Assessing Metropolitan Division Defenses For 2020-21 Season

Metropolitan Division teams made big changes this offseason, with several significant moves coming on defense. Last month, NoVa Caps looked at Metropolitan Division goalie tandems. Now, it’s time to examine the eight teams’ projected defenses for the 2020-21 NHL season and see how they stack up.

Carolina Hurricanes

Projected Lineup

Jaccob Slavin — Dougie Hamilton

Hayden Fleury — Brett Pesce

Jake Gardiner — Jake Bean

Other options: Joakim Ryan, Roland McKeown, Brady Skjei

The Hurricanes had some turnover in their blueline this offseason as they lost Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Joel Edmundson in free agency, and perhaps Sami Vatanen too. However, they have some talented young blueliners in their system in Fleury, who posted a 53.57% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.01% expected goals-for percentage in 45 NHL games last season, and Bean, who posted 10 goals, 48 points, and a -6 rating in 59 games with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers last season.

The Hurricanes also brought in Ryan in free agency after he posted a respectable 52.32% Corsi-for percentage and a 54.98% expected goals-for percentage in 35 games with the Los Angeles Kings last season.

They have one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL in Slavin, who recorded a 55.47% Corsi-for percentage and a 55.39% expected goals-for percentage last season, and Hamilton, who posted a 58.1% Corsi-for percentage and a 58.72% expected goals-for percentage in 47 games and was a contender for the Norris Trophy during the 2019-20 season before breaking his left tibia on January 16. The two combined for a 56.2% expected goals-for percentage when together last season.

Pesce recorded a 52.77% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.92% expected goals-for percentage last season.

Gardiner had a nice first season in Carolina where he recorded a 55.3% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.55% expected goals-for percentage in 68 games.

Skjei, who was acquired from the New York Rangers in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft at the trade deadline, got better after the trade but has finished each of the past three seasons with a Corsi-for percentage below 48% (47.55% last season but 51.7% after the trade) and an expected goals-for percentage below 50% (46.83% last season but 54.19% after the trade).

McKeown recorded four goals, 24 points, and a +4 rating in 61 games with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers last season and three assists and a +3 rating in 10 career NHL games, all with the Hurricanes.

While this defense is definitely worse than it was last year, it is still among the best in the NHL and should be fine with Bean and Fleury ready to take the next step. The Hurricanes finished last season with an average of 2.84 goals-against per game (tied for 11th), an 84% penalty-killing rate (fourth), and a 29.3 shots-against per game average (second). What held them back last season was their goaltending, which finished with a combined .9122 five-on-five save percentage (sixth-worst).

Columbus Blue Jackets

Projected Lineup

Zach Werenski — Seth Jones

Vladislav Gavrikov — David Savard

Dean Kukan — Andrew Peeke

Other options: Scott Harrington, Gavin Bayreuther

The Blue Jackets’ strong defense got worse this offseason after they traded Ryan Murray to the Devils and Markus Nutivaara to the Florida Panthers but Gavrikov appeared to be a fine top-four defenseman last season where he recorded a 49.05% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.49% expected goals-for percentage.

The Blue Jackets have one of the best top-defensive pairings in the NHL with Werenski, who posted a 50.3% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.48% expected goals-for percentage last season, and Jones, who recorded a 50.08% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.48% expected goals-for percentage in 2019-20.

With the loss of Nutivaara, Columbus will give a bigger role to Kukan, who posted a 49.57% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.53% expected goals-for percentage in 37 games last season.

Peeke, who recorded a 52.33% Corsi-for percentage and a 53.4% expected goals-for percentage in just 22 games last season, should also be given an extensive look.

Savard disappointed in 2019-20 as he recorded just a 46.63% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.14% expected goals-for percentage but is still a solid top-four defenseman.

Harrington recorded a 46.22% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.46% expected goals-for percentage last season but is an admirable seventh defenseman.

