Kris Russell finally signed. The Oilers received next to nothing for first-overall pick Nail Yakupov, but clearly Peter Chiarelli felt he was expendable in order to shore up the defense, especially after it became clear to them that Griffin Reinhart couldn’t play a regular top-six role. Under Chiarelli, the Oilers defense seems vastly improved, at least on paper, but how much will it move the needle? Oh, and Kris Russell finally signed.
That said, it’s just a couple more days before the puck finally drops on the 2016-17 season Wednesday, and many of the rosters are taking shape. Defense is a funny thing, as having the best six guys on the blue line doesn't always translate to having the most successful defensive unit.
For the purpose of ranking each team’s defensive group, the following metrics will be used:
GA60 = Goals Against per 60 Minutes
SA60 = Shots Against per 60 Minutes
CF% = Corsi For Percentage
DZFO% = Percentage of Face-offs in the Defensize Zone
Sv% = Save Percentage
PDO = Shooting Percentage + Save Percentage, with a norm of 100 meant to replicate puck luck
(All stats compiled are only for 5v5 situations from the 2015-16 season. Stick tap to stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Season ranks are in brackets. Blue denotes top 10, Red denotes bottom 10.)
Without further ado, here’s the Blue Line Buzz team rankings to get you started.
1. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings ranked in the top five in just about every category, including first in GA60, CF% and DZFO%. Translation: their defense was fantastic in just about every aspect, from limiting shots to excellent goaltending and sustaining offensive pressure so that they never have to spend much time in their own zone.
2. Washington Capitals
This is a team that ranked in the top 10 in most defensive metrics despite having John Carlson for just 56 games, thanks to a strong supporting cast. Dmitry Orlov, in particular, is a skilled defensemen poised for a breakout season.
3. St. Louis Blues
The Blues took 33.5 percent of their faceoffs in their own zone, which is an oddity for a team that has some excellent puck movers. That will change with Mike Yeo helping behind the bench, placing an emphasis on speed to create turnovers and allow the Blues to counter quickly with their snipers. The Blues’ second-ranked GA60 was buoyed by a fourth-ranked Sv%, numbers that Jake Allen alone may not be able to manage.
4. Nashville Predators
By all accounts, the Predators should’ve been one of the better defenses in the league last year, but Pekka Rinne wasn’t his usual self and what should’ve been a top-five defense was sunk by a 22nd-ranked even-strength save percentage. Swapping Shea Weber and P.K. Subban adds more offense than defense, but Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis may be the best second pairing in the league.
5. Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago will reap huge benefits if Duncan Keith can stay healthy after playing a career-low 67 games. They addressed their lack of depth by adding Brian Campbell, which should vault Chicago’s defense from middle-of-the-pack last year back to elite status. The third pair might be a problem, but Michal Kempny has looked quite good so far.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins ranked fifth in Sv%, thanks to outstanding seasons from Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, but they’re smart to add additional depth. The key to Pittsburgh’s defense is the continuing improvement of Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta, both of whom are just scratching the surface of their potential. If Kris Letang stays healthy and the team continues to commit to Mike Sullivan’s uptempo style, their best defense would be a good offense.
7. San Jose Sharks
As good as Martin Jones was, their even-strength save percentage ranked just 18th. What the Sharks were very good at, however, was limiting the number of shots on net, allowing a league-best 25.8 shots per game while ranking in the top 10 in most other defensive metrics. Adding David Schlemko might also be one of the most underrated moves of the summer.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman is a beast. It’s hard to imagine where Tampa's defense would be without him, because after Anton Stralman, the quality takes a nosedive with Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn -- two guys that are tough to play against but don’t drive puck possession. Slater Koekkoek and Nikita Nesterov could emerge as top-four defensemen, but what really helps Tampa’s defense are their strong two-way forwards.
9. Minnesota Wild
Minnesota’s defense is one of the league’s most underrated, and that starts with Ryan Suter, who is usually left out of the Norris Trophy conversation despite often leading the league in minutes and finishing with a negative plus-minus just once in his career. Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and Mike Reilly represent a pretty bright future. The challenge with this team is their ability to score goals.
10. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks defense remains in flux with Hampus Lindholm still unsigned and too many bodies vying for roster spots. On paper, the defense looks excellent, but with a new coach and still so many moving parts before the season opens, it could be hard to replicate what they accomplished last year. They were among the Pacific Division’s top three teams last year, but are in danger of dropping off with an aging core.
11. Montreal Canadiens
Year One of the Shea Weber era is about to begin, but even without him the Habs defense has generally held their own. What ultimately killed their season was an injury to Carey Price, which led to their even-strength save percentage ranking 24th. However, Weber, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, the emerging Nathan Beaulieu and rookie Mikhail Sergachev form quite a formidable defensive corps.
12. New York Islanders
Adding Dennis Seidenberg on a short-term, low-risk deal was a good move, giving them a well-rounded group. Despite starting in their own zone just 31.2 percent of the time (10th best in the league), the Islanders weren’t very good at preventing offensive chances. That should change as their young blue line continues to improve.
13. Dallas Stars
The Stars were a disaster on defense, allowing 2.34 GA60, 25th in the league despite allowing the 12th fewest SA60 and spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, thanks to some poor goaltending. That should improve and adding Dan Hamhuis should help, but question marks remain until the puck drops.
