Ranking the Top 10 Shutdown Players in the 2014 NHL Playoffs
They say defense win championships. That means shutdown stars like Patrice Bergeron could be more critical than the scoring leaders they target. Who have been the most effective shutdown players through almost two full rounds of postseason action?
Analytics can help answer that question in a way that's as free of subjective opinion as possible. For example, this postseason's best shutdown players can be identified as those who:
- Play a lot of minutes, especially in the defensive zone
- Take on the top opponents
- Effectively kill penalties
- Move the shot count in his team's favor, and the scoreboard
- Are disciplined players who don't take a lot of penalties
A player's individual scoring isn't as much of a concern, but it is obviously a huge bonus when a team's shutdown player can pose an offensive threat of his own.
There are a lot of great shutdown players in the postseason, but only the 10 best were selected for this list. It includes only those who meet all the listed criteria, and have consequently had the most success in closing the door. Let's begin!
All advanced statistics are via Extra Skater or writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
10. Ryan O'Reilly, Colorado Avalanche
Ryan O'Reilly played among the toughest minutes on the team in Colorado's tough, first-round loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Although he had the benefit of first line center Paul Stastny also handling his fair share of the defensive duties, O'Reilly was often the one tasked with defensive zone play against top opponents. Colorado allowed just six goals while he was on the ice while scoring 10, one shy of the team lead.
A highly-disciplined and intelligent Lady Byng finalist, Ryan O'Reilly joined Marc-Andre Cliché as the only Colorado forwards to see any kind of significant action and not take a minor penalty throughout the series.
O'Reilly led the league in the regular season with 83 takeaways and added nine more in seven postseason games. He only won 46 percent of his faceoffs, though, which is unusual given that his regular season numbers are consistently over 51 percent.
While perhaps best known for taking on Mikko Koivu, O'Reilly also did a great job against Minnesota workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter. He was on him all series, and even stripped him of the puck for a shorthanded goal in Game 5.
O'Reilly was one of Colorado's top penalty killers, working 44.5 percent of all shorthanded minutes, over double the portion he worked in the regular season. The Avalanche actually outscored Minnesota 2-1 down a man when he was on the ice.
Even with fine defensive play by O'Reilly and defenseman Jan Hejda, the first-place Colorado Avalanche couldn't overcome a lack of depth and weak possession-based play in their first round series with the Minnesota Wild. They were outshot 231-174 and allowed 20 goals.
9. Marco Scandella, Minnesota Wild
Ryan Suter is widely respected as one of the league's best shutdown defensemen, so why was Marco Scandella selected for this list instead?
First, Scandella has worked 44.1 percent of all the team's shorthanded minutes this postseason, compared with 38.4 percent for Suter, who has been on the ice for four power play goals. Minnesota has allowed only power play goal with Scandella on the ice, and even managed a shorthander of its own.
Suter may indeed take on the top competition, but Scandella is right behind him. Suter gets to start 52.4 percent of his non-neutral-zone shifts in the offensive zone, but Scandella just 47.6 percent. The team has nevertheless done better with Scandella on the ice, controlling the play 61.6 percent of the time in close-game situations, compared to 54.6 percent with Suter.
Suter beats Scandella 26 to 17 in blocks, and 24 to 21 in hits, but also plays 40 percent more minutes. Scandella is also one of the few Minnesota Wild players who has yet to take a single minor penalty; Suter has taken two.
Obviously Scandella is not a better player than Suter, nor even a better shutdown defenseman, but his postseason results have been stronger this year.
There are very few easy matchups when up against a team like Chicago. Scandella has seen most of his action against Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.
In the opening round, Scandella had to contend with the speed of Colorado's young top six, and it took a few games to keep up with and shut down Nathan MacKinnon.
Minnesota upset the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, thanks in part to allowing just three goals in their three home games where coach Mike Yeo could select the matchups.
The Wild struggled in their first two games on the road in Chicago, allowing nine goals, but have allowed just four goals in the three games since. Scandella has been a less-publicized but highly important reason for that success.
8. Marc Staal, New York Rangers
While it may be an up-and-down postseason for New York's top defensive pairing, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, Marc Staal has been a model of defensive consistency on the second pairing.
Being on the second unit hasn't made Staal's job any easier. He plays with Anton Stralman, starts only 41.5 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone, lowest among the team's defensemen, and the extent that he's used to kill penalties and/or face top opponents rivals the Rangers' top pairing.
And yet the Rangers have had the most success with Staal. Well, at even strength at least, where the Rangers have outscored their opponents 13-7, including 8-3 in close game situations. Staal is also second to Dan Girardi in blocked shots, and has taken only a single minor penalty, the fewest among the team's regular defensemen.
Though he was effective in containing Claude Giroux in the opening round, Staal is getting far more attention for his rough treatment of Sidney Crosby in Round 2.
