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 on the penalty kill. 

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 initally:

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 that made 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 for 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 the Blue Jackets pairing, 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 stellar offensive production, but a pairing that hasn’t shown that they can handle the full burden of the ‘heavy lifting’, then you’re likely to be drawn towards Big Buffy and his underrated Swedish compadre.

And that finally brings us to the tandem of Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, who are the most complete duo of the bunch. They’re both strong defensemen in their own right, but since they have been paired together, they have taken their games to a different level. As Thomas Drance wrote back in June, they complement each other perfectly, and they have a "symbiotic type of chemistry".

They play against the other team’s best players, log large chunks of ice time, and thrive in the possession game, routinely pinning the other team in their own zone. The last point is incredibly valuable to the success of the Canucks; the more often that it happens, the more often the opposing coach and players are thinking "good god, that’s the Sedins’ music!" 

Essentially, they do exactly everything that you’re looking for from your top pairing. They’re not quite Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but that’s okay. They very well could be the best pairing in the entire league heading into next season.