14. Calgary Flames
The Flames’ goaltending at even strength was by far the worst in the league last year, but they’ve found their guy in Brian Elliott, who has traditionally been very good 5-on-5. With added confidence in their new goalie, the talented Flames blue line should be much improved, though Dennis Wideman’s play continues to trend downward.
15. New York Rangers
The Rangers continue to live and die with Henrik Lundqvist. Despite allowing close to 30 shots per game and posting poor possession numbers, the Rangers still managed to rank second in Sv% and fourth in GA60. The defense is aging – Dan Girardi is 32 and Marc Staal is 29 – but Brady Skjei looks like the next coming of Ryan McDonagh.
16. Ottawa Senators
Having Erik Karlsson simply isn’t enough. A full season of Dion Phaneuf should help, while Cody Ceci and Chris Wideman will try and push the pace, but here’s hoping new head coach Guy Boucher can add more defensive structure. The goaltending was good, but the defense allowed far too many shots.
17. Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg will absorb a significant blow to their blue line is they're forced to move Jacob Trouba. The Jets will be relying on Mark Stuart, Brian Strait, Paul Postma and possibly rookie Josh Morrissey on two of the three pairings, which doesn’t breed a lot of confidence. You almost wish the Jets could siphon some of their offensive talent to the blue line.
18. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes are an advanced stats darling because nearly every single one of their defensemen drive possession, but were undone by some horrific goaltending. Quietly, Ron Francis has assembled a group with a lot of intriguing upside, with Noah Hanifin potentially taking a huge step this year. I may be in the minority on this, but they could sneak into the playoffs if the goaltending holds.
19. Florida Panthers
Goaltending was a strong suit for Florida, but it’s tough to see where the defense has improved. Aaron Ekblad is a gem, but Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson are gone. Keith Yandle and Jason Demers are nice additions, but really they’re banking on good goaltending.
20. Detroit Red Wings
It’s pretty shocking that Brendan Smith was rated as the team’s best defenseman last year, considering his penchant for some pretty poor decisions. The Wings maintained decent possession numbers throughout the season, but were undone by their inability to block shots, making it difficult for their goaltenders to deliver consistently good performances. Without Nicklas Lidstrom, that defense has simply been average.
21. Arizona Coyotes
They allowed 2.98 goals per game last year, much of that due to an atrocious penalty kill. But thanks to John Chayka, they’ve brought in several reinforcements. Imagine how much they can improve this year with possession beast Alex Goligoski and stay-at-home Luke Schenn playing behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
22. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks were decimated by injuries last year; Alex Edler played just 52 games while Luca Sbisa played just 41, and the team depended on rookie Ben Hutton far too much. It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade Erik Gudbranson is over Dan Hamhuis, but they may have found another rookie gem in Troy Stecher and having a healthy Brandon Sutter should also help things out.
23. Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock poked a little fun at himself when he said that like any other coach he needs talented players to execute plays for his system to work. The good news is that Morgan Rielly was brilliant at the World Cup, and new import Nikita Zaitsev should improve the team’s overall depth. Goaltending, tied for 24th at even strength last year, should also be much improved with Frederik Andersen.
24. Buffalo Sabres
Assuming Rasmus Ristolainen gets re-signed, the Sabres as a whole should improve with the addition of Dmitry Kulikov. Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges are proven players, but both need to stay healthy because there’s a lack of quality depth beyond the regulars, and should there be any injuries they will be relying on minor league journeymen.
25. Boston Bruins
Banking on Zdeno Chara again is to play a dangerous game, and even with Patrice Bergeron’s defensive prowess, team defense remains a question mark. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Tuukka Rask is due for a bounce-back season after posting the worst save percentage of his career. Otherwise, one of Kevan Miller, Colin Miller, Adam McQuaid or rookie Brandon Carlo will have to step up in a big way.
26. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers defense ranked among the league’s worst based on just about every metric out there, and before anyone discusses Adam Larsson’s potential impact, it’s worth noting that he wasn’t a very good possession player in New Jersey. Defense is not the team’s strong suit, but Larsson, Kris Russell, Andrej Sekera, Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson are quite a group of shot-blockers.
27. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers masked a leaky, immobile defense that continues to employ Andrew MacDonald, Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto with surprisingly good goaltending, but made no effort to bolster their blue line. Instead, they’ll be counting on rookie Ivan Provorov to make significant contributions, and note that Shayne Gostisbehere’s defense was only average.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella’s stock has never been lower, but Seth Jones, Ryan Murray and Zach Werenski are excellent building blocks. The problem is that they will continue to rely on Jack Johnson, and banking on three young players to turn the franchise around doesn't always work. It’s worth noting that they were second last in even-strength save percentage, which should be vastly improved with a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky.
29. New Jersey Devils
The Devils defense is somewhat of an anomaly. Despite not having a single defenseman who drove possession, the shot-blocking prowess of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene managed to keep the Devils’ defense ranked eighth in total shots against and total goals allowed. Even with a few new players, they’ll only go as far as Cory Schneider takes them. They might be the only team that has no defensemen worth owning in fantasy leagues.
30. Colorado Avalanche
Under Patrick Roy, the Avalanche just weren’t a very good possession team. As good as Tyson Barrie is, he’s not known for his defensive play, and so they’ll have to rely once again on the aging Francois Beauchemin, an unspectacular Erik Johnson and a carousel of cast-offs and unpolished rookies for depth. In a tough Central Division, the immediate future doesn't look that bright in Denver.