Elite Defensemen 101: Part Two

Hey, did you miss Part 1  yesterday? Check it out before reading this one. Some people on Twitter mentioned that I’m mostly doing Western Conference guys. That’s going to change today, but it’s true that the defensemen I’m most familiar with are the ones I play all the time. So please take no offense if I leave anyone off this list.

P.K. Subban
Funny enough, we were the same age and played against each other growing up. He’s similar to Doughty in that he’s always had extreme confidence in his game, even as a kid. We went to play in a tournament up in Toronto when I was 10 years old, and it was the first time we ever played against Subban. We had all heard the hype about how good he was. He was kind of this legend in Squirt hockey. Then we get on the ice, and in the first minute he skated over the redline and fired a bomb of a slapshot right on goal and almost scored. Then he did it two more times. It was like, “Who the hell is this kid?” Sure enough, 15 years down the road, we’re still out there playing against each other.

P.K. gets a lot of heat for being a dislikable guy on the ice but it’s all by design. It fits his game to piss people off. He gets a lot of guys to take runs at him and distract them from their game, which is a smart thing to do. One thing you might not notice about P.K. is that he has unbelievable edgework to his skating. That helps him turn on a dime from forward to backward without losing any momentum. This is what I mean by edgework.

To me, he really came into his own during the series against Boston last year. Winning the Norris trophy was big but ultimately you’re judged by how you perform when things get tight in the playoffs. Scoring the winner in double OT on the road in Game 1 was huge. He’s able to get a ton of leverage and whip on his slapshot by almost dropping down to one knee when he fires it.

Erik Karlsson Great skater, great hands, but the strongest part of his game is his innate ability to get shots through traffic and on net almost every single time. You rarely see his shot get blocked. Everyone loves the big slapper but having a great wrist shot from the point can be just as effective, and Karlsson does that better than anyone. (Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a close second.) There’s a sweet spot where you aim to give your wingers a chance for a deflection in front of the net — from the ankles to the knees — and Karlsson seems to get more of these assists than anyone.

Today, with the bigger, more protective equipment, guys aren’t afraid to lay on the ice to block shots. There are defensemen who block 200-plus shots a season, which is insane. When you have the puck at the point these days, you look up and it’s a sea of legs in front of you. Karlsson has the unique ability to create a shooting lane for himself by “walking the blue line” and looking guys off with his eyes like an NBA point guard.

Watch him freeze the winger and the defenseman here to see what I mean.

Obviously, he has that Euro flash in his game, which you don’t see much in the league. I think he’s the only guy in the league who can do something like this and make it look so smooth.

Kris Letang He’s obviously a very strong skater. You’ll notice that he takes two or three really powerful strides out of a turn to separate himself from defenders. But Letang’s greatest quality is his poise with the puck. When he’s walking the blue line, he always has his head up scanning the play for his next move. He’ll not only be looking at what the guy defending him is doing, but also looking past him to see how the play is developing. His peripheral vision is incredible, and I’ve always admired how calm he is with the puck. It feels like he’s seeing everything so clearly. Notice how he constantly has his eyes up here.

Like I mentioned in Part 1, one thing people might not notice is that when teams try to dump pucks into your zone and make a line change, it’s really valuable to have defensemen with great hand-eye coordination who can knock the puck down and instantly pass it up-ice for an odd-man rush. It’s a hard skill to develop and Letang is one of the best at it.

Fans may not realize it but the next time your team gets a 2-on-1, look to see how the play developed beforehand. Many times it’s due to a defenseman knocking a puck down at their blue line and sending his forwards a quick transition pass to set up an odd-man rush.

Alex Pietrangelo
Petro excels at another thing that I don’t hear talked about a lot on TV: escapability. Let’s say there’s a scrum for a rebound in front of the net and there’s a bunch of sticks whacking at it. If there’s one guy in the world I’d pick to come out clean with the puck and make a breakout pass up the ice, it’s Petro. Is there a fancy advanced stat for that yet? If not, we need to make one. Wins From Scrums. His WFS percentage would be like 80%.

The other thing that he’s great at that a lot of people don’t give him credit for is his shot blocking ability. He always seems to find the right lane to get a knick on the puck to get it off-net. Petro has been in the Top 20 in blocked shots for the past three seasons, but he has also been in the Top 20 for assists from defensemen. That’s a pretty unique skill combination.

Offensively, he has gotten really good at anticipating when to jump into the play. You’ll see him score a lot of goals from below the dots, which is rare for a defenseman. Watch how he moves into the perfect pocket of space to give T.J. Oshie a lane to pass to here.

And if all else fails, he also has the unique ability to bore you to death with fantasy baseball talk. No one cares about the relief pitcher you stole in the 14th round, Petro.

Okay, that’s all I have time for right now, but send me a tweet @shattdeuces  to let me know who else you would like to see on here and I’ll do another one when the postseason is over (which is hopefully at the end of June).