty, and Ryan Suter were in a class by their own, almost 200 minutes above the guy in 4th place. But on the PK? Only around 100 minutes. That's not nothing, but it's less than anyone else on this list aside from Klingberg. That's why he managed to score 82 points, because he played a ridiculous number of minutes only at 5 on 5 and on the PP.
I'm not trying to say that Karlsson isn't an insane offensive talent, but if you're going to sell yourself on offensive production, I want more, well, production for my minutes. He brings it at 5 on 5 but on the PP, he needs to be better if he wants to be the undisputed number 1 D in the world.
Consider this. Karlsson had 25 points on the powerplay in 370 minutes. Kevin Shattenkirk was only given about 190 minutes, around HALF the time Karlsson had.
Shattenkirk scored 26 PP points. You get my point.
But Karlsson has never been just about the points. He's also one of, if not the best possession D in the world. But, we're at the point in the list where everyone has an argument to that title. It's the extras now. Your shot quality, your point production, your special teams. And, I'm sorry to say, but Karlsson has some flaws in those areas. The next two guys don't.
2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
OEL is my shit. He's one of 2 defensemen in this tier that I'd label "perfect" in the same way I'd label Bergeron. He has no faults. You just keep looking for things he isn't elite at and you can't find anything.
Shot quality for? Against? Rates for and against? Possession? The PK? The PP? How about his qndCorsi, anything sketchy there? Point production? Penalty kill, powerplay?! ANYTHING?!!?!
Nothing. Nada. Zilch. He's one of only 2 true do-it-all defensemen.
But, we get the same small, western market problem that happens with Gio, Klefbom, and Tanev. He's great, but in a subtle way, and no one watches so he's overlooked. This, despite him scoring over 20 goals in each of the past two seasons. This kid is good, this kid can play, and if he's not in your top 10 D in the league, then you've probably fucked something up.
1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic
The Pickleman is, in my opinion, the best defenseman in the NHL. Like OEL, MEV is a true do-it-all number 1 D who has no faults whatsoever in his game. That's kind of new, too. Prior to this year, he didn't really have a big scoring resume. But this season, he increased his P/60 at 5 on 5 to 1.21 and his PP P/60 to 4.01. That's competitive with almost everyone on this list, and I'd now consider him a "perfect" defenseman.
MEV is essentially OEL plus one. He's good at all the same things (which is everything), only he's a little bit better at all of them. The big tie breaker, for me, though, was the dreaded eye test. MEV's performance in the playoffs this year for the San Jose Sharks is hands-down the best performance by a defenseman that I have ever seen. Yes, better than Chara in 2011 and 2013. Better than Keith in 2015.
While Tanev is the best individual shutdown D in the league, the MEV-Braun pair is the best shutdown pairing. That was proven in the post season. MEV played such good, perfect defense in the playoffs this year that every single player he was matched against had articles come out wondering what was wrong with them. MEV was the answer to every single mysterious "why is x not scoring" article from the post season.
"Why aren't Kopitar and Carter scoring?"
Because they have to play against MEV
"Why isn't Fillip Forsberg scoring?"
Because he has to play against MEV
"Why isn't Tarasenko scoring?"
Because he has to play against MEV
"Why aren't Crosby and Malkin scoring?"
Because they have to play against MEV
"Why is Phil Kessel scoring?"
Because he doesn't have to play against MEV
It's pretty simple, guys. MEV just didn't make mistakes last year. He perfectly punished his opponents mistakes. He played as hard as you could play without taking penalties. He didn't need to be flashy to be the best D on the ice every night. He was like a robot, always making the right decision. He did the little things so well, they became big things. It feels weird to call a defenseman "Bergeron-esque", but that's what MEV was during the Shark's run.
And it's why I think he's the best defenseman in the NHL.
But, what do you think? Who's the best defenseman in the NHL? Feel free to post your own top 10/20 lists in the comments below. And, remember, it's really hard to analyze defensemen. Almost everyone has their pros and cons, and your eye-test is a subjective thing that's prone to a crapton of failings. Be nice to each other, no biting.