Defense wins hockey games. Even now, when the NHL is built more on speed and skill than ever, that statement still rings true. Look no further than the 2016-17 Nashville Predators, who assembled one of the top blue lines in the league, then promptly rode that group to within two wins of a Stanley Cup title.
The Preds had to slow a couple of teams with high-end offensive talent on their way through the Western Conference, holding the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues to a combined 1.4 goals per game in the first two rounds. Nashville ran into another strong defense in the Conference final but knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in six games.
The Ducks had just used their impressive blue line to slow Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the second round. And, as it turns out, that’s something all Pacific Division teams must do if they plan on having much success going forward.
With McDavid signing an eight-year extension worth $12.5 million per season — and Leon Draisaitl due for a major raise in Edmonton this summer too — the Oilers seem primed for an extended stay in the playoffs. And much of their success will hinge on the explosive scoring abilities of that top duo, which means a high-end defense corps is going to be an absolute must for the other clubs in the Pacific now. And they know it.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at how Edmonton’s seven division rivals (including their new one) stack up along the blue line.
Put simply, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this — not just in the Pacific, but the entire NHL. The Flames had shaky goaltending all of last season yet still finished in the top half of the league in goals allowed (2.67, good for 14th). And they finished eighth in shots allowed, with 28.7 per game. Then they added defenseman Travis Hamonic, just for fun.
The stats don’t even tell the whole story though. Calgary also passes the eyeball test with flying colors. Not only will Hamonic’s arrival likely give the Flames one of the very best groups of top-four defenders in the league, Dougie Hamilton is still getting better. The Alberta rivalry is really going to heat up.
The Ducks aren’t very far behind Calgary — if at all. Somehow, they navigated through the expansion draft without losing Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler or Hampus Lindholm, and now boast that impressive top four plus an improving group of forwards.
Kevin Bieksa and Brandon Montour aren’t a bad third pairing either, if that’s the way it works out.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks finished 2016-17 ranked second in blocked shots (1,359), third in shots allowed (27.7) and fifth in goals allowed (2.44) per game. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is quietly one of the best two-way defensemen in the league and, well, it doesn’t hurt to have Brent Burns scoring like a forward while winning the Norris Trophy.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have issues, which is why they’re entering the new season with a new head coach and general manager. But their best bet at finding solutions starts on the back end, where Drew Doughty is still one of the very best blueliners in the world. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez are clearly pulling their wight too, as Los Angeles finished last season ranked first overall in shots allowed (25.9) and sixth in goals allowed (2.45) per game.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the best puck-movers in hockey when he’s on his game, which is why he’s the anchor the Coyotes’ are building their future around. He struggled by his standards last year, but his track record shows he’s likely to bounce back. And just to make sure he has the best chance to succeed, Arizona swung a deal with Chicago to bring in defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson’s big-game experience can only help this young group. And his ability to thrive as a stay-at-home rearguard should give Ekman-Larsson the freedom to roam and show off his offensive creativity now. The Desert Dogs also have a burgeoning young talent in 19-year-old Jakob Chychrun to keep an eye on too.
There’s a considerable drop off once you get to the Canucks. The top four clubs have pretty established groups, and Arizona has considerable upside. But the Canucks really don’t have any clear-cut No. 1 defensemen and didn’t make any major additions in the offseason either.
Olli Juolevi, the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft, certainly brings legitimate potential. But it’s unfair to expect him to turn the whole blue line around right away.
Vegas Golden Knights
Well, they took 13 defensemen in the expansion draft, but that’s where the positives stop. It’s a patchwork group — which is to be expected of a franchise yet to ever play an NHL game. And that’s not ideal when McDavid and the Oilers are on the schedule four times.
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