The 5 Toughest Defensemen I’ve Ever Faced

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Logan Couture, Center / San Jose Sharks - The Players' Tribune

Before we start, I just want to take a second to thank our fans in San Jose for their part in an amazing ride to the Stanley Cup finals. I’m back home in Canada for the summer, and so many people have come up to me and said, “Hey, that was a great run. I enjoyed watching it.”

Whenever they do, the memories come flooding back — each and every series. Beating the Kings in the opening round was huge because, there’s obviously no love lost between us and them. But beyond the L.A. series, there are two specific moments I’ll remember about this postseason until the day I die:

1. The triple-overtime Game 4 against Nashville. We didn’t even win the game, but just playing in a triple-overtime game in the playoffs was so much fun. You’re so tired when you get back to the bench after your shift that you can’t even think. You just drink some water and try to catch your breath and then go back out again. The trainers had some pizza and fruit and stuff laid out for us during the intermissions, but I was too tired to eat. That was a blast. Hockey at its best.

2. When Joonas Donskoi scored the OT game-winner in Game 3 of the finals, that was the loudest I’ve ever heard the Shark Tank. There were season-ticket holders who have been going to games for 25 years who had tears in their eyes because they got to see us win a Stanley Cup finals game on home ice.

Our run at the Cup didn’t end the way we wanted, but it was such a fun ride. Now I’m sitting at home here in Canada just wishing that it was still going on. I didn’t want to stop playing.

So since I can’t play hockey right now, I figured it was a good time to talk hockey. A lot of people have been asking when I was going to deliver on my promise to do a sequel to my Elite Centers 101 article. This time around, I thought it would be cool to expand beyond centers and break down some of the best defensemen (and defensive forwards) in the NHL.

Let’s start with a guy I see every single day in practice.

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Brent Burns
Fun fact: Burnzie got his first tattoo when he was 11 years old. It’s a Canadian flag with two hockey sticks going through it. And his dad took him to get it. He’s added a few more over the years, including a tattoo on his leg of Harry Potter battling a giant blue dragon. So it should be no surprise that the first word that comes to mind when I think of Burnzie is beast.

He led all defensemen with 27 goals this season. He has one of the best shots from the point in the NHL, but the important aspect is how well he gets the puck through traffic. Having a hard shot doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get the puck to the net. Burnzie rarely gets his shots blocked, which is an incredible skill in today’s NHL. Technically, he’s very good at using the toe-drag to the change the angle on his release to get the shot through the first wave of blockers.

The guy is 230 pounds of pure muscle, but look at the hands and skating on display here.

At the point, he likes to use the half-slapper. When I see him open, I try to bank the puck off the boards so it will pop out to an area where he can one-time it off the bounce instead of having to gather it. One thing that people might not realize is how important a defenseman’s reach can be. With Burnzie, you can make a poor pass and he’ll still be able to get a shot off because his “area” is so big.

If there’s no open lane, he’ll shoot at somebody’s stick to try to get a deflection — especially when Joe Pavelski is on the ice. That’s how you get 48 assists to go along with your 27 goals.

One of Burnzie’s best skills is his ability to rush the puck up the ice and penetrate deep into the offensive zone, almost like an extra forward. Obviously when a d-man jumps into the play, it’s really important that he doesn’t get trapped deep. Burnzie has a great sense of when he has to bail. He’ll stay deep in the offensive zone for that precious extra second because he trusts his speed and intuition to get back on D.

Defensively, he’s good where he doesn’t get enough credit: He’s strong in battles, he pushes guys around and he uses his stick well. With the rule changes over the past few years, it’s tough for defensemen as big as Brent to dominate physically, but he’s really smart about using his hips and his ass to deliver huge checks instead of his shoulders and elbows.

Burnzie delivers the kind of textbook, old-school hip checks you don’t see much anymore.

Last but not least: He’s got a great beard. I don’t think you’ll find a more versatile defenseman in the league. I’m glad he’s on my team.

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Roman Josi
Guys like Josi, Doughty, Karlsson and Subban are difficult to play against because they’re not just one-dimensional. They can beat you in so many ways. I could mention any of those guys here, but I’ll highlight Josi specifically because he’s still a little bit under the radar, and (unfortunately for us) we see a lot of him. Because he’s been paired with Shea Weber the past few years, people don’t realize how good he is himself.

Josi’s biggest strength is his elite skating ability. He’s so smooth that he can skate the puck out of trouble while making it look easy. On the Predators’ breakout, he’s usually leading the rush. He skates the puck up the middle of the ice and keeps driving in the offensive zone, similar to the way Burnzie does it.

Watch what he does here to create time and space for his forwards to make a line change, and then when the fresh troops come on, he opens up the play and drives the puck into the offensive zone.

Offensively, he’s got the hands and the confidence to make plays at the blue line. Those kind of plays can be dangerous in the wrong hands, but Josi has the skill to pull them off. This goal against Chicago in the 2015 playoffs shows the total package of what he can do.

He has the strength to shrug off the check at the blue line, the vision and skating ability to get into space, and the hands to drag the puck around the pokecheck and roof it from a ridiculous angle.

You probably don’t even notice his body control at full speed, but look at his release in slow-motion.

That’s the thing with Josi — you definitely have to watch him multiple times to realize how good he is. In the defensive end, he’s not overly physical, but he’s very smart. He positions himself well and uses his stick to break up plays. He’s not necessarily going to beat you up in front of the net, but you’re going to have a tough time beating him one-on-one in open space. We battled for seven games in the playoffs, and it gave me a real appreciation for how well-rounded Josi’s game is.

