Ranking the NHL’s best defensive pairings

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 5: Jan Rutta #44 and Victor Hedman #77 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skate against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period at Amalie Arena on February 5, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)
Jan Rutta #44 and Victor Hedman #77 make up one of the NHL’s best defense pairings. (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

Even with offense becoming increasingly important in today’s NHL, very few teams in recent years have had any sort of postseason success without an elite defensive pairing.

Whether it’s a shutdown duo or a tandem that can drive offensive production — or both — these top pairings are extremely valuable both over a long regular season and in the playoffs when they’re tasked with handling a specific matchup over the course of a seven-game series. 

Simply put, if you don’t have two defenders you can throw over the boards and trust in a crucial situation, you don’t stand much of a chance. 

Entering the 2021-22 season, these are the top 32 defense pairings in today’s NHL, ranked.

32. Jakob Chychrun – Conor Timmins

Chychrun led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals last season and proved that he’s a young and emerging star in this league. Timmins, a 2017 second-round pick, was buried on a loaded Colorado Avalanche defense core but will see more opportunities with the Arizona Coyotes.

31. Josh Morrissey – Nate Schmidt

The Winnipeg Jets upgraded its top-four on defense with the addition of Schmidt, who’ll likely slot in next to Morrissey. Morrissey had a down year in 2020-21, but he’s shown enough to suggest that he can still be one of the better two-way blueliners in the game.

30. K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba

Perhaps overshadowed by the influx of young talent joining the New York Rangers roster, Miller’s unspectacular yet solid rookie season should have Blueshirts fans excited. Trouba isn’t a flashy player, but he’s defensively responsible and a good partner for a young rearguard.

29. Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang

Letang is still a solid offensive contributor as evidenced by his seven goals and 45 points across 55 games last season. Dumoulin isn’t the most exciting defensive partner, but he’s proven to be reliable enough to complement the offensively-minded Letang.

28. Mikey Anderson – Drew Doughty

Few defensemen in the NHL could’ve done more with the surrounding talent Doughty had last year. His 4.9 relative Corsi for percentage at even strength in 2020-21 was better than elite defensemen like Cale Makar, Adam Fox, and Victor Hedman. His partner, Anderson, struggled during his rookie season, and it remains to be seen if the 2017 fourth-round pick has what it takes to be a top-four rearguard in the NHL.

27. Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie

Playing with a steady defenseman like Brodie in 2020-21 really helped Rielly as his 11.5 Corsi per-60 rating was the second-best mark of his career. With no upgrades made to this mediocre defense core this offseason, the duo will have to turn in another solid campaign to help the Maple Leafs finally make it beyond the first round of the playoffs.

26. Alex Goligoski – Jared Spurgeon

With Ryan Suter gone, the Minnesota Wild inked Goligoski to a one-year deal. At 36 years old, Goligoski doesn’t possess the offensive upside he once did, but he’s still a reliable blueliner at both ends of the ice. Spurgeon, the leader of this unit, turned in another solid season on the back-end and, like Goligoski, is dependable in all zones.

25. Ryan McDonagh – Erik Cernak

Overshadowed on a loaded Tampa Bay Lightning team is the importance of McDonagh on the back end. The veteran rearguard is a major shot-blocker and he’s still a strong skater. The hulking Cernak has developed into a solid defensive blueliner, and he continues to be a difficult player to match up against.

24. Calvin de Haan – Seth Jones

Jones was acquired this offseason by the Chicago Blackhawks and will likely be paired with de Haan. The former Columbus Blue Jackets star will be tasked with anchoring a weak Chicago defense as the franchise looks to return to the playoffs this upcoming campaign. de Haan, a middling blueliner, is better suited for a middle pairing role but he will benefit from having Jones to lean on.

23. Torey Krug – Justin Faulk

Krug produced better numbers while playing in sheltered situations with the Boston Bruins. Now forming one-half of the St. Louis Blues’ top pairing, the offensive rearguard has undergone some growing pains as he directs more of his attention to the defensive zone. Faulk remains a reliable, mobile, two-way blueliner that can make plays all over the ice.

22. Mario Ferraro – Brent Burns

Logging heavy minutes on a bad San Jose Sharks team, the young Ferraro established himself as a competent defensive partner for Burns. Although he’s likely better suited as a second liner at this stage of his career, the 2017 second-round pick does a lot of things well. He’s a solid hitter, a willing shot-blocker, and his 28 takeaways at even strength last year tied him for seventh-most in the league at his position. Burns is slowing down a bit as he enters his age-36 season, but he’s still one of the better defensemen in the league.

