Each year we as 30 teams go careening through the grueling season hell bent on playing at least sixteen more when it is over, we have the chance to see the most difficult and most subtle position played by the good, the bad, the forgettable and the elite. Getting the Norris trophy (normally) means you are an elite defenseman. Here’s the guys to watch this year.

  • Shea Weber, he’s long overdue, his team has a shot at the playoffs with the improvements up front, and the return to health of Pekka Rinne.
  • Ryan McDonagh, a new name to watch, he’s got two solid tenders to play in front of, a decent squad even without Stepan or a few weeks, and his team is fresh off a deep playoff run.
  • Drew Doughty, I’d have been much happier to see him win last year than the guy who did, and I don’t expect his performance to dip this season, top level defenseman with the most Ray Bourque like mix of skill and skating of any player in the NHL.
  • Zdeno Chara, the elder statesmen of the top end defensemen in the NHL, he’s go one Norris, and the defense crew he plays with now just got younger and less experienced.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, this is one of the players who doesn’t get recognized because he doesn’t have one outstanding area of strength that’s easy to pin down, however he also doesn’t have any areas where he’s average or below average.
  • Ryan Suter, top shelf defenseman who was suffered mutual penalization with Shea Weber for playing together, now playing with a rather young mostly nameless defense.
  • Victor Hedman, consistent producer of points, while his actually defensive numbers don’t fall into the same league as the rest of he watchlist, he’s still more worthy than certain recent winners.

NHL.com released a list of the top 14 defensemen in the NHL. While I’m not surprised by any names on the final list, I am a bit dismayed by one or two or at least where they placed. And I’m pleased as can be about one semi-notable exclusion. One name I’d put in, instead of one of the person who did make it without any real merit is quite often overlooked and I’m hoping that this season that comes to an end.

Debating the exact position of each player on the list is futile. Four people voted, and I think that if you had fourteen people vote, you’d get very nearly the same results. There are however three things I can’t wrap my head around.

Too High:

For all that he’s been on two cup winning teams, and for all his admitted prowess, Duncan Keith is not, and has not in the last two or three years been a top five defenseman in the NHL. You can’t be considered among the elite of the elite if you don’t play against the top of the food chain. Keith does not. He shouldn’t be any higher than seven or eight. Still an impressive player, still someone everyone wants on their roster, but not in the conversation for best defenseman in the NHL.

Too Low:

Alex Pietrangelo is far too low. When you consider how much worse the goaltending talent he’s played his career in front of is than the guys Doughty, Weber, and Chara have spent the same years in front of, things take on a different tint. No, he hasn’t won a Norris (neither have Doughty, which he probably deserves, and Weber which is an outright crime) but a measurable chunk of that is the city he plays in. He does all things well, and plays hard minutes. Part of his lack of public affection may just be how few games he’s played, only one player above him on the list has fewer NHL games and Subban plays in a much, much more scrutinized market. For well rounded play, Pietrangelo is Subban’s superior for both defensive prowess and levelheadedness.

Are You Sure About That Name:

Why Erik Karlsson makes the list at all is a mystery. There are sixty or seventy wingers in the NHL with less than 100 games played who have better defensive instincts and ability than Karlsson. I could (barely) swallow him coming in at 13 or 14, assuming their were no better choices. There are however, at least half a dozen that don’t even need a sniff test and probably six three to five more that can be made to work. One of the better choices is John Carlson who has a better differential between zone starts and finishes, a better on ice save percentage, but is actually more productive per minute of powerplay time than Karlsson.

My delight upon mature and sober consideration was unmitigated upon not seeing the name Kris Letang on the list. Having heard of his unjustly vaunted prowess for year after year, it is nice to see his exposure in the playoffs the last two years doing some good. I am surprised to Giordano so high on the list especially with only one real season the spotlight to himself, but he does deserve a spot on the list.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.