Bayreuther recorded a -8 rating in 59 games with the AHL’s Texas Stars last season and has posted two goals, five points, and a +2 rating in 19 career games with the Dallas Stars.

Despite the losses of Murray and Nutivaara, this is still a very talented defense corps led by one of the top pairings in the league. Even if there are growing pains, the Blue Jackets have one of the best goaltending tandems of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, which combined for a .917 save percentage last season, to help cover up some of the drop-offs.

New Jersey Devils

Projected Lineup

Will Butcher — Damon Severson

Ryan Murray — P.K. Subban

Dmitry Kulikov — Connor Carrick

Other options: N/A

The Devils’ average of 3.25 goals-per-game last season was tied for the third-highest in the NHL but the fact that their .9127 five-on-five save percentage was the ninth-worst plays a big factor in that. They should be better in the crease after the unrestricted free agent signing of Corey Crawford, who posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.77 goals-against average with the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

New Jersey added Murray, a very solid defenseman when healthy, who recorded a 48.51% Corsi-for percentage and a 53.29% expected goals-average this season, this offseason which should provide for additional help.

Butcher turned in a disappointing 2019-20 season where he recorded a 46.39% Corsi-for percentage and a 47.91% expected goals-for percentage and so did Severson, who posted a 44.82% Corsi-for percentage and a 45.37% expected goals-for percentage.

Subban was a huge disappointment after being acquired in a blockbuster trade in June 2019 as he recorded just a 47.36% Corsi-for percentage and a 46.28% expected goals-for percentage in his first season with the Devils.

Kulikov was a decent add as he recorded a 50.85% Corsi-for percentage and a 44.3% expected goals-for percentage with the Winnipeg Jets last season.

Carrick had a down year last season where he tallied a 40.38% Corsi-for percentage and a 41.39% expected goals-for percentage.

While Kulikov and Murray were nice adds, Kulikov likely is not anything more than a third-pairing defenseman while Murray has not played more than 60 games in any of the past four seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Despite having a high goals-against per game average, the Devils’ 82.4% penalty-killing rate ranked seventh in the NHL last season. However, their average of 32.7 shots-per-game was the sixth-highest. Crawford should help and this defense has some nice pieces, but they need to live up to their potential.

New York Islanders

Projected Lineup

Adam Pelech — Ryan Pulock

Nick Leddy — Noah Dobson

Johnny Boychuk — Scott Mayfield

Other options: Sebastian Aho, Thomas Hickey

The Islanders have turned into one of the NHL’s stingiest teams under head coach Barry Trotz but their defense got worse this offseason with the loss of Devon Toews, who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for two second-round picks. Though, they expect Dobson, who recorded a 49.75% Corsi-for percentage and a 54.07% expected goals-for percentage in 38 games with the big club in 2019-20, to be ready to take the next step this season.

This offseason, they re-signed restricted free agent and No. 1 defenseman in Pulock, who posted a 44.03% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.38% expected goals-for percentage last season.

Pelech also did not perform up to standards as a top-pairing defenseman in 2019-20 as he recorded a 44.5% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.06% expected goals-for percentage.

Leddy was also a disappointment last season as he posted a 44.77% Corsi-for percentage and a 45.18% expected goals-for percentage.

Boychuk recorded a 45.75% Corsi-for percentage and a 46.14% expected goals-for percentage last season while Mayfield posted a 47.25% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.68% expected goals-for percentage.

Aho is coming off of a season where he recorded a -16 rating with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers while Hickey was a +3 with the Sound Tigers this past season.

While none of their defenseman’s defensive stats jump off the page, Trotz somehow manages to get the Islanders’ goals-against down as their average of 2.79 goals-against per game last season ranked ninth in the NHL. Though, their 80.7% penalty-killing efficiency was at the league average as was their average of 31.2 shots-against per game. Of course if the Islanders didn’t have Trotz behind the bench, they could be near or at the bottom of these rankings but the fact that they do lifts them up.

