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8 Debate: Chara tops Weber among best defensemen

Friday, 03.22.2013 / 10:30 AM / 8 Debate

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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8 Debate: Chara tops Weber among best defensemen
NHL.com and NHL Network look at the NHL's best with their ranking of the top eight defensemen. The top three hold their places by a wide margin.

It is an argument that inspires passion in every rink, sports bar and living room where hockey is being played or is on the television. It can incite elevated heart rates in person and long discussion threads on the Internet.

Who is the best?

NHL.com and NHL Network gathered 10 writers and television personalities and asked that very question. Each was asked to rank their top eight in eight categories -- centers, left wings, right wings, defensemen, goalies, coaches, general managers and guys who wore the No. 8 sweater.

The voting, which took place for all eight segments in mid-February, is complete and the points have been tallied. Here is our answer to the simple question, who are the best in the NHL?

Zdeno Chara
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 14
SOG: 65 | +/-: 14
After three weeks of discussing the top forwards in the League, it's time to turn the attention to dissecting the defensemen. Judging the top players at this position can be tricky and likely to be a little more subjective than the others. How much should offensive numbers be rewarded? How well can someone's defensive prowess in a team sport where the "ball" isn't round and bounces all over the place be quantified?

There have been some great advancements in assessing defense in hockey, and therefore defensemen, but not everyone in the sport has been willing to accept these new ways of looking at things. This list of top eight defensemen as voted by our panel is an interesting mix of players who excel by "old-school" metrics and new ones.

One who probably could still make this list even though he hasn't played since last spring is Nicklas Lidstrom, who retired after the 2011-12 season. His void means there are three active players who have a Norris Trophy on their resume. A new generation of elite defensemen is forming, and this list could look drastically different in three years.

As noted in the intro, this voting was done in mid-February. That is vitally important information for this week's list. Votes were cast before Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson was lost for the rest of the season because of an Achilles injury.

Here are the voting results. Note: A player received eight points for a first-place vote, seven for a second and so forth to one point for an eighth-place ranking (number of first-place votes in parenthesis).

1. Zdeno Chara (5 first-place votes) -- 71 points

8 Debate: Defensemen voting results

  • 1. Zdeno Chara (5) -- 71 points
  • 2. Shea Weber -- 63 points
  • 3. Erik Karlsson (3) -- 62 points
  • 4. Alex Pietrangelo -- 36 points
  • 5. Duncan Keith (1) -- 35 points
  • 6. Drew Doughty (1) -- 27 points
  • 7. Kris Letang -- 18 points
  • 8. Ryan Suter -- 16 points

Others receiving votes: Andrei Markov (8), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (6), Dan Boyle (6), Niklas Kronwall (4), Alex Edler (3), Dan Girardi (2), Dustin Byfuglein (2), Kevin Shattenkirk (1)

Chara is a unique player in NHL history. Obviously his 6-foot-9 height plays a huge part, but his skating ability and skill level are unmatched among other tall players. The Boston Bruins captain is one of the best shutdown defenders in the League, and he consistently wins hardest-shot contests at NHL All-Star games.

The Norris Trophy winner in 2009, he's a matchup problem for opposing coaches because Boston's Claude Julien has no problem letting him play half the game. Chara is basically the NHL's version of a shutdown cornerback who takes away one side of the playing surface.

"He's still the best," NHL.com staff writer Dave Lozo said. "He's offensively skilled, the best defender and the best overall on the blue line. I thought Karlsson deserved the Norris last season, but Chara is obviously the tougher defender. And while we voted before this season got going, I think we're seeing how much [Shea] Weber is hurting with the loss of Ryan Suter to Minnesota. Did you see the goal Chara scored against Florida this year? He can do it all."

2. Shea Weber -- 63

It is telling that Weber did not receive a single first-place vote but did end up second on eight of the 10 ballots. First, it is clear Weber is a franchise defenseman. Second, he is not quite Chara. They do many of the same things well. The Nashville Predators captain also has a booming slap shot. He is also a great individual defender.

Weber is actually a more physical player more consistently -- Chara can be a physical terror when he wants to be, but Weber is one almost all the time. Alas, Chara has the one thing that can't be taught: He's 5 inches taller and has a longer reach. Even on an offensively challenged team this season, Weber is producing and driving possession against top competition.