 

This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

The NHL has surprises here and there, injuries unexpected firings, and ridiculous hirings. But the for the most part, NHL observers can expect exactly the train-wrecks and triumphs that are written in the stars just waiting to be read.

7:  Jarome Iginla & Brendan Morrow

Both Morrow and Iginla ended up as part of the augmentation of talent for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they made a run towards the Cup. The team fell short, and what came next, should surprise 0.0% of hockey fans. Brendan Morrow who’s offense has fallen off the cliff since the 2010-11 season is without a contract. He performed like a third line rookie in the playoffs, and his skating was not impressive. Iginla on the other hand is signed to a contender having put up nearly a point per game despite the Pittsburgh Penguins season ending a lot like David Carradine, only without the consent or fun.

6: Nathan Horton Bolting Boston

When players who spend a lot of their career in very laid back markets without a strong (and occasionally vicious) media presence suddenly get dropped into the crucible of a major hockey market, the result is often less than pretty. Players have flamed out in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston. For Horton who spent most of his career in Florida where on an average day the training staff outnumber the media contingent Boston was destined to be uncomfortable. Add in six seasons of never getting to the playoffs and then suddenly winning the Cup, and he literally had no reason to stay. Columbus is about as close to southern Ontario as Boston, a quieter town, and as much as the team has improved, it will be a playoff team most of the next seven years so he wasn’t giving up much.

5: Bryzgalov goes Bye-Bye

Speaking of guys going from small markets to major hockey markets, witness the rise and fall of one Ilya Bryzgalov. Was all of his disastrous stay in Philadelphia his fault? No. Are the Philadelphia Flyers the kiss of death for goalie talent? Yes. Did everyone outside the Philadelphia Flyers front office see this coming? All the way across the humongous big universe. The buyout of Bryzgalov was both needed and inevitable. Sadly, he and his contract were not the biggest issues with Flyers, otherwise know as the home of things that make you go hmmm.

4: Russians Mute On Anti-Gay Laws

Whatever they think, Russian players in North America aren’t going to speak up about their government’s further encoding homophobia into the nations culture. If they agree with their home nations laws, they risk ostracizing here.  If they publicly disagree with the laws, the risk legal censure at home and possibly even being barred from the Sochi Olympic and other international competition. Here groups like You Can Play would keep them busy defending themselves, and well, National Geographic has convinced me I don’t ever want to see a Russian prison.

 3: RFA Contract Disputes Dragging On

The swallows return to Capistrano, and NHL teams drag their heels and try and sweat young players. Both happen with enough regularity that they cease to be amazing. Last year P.K. Subban’s contract negotiations dragged into camp, the year before it was Drew Doughty, this year it is Alex Pietrangelo. All of them are great young defenseman who any team should be happy to have and want to keep happy. But, these are NHL teams we’re dealing with.

2: Unsupportable Ranking of Sidney Crosby in NHL Fantasy Column
The NHL marketing department, which seems to have a super majority of the brain trust in league HQ, simply can not help itself, or the league. No matter what happens they keep beating the same drum over, and over in the same pattern. In the last three season Sidney Crosby has missed (113) more games than he’s played (99). His injury history should lead no one to think he’ll be healthy the majority of the season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic who was taken 34 picks after Crosby and started his NHL career a year later has played 49 more NHL games, Patrick Kane who was drafted two full years later and has suffered his own injuries has played just 36 games less. Alex Ovechkin, Andrej Meszaros, Andrew Ladd, Johan Franzen, Mark Streit and Travis Zajac several of whom have had serious injuries entered the league the same year or later have all played more games as well. Yes that includes 9th round pick Mark Streit, who missed an entire season.  So why is Sidney Crosby the #1 ranked Fantasy Hockey property? Because it sells jerseys.

