Ranking the 10 Best Puck-Moving Defensemen in the 2014 NHL Playoffs
A great puck-moving defenseman is one of the key ingredients to Stanley Cup success. How many championship teams can you name that didn't have at least one of the league's most dangerous blue-line threats in their lineup? Teams like Chicago and Montreal could have a critical advantage over the other six remaining teams.
To find this postseason's best puck-moving defensemen is no easy task. A variety of scoring-based statistics must be used, including an estimate of the number of shots each defenseman sets up. Player usage must also be taken into account.
Regular-season performances also have to give way to postseason results. That's why solid puck-moving defensemen without any assists like Kris Letang, Zdeno Chara and Ryan McDonagh don't make the cut.
On the flip side, defensemen with a lot of assists like Dan Girardi, Francois Beauchemin and Alec Martinez can be excluded because their regular-season totals make it clear that they're not puck movers, but rather shutdown defensemen who have recorded a few assists.
In the end this analysis took me back to my first piece for ESPN Insider way back in the 2009 playoffs, when I first explored the importance of puck-moving defensemen in the postseason. How little things have changed! Let's begin.
Player usage and on-ice scoring information from Extra Skater; passing and all other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
10. Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks
Cam Fowler has developed very quickly from being a sheltered, offensive-minded defenseman to an effective member of the team's top two-way pairing.
The 22-year-old now plays against top opponents in both zones, works the primary power play and the secondary penalty kill, and is an integral part of both the team's offense and its defense.
He has recorded 94 assists and 116 points in his four seasons, both of which are just outside the top 30 among the league's defensemen.
Though he has recorded only two assists, Fowler has been on the ice for 11 of the team's 17 goals thus far, which is tied with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for the team lead.
While the Ducks were outshot 179-167 in their first-round series with Dallas, they outshot opponents 78-56 when Fowler was on the ice. That was the highest offensive total on the team and the second-best shot differential.
Francois Beauchemin may be getting his name on the scoresheet, but the team has been generating the most offense with Fowler on the ice.
9. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Torey Krug burst on to the scene in a big way this year; his 40 points tied with his great teammate Zdeno Chara and lead all rookie defensemen by 10. Dion Phaneuf, Kevin Shattenkirk and Tyler Myers are the only other rookie defensemen to match or exceed that total since the 2005 lockout.
Krug was clearly deployed to maximize scoring this year, being assigned a Keith Yandle-type of role. Specifically that means he enjoyed the bulk of his shifts in the offensive zone and against depth lines, and his only special-teams responsibilities were with the man advantage.
The 23-year-old thrived in this role, as the Bruins outscored opponents by a whopping 78-38 when he was on the ice.
Krug's six points are tied with Patrice Bergeron for the team lead, second to Nathan MacKinnon among rookies in postseason scoring, and exceed the scoring total of all other rookie defensemen combined.
Still enjoying the Yandle-like assignment, the Bruins have scored seven of their 17 goals when Krug was on the ice, one back of the team lead held by Bergeron and Reilly Smith.
While Norris finalist Zdeno Chara is unquestionably the team's best defensemen in every single facet of the game, Krug's ability to move the puck up the ice has allowed their 37-year-old captain to focus primarily on shutting down the game's best players. Though Chara is consequently yet to record a single assist, Boston blueliners like Krug have allowed the team to advance.
8. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens
After three injury-plagued seasons, the 35-year-old Russian has bounced back to record 56 assists and 73 points over the past two seasons, which ranks 10th and 11th among NHL defensemen.
Markov, who is absolutely deadly with the man advantage, is estimated to have completed 2.16 passes per game that resulted in shots over the past three seasons, 12th among the league's blueliners.
The lifelong Montreal Canadien is a pending unrestricted free agent this summer and could be aggressively pursued after his fifth 40-point season.
When a team has a flawless 5-0 record, it isn't inappropriate to assign a lot of the credit to their ice-time leader.
Montreal has taken 78 shots while Markov has been on the ice, which is tied with P.K. Subban for the team lead. Of course, the Canadiens have scored on 11 of those shots with Subban and only six with Markov.
Markov has nevertheless still recorded two assists and deserves some extra credit for doing so while taking on the bulk of the tough minutes in the defensive zone and against top opponents.
7. Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins
What a season for Matt Niskanen!
The former Dallas Star was 12th among NHL defensemen with 46 points and first with a plus/minus of plus-33. The Penguins outscored opponents 107-46 when Niskanen was on the ice this year.
His numbers may have been boosted by teammates like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it's still quite an accomplishment for a player who had only six points in 45 games when the Penguins acquired him from the Dallas Stars at the 2011 trade deadline.
Going into this year he had just 39 points in 133 games in a Penguins uniform. It's fair to say that his tremendous season will significantly improve the free agent's fortunes this summer.
The Penguins are having great success with Niskanen and Paul Martin taking over Kris Letang's role as the primary puck-moving defensemen. Niskanen was on the ice for 12 of the team's 23 goals, one fewer than Martin for the team lead.
Niskanen is tied with Martin and Brent Seabrook for the scoring lead among defensemen with eight points, and his six assists are tied with Seabrook and Drew Doughty for second. One more point and he will have already matched his previous 42-game career playoff total.
Niskanen's tremendous success in both the regular and the postseason has been a very welcome surprise for his injury-plagued team, and one of the keys for their continued success.
6. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild
If this were a ranking of the best overall defensemen then Suter could would be much higher on the list, possibly even on top. As great as he is at moving the puck up the ice, it's actually not as great a talent as his shutdown play.