21. Jonas Brodin – Mathew Dumba

Brodin and Dumba is a pairing that works extremely well for the defensively-minded Wild. Dumba is a smooth-skating, physical blueliner that is great at carrying the puck in transition. Brodin isn’t necessarily a physical presence, but he’s not afraid to step in front of a shot and can move well, also. The two complement each other with their skill sets and are underappreciated players.

20. Samuel Girard – Erik Johnson

A second pairing that could serve as the top unit on a number of teams, Girard and Johnson showcase the embarrassment of talent the Colorado Avalanche possess. Girard took his offense to another level in 2020-21, recording 32 points in 48 games, setting a career-best 0.67 points-per-game mark. Johnson was limited to just four games last season because of an upper-body injury, but if he can return to his 2019-20 form, he’s still a solid top-four rearguard.

19. Quinn Hughes – Travis Hamonic

In what’ll be remembered as a lost season for the Vancouver Canucks, rookie sensation Hughes took a step back during his sophomore campaign. The 21-year-old’s point production underwent a minor dip and both his offensive and defensive point shares fell. Still, he’s one of the better offensive blueliners in the game and should continue to develop as he enters his third campaign. Hamonic isn’t a flashy defenseman, but he’s sound enough in the defensive zone which pairs nicely with what Hughes brings to the table.

18. Joel Edmundson – Jeff Petry

For the second time in his career, Petry received Norris Trophy consideration after he helped the Montreal Canadiens earn a playoff spot and an eventual trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The 33-year-old can play any situation and is capable of leading the rush with his smooth skating ability. Edmundson has been a sturdy defense partner for Petry, allowing the talented blueliner to freely play his game. This tandem will have to carry a little more weight for the Habs with Shea Weber out.

17. Esa Lindell – John Klingberg

The first of two defensive pairings from the Dallas Stars on this list, Lindell and Klingberg complement each other extremely well. Lindell is a tough, gritty, and physical blueliner who blocks shots and makes life miserable for opposing forwards. Klingberg is an offensive-minded defender that runs the top power-play unit and is a solid passer.

16. Zach Werenski – Adam Boqvist

Part of the return Columbus received from Chicago in the Seth Jones trade was Boqvist, a 2018 first-round pick of the Blackhawks. Given the Blue Jackets’ shallow defense corps, it’ll likely be the offensively gifted Boqvist who rides shotgun with the recently extended Werenski. With both players being threats in the offensive zone, this should be one of the more exciting defensive pairings to watch.

15. Jaccob Slavin – Brett Pesce

Two of the most underrated defensemen in the game will likely see more playing time together this season now that Dougie Hamilton is no longer on the Carolina Hurricanes. While these two lack the offensive upside some of the other duos possess, they should combine to form one of the best shutdown pairings in the league.

14. Dmitri Orlov – John Carlson

Orlov is only 5-foot-11, but the Washington Capitals rearguard plays much bigger than his size suggests as he’s routinely amongst the team’s leaders in hits and blocked shots. He’s also a pretty strong skater, making him a well-rounded blueliner. Carlson, one of the NHL’s very best, is as good as it gets in the offensive zone, and underrated in his own end of the ice.

13. Ryan Suter – Miro Heiskanen

Joining the Stars via the Wild, Suter will give Dallas arguably the best top-four in the league. The smart and defensively dependable blueliner was the perfect addition for the Stars, as Suter’s skill and veteran presence make him the perfect running mate for Heiskanen. The smooth-skating talent will be able to drive more offense and take more risks with the puck knowing he has someone like Suter on the ice.

12. Charlie McAvoy – Matt Grzelcyk

This pairing would be higher on the list if it weren’t for Grzelcyk’s durability concerns. Earning an expanded role with Torey Krug who’s no longer on the Boston Bruins, Grzelcyk really struggled to stay on the ice. The offensively-driven defenseman skated in just 37 contests due to a number of different injuries in 2020-21. He did, however, record 20 points which resulted in the best points-per-60 mark of his career. With both Zdeno Chara and Krug gone, McAvoy established himself as the leader of this defense and one of the best in the league with a fifth-place finish in the Norris Trophy race.

