Western Conference Defensemen: Pairing/Tier vs. Team Production

Updated: August 5, 2013 at 9:50 am by Dimitri Filipovic

Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson probably aren’t the 1st Blackhawks defensemen that come to mind, but their stellar play warrants recognition.
Image via Getty Images/Harry How.


On Thursday and Friday of last week, Travis Yost made his debut on this platform with a fascinating little research project. His goal was to take a look at how individual tiers of forwards for each team performed relative to their team’s overall production, using even-strength zone-adjusted Corsi. Now, I’ve been tasked with doing the same, but for defensemen.

Why are we choosing to use “tiers”, instead of terms such as “lines” and “pairings”, which you are likely more familiar with? By doing so, we’re able to account for things such as injuries, trades, call-ups, all of which naturally take place over the course of a season. There are so many little variations, and so much tinkering that takes place when it comes to specific usage, that it would really be a hassle to evalute things using those more commonly used terms. These tiers usually correlate very strongly with the most-regularly used combinations, anyways (i.e. the team’s top two defensemen are more often than not in tier 1, and so on).

Just remember: context is crucial, especially when looking at data such as this. A substantial injury to a crucial player thrusts an unlikely candidate into a role (more specifically a higher tier, based on more frequent usage) that you may not have expected. But that’s sort of the point of this. It tells us how well teams were able to perform with the pieces available at their disposal over an entire season.


Each team’s six most-regularly deployed defensemen were sorted by even-strength time on ice. Data was then collected for each individual at even-strength using Corsi (a proxy for possession-time and scoring chance differential). The number was then adjusted for zone-starts, and dropped into a weighted tier of most-commonly used blueliners. It was then (a) compared to the team’s even-strength zone-adjusted Corsi to identify potential outliers; and (b) compared to every other Western Conference team’s similar tier.

The Eastern Conference data is not included in this post, since comparing the two in a year where zero cross-conference games were played only makes the numbers more noisy. Instead, look for it in a separate post tomorrow morning.

Results By Team


Tier 1: Francois Beauchemin, Sheldon Souray

Tier 2: Luca Sbisa, Bryan Allen

Tier 3: Cam Fowler, Toni Lydman

Francois Beauchemin finished a +19 last season after being a -14 in 2011-12. Fun fact: nothing about his game changed, and I’m pretty sure he was just as good, if not even slightly better, the year before. Let that serve as your daily reminder that the +/- stat is one you shouldn’t care about.

I’m actually quite surprised that Bryan Allen wasn’t bought out this summer, because he’s terrible, and paying him $7 million over the next two seasons seems like something that shouldn’t be happening. Cam Fowler took a major step back last season, but we need to keep in mind that it can probably be attributed to switching off from Beauchemin to Allen.

It sounds like Lydman is retiring, but Ducks fans should be happy to note that when we do this list again next summer, Ben Lovejoy will likely be making an appearance. I thought he got better and better as the season went along, endearing himself to Bruce Boudreau to the point where he played 26:06 in Game 7 against the Red Wings. 



Tier 1: Dennis Wideman, Mark Giordano

Tier 2: TJ Brodie, Jay Bouwmeester

Tier 3: Chris Butler, Cory Sarich

TJ Brodie is some kind of wonderful, and while most casual (non-Flames) fans probably aren’t familiar with his name yet, they will be soon enough. As you may have guessed, he was the only defenseman on the team to finish in the black.

On a less positive note, Chris Butler was very likely one of the worst 5 defensemen in the entire league last year. Did that stop the Flames from sending him out there? Noooope.


Tier 1: Duncan Keith, Johnny Oduya

Tier 2: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook

Tier 3: Nick Leddy, Michal Roszival

Brent Seabrook wasn’t injured last season, yet Johnny Oduya still managed to ate up 37 more total non-power play minutes than him. The Hawks knew they had bigger fish to fry, and so they made a point of drastically reducing the minutes their horses were logging this season; Keith’s ATOI fell from 26:54 to 24:07, while Seabrook’s dropped from 24:43 to 22:00.

Yet the Blackhawks still kept trucking along, without missing a beat. That’s because Oduya (acquired for a 2nd and 3rd) and Hjalmarsson (should’ve figured he’d be capable of this as soon as Doug Wilson made his run at him in the summer of ’10) acquitted themselves beautifully in the shutdown role, while the 3rd pairing of Leddy and Roszival were allowed to crush the competition in cake minutes.

