Elite Defensemen 101: Part One

I’ll never forget playing against Nick Lidström for the first time and seeing all the little things he did on the ice that go unnoticed. He was so good at knocking the puck down out of midair whenever teams tried to dump-and-change. It was almost impossible to chip one by him. I remember thinking, “Man, I need to steal that move. That’s a super important thing to master.”

Even though Nick is retired now, I’m still watching guys in the league and trying to steal their tricks and implement them into my game. I really enjoyed Logan Couture’s article on ,Elite Centers, and I thought I’d try my hand at breaking down the defensive plugs.

Please don’t hate-tweet me that I left someone out. This list is mostly guys I see all the time.

Drew Doughty
The first name that comes to mind when I think of elite defensemen is Drew Doughty. Drew plays with a confidence and almost an arrogance (I mean that in a good way) that allows him to try things on the ice that other defensemen wouldn’t. He’s obviously a great skater — the way he can weave through defenders in the neutral zone while keeping his head up at the same time is something that’s hard to coach. But his real superpower is his intuition.

Nowadays, teams have a tendency to over-backcheck. It’s very rare for forwards to get a 3-on-2 rush because defensive responsibility is preached so much. So that’s why you’re starting to see this new breed of active defensemen coming up as a second wave and joining the play. It’s easy to stay back and be a positionally-sound defenseman, but the trickiest decision you make on the ice is when to take a risk and join the rush. Drew is the best in the world at anticipating the right moment to pick his spot and jump into the play. This goal against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals shows exactly what makes him so special.

To have the confidence to jump into the play and then go between the legs in such a big moment? Wow. Obviously, you need to have a coach who is willing to give you a long leash so credit to Darryl Sutter for handling Drew the right way.

Shea Weber
Playing against this guy is not very fun. At all. There’s nothing like being a defenseman standing in front of the net on the penalty kill, watching him take a big wind up. It’s pretty insane. One time Shea’s slapper hit me in the leg and it pretty much destroyed my shin guard. When I got back to the locker room at intermission it had a big crack in it. Thankfully, you don’t even have time to think about being afraid because the shot is on you so fast. You have zero time to react. You only have enough time for your brain to think: Welp, if this hits me, it’s gonna hurt. Then, zing.

Every team gameplans to take his space away so he can’t get the slapper off but all he needs is one or two chances. If it gets through, it’s either going in the net or creating a rebound. It’s pretty much impossible for a goalie to absorb his shot. What people might not appreciate is his intelligence in getting himself in position to get off a clean shot on the power play. The days of standing at the blue line waiting for a clean lane are over. Watch how he recognizes the play and moves into space here.

A 108-mile-per-hour slapshot from the faceoff dot? It’s not even fair.

On defense, what can you say? He’s an absolute beast — extremely strong and plays with a pretty big edge to his game. His body positioning in the corners is outstanding and he just suffocates you down there. Weber is one of a handful of guys in the league who command a certain amount of respect from referees and can get away with little veteran moves — stuff like short little cross-checks in front of the net, using the forearm shiver in the corners. You’re not getting out of a corner with him.

If you’re trying to carry the puck over the blue line against the Predators, he’ll make you pay. There’s a reason teams dump-and-chase against Nashville. Here it is.

Ryan Suter
Cerebral. You have to recognize him as one of the smartest defensemen in the league. Suter is probably the player most similar to Nick Lidström that we have in the game today. To have the stamina to play 29 minutes a game in the NHL is ridiculous. If you think about it, that means he’s out there every other shift. Personally, my minutes have gone up this year from 20 to 22, and even that little difference is noticeable. I definitely feel it after games. Adding another seven minutes onto that is almost unthinkable.

Suter is really good at knowing when to conserve his energy during games. As a young player, you tend to get a little horny for the puck and try to do a little too much all the time, and you burn out. The smart vets know how to turn it on and off really quickly. To be able to play as much as Suter does and still be a plus player every year is incredible. (I know you advanced stats fans don’t care about plus/minus anymore but defensemen still do.)

He’s also one of the best I’ve ever seen at making the crucial first pass to start a breakout. Everything is always on the tape and crisp. With how fast the game is now, teams smother you on the forecheck. As a defenseman, when you pick up a puck below your goal line, you have about one second to look up and make a pass. In that one second, there’s a bunch of variables going through your mind: Is my winger stationary or moving? Is he on his forehand or backhand? Do I need to lead him with the pass or put it right on his tape?

One thing that fans just watching on TV might not be able to fully appreciate is that the speed of the pass is really important. A clean first pass creates a flow to the game and allows your team to look a lot faster. Suter is always right on the mark with that. I’ll always remember this pass to Martin Erat to win the game with 10 seconds left when he was with Nashville. The weight of the pass had to be perfect in order for Erat to split the D, and it was right on the money.

Duncan Keith His superpower is definitely his lateral skating, which allows him to defend very aggressively, especially through the neutral zone. I notice when I watch film that he’s deceiving on TV. He’s not the smoothest guy. It looks like his feet are chopping a thousand miles a minute when he has the puck. But in reality he’s such a calm and smart player. He’s a really hard guy to get off his game. Away from the puck, he puts himself in great scoring positions.

Defensively, Duncan has an excellent stick. For those that play the NHL 15 videogame, he’s like the guy mashing R1 and poke checking you at the perfect time. I can relate to him as a smaller defenseman. You know you’re not going to be able to overpower guys in the corner but if you’re able to get your stick on the puck, win possession and skate out of there clean, it’s just as effective.

Watch him defend this 2-on-1 to perfection in the Cup Finals. It’s kind of subtle but watch how he positions his stick throughout the rush. He fakes like he’s going to take away the pass to Krejci, which causes Lucic to put his head down, then he makes a play for the puck.