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Top 14 defensemen excel at both ends of the ice

Friday, 09.05.2014 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's Top 14 in '14-15

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com

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Top 14 defensemen excel at both ends of the ice
Four NHL.com writers ranked the top defensemen in the game, and Drew Doughty edged out Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara for the top spot.

Who are the best 14 players in the NHL at each position as teams prepare for the start of the 2014-15 season? Arpon Basu, Brian Compton, Corey Masisak and Dan Rosen have cast their votes and the result is NHL.com's "Top 14 for '14-15" project. Each first-place vote is worth 14 points, each second-place vote is worth 13, continuing in descending order to each 14th-place vote being worth one. There are two tiebreakers. First, which player appeared on more ballots? Second, which player had the highest individual ranking? If the voting was exactly the same for each player, it was declared a tie. Does NHL.com's list match your rankings for the best players in the League entering the 2014-15 campaign?

The value of defensemen has long been the most difficult to assess properly because much of what a good defenseman does is not easily translated into statistics.

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty took the top spot on NHL.com's list of the League's best. (Photo: Getty Images)
While that still remains largely true today, the new world of advanced statistics has allowed certain defensemen who specialize in facing the opposing team's best players and making sure the puck spends as little time as possible in their own zone to get the recognition they deserve.

On the flip side, these new metrics have also exposed what has long been known as the "stay-at-home" defenseman as simply being a player that spends an inordinate amount of time defending while the opposing team plays with the puck.

The great majority of the 14 defensemen listed here excel at both ends of the ice, putting up offensive numbers while having the trust of their respective coaches to face top opposition and still find a way to control play.

The list shows how much the NHL values the ability to produce from the blue line, which in turn gives teams an added offensive boost at a time when scoring at even strength is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Of the 14 defensemen listed, all but one finished in the top 30 in scoring among defensemen last season, the lone exception being Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks.

Vlasic appears to be the closest thing on this list to a "stay-at-home" defenseman, but his advanced metrics show him to be an excellent possession driver who spends his time on the ice in the offensive zone more often than not.

The statistics generally considered to demonstrate a defenseman's ability are blocked shots and hits, yet only four of the players on this list were among the League's top 30 defensemen in blocked shots last season (Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Niklas Kronwall and Vlasic) and three were among the top 30 defensemen in hits (Weber, Drew Doughty and Zdeno Chara).

One reason for that might be that both blocked shots and hits only occur when that player's team does not have the puck, and these 14 defensemen are part of the elite because their team usually tends to have the puck when they are on the ice.

As difficult as it is to rank defenseman, the NHL.com voting of the final 14 was nearly unanimous, even if the order was not. There were just three defensemen who received a vote but did not make the final list.

Here is NHL.com's list of the top 14 defensemen in the NHL:
Drew Doughty

1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, 52 points (2 first-place votes)
2013-14: 10 goals, 37 points, 78 games played

None of Doughty's statistics, advanced or otherwise, jump off the page. He was 30th among NHL defensemen in scoring last season and his possession numbers, while strong, are not outstanding. But Doughty has played a central role in two Stanley Cup victories and two gold medal performances for Canada at the Olympics in the past four years, establishing himself as one of the top players in the NHL. All this before his 25th birthday. Scary.

Shea Weber

2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators, 51 points (1 first-place vote)
2013-14: 23 goals, 56 points, 79 games played

Weber has scored at least 15 goals in each of the six full NHL seasons he has played. His 129 goals scored during the past eight seasons are 25 more than the next closest defenseman in that span. In addition to that, Weber plays some of the most difficult minutes of any defenseman in the NHL, and he plays a lot of them.

Zdeno Chara

3. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins, 49 points (1 first-place vote)
2013-14: 17 goals, 40 points, 77 games played

Chara is like Bruins coach Claude Julien's 6-foot-9, 255-pound security blanket. A defensive-zone faceoff against the opposing team's top line? Send Chara. Big power play when you're down a goal? Send Chara. Need to kill a penalty while up a goal? Send Chara. Every year, we wait to find out if Father Time will catch up to Chara, who will turn 38 in March. Every year, we keep on waiting.

Duncan Keith

4. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks, 45 points
2013-14: 6 goals, 61 points, 79 games played

Keith is not Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's go-to defensive stopper, but there's a good reason for that. Quenneville prefers to give the 2014 Norris Trophy winner ample opportunity to produce on offense, and Keith takes full advantage. No NHL defenseman has more than the 286 points Keith has put up during the past six seasons, and his 55 assists last season were tops among defensemen and sixth in the NHL overall. Keith is also extremely durable, missing 18 games in his nine NHL seasons.

P.K. Subban

5. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens, 37 points
2013-14: 10 goals, 53 points, 82 games played

Subban has often been called the most polarizing player in the NHL. After his performance in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that should no longer be the case. Subban led the Canadiens in playoff scoring with 14 points in 17 games to help them reach the Eastern Conference Final, the second time they have reached the NHL's final four in his five years with the team. In 43 career playoff games Subban has 30 points, an 18.6-percent bump from his regular-season points-per-game average.