That top 6 is as strong as it gets, and this time around, the Blackhawks are bringing the entire band back together. I bet they won’t be needing the services of Theo Peckham and Mike Kostka this season.


Tier 1: Jan Hedja, Matt Hunwick

Tier 2: Greg Zanon, Tyson Barrie

Tier 3: Ryan O’Byrne, Erik Johnson

If I were a Colorado Avalanche fan, I’d still be exceptionally bitter about how last season played out. Sure, it sucks that Landeskog and Downie were injured, and that Ryan O’Reilly missed the first 19 games of the season because of his holdout. But an underrated part of how shocking their season was is the way their coaching staff handled Tyson Barrie, who was pretty clearly their most effective defenseman. Young blueliners make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that you send them to the AHL (or even worse, the pressbox) each time an assignment is missed or a puck is turned over. Let’s get #FreeTysonBarrie trending.

Greg Zanon was one blocked shot away from leading the league, but despite what some of the talking heads on your television may tell you, that’s not a good thing. It’s pretty much solely due to the fact that the ice is heavily tilted in the opposition’s favour while he’s out there.

In ’11-’12, Colorado’s top pairing of Hejda and O’Byrne was routinely getting hammered by the opposition. O’Byrne was just as bad this past season, which makes it sort of fitting that the Maple Leafs went ahead and acquired him at the deadline. It’s August 5th, and not a single team is pursuing his services, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.


Tier 1: Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson

Tier 2: Nikita Nikitin, James Wisniewski

Tier 3: Adrian Aucoin, Dalton Prout

The Blue Jackets have an interesting defensive corps. Nikitin and Tyutin were secretly fantastic in ’11-’12, but couldn’t seem to get back to that level this past season. Especially Nikitin. Which is a shame, since I really enjoyed seeing people react the first time they looked up his page on behindthenet [dot] ca.

I’m not sure that starting Jack Johnson in the offensive zone only 44.6% of the time is the smartest way to deploy him, but then again, I’m also not sure that trading Jeff Carter for him was all that smart, either. Looking through his game logs is fascinating; he hovered around 29 minutes or more on 8 different occasions last season, which is kind of impressive. And crazy.

I actually like James Wisniewski a fair bit, but obviously his contract ($5.5 mil for 4 more season is rather rough) and his inability to stay on the ice (52 games missed over the past 2 seasons) make it tough to defend him. 

Anyways, it seemed like any time these guys made a mistake last season, the number one cop in the force, Sergei BOBROVSKY!!, was there to bail them out.


Tier 1: Brendan Dillon, Alex Goligoski

Tier 2: Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley

Tier 3: Phillip Larsen, Aaron Rome

Brendan Dillon is an absolute monster, folks. A rookie should not be able to handle the type of minutes that he did, as effectively as he did. I had him 4th on my personal (imaginary, since I never actually wrote it up nor do I have a real one) ballot for Rookie of the Year. His story is a fascinating one, and Jeff Angus has been all over it since Day 1.

Alex Goligoski is no James Neal – and because of that, he’ll never really be given a fair shake for as long as he’s in Dallas – but he just completed his 2nd straight really effective season in Big D, and was on an 82-game pace of nearly 50 points. With the addition of Sergei Gonchar on the point opposite him on the power play, he could see his production take yet another uptick.


Tier 1: Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson

Tier 2: Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey

Tier 3: Brendan Smith, Brian Lashoff

The underlying numbers for the Red Wings group of defensemen were probably one of the more surprising things I came across when compiling all of the data. Given the names involved, I really went into it expecting to see a trainwreck; instead, they more than held their own. While Kronwall was no Nick Lidstrom, he did a fine job filling the role of the team’s go-to guy on the back-end. 

I don’t know whose dog Ian White kicked, but man, people must hate him. Brian Lashoff, who has no business partaking in NHL games, got burn over him at times. Obviously White’s numbers were inflated in ’11-’12 thanks to #5, but still, I view him as a legitimate 2nd pairing guy. Yet he clearly fell out of favour in Detroit, and whenever he winds up signing (why haven’t I heard any rumours about teams pursuing him?), it’ll likely be with his 6th different team in just 8 seasons.


