Saturday, August 30, 2008

NHL Top Ten Units, Part II (Blueline)

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Scott Niedermayer leads the best blueline in the NHL


The blueline is a transition unit. It can be a catalyst for the offence and protect its goaltender.

The last two Stanley Cup Champions rode the two best bluelines in the game to the title. Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks unit struggled to handle the forecheck, turned over the puck exposing Evgeni Nabokov, and was among the poorest point-producing units in the league. The result: they bowed out in the second round three years in a row.

In part two of this series, I analyze the top ten bluelines in the NHL. Because a team's top two defencemen play more minutes than its bottom two, I am emphasizing the unit at an approximate 40-30-20-10 ratio. The best two may not pair up, but they will be the ones getting the extra time on special teams.

Therefore, please note I am not projecting actual pairs but gauging total minutes. Furthermore, I will list a "fourth" blueline of players that may not dress but will be relied on over the course of the season due to injuries. All players are graded not for their roles, but how they rate among all defencemen.

1. The Anaheim Ducks are probably the best unit in the expansion era. Rating: 8.8

1. Chris Pronger (whose antics should have earned him far more suspension time) and Scott Niedermeyer are two of the three best defencemen in the league, and they're teammates. Both are outstanding on both ends of the ice, and can play a lot of minutes; both will be out on the power play and penalty kill. A+
2. Schneider is still elite (although rumoured to be on his way out for cap reasons) on the offencive end and solid defencively, and Francois Beauchemin is good enough on each end to be better than some teams' top defencemen. B+
3. Furthermore, Sean O’Donnell and Ken Huskins (+23 last season!) are solid blueliners who can handle their defencive responsibilities. C+
4. After 1-6, this squad is hurting. They picked up Steve Montador, who is a solid defender with playoff experience that I am projecting will not start often except due to injury or suspension of Pronger. However, the only other defenceman on the roster with NHL experience is Brennan Evans, who played two games for the Flames in the 2003-2004 season. D-

2. The Calgary Flames have the deepest and strongest unit in their own end. Rating: 8

1. Dion Phaneuf crosses the line just enough to be feared but not enough to be suspended. He is a monster on both ends of the ice, and would be the first skater to build a roster around because he is young enough to be a fixture and experienced enough to be counted on. Robyn Regehr is a leader who can be counted on the be in the right place on both ends, and is elite in his own end. A-
2. Cory Sarich is a beast defencively (witness the hit on Patrick Marleau that may have inevitably cost the Sharks a deep playoff run) with championship experience. Adrian Aucoin is a great power play quarterback who is decent defencively and highly experienced. B
3. Mark Giordano is a young, up-and-coming defenceman who can play on both ends. The Flames have several players he could be paired with; my guess is it will be split between Rhett Warrener (a solid, experienced defender) and Jim Vandermeer (an enforcer who even played wing last season). C+
4. Whichever of the above is usually scratched and Anders Eriksson (a serviceable player on both ends) make this the best “fourth” pair in the league. C-

3. The Detroit Red Wings unit is as good 1-4 as anyone but Anaheim. Rating: 7.7

1. Nicklas Lidstrom was considered the best in the NHL last year (I would take Niedermayer) because he is fantastic on both ends. Niklas Kronwall has really come into his own, landing crushing hits in the playoffs to back up a dangerous shot. Both will play on power play and penalty kill. A
2. Brian Rafalski is ideal for the post-lockout NHL rules: a great skater and puck mover with a good shot. He has experience and understands the defencive end well from all his years in New Jersey. Brad Stuart has never been the same since the cheap shot leveled by Jody Shelley (who ironically is now with the Sharks), but he has a good shot, moves the puck well, and is at least solid in his own end. Both players will see time on the power play. B
3. Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja are solid defenders yet not liabilities on the offencive side of the rink. They now have valuable playoff experience, too. C+
4. Kyle Quincey has been called upon in playoff situations and is at least solid on the defencive end. Beyond him it gets dicey, with coach Mike Babcock probably needing to rely on Derek Meech or Jonathan Ericsson, who have played 44 games with 4 points and a -8 between them. D-