11. Darnell Nurse – Tyson Barrie

On a weak Edmonton Oilers blueline, Nurse is forced to pick up a lot of slack. In 2020-21, he took a major step forward and proved he could be a legitimate No. 1 defenseman in the NHL with a standout performance at both ends of the ice. Barrie, while an adventure in the defensive zone, is still one of the better puck-handling rearguards in the league.

10. Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo

No defenseman in the NHL is more fearless than Martinez. His 168 blocked shots in 2020-21 led the league and were 40 more than the second-placed rearguard, Adam Larsson. It was a rocky first season for Pietrangelo with the Vegas Golden Knights, but after a strong showing in the postseason, the 31-year-old should be in store for a bounce-back campaign.

9. Adam Pelech – Ryan Pulock

The sum of this duo’s parts is greater than the players individually. Behind head coach Barry Trotz’s brilliance, Pelech and Pulock have combined forces to become one of the absolute best shutdown units in the game. Neither really does much that stands out in any regard, but the two continually stifle the opposing team’s best forwards.

8. Roman Josi – Philippe Myers

Josi is a perennial threat to win the Norris Trophy. He’s typically the smartest player on the ice as he continually makes the right decisions in both the offensive and defensive zone. Myers joins the Nashville Predators via the Flyers as part of the return the team received for Ellis and isn’t someone who’s going to wow anybody with his skill. He’s better suited to play on a second pairing but will get by playing a conservative brand of hockey alongside Josi.

7. MacKenzie Weegar – Aaron Ekblad

Before suffering a fractured leg in March that cost him the remainder of the season, Ekblad was having a fantastic campaign that should’ve resulted in some Norris Trophy consideration. The 2015 first-overall pick recorded 11 goals and 22 points across 35 games and had an impressive 6.8 relative Corsi for percentage at even strength while logging more than 25 minutes of ice per game. Weegar, who was having a good season prior to Ekblad’s injury, noticeably stepped up in his absence. The 27-year-old posted a career-best 36 points while also compiling 83 blocks and 118 hits.

6. Ivan Provorov – Ryan Ellis

This newly formed defensive duo is one Philadelphia Flyers fans should be very excited about. Provorov returns and is one of the most well-rounded rearguards in the game, as he features solid speed, a great shot, and excellent passing chops. He’s also a fearless shot-blocker, topping 100 blocks in each of his past five seasons. Ellis joins the Flyers by way of the Nashville Predators, and the mobile blueliner is a textbook example of how a two-way defenseman should play the game.

5. Ryan Graves – Dougie Hamilton

Neither of these players was on the New Jersey Devils last season, but the two now team up to form one of the better tandems in the league. Graves was a dominant defensive force on a very talented Avalanche blueline while Hamilton continues to be a complete horse at both ends of the ice. New Jersey’s ability to upgrade its defense by adding a legitimate top pairing via trade and free agency is very impressive and nearly impossible to pull off in today’s NHL.

4. Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore

The second Golden Knights duo to crack the top-10, McNabb and Theodore are a pairing that just works so well together. McNabb is the dependable defensive blueliner that throws some of the meanest hits in the league. Theodore is the smooth-skating, smart puck facilitator that can drive offense while also being defensively responsible.

3. Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

This tandem could be pushing for the top spot on this list sooner rather than later. There’s not much more to be said about Fox after he secured the Norris Trophy in 2020-21. With a high level of processing, Fox rarely makes a mistake on the ice and is an elite performer at both ends of the rink. Lindgren doesn’t have the same flash to his game that Fox does, but he’s extremely reliable in his own end and isn’t afraid to dish out some punishment.

2. Victor Hedman – Jan Rutta

Admittedly, this duo is here mainly for Hedman’s contributions but Rutta is good enough to make this pairing a daunting task for opposing teams. The 6-foot-3 rearguard is extremely limited in terms of handling the puck and generating offense but battles hard in his own zone. Hedman anchors this unit and is perennially one of the best bets to win the Norris Trophy. There’s nothing the Swedish superstar can’t do as he continues to be one of the driving forces on the league’s best team.

1. Devon Toews – Cale Makar

Traded to the Avalanche from the Islanders for two second-round picks, Toews seamlessly fit in with Colorado and without the constraints of a defense-first system, was able to flex his offensive muscles. The two-way rearguard posted a mark of 0.58 points per game which was a career-best, but he’s an increasingly valuable contributor in the defensive zone.

At 22-years-old, few have produced more at this stage of their career than Makar. Through 101 career games, he’s recorded an impressive 94 points and finished second in Norris Trophy voting last season. There are no holes in his game and he likely still has more room for development. Scary.

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