Eastern Conference Defensemen: Pairing/Tier vs. Team Production

Updated: August 6, 2013 at 9:45 am by Dimitri Filipovic

Cheer up, Alfie; who needs Erik Karlsson when you have Patrick Wiercioch and Andre Benoit, right?.
Image via Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen.


If you’ve been following along with us here at NHL Numbers, you’ll know that this is the fourth and final installment of a series in which we’ve went ahead and broken down forward lines and defensive pairings into “tiers”, and compared their production to not only that of their own team, but also the tiers of the other clubs’s in their conference.

We separated the conference into two separate posts since there were zero cross-conference games during this previous lockout shortened season. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to compare the two. We took a look at the Western Conference defensemen on Monday. Today, it’s time to evaluate the Eastern Conference blueliners. 


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 blue-liners. It was then (a) compared to the team’s even-strength zone-adjusted Corsi to identify potential outliers; and (b) compared to every other Eastern Conference team’s similar tier.

Results By Team


Tier 1: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg

Tier 2: Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference

Tier 3: Adam McQuaid, Dougie Hamilton

It’s pretty clear that even at age 36, Zdeno Chara is still the gold standard when it comes to NHL defensemen. I’d say that he should start slowing down, but for all I know, he’s a cyborg. If you’re sitting down, I have a crazy stat to share with you: Chara and teammate Patrice Bergeron shared the ice for 229:23 of even-strength ice time this past season, and during that time, the Bruins surrended a grand total of 1 goal. Holy smokes.

Despite the fact that Andrew Ference seems to have an awesome personality, I don’t think the Bruins are going to miss him all that much. Especially not for $13 million over the next 4 seasons. On a totally unrelated note, Dougie Hamilton is going to be a star. That much is certain. The bigger question, though, is when we can just start referring to him as “Doug”?


Tier 1: Christian Ehrhoff, Andrej Sekera

Tier 2: Tyler Myers, Mike Weber

Tier 3: Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold

Back in April, Thomas Drance astutely suggested that Christian Ehrhoff should be getting “Norris buzz“, and he wasn’t wrong. In a season full of lowlights and disappointment in Buffalo, The Hoff was a star, while getting nearly no help from any of his teammates. It wasn’t too long ago that Canucks fans were cool with seeing him walk in free agency; now, they’d give up a kidney to see him driving play from the back-end for their team.

This list will look drastically different next year, considering the Sabres traded away 3 of their top 6 guys (Sekera, Regehr, Leopold). This team needs a fresh start, so that’s the good news. The bad news? They signed Mike Weber to a 3-year extension, and Tyler Myers is on the books for $33 million over the next 5 seasons. As you can see from the chart above, those two were, um, not so good this past season.


Tier 1: Jay Harrison, Tim Gleason

Tier 2: Justin Faulk, Jamie McBain

Tier 3: Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti

It’s such a damn shame that Joni Pitkanen can’t stay on the ice. The Finnish defenseman is a fantastic all-around player, but he has now missed 110 games during his 5 years in Carolina (cue Sami Salo, nodding his head sadly). Oh what could’ve been.

I’m expecting an enormous campaign from third year man Justin Faulk next season. I’m totally in love with his skillset, and what he has already managed to do by the age of 21. He’s right there with the Brendan Dillons and Jonas Brodins of the world. Unfortunately, his upside from a point total standpoint is probably limited for the time being because of the two-way role he needs to play on the ‘Canes as they’re currently constructed.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, who started 13 games for the Hurricanes last season, started 74.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Classic. And finally, can Mike Komisarek rejuvenate his career in Carolina? No.


Tier 1: Brian Campbell, Filip Kuba

Tier 2: Tyson Strachan, Dmitry Kulikov

Tier 3: Erik Gudbranson, Mike Weaver

In 2011-12, Filip Kuba was handed the NHL’s version of the golden ticket; 977 of his 1118 minutes of even-strength ice time were spent playing alongside Erik Karlsson. The result was a 32-point campaign in which he finished +26. He parlayed that season into a 2-year, $8 million deal with the Florida Panthers. He’s now back on the market, after the team bought him out following a dreadful year on a terrible team. The grass isn’t always greener, Filip.

I’m a huge Dmitry Kulikov fan, and think he has all the upside in the world, but he needs to stop getting injured. As for Erik Gudbranson – I just don’t really see it. He could be a decent second pairing defensemen, but the Panther just ain’t getting what they thought they were when they took him 3rd overall. He has had a miserable start to his career; the fact that his goaltenders stopped 88.9% of the pucks they faced while he was on the ice surely doesn’t help things, either.

Tyson Strachan was actually very effective playing alongside Campbell, but was snatched up once he hit the market this offseason with the Capitals wisely jumping on him. 


Tier 1: Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov

Tier 2: Francis Bouillon, PK Subban

Tier 3: Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz

Pernell Karl Subban is a man, and we are all boys. That’s pretty much all the analysis I have on this one.

It was also really nice to see Andrei Markov stay healthy, and play the full 48 games. He slowed down as the year went along, but he was still quite effective, and a huge reason for Montreal’s unexpected success in the regular season. 