1: Big, Dumb Contracts

Leaves fall from trees, cats chase mice, Matt Cooke is surprised when he is sent to the penalty box, all are slightly less predictable than a general manager in the NHL handing out incredibly dumb contracts sometime in the first two weeks of July. This year immediately after he was bought out Vincent Lecavalier was able to make it big (again) thanks to the generosity of Paul Holmgren Philadelphia Flyers General Manager. But Holmgren couldn’t help himself, he also made sure Mark Streit didn’t starve in the streets. Between the two he tied up $10,000,000.00 in cap space, Streit’s is a +35 contract and Lecavalier has a full no movement clause.

But Holmgren is hardly alone there. The Boston Bruins joined in by signing a goaltender who has never one a championship, not in World Juniors, World Championship, Olympics, AHL, ECHL, CHL or any place else to a contract they gave him $8,000,000.00 a year despite the lack of success and injury trouble. Tuukka Rask can thank Peter Chiarelli and Can Neely for buying a nice bill of goods.

Not to be outdone, Ray Shero’s golden handshake with Kris Letang was arguably the worst contract given to a defenseman since Dennis Wideman signed in Calgary. Letang’s playoff performance this year makes it doubtful to many people that he’s a $5m defenseman. Shero clearly believes that Letang is a $7,250,000.00 defenseman.

There are reports from RDS and elsewhere that Kris Letang has reached a deal with the Penguins to keep him in town another eight years. For $7,250,000.00 each season player 58 will be on the ice for the foreseeable future.

This contract makes him the third highest paid defenseman in the NHL and in the 2014-15 season stands to make him the 13th highest paid player in the NHL. The question is why? Is he offensively gifted? Sure. He also plays in a nearly pure offensive system with two of the best playmakers in the NHL, and a couple 30 goal men too. When you have six, or seven highly talented forward to pass the puck to or serve as decoys when you shoot, scoring is a bunch easier. Even with that level of production in front of him, he’s still just over half a point a game for his career in the regular season at .54ppg.

Also to be considered is his injury history. Since breaking into the NHL during the 2006-7 season, he has only played the full season once. His litany of injuries includes concussions and numerous “lower body injuries”. As a guy whose whole game is predicated on his ability to move, those lower body injuries have to be worrisome.

By comparison, Drew Doughty who has turned into a legitimate two way defenseman is at .51ppg, and the comparisons between an offense that has been in the bottom third of the NHL most of Doughty’s career doesn’t even compare to the Penguins. Doughty also missed just 11 games in his career, won Olympic gold, and yet somehow the Penguins are paying Letang more.

Letang’s playoff performance has also been spotty at best. In the 2012-13 playoffs he was held pointless by the Boston Bruins as part of the team being swept. In the 2008-9 playoff run he put up a goose egg against the Carolina Hurricanes. The 2007-8 second season saw him held pointless against the Detroit Red Wings, The New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators. That’s fifty percent of crucial games where an offensive defenseman has failed to provide offense.

Another telling stat is his on ice save percentage. In this season, counting only the Penguins defenseman that played thirty or more of the forty eight games Kris Letang ranks dead last and by a wide margin. Letang’s on ice save percentage is in fact the only qualifying defenseman who’s numbers are worse than both team goalies. By comparison the Boston Bruins Zdeno Chara who Letang will now make more than has a OISvP of .930 to Letang’s .914, Montreal Candiens Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban owned a .926, and his teams goalies were significantly less average than Pittsburgh’s this season. The other Norris finalist this season was Ryan Suter who played with a rookie defensive partner much of the season (as did Chara) he laid claim to a .925.

Suter, Chara, Subban, and of course Doughty are demonstrably at least as productive at both ends of the ice as Letang, and all four are healthier, two of the four played more minutes than Letang and yet all will be paid less than the owner of Pittsburgh’s latest mega-contract.

Getting out of the first round of the playoffs in any sport require some skill, some grit and not just being better at being average than a few other teams. The difference between the winners and losers in the second round are a lot easier to identify than the what separates ninth and tenth place teams from seventh and eight.