Tier 1: Jeff Petry, Justin Schultz

Tier 2: Ladislav Smid, Nick Schultz

Tier 3: Ryan Whitney, Corey Potter

Writing up this portion of the article was difficult, since everytime I’d finalize Edmonton’s chart, Justin Schultz would go ahead and give up another scoring chance against. But just like poor Devan Dubnyk, I managed to persevere. While he had his moments in his rookie season – 27 points (T-12th for defensemen), with 15 coming on the power play (8th) is definitely something to build off of – the heavily sought-after blueliner was clearly in over his head last season. 

Yet despite all of his struggles, he was still so much significantly better than Ryan Whitney. It’s almost hard to fathom someone being as bad as Whitney was, without intentionally trying to be. I’d say that it was depressing watching him limp around on that surgically repaired ankle, but given how smug and self-righteous he comes across on Twitter, I can’t feel too bad for him. He’s still available as a UFA, and while I guess I wouldn’t totally hate my team taking a no-risk flyer on him, I wouldn’t expect to get anything from him. Especially with that giant fork lodged in his back.


Tier 1: Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov

Tier 2: Rob Scuderi, Jake Muzzin

Tier 3: Keaton Ellerby, Alec Martinez

The Kings have been able to get value later on in drafts when it comes to defensemen, with Voynov (2nd round), Martinez (4th round), Muzzin (5th round by Penguins, but unsigned) all becoming useful players for them. When you combine that with the overall amount of talent the team boasts, you can get away with making some questionable moves if you’re Dean Lombardi.

But that doesn’t mean that trading for Robyn Regehr (and then inexplicably re-signing after seeing for yourself just how much he resembles a pylon), Keaton Ellerby, and signing Jeff Schultz isn’t still baffling. I’m not quite sure what Lombardi, who has otherwise done a sterling job, is doing with his blueline. 

The most egregious is obviously Regehr, who just can’t really hang with the speed of most competent NHL players anymore. Drew Doughty’s with-or-without you (WOWY) totals are staggering: he had a 49.2 CF% alongside Regehr, and a 59.3 CF% when freed from the anchor. Somehow, Regehr managed to make Doughty look mortal. Just ask Jake Muzzin how difficult that is to do.

Keep in mind that Martinez, he of the 59.4 CF% in 317 minutes of (thoroughly sheltered, to be fair) even-strength time, is most likely the casualty of these strange moves. And even despite all of this, the Kings will more than likely be just fine next season.


Tier 1: Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin

Tier 2: Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert

Tier 3: Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk

Player A: 1.040 Corsi Rel QoC, -2.3 Corsi Relative, 0.6 Penalties Taken/60, 49.9 offensive zone start %

Player B: 1.046 Corsi Rel QoC, 4.9 Corsi Relative, 0.3 Penalties Taken/60, 46.9 offensive zone start %

Player A was Ryan Suter last season, who made $22 million, and was a finalist for the Norris. Player B was his running mate Jonas Brodin, who made $1.44 million, and somehow wasn’t even a finalist for the Calder. So go ahead and tell me that these trivial player awards should be something that matters in the grand scheme of things. Over time, I’ve learnt not to get worked up over them. At least not as much as I used to, that is.

The Wild bought out Gilbert this summer, but he’ll be replaced by Keith Ballard, who they sneakily brought in on a low-risk deal following his buyout. I’m expecting Ballard to have a nice little bounce-back season now that he has been freed from Alain Vigneault’s house of horrors.


Tier 1: Shea Weber, Roman Josi

Tier 2: Kevin Klein, Scott Hannan

Tier 3: Ryan Ellis, Jonathan Blum

It’s a testament to just how dominant Shea Weber has been over the past handful of years that this lockout shortened season was probably the worst one he has had since he became “SHEA WEBER” (in capital letters). In fact, it was the first time since ’07-’08 (as far back as behindthenet’s data goes) that he was a negative possession player. While the idea that he missed Ryan Suter, or that the pressure of his newly signed contract got to him makes for a conveniently interesting story, I don’t really buy it.

Simply put, the Nashville Predators were a mess last season; as Travis Yost noted, they didn’t have a single forward log over 400 even-strength minutes and break even. That’s really unfortunate.