While it's quite understandable to object to his tactics, much like former NHL official Kerry Fraser of TSN, you can't argue with the results. Staal has helped neutralize the league's most potent offensive weapon, and was awarded the team's Broadway Hat as team MVP of Game 1, as reported by Katie Strang of ESPN.
While the Rangers top scorers may be slumping, the team continues to survive because opponents have scored two goals or fewer in nine of the team's 13 games. Staal has been their key defensive weapon.
7. Trevor Daley, Dallas Stars
The trade deadline departure of Stephane Robidas opened the door for someone else on Dallas' blue line to step forward. That player turned out to be Trevor Daley.
Daley is a close second to Jamie Benn in quality of competition measurements, and leads the team with a 57.7-percent share of all penalty-killing duties.
The 10-season Dallas veteran nevertheless put the Stars at a huge advantage in their first-round series against Anaheim, helping them outshoot the Ducks 125-86 at even strength and outscore them 7-1.
Daley and partner Alex Goligoski were the ones primarily responsible for shutting down Anaheim's Corey Perry at even strength, and especially through the first four games of the series.
Perry did get under Daley's skin, however, provoking at least one of his many penalties, as reported by Chris Peters of CBS. If there is an improvement to be made to Daley's game, it could be his discipline, as his 19 regular-season minor penalties were second on the blue line to Brenden Dillon.
Daley's exceptional defensive play was not enough to upset the Anaheim Ducks, who scored 11 goals in the final two games after behind held to just nine through the first four.
6. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Paul Martin and Kris Letang is the pairing coach Dan Bylsma has chosen to take on the top lines, and it's pretty obvious which one was intended to do the heavy defensive lifting.
In addition to their staggering ice time at even strength, Bylsma has also assigned Martin a whopping 63.1 percent of all penalty-killing minutes. In that time Pittsburgh has allowed four power play goals, and also scored two shorthanders of its own.
Martin leads the team with 34 blocked shots—12 more than anyone else on the team—which is two back of the overall league lead. He has also drawn five penalties, two more than he's taken, far more than is typical for a defenseman over a 12-game period.
Most tellingly, the Penguins have outscored opponents 17-9 with Martin on the ice.
Several Rangers like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and even Martin St. Louis have taken some flak for their lack of scoring, and they may have Martin to thank for that. That's at least according to Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who felt we should "credit Paul Martin for Rangers' steep deficit."
The Penguins shut out the Rangers in Game 2 and 3, and held them to just five goals through the first four games.
Much is made of Pittsburgh's many offensive weapons, but how much of the credit for their success this year should be assigned to the play of defensemen like Martin?
According to Crosby himself, as reported by Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, "he plays power play, PK and he’s really calm back there. I think that poise shows and it’s contagious through everyone, but especially our D. Everybody has those type of guys and he’s key for us."
Given injuries to Brooks Orpik, and Rob Scuderi's struggles to play alongside Kris Letang, it is to Martin's considerable credit that their new top two-way pairing has been so successful.
5. Erik Haula, Minnesota Wild
Athough Minnesota's big-name players like Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise are getting more minutes and taking on the truly tough matchups, its checking line has really been making the big difference.
23-year-old rookie Erik Haula has been the key to that third line which has also featured Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter at various times. He's also been huge on the penalty kill, being assigned a team-leading 46.1 percent of such duties. The team has allowed only two power play goals with him the on the ice.
At even strength the Wild have outshot opponents 68-44 with Haula out there, a resulting percentage that ranks him third on the team behind Matt Moulson and Fontaine. That is particularly impressive given that he starts just 35.6 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone, one of the lowest rates on the team, and far lower than Koivu (54.9 percent) and Parise (61.6 percent).
Haula has also won 52 percent of his faceoffs, and joins Jason Pominville as the only other Wild forward yet to take a minor penalty.
It was the Finnish speedster that shadowed Nathan MacKinnon after the youngster exploded in the first two games, effectively shutting him down.
While his Game 5 goal against Chicago was funny, highlight-reel material, Haula has been defensively effective in the action he's seen against Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, not to mention Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defense.
Knocking off first place Colorado, and then playing largely even with the defending Stanley Cup champions requires more than just solid play from the team's high-priced talent.
The exceptional play from the value players like Haula who fill the remainder of the roster could be the main reason Minnesota is in a position to potentially advance to the Conference Final for only the second time in franchise history.
4. Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens
Tomas Plekanec has been the league's most effective penalty killer this postseason. He is tops among Montreal's forwards in handling 53.4 percent of the team's shorthanded situations, and yet only a single power play goal has been surrendered in all that time.
It's true that Montreal has been outscored 13-11 overall with Plekanec on the ice, but he can hardly be blamed for Price's .875 save percentage behind him.