4. The Chicago Blackhawks made the jump to the top tier this summer. Rating: 7.6

1. Brian Campbell was unable to prove himself elite in the much more physical Western Conference in last year’s playoffs, but he is still one of the best skaters and passers at his position and also solid defencively. Duncan Keith is one of the best young defencemen in the game and an asset on both sides of the ice. A-
2. James Wisniewski is a physical presence on the blueline and has developed pretty good offencive skills. Brent Sopel is a veteran with good defencive skills who is not a liability on the offencive end. B-
3. Cam Barker is a very skilled blueliner who will continue to improve his mediocre defencive skills, and Jordan Hendry looks ready to step into the role of an every game starter, albeit a pedestrian one at both ends. C-
4. Chicago has a host of players with limited NHL experience ready to step in if necessary: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dustin Byfuglien, Aaron Johnson, and Matt Walker. All can contribute on one end of the ice or the other. D+

5. The Pittsburgh Penguins are deep and gained valued playoff experience. Rating: 7.1

1. Sergei Gonchar remains one of the best puck-moving defencemen with one of the most dangerous shots from the point, but has really showed leadership, grit, and solid defencive play in the past two seasons. Ryan Whitney is young but already a skilled offencive blueliner who has developed decent defencive ability. B+
2. Kris Letang is a very young defenceman but already an asset on offence; expect him to continue to improve defencively. Hal Gill is among the slowest players in the league, but he still managed to score 24 points for this offencive juggernaut and his hulking size makes him a great hitter and shot-blocker. B-
3. I would expect to see Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik be elevated among the rather close talent in the rest of the roster. Both are good defencive player but lack offencive capabilities; Orpik’s nasty streak is an additional asset. C
4. Darryl Sydor has experience and is still a great offencive presence on the blueline; Mark Eaton is an asset on the other end of the ice. C-

6. The San Jose Sharks upgraded to a top 20 percent unit this off-season. Rating: 6.9

1. To be honest, Dan Boyle is a bit overrated. However, he is one of the finest offencive blueliners in the game, and his skill set is perfect for the style offence that new coach Todd McLellan prefers, he has experience and can handle the forecheck in his own end, and he is at least average defencively. Rob Blake is getting old, but managed 31 points on a bad team with no bona fide #1 goaltender last year (the latter also explains his -19 rating). His experience and skill on the power play are still an upgrade for the Sharks. B+
2. Brad Lukowich is underrated. He is a fantastic penalty killer with poise and experience (two Stanley Cups with two different teams, although Dallas did not earn theirs!). Marc-Eduoard Vlasic is solid on both ends and a great shot-blocker, with the stamina of someone his age (20) and presence of a veteran. B-
3. Christian Ehrhoff is a great skater who is developing nicely defencively and has shown skill on the offencive end. However, he does get rattled by the forecheck and cannot be counted on to put the puck on net. Douglas Murray is a tremendous defencive player whose still-developing offencive skills and sub-standard skating make him useful only on that end. C
4. Kyle McLaren is good defencively and a great penalty killer. He is also fair on the offencive end, but struggles to stay healthy. The Sharks may need to send him to the minors in order to stay under the cap, but don’t expect anyone to claim him with his $2.5+ million salary. The next best option is Derek Joslin, a skilled defenceman who has yet to play in the NHL. D

In the interest of space, I will round out the top ten without the same detailed analysis:
7. Dallas Stars: Sergei Zubov, Phillipe Boucher, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Dailey, Matt Niskanen, Marc Fistric, Nicklas Gorssman, and Dan Jancevski. Rating: 6.8

8. Florida Panthers: Jay Boumeester, Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Bryan Allen, Karlis Strastins, Noah Welch, Mike Van Ryn, and a host of others if desperate. Rating: 6.7

9. Phoenix Coyotes: Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, Zbynek Michalek, David Hale, Keith Yandle, Matt Jones, Kurt Sauer, and Drew Fata. Rating: 6.6

10. New York Rangers: Wade Redden, Dmitri Kalinin, Michal Rozsival, Dan Girardi, Paul Mara, Marc Staal, Ivan Baranka, and Thomas Pock. Rating: 6.4

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