That was my long-winded way of saying that I’m not even remotely worried about Weber, and I’d bet anything that he returns to form next season. As for Josi, I think that last season has to be considered a success for him. He finished the year very effectively after coming out of the gate clumsily. 

Ryan Ellis only had 6 points in 32 games, which looks strange given the gaudy point totals he was putting up in the OHL for years. But all of his underlying metrics look fine to me; he was easily the team’s most effective player at driving play from the back end. He’ll more than likely need to be sheltered throughout the entirety of his career, but if he keeps on this path, I’d expect the production to come along as well.


Tier 1: Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Tier 2: Derek Morris, Zbynek Michalek

Tier 3: Rostislav Klesla, Michael Stone

When October rolls around and everyone puts out their preseason awards column, expect Ekman-Larsson to be a trendy Norris pick. Rightfully so, because he’s tremendous. He essentially did everything the Phoenix Coyotes needed him to do, and then some. Producing the way that he did while playing the types of minutes that he did is something that only a handful of defensemen in the entire NHL can do. Except he just turned 22, meaning there’s reason to believe that he’s just getting started.

After a somewhat disappointing ’11-’12 campaign, Yandle bounced back to being one of the better puck-movers in the league. With OEL and Michalek doing the heavy lifting, himself and Morris were able to drive play against weaker competition.

This feels like a good time to mention that the Coyotes have David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley, two of the more highly touted prospect defensemen in the entire league, on the way. 


Tier 1: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart

Tier 2: Dan Boyle, Justin Braun

Tier 3: Matt Irwin, Brent Burns

You don’t often see a player undergo as drastic a change in deployment as Dan Boyle did going from ’11-’12 to this past season. Since Rob Blake retired, the Sharks had used Boyle to go up against the opposition’s very best, until last season, where a changing of the guard of sorts took place. Marc-Edouard Vlasic (who is truly one of the league’s best shutdown guys) was charged with that responsibility, allowing Boyle to log some softer minutes.

With his age (37 years old), and the team’s playoff aspirations in mind, Todd McLellan used him nearly 3 minutes less per game, resulting in Boyle’s least productive season since before the other lockout. But he was still fantastic at keeping play moving in the right direction, and he even took rookie Matt Irwin along for the ride.

Burns’ numbers are skewed because they include what he did during his stint as a forward playing alongside Joe Thornton, but hey, he’s a beast regardless of what position he’s playing. By the way, it’s so weird how the San Jose Sharks didn’t seem to miss Douglas Murray in the slightest, isn’t it?


Tier 1: Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk

Tier 2: Roman Polak, Barret Jackman

Tier 3: Kris Russell, Wade Redden

The Blues are loaded, man. For my money, they’ve got the best group of defensemen from 1 through 6 in the entire league. And they’re doing their best to make sure it stays that way; this summer they’ve re-signed Shattenkirk, and Leopold, extended Bouwmeester, and will likely re-sign Pietrangelo soon enough. 

I still, to this day, can’t believe that they got their hands on Chris Stewart while swapping Erik Johnson for Shattenkirk. Highway robbery. And they somehow got Jordan Leopold for less than what the Penguins paid to acquire Douglas Murray. Doug Armstrong is an assassin.

Now just imagine if they still had Nikita Nikitin instead of Kris ‘The Weak Link’ Russell..


Tier 1: Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler

Tier 2: Jason Garrison, Kevin Bieksa

Tier 3: Chris Tanev, Keith Ballard

The team with possibly the most skewed distribution of production for their forward tiers has one of the more well-rounded defensive groups. You can count on one hand the number of teams in the league that can match up with the Canucks on the back-end.

What’s concerning for the team’s fans, though, is how badly Kevin Bieksa cratered following his split with Dan Hamhuis. While it’s certainly possible that the injuries he battled through all season long limited him physically, there’s also a very real possibility that Hamhuis – a top 15 defensmen, and one of the best values in the league – simply made him look significantly better than he really is.

By the way, are there still any people out there that think signing Jason Garrison to the contract that they did was a mistake? If there are, they’ve gotten awfully quiet.

To wrap things up, here’s a look at how each team stacks up against their Western Conference rivals, tier by tier:

Tier One: Conference-Wide


Tier Two: Conference-Wide

Tier Three: Conference-Wide