It’s no secret that the Metro will be one of the strongest divisions in the NHL this season, and likely going forward. With eight teams now in a position to battle for one of the three division playoff spots, as well as contending for a wild card position, we’ll take a look at each teams’ defensive group and see how they stack up with the rest of the division.
In this ranking, we’re going to take into account a few different statistics. We’re going to look at point shares, which we covered in the ranking of goaltending tandems across the division, as well as offensive contribution, and possession analytics.
We’ll also look at games played, since there is such a learning curve for defensemen when they make the NHL. Defensemen notably take a much longer time to develop to be NHL caliber, so it’s expected that a team with a bunch of young, inexperienced talent will have an adjustment period to start the season.
With that being said, let’s hop right into the rankings.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets lost star talent in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency this summer, but their defensive corps is staying the same as it was most of last season. The Jackets boast one of the best defensive pairings in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, as well as a very good second pairing in Ryan Murray and David Savard. Overall, a lot of pressure is going to be put on the defensive group in Columbus, due to the loss of top-end scoring and the loss of an elite goaltender to free agency.
The Blue Jackets come in with the highest totals in the division for point shares and points contributed by their blueline group. They’re top three in Relative Corsi For percentage, assists, and goals. Overall, they’re a very strong group that’ll be relied upon heavily in John Tortorella’s defense-first system.
2. Washington Capitals
The Capitals slot in as the second strongest defensive corps in the Metro. The Capitals have a solid mix of offensive-minded defensemen in John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, as well as more defensive minded players in Michal Kempny and Radko Gudas. Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler help round out the group in terms of solid two-way defensemen, who are strong skaters and help break the puck out of their defensive zone.
On top of that, the Capitals added forwards that help suppress shots against, so this defensive corps may look even better than it did a season ago. It also helps that John Carlson has contributed greatly to the Capitals’ offense last season. In terms of depth, you’ll likely have Christian Djoos or Tyler Lewington as your seventh defenseman, so you’ll have options in case of injury.
One thing to keep an eye on is the play of Nick Jensen. In Detroit last season, he had much stronger analytical metrics, posting a 1.1 Relative Corsi For percentage and a 2.2 Relative Fenwick For percentage. After he came over to the Caps, it was clear that he struggled in the possession analytics side of the house, posting a -9.3 and -8.4 relative possession percentages respectively. This may be due to a learning curve in Todd Reirden’s defensive system, or had more to do with the fact he was paired most of the season with Brooks Orpik.
Also, keep an eye on Dmitry Orlov this season. He’ll need to have a bounce-back season after spending the entire year on a pairing with Matt Niskanen. He’ll need to develop chemistry with Nick Jensen, or else there will be a lot of shuffling on the back-end for the Caps.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes are another team that have a really strong top pairing in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Slavin especially emerged as a very good to elite defenseman in the 2019 NHL Playoffs, and was matched up against the top scoring lines for each of their opponents in their playoff run. He really rose to the occasion, and it’s looking like he has one of the best contracts in the league when compared to his peers.
The Hurricanes also have a ton of NHL caliber depth. This rating didn’t even take into account Trevor van Riemsdyk, who seems to be the odd man out on the right side of their defensive corps. They also have some top tier defensive prospects like Jake Bean waiting in the wings. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Carolina raising to the top of the ratings for defensive corps by the end of the season, and it’s arguably already there.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers made a focused effort this off-season to improve their defensive group. It’s clear that Chuck Fletcher wanted to acquire more veterans to pair with their promising youngsters, like Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov. Expect Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to fill those spots, to be the steady partner in their pairings with their more offensively minded young stars in the making. Ivan Provorov will be really interesting to see with a more defensively responsible partner. It seems that Niskanen will be slotting in there.
It’ll be interesting to see how Justin Braun fits in here. He had really weak possession numbers on a strong possession team in San Jose. We’ll have to see if it was just made to look worse because he was on such a good puck possession team, or if he’s truly a possession black hole.
5. New Jersey Devils
The Devils in general were already going to be an exciting team to watch after selecting Jack Hughes first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, and then they went out and acquired PK Subban. Subban will give the Devils a top tier quarterback for their power play, and overall raises the caliber of the Devils’ defensive group. The Devils have a nice mix of veterans and young players looking to live up to their potential. Will Butcher and Damon Severson are some guys to keep an eye on this season.
Overall, it’s pretty interesting that the Devils’ defensive group ended up second overall in possession analytics, considering they were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season. With improvements made up front, the Devils should be able to improve greatly this season.
6. New York Islanders
The Islanders’ defensive corps is likely better on the ice than they are in these rankings. They have a really strong defensive team in general, and that resulted in the Islanders going from last overall in goals allowed in 2017-18 to first overall in 2018-19. Devon Toews, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield ended up with the best possession stats on the team, and they have a couple of decent (but declining) defensemen in Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk.
The Islanders have one of the better goaltending tandems in the Metro, so they’ll likely be helped out a bit there defensively again. There will be a drop off from Robin Lehner’s performance last season to Semyon Varlamov, but the Islanders’ defensive system is still one of the strongest in the NHL.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins
If the Penguins struggle this season, it’ll be their defensive group that’ll be at the heart of those struggles. They have an elite top pairing in Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, but after that is just a lineup filled with question marks. A third pairing of Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson looks weak on paper, and who knows how it’ll turn out for the Penguins this season. That being said, Gudbranson looked like a completely different player after he came over from the Canucks in a trade for Tanner Pearson. Gudbranson certainly upped his game, which makes Jim Rutherford’s strategy for acquiring him look much less puzzling. Gudbranson still likely isn’t worth his $4M cap hit, but if he can be a replacement level player, the Penguins will be happy.
The question going forward for the Penguins will be how they keep their forward group together with nearly $8M in cap going to Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. Mike Sullivan and the Penguins are likely going to lean on their top two pairings heavily this season.
8. New York Rangers
The Rangers certainly improved this off-season in the trade market, free agency, and the draft. By acquiring Jacob Trouba, they solidified a strong top pairing in Brady Skjei and Trouba. Overall though, they have a lot of young players and rookies looking to be in their starting lineup, and with that, a lot of questions arise about how they’ll perform. They still have long time Ranger Marc Staal in a significant role, which will likely hurt them. He’s not a good possession player, and routinely is on the ice for more shots against than shots for. He also doesn’t contribute offensively.
The biggest question for the Rangers here is if Adam Fox, Libor Hajek, and Anthony DeAngelo play at a high level this season. If they play well and are used substantially in the lineup, expect the Rangers to be much better than they were last season.
By Justin Trudel