Dan Girardi's defensive secret: crazy eyes (Getty Images)
One of the more frequent criticisms lobbied against the NHL All-Star game is that there isn't much defense.
Well, duh. First of all, a low-scoring game would be a letdown, especially considering the names involved. Second, very few of the players selected earn their spot due to their defensive acumen.
Sure, there are outliers like Dan Girardi, but the game is about the league's offensive superstars, the guys relied on to score and deployed with that outcome in mind. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, for instance, are two of the league's best scorers, but that's effectively all they're counted on to do: they start a staggering 79% of their shifts in the offensive zone. To put that in perspective, only two other players in the entire NHL are above 70% when it comes to O-Zone starts: Marc-Andre Bergeron and linemate Alex Burrows.
This isn't to say they're poor defenders. After all, it's difficult t score while the Sedins are cycling the puck in the corner for a half hour, but if the All-Star Game rosters were selected based on the league's defensive elite, the Sedins wouldn't be in Ottawa. Frankly, the same could be said for Joffrey Lupul a number of the attendees.
But if the criteria were defense-first, who would make the team?
It's not easy to build an accurate, defense-first All-Star game. Some players are known league-wide for their defense and are easy choices. Others are considered defensive stalwarts, even if their underlying numbers and/or usage actually belie that. Others are hardly known at all, namely because their defensive contributions are quiet and unnoticeable. It's a tough go.
But what follows is my attempt. I give you the NHL's Defense-First All-Star roster:
FORWARDS: David Backes, Patrice Bergeron, Brian Boyle, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Cal Clutterbuck, Dave Bolland, Pavel Datsyuk, Boyd Gordon, Martin Hanzal, Ryan Kesler, Mikko Koivu, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Laich, David Legwand, Manny Malhotra, Jay McClement, Frans Nielsen, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Plekanec, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Jonathan Toews.
David Legwand (Getty Images)Players like Bergeron, Koivu, and Backes are all deserving of Selke nominations for their play this year. They eat up tough defensive minutes, they drive play in the right direction, and they spearhead three of the NHL's most defense-oriented squads.
Bergeron is one of the league's best players at both ends of the ice, and his plus-27 rating, bested only by teammate Tyler Seguin, is evidence of that. He's so unrecognized it's criminal. Heck, if it were actually criminal, he'd never get caught because no one ever seems to notice him.
Legwand is the unheralded leader of the Predators' forward corps. While the blueline and the goaltender tend to hog all the credit in Nashville, Legwand sees the tough minutes up front and is Barry Trotz's go-to forward on special teams.
Obviously, no list of the league's best defensive players is complete without Neilsen or Selke standards like Kesler, Datsyuk, Staal and Toews.
But Toews is actually a good place to start a discussion of why any list of the league's best defensive forwards needs to look beyond reputation: he may lead the league in takeaways and in faceoff percentage, typically two statistics used to measure defensive skill, but he's actually not seeing the tough defensive minutes on the Chicago Blackhawks. Most of those are going to Dave Bolland, the agitating third line centre.
Dave Bolland (Getty Images)Toews starts 62.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and is primarily deployed as an offensive weapon. If you're looking for the truest defensive forward in Chicago, Bolland, who only starts inside the opponents' zone 32.5% of the time, is your guy.
Or consider Manny Malhotra, who allows the Sedins near-exclusive dibs on offensive zone starts by beginning only 13.2% of his shifts there, lowest in the NHL. Effectively, all he does is win the draw in his own zone, move the puck up the ice, and change. He is the league's most defense-oriented forward.
With such ugly usage, it's no wonder Malhotra rarely shows up on the scoresheet, and many of the other players selected are similarly difficult to spot for the same reasons. Martin Hanzal and Boyd Gordon of the Phoenix Coyotes, for instance, eat up tough, vital, defensive minutes for their team and are rarely heralded for it.
Cal Clutterbuck doesn't just provide hits for the Wild. Sure, he's second in the league in the category, but he's also one of the league's best penalty killers, tied for first in shorthanded goals. And speaking of killing penalties, Jay McClement is a standout first option in Colorado, and has been one of the best penalty killers in the league for a few seasons now. And speaking of standout penalty killers, Max Talbot's 3:44 of shorthanded icetime per game in Philadelphia makes him the only forward among the top 20 in the category.
Finally, Chris Kunitz might not be the first Pittsburgh Penguins' forward you think about when it comes to All-Star candidacy, but he leads the league in Corsi rating, which is a measurement of shots directed towards your net versus the opponents' net when you're on the ice. He plays with some quality centres, but few drive possession quite like he does.
DEFENSEMEN: Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Zdeno Chara, Francois Beauchemin, Josh Gorges, Brent Seabrook, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Nicklas Lidstrom, Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Alexander Edler is the Canucks' defenseman invited to Ottawa this year, but from a defensive standpoint, he's the number three option in Vancouver. The pairing of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are among the league's best, seeing the toughest assignments night in and night out and coming out with some impressive possession numbers nonetheless.
Hamhuis was the winner of James Mirtle's fictional Rod Langway award for the league's best defensive defenseman, and he's been just as steady this year.
Obviously, since this is a defense-first league, a number of the league's All-Star defensemen are still here. Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the league's best defenders, not just presently, but all-time, and no list of standout defenders is complete without him. Zdeno Chara is the best defenseman on the planet (and likely the one he comes from, unless it's a Chara planet), and there isn't a better pairing in the NHL than Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Getty Images)Dan Girardi, the lone defensive defenseman in Ottawa this weekend, definitely makes this list, as does his partner Ryan McDonagh, who has emerged as one of the league's best defenders in his sophomore season.
Francois Beauchemin, who recently signed a 3-year extension with the Anaheim Ducks, is a deserving invite to the defense-first All-Star Game. How vital is he to the Ducks defensively? He's spent 219:01 on the penalty kill this season, over 30 minutes more than anyone else in the league. The next closest guy? Josh Gorges, who also makes this list.
Duncan Keith may be the Blackhawks' top defender, but from a defense-first perspective, Brent Seabrook is the Chicago blueliner who gets right of first refusal.
The big surprise here might be Vlasic. While Brent Burns and Dan Boyle are the big names on the San Jose Sharks' back end, Vlasic is the blueliner that frees them up for offensive situations by eating up the tough defensive minutes.