The Los Angeles Kings finished the regular season half a dozen points out of the division title, and without home ice advantage. In doing so the defending Stanley Cup champions had a three position improvement year over year. Most notable among the other improvements was finishing the season as a top ten NHL offense, in their Cup winning season despite a late surge coinciding nicely with the rumors of Dustin Brown’s trade availability and the acquisition of former Philadelphia Flyer and then Columbus Blue Jacket Jeff Carter they had finished 29th.

In the first round of the playoffs the Kings played a bruising round against the Saint Louis Blues and got through a pretty even series in six games. Then they met the Blackhawks. Their home dominance disappeared, and there was just one major factor in all four losses; speed.

The lack of speed overall on the Kings is usually compensated for by great coaching and players who stick to a system every bit as structured as Claude Julien’s recipe for Bruins success. While the Kings were mostly in the right place all series long, they were getting there steps behind the Blackhawks who have speed to burn.

Overall, the Kings may be the slowest skating team to make the playoffs. Of all the top six forwards and top pairing defensemen only Doughty and Carter are above average in speed. The bottom six forwards and lower pairing defensemen don’t offer much more speed. The simple fact is you can’t play the puck if you can’t get to it, and you can’t defend against someone who beats you to the net.

Be it through trades, the draft, promotion from their AHL affiliate the Manchester Monarch’s or signing key free agents, if the Kings want their crown back while there core is still together and highly effective, they need to add speed. As we’re seeing in the Stanley Cup Finals, even the Chicago Blackhawks are vulnerable to fast moving forward lines. Unless they can field at least one line where all three forwards are above average speed, they are going to have trouble getting any further into the playoffs than they did this year, even with the excellent play of the roster.

Click for parts one and two

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

It is no secret that Tyler Myers had a sensational rookie season. It is kind of hard not to notice a defenseman winning the Calder Trophy. It’s even harder when that lanky adolescent is compared to nearly every Norris trophy winner in the last quarter century. Unfortunately for pride of Houston Texas his career is currently on a Jonathan Cheechoo like trajectory. His point production has gone down each year of his career. Despite an enormous second contract he has been scratched twice already this season. In 12 games he has just 1 goal, and is a team worst minus nine, 30% worse than the next nearest player.

The question is what is to be done? A player who has the raw ability to walk into the NHL and win the Calder trophy especially as a defenseman, and then gets worse points to one of three things. The first is injury, which did happen, but after his sophomore season. The second is motivation, that is unfortunately not something that can really be measured unless a player comes into camp grossly out of shape and doesn’t participate in off ice conditioning. The third, is environment, specifically coaching.

The Buffalo Sabres have been a mediocre team for a full generation. The list of players they lost to free agency includes names like Danny Briere the point per playoff game stud, and trades the most recent of which was the indefensible dumping of Derek Roy for Ott,others you can name, and if you can’t Sabres fans can sing you their woe. Myers own mentor, now a Devil, is another one of those players lost to free agency or bad trades. So do the Sabres import a mentor for Myers? If Vishnovsky becomes available, is he the right guy for the job of reforming the Sabres “franchise” blueliner? Or maybe they make a move for a player like Kuba, or Girardi.

Or, is Myers in need of a fresh work address? Would exposure to John Carlson, Carl Alzner, and Roman Hamerlik be the cure for what ails him? Equally intriguing is what sort of player he could develop into if taken under the wing of guys like Pietreangelo, Chara, or hell, nearly all of the senior members of the Kings blueline. Rob Scuderi has won Cups in two very, very different systems, Drew Doughty is a phenomenal talent and still improving, Matt Greene too has the chops to help stabilize the tail spinning 22 year old.

Whatever is, wherever the repairs start, they need to find a way to get the youngsters confidence back in one way or another. They can start with his defensive work, or get him back in touch with the offensive abilities that so intrigued the NHL not long ago, and I leave that to whoever is lucky enough to work with him. The only must is a mentor.