Tier 1: Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky

Tier 2: Bryce Salvador, Adam Larsson

Tier 3: Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov

There are very few things that I came across during the process of compiling this data which caught me totally by surprise. Just how ridiculously good Mark Fayne was last season – and has been, for a while now, quite frankly – was not something that I was prepared for. He’s 26 years old, and an impending UFA. A guy I’d keep an eye on, if I were you. Here are his 3 seasons in the NHL:

Corsi Rel QoC: 0.537, 0.787, 0.783

Corsi Relative: 7.7, 1.6, 6.6

CF%: 54.8%, 50.7%, 59.7%

Off Zone Start %: 52.4%, 49.9%, 46.5%

On a less positive front, Adam Larsson got absolutely massacred. You have to classify last season as a major step-back for the highly touted defenseman.


Tier 1: Andrew MacDonald, Travis Hamonic

Tier 2: Mark Streit, Lubomir Visnovsky

Tier 3: Thomas Hickey, Brian Strait

Cam Charron wrote an article which I enjoyed roughly a month ago titled “Party on, Garth Snow“. It shines a light on how fine a job the GM of the Islanders has done in extracting value, and building a competitive team riddled with guys that no other team seemed to want. Just take a look at how they assembled their defense: Hickey and Strait were claimed off of waivers, Hamonic was a 2nd rounder, MacDonald was a 6th rounder, Lubomir Visnovsky was traded for a 2nd despite the fact that he made it clear he had no desire to play for them. Mark Streit was the only guy they paid anything for, when they lured him from Montreal in free agency.

Something to keep in mind when looking at their chart, though, is that the Islanders really only routinely used 5 defensemen this past season. Brian Strait, the final member of the 3rd tier, played under 300 ES minutes. After him, Matt Carkner, Radek Martinek, and Joe Finley all were between 187 and 268 ES minutes.


Tier 1: Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi

Tier 2: Michael Del Zotto, Anton Stralman

Tier 3: Steve Eminger, Marc Staal

Dan Girardi’s play fell off last season, after he had been dynamite for the Rangers the previous season. I think it’s fair to wonder whether the crazy amount of minutes he has logged over the past few seasons are starting to take a toll. Thankfully for them, Ryan McDonagh is a stud, and will continue to be a stud in a Ranger uniform until at least 2018-19.

I really feel for Marc Staal, who is a really effective hockey player, and one I enjoy watching do work. He finally starts to round into form coming back from a devastating concussion (inflicted by his own brother, no less) only to take a puck to the face, causing serious damage to his eye. It’s scary to read reports about it that say he thinks his sight will never be back to 100%. I’m really hoping he can recover from this latest setback.

Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal are their only 2 defensemen with contracts past next season (with Staal’s expiring the year after that). Interesting season ahead for the Rags.


Tier 1: Marc Methot, Sergei Gonchar

Tier 2: Chris Phillips, Eric Gryba

Tier 3: Patrick Wiercioch, Andre Benoit

“OMG like do you actually think that Erik Karlsson isn’t one of the best 6 defensemen on the Senators?”- someone that didn’t read the introduction at the top.

Obviously the Senators missed Karlsson’s services on the back-end badly (and Cowen’s, who sat out 41 games, himself), but somehow, they managed to keep trucking along. You don’t just become the #PeskySens for no reason, after all.

Methot and Gryba handled the shutdown duties in their stead, and didn’t do so hot. Considering Gryba had 0 games of NHL experience coming into the season, it was probably an unfair position to throw him into. Methot’s numbers look much nicer than Gryba’s because of the 222+ minutes he spent with Karlsson, during which he posted a sterling 59.7 CF%. Still, I chuckled to myself when I saw that Team Canada invited him to their camp. I don’t think even his parents believe that he should make the team.

Patrick Wiercioch was pretty freakin’ awesome when paired with Gonchar. Finally, I have to give Andre Benoit some extra credit at this time. He managed to pump out a must-read book all while playing defense for the Ottawa Senators on the side. Now that’s a two-way player. 


Tier 1: Luke Schenn, Kimmo Timonen

Tier 2: Braydon Coburn, Bruno Gervais

Tier 3: Erik Gustafsson, Nicklas Grossmann

I hope you got all of the Luke Schenn jokes out of your system, because we technically can’t make them anymore. Believe it or not he was actually really effective in a Flyers uniform, after a disappointing stretch in Toronto where it seemed like he was surely headed towards being a bust. Himself and Kimmo Timonen were the lone bright spots on the back-end for the Flyers, with everyone else being horrendous (as evidenced above). Although, an interesting guy to watch out for next season is Oliver Lauridsen, who handled himself nicely in his first taste of the NHL. In a shutdown role, to boot.

Here’s a list of all of the guys who played defense for the Philadelphia Flyers last season: Kimmo Timonen, Luke Schenn, Erik Gustafsson, Bruno Gervais, Braydon Coburn, Kurtis Foster, Nicklas Grossmann, Oliver Lauridsen, Andrej Meszaros, Brandon Manning, Kent Huskins, Andreas Lilja, and Matthew Konan. O.K.