Erik Karlsson

6. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, 34 points
2013-14: 20 goals, 74 points, 82 games played

Karlsson is the NHL's most dominant offensive defenseman. It's that simple, and it's not debatable. Karlsson is second in points among defensemen since the start of his career in 2009-10 with 237, five behind Keith. Karlsson missed 31 of Ottawa's 48 games in 2012-13 with a lacerated Achilles tendon and he's played 49 fewer games than Keith over the past five seasons, yet he sits just five points back. No, Karlsson is not a defensive stopper in the traditional sense, but when he's on the ice the puck is often far, far away from his own net. So if offense is indeed the best defense, Karlsson's defense is consistently excellent.

Alex Pietrangelo

7. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues, 30 points
2013-14: 8 goals, 51 points, 81 games played

Pietrangelo is, in a sense, the ideal defenseman because he does everything well. He is not the best in the NHL in any given category or skill, but he's very close to the top in just about all of them. He is one of the League's best penalty killers while also being one of its top power-play specialists, he faces the toughest opposition on his team and plays the most minutes. Whatever Blues coach Ken Hitchcock needs, Pietrangelo provides in spades.

Ryan Suter

8. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild, 29 points
2013-14: 8 goals, 43 points, 82 games played

No one in the NHL has spent more time on the ice in the past two seasons than Suter, a stabilizing force on Wild coach Mike Yeo's defense. Much like Pietrangelo, Suter plays in all situations and faces the toughest competition on the opposing team. What's perhaps most revealing is the way Suter has helped his defense partner, Jonas Brodin, not only play that difficult role in his first two NHL seasons, but shine in doing so.

Mark Giordano

9. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames, 20 points
2013-14: 14 goals, 47 points, 64 games played

Perhaps no player in the NHL benefited from the advent of advanced statistics to show the merits of his game last season more than Giordano. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, there were nine Flames forwards who played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 with Giordano. All nine saw their Corsi-for percentage, measuring shot attempts for and against, plunge dramatically when they were on the ice without Giordano. The average drop was a whopping 11.1 percent. On top of that, Giordano had the third-highest points-per-game average among NHL defensemen, behind only Karlsson and Keith.

Victor Hedman

10. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning, 18 points
2013-14: 13 goals, 55 points, 75 games played

It took four years, but Tampa Bay was rewarded last season for selecting Hedman with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. Hedman finished fourth in scoring among defensemen last season, and his emergence as a top-flight blueliner was a major reason the Lightning stayed afloat while Steven Stamkos recovered from a broken leg that forced him to miss the bulk of the season. At age 23, there's no reason to believe the 6-foot-6, 233-pound defender will slow down.

Ryan McDonagh

11. Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers, 16 points
2013-14: 14 goals, 43 points, 77 games played

In his third full NHL season, McDonagh emerged as the Rangers' best defenseman and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994. McDonagh led the Rangers in playoff scoring with 17 points in 25 games, had a team-high seven points on the power play and played 26:48 per game. He turned 25 on June 13, the day the Rangers lost the fifth and deciding game of the Final to the Kings, so his breakout season was likely just a glimpse of things to come.

Jeff Skinner

12. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes, 16 points
2013-14: 15 goals, 44 points, 80 games played

Ekman-Larsson has become one of Coyotes coach Dave Tippett's most trusted defensemen. That trust does not come easily, particularly for a player who is 23 years old. He faced some of the League's toughest competition last season, started fewer than half of his shifts in the offensive zone and still finished 14th among NHL defensemen in points.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic

13. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks, 10 points
2013-14: 5 goals, 24 points, 81 games played

Prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it would have been fair to consider Vlasic among the most underrated players in the NHL. But playing alongside Doughty for Canada in Sochi showed the world what the people in San Jose have known for quite some time. Without producing eye-catching numbers, Vlasic has become one of the League's best puck-moving defensemen.

Niklas Kronwall

14. Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings, 10 points
2013-14: 8 goals, 49 points, 79 games played

When Nicklas Lidstrom retired after the 2011-12 season, there was good reason for Red Wings fans to be concerned. Lidstrom is one of the greatest defensemen of all time, but Kronwall has done as well as could be reasonably expected to fill the void he left behind. Kronwall is the NHL's seventh most productive defensemen since Lidstrom's departure two seasons ago, all the while maintaining his intimidating physical presence for forwards courageous enough to carry the puck over the blue line against him.

Others receiving votes: Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers (1 point); Jake Muzzin, Los Angeles Kings (1 point); Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks (1 point)

TOP 14 DEFENSEMEN (VOTING BREAKDOWN)
Arpon Basu
Brian Compton Corey Masisak
Dan Rosen
1. Doughty 1. Chara 1. Doughty 1. Weber
2. Weber 2. Weber 2. Chara 2. Doughty
3. Chara 3. Keith 3. Keith 3. Keith
4. Giordano 4. Doughty 4. Weber 4. Subban
5. Subban 5. Suter 5. Subban 5. Chara
6. Keith 6. Karlsson 6. Karlsson 6. Suter
7. Karlsson 7. Pietrangelo 7. Pietrangelo 7. Karlsson
8. Pietrangelo 8. Hedman 8. Hedman 8. Pietrangelo
9. Kronwall 9. Subban 9. Suter 9. McDonagh
10. Ekman-Larsson 10. McDonagh 10. Vlasic 10. Ekman-Larsson
11. Suter 11. Kronwall 11. Ekman-Larsson 11. Vlasic
12. McDonagh 12. Giordano 12. Giordano 12. Giordano
13. Hedman 13. Ekman-Larsson 13. McDonagh 13. Hedman
14. Vlasic 14. Seabrook 14. Muzzin 14. Campbell

Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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