He keeps the shot clock largely even, which is impressive given his usage. Plekanec leads the team in quality of competition, is second to Brian Gionta handling 29.2 percent of even-strength minutes, and starts just 30.0 percent of non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, the lowest among all of Montreal's regulars.
Playing conditions like that would result in virtually any player getting outscored, and by a far larger margin than he has.
After being tasked with shutting down Steven Stamkos in the opening round, Plekanec has been focusing on David Krejci, who has led in postseason in scoring twice in his career but has just three points in 11 games this year.
Arpon Basu of NHL.com observed that it was much the same story last time they met in the 2011 playoffs. Krejci managed just a single goal in that seven-game series, and then 11 goals and 11 assists in Boston's next 18 games.
Strong defensive play and goaltending not only helped Montreal sweep Tampa Bay, but also kept them playing largely even with the President's trophy winners.
Plekanec hasn't been perfect, however. His play in Game 5 was somewhat of a disappointment, when he took two of his three postseason penalties. That being said, the Habs might not even have gotten this close to an upset without him in the first place.
3. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Is there any defenseman NHL forwards like to face less than Boston's Norris finalist Zdeno Chara?
Boston uses Chara to the maximum possible extent. It isn't even possible to have a tougher assignment than his. He takes on the team's toughest opponents, leads the team by handling 62.3 percent of all penalty-killing minutes and starts only 42.7 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone, the second lowest on the team.
Despite that incredibly difficult situation, the team actually does better with Chara on the ice than when he's not. At even strength the Bruins lead opponents in attempted shots 216-167 and have outscored them 6-4. Granted, the Bruins have also allowed seven power play goals while the tall Slovakian was patrolling the crease.
Max Pacioretty himself admitted how effective a job Chara was doing in shutting him down, as reported by Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy. "Chara’s been really good this series. He goes into battles not worrying about someone playing the body on him. He’s so big, he doesn’t have to worry about that. Obviously, he’s difficult to play against."
Despite scoring 39 goals in the regular season, Montreal's top sniper just scored his first goal of the series in Game 6, and has required the man advantage for each of his three assists.
Boston allowed just six goals in their five-game opening round series against Detroit, which is no small feat.
The second-round series with Montreal has gone differently. The Habs have 12 goals in three games in Boston, but only seven goals in their three home games. Chara's ability to shut down Pacioretty at home in game seven could determine whose season will come to an end.
2. Marcus Kruger, Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago's big names get a lot of well-deserved praise, but what about the credit owed to checking-line talent like Marcus Kruger?
The 23-year-old Swede plays against top opponents, too, and almost exclusively in the defensive zone. Kruger starts only 21.6 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone, one of the lowest in the entire league. And yet the Blackhawks are still somehow dead even with their opponents in virtually any statistical category.
Kruger is also critical to the team's penalty killing, which has allowed only four goals in 43 shorthanded situations for a league-best 90.7 penalty-killing percentage.
While Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are generally the ones facing top opponents like Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, Kruger is no stranger to seeing their faces in shifts that begin the defensive zone or while killing penalties.
Would Chicago's stars continue to shine if they didn't have someone like Kruger handling so many of the defensive responsibilities? Even great two-way players like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp would see their scoring drop as they focused more on killing penalties and taking defensive zone draws.
Kruger's incredible defensive play is starting to get him some attention, as detailed recently by Scott Powers of ESPN Chicago. Powers also identified an offensive upside to his game.
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Selke favorite Patrice Bergeron plays all the tough minutes and yet dominates the possession game like none other.
Bergeron leads the team's forwards by taking on 42.3 percent of penalty-killing minutes, and is used in the defensive zone more frequently than any of the team's forwards except Gregory Campbell.
Campbell, however, doesn't take on the top opponents, nor does the team do particularly well when he's on the ice. With Bergeron they control the play 60.8 percent of the time, based on their share of attempted shots, which is second only to Reilly Smith. Bergeron has also won over 56 percent of his faceoffs.
The bottom line is that only four goals have been scored against the Bruins at even strength with Bergeron on the ice, two of which were secured in game six, and only three goals on the power play. In all they've outscored opponents 13-9 with Bergeron on the ice, one of the widest margins on the team.
Like Chara, Bergeron has focused his incredible defensive talents on Max Pacioretty.
Pacioretty had 39 goals in the regular season but just two so far in the playoffs, in Game 4 against Tampa Bay and Game 6 against the Bruins. He also has three assists against the Bruins, all of which were earned on the Canadiens' incredible power play.
Boston is incredibly difficult to score against and it can be hard to judge whether that's mostly goalie Rask, Chara or Bergeron. All we can say for certain is that whether Chara's on the ice or not, the Bruins become much more difficult to score against with Bergeron.
His incredible success has analysts like Steve Whyno of Global News wondering if Bergeron is now "the best all-around player in the NHL." Another Stanley Cup could help make that case.