"Weber is elite. No one is denying that," NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen said. "But he's not as dominant on a consistent level as Zdeno Chara. That's why he is No. 2. If Chara didn't exist, I don't think anybody would hesitate to put Weber as No. 1 on this list. But Chara does exist, and he is the best defenseman in the NHL, so there's only one spot for Weber and that's at No. 2. It's not a knock on Weber, either, because very few blueliners in NHL history have what Chara has."

3. Erik Karlsson (3) -- 62

Karlsson had an amazing offensive season in 2011-12 and capped it with a Norris Trophy. He was a unique winner in that he was not a penalty killer, which has always been considered a requirement for an elite all-around defenseman. Karlsson did help his team dominate at even strength and on the power play, and it was enough for voters to pick him.

This season, Karlsson might have been even better before his injury. He puts shots on net better than any defenseman, and some of those concerns about his two-way ability could be eased when coach Paul MacLean used him regularly on the PK.

 

"Karlsson finished first in scoring by defensemen by a margin not seen since the days of Paul Coffey," NHL.com columnist John Kreiser said. "He devours minutes, controls and moves the puck, runs the power play, and makes everyone else on the ice better when he's out there."

4. Alex Pietrangelo -- 36

Before the end of last season, Pietrangelo was often mentioned as "the most underrated defenseman in the League." He's been properly rated as the No. 1 defenseman for a St. Louis Blues team that has returned to Stanley Cup contender status.

Pietrangelo is big (6-foot-3, 205), skates well, consumes large amounts of minutes against top competition and plays in all situations. If a team can't have a Chara or Weber (there are few physical players capable of No. 1 minutes left), then Pietrangelo is the prototype of the modern, two-way defenseman.

"Pietrangelo took a major step forward last season and was a major reason the Blues emerged as the Central Division champions," Kreiser said. "He thrived under Ken Hitchcock after the Blues changed coaches, and he still has plenty of upside."

5. Duncan Keith (1) -- 35

The third player on this list who has won the Norris Trophy, he has been as instrumental in the Chicago Blackhawks' success in the past five years as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Keith's offensive numbers dipped in the two seasons after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, but he's been a standout in 2012-13 as the team has again established itself as one of the favorites.

"I think he fell off in 2010-11 because of his workload leading up to that season," Lozo said. "2009 was his first postseason trip and he played 17 games. When they won the Cup, he played 22 games. After that, it was the Olympics and all the pressure and energy that's required there. He didn't play overseas during the work stoppage, and I think that helped him get rejuvenated for this season."

6. Drew Doughty (1) -- 27

Drew Doughty
Defense - LAK
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 12
SOG: 73 | +/-: 0
Doughty had a monster sophomore season in 2009-10 and was a Norris finalist as a 20-year-old. The next two seasons were not as productive, but he was fantastic in the 2012 playoffs and helped the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup.

Like Pietrangelo, Doughty has the coveted combination of size (6-foot-1, 208), skating ability and offensive IQ. This season, his production started slowly, but bad luck is clearly a factor there. He is still an elite No. 1 defenseman and should be for years to come.

"It's been an odd build for Doughty, who was great when he started out then hit a lull but flourished in the playoffs," Rosen said. "I think he's slotted just about right, although I had him at No. 5 because of how he played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year and what he's doing this year playing tougher minutes against some better players because of the injuries to Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. Doughty still has upside because he's going to develop into a better defender and perhaps even a more lethal offensive threat."

7. Kris Letang -- 18

With Karlsson out, Letang has inherited the role of offensive pacesetter in 2012-13. Like Karlsson, Letang is not big (6-foot, 201), but he is also underrated defensively. In a game dominated by dump-and-chase tendencies, Letang is one of the best defensemen at chasing down dump-ins and igniting a counterattack with a quick, precise first pass.

He's also able to jump into the offensive play and recover because of his elite skating ability, and combining his offensive instincts with the lethal weapons up front for the Pittsburgh Penguins could mean an even better point-per-game average this season than Karlsson had in 2011-12.