Suter, last year's Norris Trophy runner-up and first-team All-Star, has strong puck-moving credentials even on a stand-alone basis. He is one of only four defensemen to record 100 assists over the past three seasons, or 200 in the last six, and one of only 32 estimated to have set up at least 300 shots over the past three seasons.
As a puck mover Suter is great, as an overall defensemen he's potentially the greatest.
Playing almost 30 minutes per game, which was over five minutes more than anyone else on his team, Suter is a big reason why Minnesota upset the Colorado Avalanche.
And those weren't soft minutes, either. Suter took on Colorado's best players in all manpower situations. The Wild nevertheless outshot Colorado 117 to 82 when he was on the ice in the first round, 17 shots more than second-place Zach Parise.
Offensively Suter leads the team's defensemen with four points, and his three assists are one fewer than all of them combined.
5. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Paul Martin doesn't have the strongest puck-moving credentials, at least not compared to the other defensemen on this list.
He recorded his career0high 32 assists as a 24-year-old sophomore for New Jersey in 2005-06, and as he was gradually phased into more and more of a shutdown role his assists consistently remained in the 20s.
Martin's 75 assists over the past four seasons only rank 46th among the league's defensemen, but he did record nine assists in 15 postseason games last year.
After Kris Letang's serious stroke, Martin and Matt Niskanen were called upon to be the team's new puck-moving defensemen, and they have responded.
Martin is tied with Nathan MacKinnon and Zach Parise with eight playoff assists, which also ties him with Niskanen and Brent Seabrook for the defensemen scoring lead. He leads the team by being on the ice for 13 of the 23 goals the Penguins have scored, during which time only three of the 21 opponent's goals were scored.
Martin is a strong two-way force, playing on the top defensive pair on the penalty kill with Brooks Orpik and the top power play unit with Niskanen. That's a big reason why he was ranked 11th on Bleacher Report's list of Conn Smythe candidates after the first round.
4. Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago has a lot of talented puck-moving defensemen, many of whom would be team leaders anywhere else, like Brent Seabrook.
Though the Blackhawks' shutdown defender doesn't always get credit for his offensive upside, Seabrook is one of only 18 defensemen who have earned at least 100 assists over the past four seasons, and he's also one of only 32 estimated to have set up at least 300 shots over the past three seasons.
Interestingly, Seabrook recorded only a single assist in Chicago's 23-game run to the Stanley Cup last year.
Chicago has outscored its opponents 11-3 with Seabrook on the ice this postseason, an advantage smaller than only Patrick Kane's 11-1. In contrast, the team has been outscored 5-11 with Niklas Hjalmarsson in action.
Averaging over 27 minutes per game, Seabrook has recorded six assists and eight points in just four games. He would have scored even more, but he missed opening round Games 3, 4 and 5 after being suspended for a brutal hit on David Backes.
Seabrook is tied with Pittsburgh's Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin for the postseason scoring lead among defensemen, and with Kane and Jonathan Toews for the team lead in scoring.
3. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty is a complete defenseman whose playmaking abilities don't always get their full due.
He's one of only 16 defensemen to tally 140 assists over the past five seasons, only four others of whom have playoff hopes that are still alive. He also led the postseason with 12 assists during Los Angeles' 2012 Stanley Cup run.
Doughty's peak was in 2009-10 when the 20-year-old sophomore recorded 43 assists and 59 points while finishing third in Norris Trophy voting and being a second-team All-Star. His assist totals dropped after that only because he started taking on the league's top players in shutdown situations.
Doughty has been on fire this postseason. His seven points are second to Anze Kopitar for the team lead, and his six assists lead the squad.
Leading the team by over five minutes of ice time per game, Doughty has been on the ice for more Kings goals than anyone but Kopitar.
Check out the player usage chart on Extra Skater for this postseason. Doughty and Jake Muzzin are taking on the top opponents and dominating the game possession-wise. That's a big reason why Doughty was ranked ninth on Bleacher Report's list of top Conn Smythe candidates after Round 1.
2. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
Defending Norris Trophy champion P.K. Subban has 70 combined assists over the last two seasons, second only to the player coming up next.
Subban is one of only 15 NHL defensemen to average an estimated two or more setup passes per game over the past three seasons. He also has a real cannon that makes him one of the league's greatest threats from the point, especially with the man advantage.
Subban made Bleacher Report's list of the top Conn Smythe candidates after Round 1, and then promptly scored the game-winner against the much-favored Bruins in the first game of Round 2.
Playing almost 28 minutes per night, Subban now leads the Montreal Canadiens with seven points in five games and is one of only six NHL defensemen with five assists so far this postseason.
In all, Subban has been on the ice for 11 of Montreal's 20 goals, three more than any other Canadien, and for only five of the 13 scored against. What better indication of a playmaker is there than that?
1. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
This year's likely Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who also won in 2010, has 208 assists over the past five seasons, 34 more than the next-highest defenseman, Erik Karlsson.
Keith's estimated 444 setup passes over the past three regular seasons is second among those defensemen still in the playoffs, and his 2.22 setup passes per game ranks third.
His impact on the Blackhawks has been huge, ranking one back of the team lead in scoring with seven points while ranking third on Bleacher Report's list of Conn Smythe candidates after Round 1.
Playing almost 30 minutes per game, Keith is one of only three defenseman with four even-strength assists this postseason, and he's tied for fifth overall with P.K. Subban with five assists in seven games.
At even strength, Chicago outscored St. Louis by four goals when Keith was on the ice, the second-largest margin on the team to last year's Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane.
Keith is a major reason why the Blackhawks could win their third Stanley Cup in five seasons.