If you could have an elite player at any position, what would it be? Are your odds of winning the Cup highest with an elite goalie? An offensive dynamo? A Norris-level defenseman?
Well, you’ve already read the title, so here we are: it’s pretty easy to make the case for the latter.
A rock of a defenseman can log up to 30 minutes a night and impact more plays within that time than most offensive players. What they do positionally in the d-zone greatly affects the outcome of every shift they take. They always matter. A goal scorer, well, they’re usually not influencing too much until they physically have the puck, which probably totals 30 seconds to a minute on any given night.
In short: good teams lean heavy on their big defenders. When they play well, the team almost always succeeds.
There are eight teams left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, for which 16 originally qualified. Let’s take a look at the best d-man on every team, and check how it correlates with team success.
Boston: Zdeno Chara
Montreal: P.K. Subban
Chicago: Duncan Keith
Minnesota: Ryan Suter
Pittsburgh: Kris Letang
New York: Ryan McDonagh/Dan Girardi
Los Angeles: Drew Doughty
Anaheim: Francois Beauchemin/Cam Fowler
Teams eliminated in the first round:
St. Louis: Alex Pietrangelo
Colorado: Erik Johnson
Dallas: Alex Goligoski
San Jose: Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Detroit: Niklas Kronwall
Tampa Bay: Victor Hedman
Columbus: Jack Johnson
Philadelphia: Braydon Coburn
Teams that didn’t make playoffs:
Buffalo: Christian Erhoff
Washington: Mike Green
Edmonton: Justin Schultz
Phoenix: Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Keith Yandle
Florida: Brian Campbell
New Jersey: Andy Greene
Calgary: Mark Giordano
Carolina: Andrej Sekera
Nashville: Shea Weber
NY Islanders: Travis Hamonic
Ottawa: Erik Karlsson
Toronto: Dion Phaneuf
Vancouver: Dan Hamhuis
Winnipeg: Dustin Byfuglien
There are exceptions to every rule, of course (Shea Weber dragged the Preds to within three points of playoffs), but there’s a pretty clear division between those three tiers.
If you play this game with scorers, it’s tougher to find the same correlation. Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, and Phil Kessel missed playoffs (all top-eight in scoring). The eliminated teams sport Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin/Jamie Benn, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Datsyuk while teams devoid of a top-25 scorer such as Minnesota, Boston and Montreal are still alive. (The Rangers top-scorer is Marty St. Louis at 19th.)
No team can succeed on one player alone, but they get an awfully big boost by having an elite defender. (Hey, if San Jose has Marc-Edouard Vlasic in Games 6 and 7, who knows if that series plays out differently.)
Teams looking to rebuild have to take note of this. Rare is the team who can go the distance without a marquee defenseman eating big minutes.