He’s always playing against the opposition’s top line, and he was still in the top five in scoring among defensemen this season. I don’t think people realize how difficult that is. He’s a special player who adds a different dimension to a physical, aggressive Nashville team.

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Duncan Keith
He’s a feisty player. He’ll be in your face, cross-checking you as many times as he can get away with without taking a penalty. He plays as hard in front of the net as anybody in the league, despite not being the biggest guy. He finds the spots to hit you where you’re going to feel it.

Duncan is a great skater, which is what every guy on my list has in common. What’s different about Duncan is that his technique is a little unorthodox. His strides are short, choppy bursts. But he’s really, really fast, and he pivots quickly to escape pressure.

Big, bruising defensemen in the mold of Chris Pronger are kind of a dying breed because of how fast the game is now and how the rules have changed. Those guys just have a hard time keeping up. In today’s game, the best defensemen are smart and disciplined, and can skate stride-for-stride with the forwards. Keith checks all those boxes. He can contain you just by having quick feet and sticking right with you, freezing you out of the play.

I can’t talk about Keith without also mentioning Brent Seabrook. What makes Keith so good is how well he meshes with Seabrook. The Blackhawks run a “motion” offense that can really confuse your defensive coverages. They started doing it five or six years ago when they won their first Cup, and other teams have tried to copy it, but Keith and Seabrook are still the best at executing it.

Basically, their forwards are always in motion, which isn’t that uncommon. The difference is that their defensemen are always moving, too. The D-man will jump through to the slot and a forward will come over the top to cover for him. Since most teams play some form of man-to-man defense, the constant motion forces your wingers to move out of their set zones to follow guys all over the ice — which leads to breakdowns and confusion.

Keith is great at constantly moving around the zone — jumping in, then popping back out into space — and getting open for the one-timer. He scores a lot of goals that way. There is a relentlessness to his game that kind of wears you down, similar to his captain (who we’ll get to later).

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Mark Giordano
Fun fact: Giordano knocked the exact same tooth out of my mouth in back-to-back seasons. Both times were in San Jose off a face-off in the same circle. Both times, the refs didn’t even call a penalty. The second time, I went up to Gio at the end of the period and said, “Man, you got me again. Same toof.”

I think he actually felt bad.

I don’t want to say he plays recklessly, but he plays right on the edge. He really stands his ground in the defensive end, and he’ll make you pay if you don’t have your head up.

Offensively, he’s excellent at moving the puck on the power play and finding soft spots in defensive coverage. He has the same type of shot as Burnzie, where he pulls the puck in close and changes the angle to get his shot through really tight spaces. When you’re watching on TV, it seems like there’s tons of space to shoot from the point, but at ice level, there’s usually only a tiny window to shoot through.

Look at this shot to see what I mean. It almost looks like he bends the puck through multiple screens.

The thing that separates Giordano is how active he is in jumping into the play — he almost becomes a fourth forward at times. You’ll see him all the way down behind the net and in the blue paint, but if Calgary turns the puck over, he has the speed to recover.

Giordano is an all-around player — solid in every part of his game. I should’ve sent him a dental bill, though.

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Bonus: Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews
Instead of doing a fifth defenseman, I thought it would be more interesting to include a pair of great two-way forwards.

In the Western Conference, Kopitar and Toews are the two toughest centers to play against, in my mind. The reason is because they work so hard defensively — from their skill on the face-off dot, to their checking, to their discipline in every aspect of the game. They make you start working as soon as the puck is dropped, whereas a lot of other top-end skill guys don’t defend as hard.

The first thing you notice is that Kopitar and Toews are always on the right side of the puck. They’re never “above” their coverage — cheating to try to get a jump up the ice. You’ll always — always — see those guys between their man and the net. Both are physical enough to knock you off the puck, but Kopitar is especially dangerous if you try to get too cute and stickhandle around him, because his reach is extremely long.

When Kopitar gets the puck in your zone it’s a nightmare because he’s so big and he protects the puck so well. He’s not overly fast, but he’s so strong on his skates that it’s impossible to knock him off the puck.

Kopitar is a guy who I watch really often and try to replicate parts of his game. Him and Toews are both very good at finding “soft spots” on the ice to pop up out of nowhere and score goals.

With Toews specifically, he’s one of the most tenacious players I’ve ever seen. He’s just all over the puck, constantly. He’ll never give you much space. He’s always shadowing you very close, and he’s not afraid to be physical. He’ll also give you a shot when the ref’s not looking.

This goal against Philly combines everything he does so well.

He comes flying in with a pokecheck to keep the puck in the zone, then he drifts behind the net, grabs the puck, spins around and jams it in with a second effort. That’s a greasy, tenacious goal.

Toews is a guy who wants to play defense first and then let that lead to offensive chances. The big-game players find a way to make a difference even when they’re having an off night, and that’s what Toews always does. He’ll win some big face-offs down the stretch or block a shot or tip in a goal to help his team.

I have a lot of respect for his ability to make an impression on every single game, no matter what. Over 82 games, plus playoffs, year after year, that’s not easy.

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That’s it for me. Hopefully you enjoyed it. I guess I’ll go watch some Blue Jays or something until training camp starts.

#IsItHockeyYet?

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Hockey is a complex game that doesn’t always translate well to TV, so we enlisted the help of Logan Couture to break down the most nuanced position in the NHL: The center.

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