"Letang, not Crosby or Malkin, is the one guy the Penguins can't be without for too long," Kreiser said. "He plays 25 minutes a night, makes the offense go, and has become more responsible in his own zone as he matures. The Penguins have to keep him healthy -- he missed 31 games last season."

8. Ryan Suter -- 16

Ryan Suter
Defense - MIN
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 24
SOG: 49 | +/-: -2
How Suter would fare without his old buddy Weber in Nashville was one of the biggest storylines at the position entering this season. Suter scuffled at the start of the campaign, but he has settled in and the Minnesota Wild have surged to the top of the Northwest Division. He is one of the best skaters in the League and might be the best power-play architect at the position.

"There are a lot of good defensemen in the NHL, but I'm pretty sure that over the last few weeks we've seen why Ryan Suter belongs way higher than No. 8 on the list," Rosen said. "He's a rare game-breaking defenseman in that he can play in a shutdown role but also spark a team with his offensive skill. All you have to look at is how much better the Wild have been playing since Suter starting showing signs of being comfortable in Minnesota. There's a reason why the Nashville Predators were bitter when Suter left; yes it had to do with the fact that he left them, but more to the point they know he is pretty much irreplaceable."

Others receiving votes: Andrei Markov (8), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (6), Dan Boyle (6), Niklas Kronwall (4), Alex Edler (3), Dan Girardi (2), Dustin Byfuglein (2), Kevin Shattenkirk (1).

Among the defensemen who just missed are a collection of veterans, but also young players who could rise on this type of list in the future. Edler has emerged as the No. 1 on a talented blueline in Vancouver, and Shattenkirk has flashed elite offensive ability as No. 2 in St. Louis.

The one player who probably deserves mention as someone rapidly moving up people's rankings is Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. He basically inherited the "most underrated" label from Pietrangelo and is ready to pass it along to someone else. "OEL" might be a Norris Trophy finalist this season and could be in the mix for the award many times in the future.

"I think he was forgotten about because when you think Phoenix defensemen, the first thought is Keith Yandle and then you don't go deeper," Lozo said. "He's definitely arrived this year after a really good 2011-12 season."

TOP 8 DEFENSEMEN (VOTING BREAKDOWN)
Brian Compton
NHL.com
Dave Lozo
NHL.com
John Kreiser
NHL.com
Corey Masisak
NHL.com
Shawn Roarke
NHL.com
1. Chara 1. Chara 1. Karlsson 1. Chara 1. Karlsson
2. Weber 2. Weber 2. Weber 2. Weber 2. Weber
3. Karlsson 3. Pietrangelo 3. Chara 3. Pietrangelo 3. Chara
4. Doughty 4. Karlsson 4. Letang 4. Keith 4. Suter
5. Keith 5. Keith 5. Pietrangelo 5. Doughty 5. Pietrangelo
6. Pietrangelo 6. Boyle 6. Suter 6. Letang 6. Ekman-Larsson
7. Letang 7. Doughty 7. Boyle 7. Karlsson 7. Keith
8. Ekman-Larsson 8. Girardi 8. Shattenkirk 8. Girardi 8. Boyle
Dan Rosen
NHL.com
E.J. Hradek
NHL Network
Mike Johnson
NHL Network
Barry Melrose
NHL Network
Kevin Weekes
NHL Network
1. Chara 1. Doughty 1. Keith 1. Chara 1. Karlsson
2. Weber 2. Karlsson 2. Weber 2. Karlsson 2. Chara
3. Karlsson 3. Chara 3. Chara 3. Keith 3. Keith
4. Suter 4. Weber 4. Karlsson 4. Markov 4. Weber
5. Doughty 5. Pietrangelo 5. Pietrangelo 5. Weber 5. Doughty
6. Pietrangelo 6. Suter 6. Letang 6. Kronwall 6. Edler
7. Letang 7. Letang 7. Markov 7. Pietrangelo 7. Byfuglien
8. Markov 8. Ekman-Larsson 8. Kronwall 8. Ekman-Larsson 8. Letang

Quote of the Day

It's pretty crazy, but believe me when I say we didn't draft these players with the mindset we had to because they had good hockey-playing dads. It just turned out that way. But we're certainly glad they're a part of our organization.

— Arizona Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt regarding the coincidence that six of the organization's top prospects are sons of former NHL players