The Top Defensive Pairings In The NHL


Goals are fun. You know what they say: chicks dig the long-ball bulging of the twine. I’m sure that scoring a goal at the NHL level is one of the funnest things you could possibly do (legally).

What’s not quite as glorious – but just as valuable in contributing to the effort of winning hockey games – is the act of preventing the puck from entering your own net. After all, a 1-0 win counts just as much as the 6-5 win. Remember, the ultimate objective of hockey is to score one more goal than you allow on any given night.

You don’t truly recognize the beauty, and importance, of a great two-way defenseman until you get to watch one on a regular basis. Then, everything changes and you’re left wondering how you slummed through all those days without one. What’s even better than that is when you can combine two defenseman of that ilk, to form a top defensive pairing. There’s comfort in knowing that you’re in good hands. 

Which teams (and individuals) benefited from this sort of chemistry? And how do they stack up against each other?

Read Past the Jump for More.

If you’re still not convinced of the importance of quality defensemen, look no further than events such as the trading deadline, the entry draft, and July 1st. Not to excuse Jay Feaster’s incompetence, but it’s this very allure which causes General Managers to give someone like Dennis Wideman $26.25 million. It’s also what provokes GMs into selecting defensemen with high draft picks, even though it has proven over time not to be the wisest of moves. Yet Jay Feaster types will continue to go back to the well, in the hopes of striking gold.

The Criteria

What sort of criteria can we use to justify placing the label of "top pairing" on a pair of blueliners? The defensemen we have included in the discussion fit the following mold:

a) They log a boatload of minutes, preferably with a handful of them coming with their team being shorthanded.

b) They do the ‘heavy lifting’ for their team. That means that they play against the toughest opposition, whilst not having the luxury of being sheltered thanks to a high percentage of offensive zone starts. That sound you just heard was Marc-Andre Bergeron closing his web browser.

c) They drive play for their team. They are proficient at breaking out of their own end, helping their team get into desirable positions in the attacking zone.

d) They’re at least somewhat of a two-way threat. They can’t be a liability in the offensive zone. That’s not to say that they have to be Mike Green circa 2009, but they still need to be capable. It’s just not your time yet, Mr.Tanev.

And it’s just an added luxury if they happen to be playing on a team-friendly contract, going above and beyond their salary. But if they’re this good at their job, chances are that they aren’t missing too many meals. That wasn’t a Dustin Byfuglien joke, I swear.

Back in May, Robert Vollman analyzed the numbers from this past season, in an attempt to find out who the best pairings were. Below, is a little visual that he used to display the offensive zone start percentage, and quality of competition, of the men who can lay claim to being on the "top pairing" for their particular team.

The Numbers

In an attempt to paint an even clearer picture, though, I went through the trouble of compiling a few more stats that prove to be relevant in this argument. Unfortunately, you’ll have to settle for a chart that isn’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the one Vollman provided us with. It’s the Antti Niemi of charts – it’s not all that pretty, but it sure gets the job done.

So what kind of conclusion can we draw from the numbers? There are obviously names in that list that you’d expect to see, but there are also some names in there that you wouldn’t necessarily thought of initially:

Dion Phaneuf (who has managed to re-invent himself as a defensively reliable defenseman the past two seasons in Toronto), PK Subban (who is doing remarkable things for a 23-year old defenseman, yet gets scrutinized like no one else), Sheldon Souray (who I thought was done), Carlo Colaiacovo (who was anything but the ‘offensive defenseman’ you probably think of him as), and the tandem of Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin (who were easily the best things to happen to Columbus last season, yet no one seems to care).

The Very Best

Interestingly enough, some of the best pairings on this list were split up this summer. Suter, Garrison, Souray, Kuba, and Colaiacovo all switched teams via free agency, while Nicklas Lidstrom rode off into the sunset. In fact, the two best pairings in the league – Suter/Weber, and McDonagh/Girardi – likely won’t be playing together this season.

It’s pretty clear that those two pairings were on a world of their own last season. What they managed to accomplish was pretty remarkable, all across the board. After that, there is a fairly well defined tier of pairings spots 3 through 7, and then there’s the rest (which we don’t care about). Maybe they should play a little better, and then we’ll care.

Purely in terms of value, Nikitin/Tyutin and Gorges/Subban need to be in the discussion. Subban should be getting a substantial raise in pay as an RFA, but he’ll likely more than earn his contract, regardless of what the Canadiens give him. As for Nikitin and Tyutin, it’s remarkable that they’re making over $3 million per year less than teammates Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski. You don’t need to look further than that in an attempt to explain what’s wrong with Columbus.

When debating between the merits of the other three pairings, you need to figure out what it is that you value most. If it’s completely unprovoked flying elbows, then Keith is your man. If you want a tandem that is tremendously solid across the board, but may be lacking the mind-blowing upside of some other pairs, then your guys are in Vancouver.

And that brings us to Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, who are the most interesting pairing of the bunch. They are quite the oddball pairing – Enstrom has quietly been one of the more productive defensemen in the NHL ever since he came to the league as an 8th rounder back in ’07, whilst Byfuglien has routinely fallen under scrutiny for his weight (rightfully so), but has been a revelation since his move to the back-end.

The only knock against them in this discussion has to do with how Claude Noel chose to deploy them last season. Unlike most of the other players on the list, they weren’t relied upon to go up against the toughest of opposition. And then there’s also the fact that they played relatively favourable minutes, starting a larger number of shifts in the offensive zone.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the results. They have remarkably strong possession numbers – their Corsi numbers actually blow away the rest of the competition – and they’re amongst the very best when it comes to racking up the points. Nearly everything the Jets do goes through them, and you don’t need to look further than their ice-time totals to see how much they are relied upon.

The Winnipeg Jets have plenty of things that they need to shore up if they wish to make the playoffs for the first time since ’07, but what they have currently working for them is one of the five best defensive pairings in the entire NHL.