New York Rangers

Projected Lineup

Ryan Lindgren — Adam Fox

Anthony DeAngelo — Jacob Trouba

Jack Johnson — Brendan Smith

Other options: Anthony Bitetto

The Rangers did not make a lot of changes to a defense that was already tied for 23rd overall in the NHL with an average of 3.14 goals-against per game. Their lone addition was Johnson, who recorded a 46.38% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage and a 47.34% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage last season and is considered a defensive liability.

Meanwhile, Smith was even worse last season as he recorded a 43.38% Corsi-for percentage and a 40.89% expected goals-for percentage.

DeAngelo broke out offensively last season but did not impress defensively as he recorded a 48.23% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.18% expected goals-for percentage.

Trouba did not have the impact the Rangers expected him to have in his first season in New York defensively as he recorded a 45.43% Corsi-for percentage and a 46.51% expected goals-for percentage.

Lindgren also struggled defensively as he posted a 47.51% Corsi-for percentage and a 47.74% expected goals-for percentage.

The one bright spot: Fox had a brilliant first-year and was even in the discussion for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie as he posted a very solid 51.61% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.77% expected goals-for percentage. Unfortunately for Ranger fans, Fox appears to be the only one on this blueline to be able to perform at both ends of the rink, and he cannot do it all by himself.

Bitetto, who is the projected seventh option after he recorded a 46.98% Corsi-for percentage and a 43.86% expect-goals for percentage, also struggled defensively last season.

The Rangers were also tied for 23rd with a 77.4% penalty-killing rate. Their average of 34 shots-against per game was only better than the Chicago Blackhawks (35.1) last season.

While they added Johnson, he is viewed as among the worst defensemen in the league, so it is questionable whether he even helps the Rangers. Until they address the backend, it is going to take the Rangers some time to take the next step.

Philadelphia Flyers

Projected Lineup

Ivan Provorov — Justin Braun

Travis Sanheim — Phillippe Myers

Samuel Morin — Erik Gustafsson

Other options: Derick Pouliot, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg

The Flyers had a very strong defense last season as they ranked first in shots against per game (28.7), 11th on the penalty-kill (81.8%), and tied for seventh in goals-against per game (2.77). However, the loss of Matt Niskanen, their top shut down defenseman who announced his retirement earlier this offseason, stings.

The acquisition of Gustafsson should help a little but he is atrocious defensively as he recorded a 48.76% Corsi-for percentage and a 45.17% expected goals-for percentage in 66 regular-season games with the Blackhawks and Calgary Flames last season.

The Flyers re-signed Braun, who posted an admirable 50.71% Corsi-for percentage and 50.52% expected goals-for percentage last season, to mitigate what they lost defensively by Niskanen retiring but he did not quite live up to Niskanen’s 52.2% Corsi-for percentage and 53.93% expected goals-for percentage last season.

Provorov had a nice year with a 51.79% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.43% expected goals-for percentage but will need to play with a stronger emphasis on defense this season because Braun is not as proficient defensively as Niskanen, which allowed Provorov to jump into the play as much as he did last season.

Sanheim also had a nice 2019-20 season where he recorded a 51.79% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.43% expected goals-for percentage as did Myers who posted a 51.43% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.34% expected goals-for percentage.

Morin has been plagued by injuries for several years and played in only one game with the Flyers last season but has been known as one of the talented young defensive prospects in their system for a long time.

Gostisbehere has been inconsistent throughout his NHL career and played in only 42 games last season (sitting many as a healthy scratch), though he recorded a respectable 52.01% Corsi-for percentage and a 46.96% expected goals-for percentage when given the opportunity last season.

Pouliot was brought in during free agency as a depth piece but he has a -35 rating in 202 career NHL games and recorded a -21 rating in 58 games with the San Antonio Rampage, the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate, last season.

Hagg also got a lot of hype as a prospect but he played in only 49 NHL games during the 2019-20 season and was not spectacular when given the chance as he recorded a 44.7% Corsi-for percentage and a 45.63% expected goals-for percentage.