Tier 1: Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen

Tier 2: Kris Letang, Paul Martin

Tier 3: Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland

Brooks Orpik blocks shots, throws a lot of hard hits, and also consistently gets buried in his own zone with the puck on the other team’s stick. He’s not very good, and yet, he still logs a ton of minutes on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. So did the plodding Douglas Murray, though.

Thankfully for Pittsburgh, their other defensemen are pretty freakin’ good. Paul Martin shook off being terrible, and had himself a really nice season. Matt Niskanen was a steal in the James Neal trade, and did an admirable job of being Kris Letang’s caddy. Despite the fact that he gets buried every time he makes a mistake, I’m a huge fan of Simon Despres in a sheltered role. 

Oh, and then there’s Kris Letang, who is in the discussion for one of the best defensemen in the game. His conventional counting stats are filthy (38 points in 35 games, while putting the puck on net a ton and logging heavy minutes), but his underlying metrics may be even more impressive (16.2 corsi relative, while playing against tough opposition). The only knock on him is that he has missed 44 games in the past 2 seasons, which is obviously a concern. 


Tier 1: Matt Carle, Eric Brewer

Tier 2: Victor Hedman, Sami Salo

Tier 3: Radko Gudas, Keith Aulie

I’m pretty sure that in an ideal situation, Sami Salo should not be playing nearly 21 minutes a night while starting only 42% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and going up against the opposition’s very best. Not at age 38. But he was forced to on the Lightning, who paired him with Victor Hedman. Now that I think about it, it’s actually kind of a miracle that Salo managed to play in 46 games.

We figured Matt Carle was an overpay at the time of the contract, and while he was fine for the Lightning last season, you’re probably hoping that $33 million over 6 years gets you something more than what he provided. But when it comes to free agent defensemen on the open market these days, it kind of doesnt. 

We all know that Victor Hedman is a stud, and will be a star for many, many years. Also, Radko Gudas was kind of sneaky good in a sheltered role once he was called up from the AHL.


Tier 1: Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson

Tier 2: Mark Fraser, Carl Gunnarsson

Tier 3: Mike Kostka, John-Michael Liles

Poor Dion Phaneuf. Let’s just say that the circumstances he was forced to play in were, um, less than optimal. He faced the 3rd toughest competition in the league (behind Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek of the Coyotes), started 41.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone (easily the lowest number of his career), and spent a combined 346 ES minutes (out of just over 700) playing next to the combination of Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer. With all of that in mind, it’s rather impressive that he managed to post 28 points, no?

Optimistic view: they managed to avoid overpaying for Mark Fraser (and his ridiculous +18 from last season), they brought back Carl Gunnarsson on a 3-year deal (who stayed afloat while playing tough minutes last season), and there’s a strong shot of Paul Ranger and Jake Gardiner making their way onto this list when we do it next year.

Pessimistic view: they’re messing around with Cody Franson and his contract (who was easily their 2nd most important defenseman last season), and the people calling the shots are the same ones that thought Ryan O’Byrne was a worthwhile addition at the trading deadline. Oh, and there’s also a strong shot of Jake Gardiner not being on this list next season because his coach passionately dislikes him.

PS: Remember that time Mike Kostka played 31:33 in a game that ended in regulation?


Tier 1: Karl Alzner, John Carlson

Tier 2: Mike Green, John Erskine

Tier 3: Steve Oleksy, Jack Hillen

Good on George McPhee for getting Karl Alzner (24) and John Carlson (23) to sign up for long-term at a combined cap hit of $6.77 million. What I don’t quite understand, is why they broke the two up last season (after a pretty solid 2011-12 campaign given their usage), only to go ahead and pair Alzner up with Green. I guess they don’t have very many options considering how wretched their defensemen are after those 3. John Erskine is not good, and should not be playing well over 18 minutes a night under any circumstances. But he did, on a playoff team.



Tier 1: Ron Hainsey, Dustin Byfuglien

Tier 2: Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome

Tier 3: Paul Postma, Mark Stuart

Keep in mind that Tobias Enstrom only suited up for 22 games due to injury, which was a devastating blow for the Jets. The pairing of him and Byfuglien was one of the best in 2011-12; they were puck possession monsters, driving play like it was nobody’s business. Big Buffy was still pretty darn effective even without his running mate, but it’s clear that he missed Enstrom’s presence.

The trickle-down effect was that it forced Ron Hainsey to play way too many minutes; he led the team in total minutes at even-strength. On the other hand, it led to Grant Clitsome being handed a bigger role, too. And that worked out for them. He proved that he was more than serviceable, as he managed to hang quite effectively while riding shotgun next to Byfuglien.

Zach Bogosian, who just signed a healthy extension, will not produce the numbers people expect from a 3rd overall pick for as long as he continues to be charged with handling the types of minutes that he has thus far in his career. At least he’s not Erik Gudbranson, though.

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

Tier One: League-Wide


Tier Two: League-Wide


Tier Three: League-Wide