The Flyers have talent on the backend but the loss of Niskanen has put them in a worse spot for this upcoming season defensively.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Projected Lineup

Brian Dumoulin — Kris Letang

Marcus Pettersson — John Marino

Mike Matheson — Cody Ceci

Other options: Juusso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel

Despite a very solid start to last season defensively as they recorded a 2.66 goals-against per game average (sixth in the NHL) through February 18, the Penguins fell off at the end of the year, yielding a league-high 3.82 goals-against per game.

While buying out the final three years of Johnson contract which carried a $3.25 million cap hit was a good call, the addition of Matheson and Ceci rolls back any progress gained by cutting Johnson. Matheson recorded a 44.68% Corsi-for percentage and a 44.68% expected goals-for percentage with the Florida Panthers last season, while Ceci posted a 50.22% Corsi-for percentage with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season after four straight seasons of having one below 46% with the Ottawa Senators. Ceci also has a 50.87% expected goals-for percentage last season after four straight seasons of having one below 46%,

Letang is coming off of a solid season where he posted a 51.86% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.68% expected goals-for percentage, as is Dumoulin, who only played in 28 games but recorded a 56.72% Corsi-for percentage and a 55.03% expected goals-for percentage.

Marino had an admirable rookie season as he tallied a 50.13% Corsi-for percentage and a 54.48% expected goals-for percentage.

Pettersson was also solid last season, when he had a 51.82% Corsi-for percentage and a 53.06% expected goals-for percentage.

Ruhwedel, who posted a 49.12% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.35% expected goals-for percentage last season, and Riikola, who had a 53.06% Corsi-for percentage and a 58.74% expected goals-for percentage in 2019-20, are solid back-up options.

Last season, the Penguins’ 2.84 goals-against per game average was tied for 11th in the NHL while their 82.1% penalty-killing efficiency was tied for eighth. In addition, they allowed an average of just 29.7 shots-per-game, tied for fifth.

While this defense looks good overall, it got worse in the final month of the regular season, the additions of Matheson and Ceci takes a hit, and the fact that they will play in front of an inexperienced goalie tandem in Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith puts the Penguins in a worse spot defensively this season.

Washington Capitals

Projected Lineup

Brenden Dillon — John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov — Justin Schultz

Jonas Siegenthaler — Trevor Van Riemsdyk

Other options: Nick Jensen, Paul LaDue, Martin Fehervary

After averaging 3.44 goals-against per game from December 22 on (the highest among the 24 teams that participated in the NHL’s return-to-play plan), the Capitals added Schultz, Van Riemsdyk, and LaDue.

Schultz recorded a 49.77% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.88% expected goals-for percentage in 46 games with the Penguins last season while Van Riemsdyk posted a 53.22% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.12% expected goals-for percentage in 49 games with the Hurricanes in 2019-20. LaDue tallied nine goals, 27 points, and a +11 rating in 48 games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign last season.

Carlson was the runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2019-20 after he posted a 51.32% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.85% expected goals-for percentage.

Dillon impressed with a 51.12% Corsi-for percentage, a 54.44% expected goals-for percentage, and 16 hits in 10 games after he was acquired from the San Jose Sharks on February 18.

Orlov had a nice rebound last season where he recorded a 53.37% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.92% expected goals-for percentage.

Siegenthaler emerged into the Capitals’ top penalty killer and a solid defensive defenseman as he posted a 50.14% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.38% expected goals-for percentage last season.

Jensen improved towards the end of last season after a slow start and finished it with a respectable 50.82% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.59% expected goals-for percentage. Fehervary made big steps in his development, pushing Jensen and Siegenthaler out of the lineup at one point as he recorded a 53.64% Corsi-for percentage and a 47.53% expected goals-for percentage in six NHL games and got a look in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After defense was a huge issue last season, the Capitals added depth to solidify their core after they already were sixth with an 82.6% penalty-killing rate and ninth with an average of 30.2 shots-against per game.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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