I posted this on HF to some good reviews, so thought we could bring up a discussion here on it as well...
Grab a cup of coffee, because this ain't a short post... more like an thesis paper on analyzing the defense in the North West Division.
This will be first of a few threads between now and the start of training camp, comparing different aspects of each team in our division.
To start with, comparisons on each team's defense - first the individuals - defense on paper; followed by an analysis of how their systems will rank.
I: The Individuals:
Calgary comes in at the top here as far as the players go. They have the deepest group of dmen in the division, and most importantly, most of their pieces have played together in the same system for a couple years and have a comfort level because of it:
The depth chart:
#1- Robyn Regehr: The leader on defence and established one of the top shutdown dmen in the game.
#2- Dion Phaneuf: He has become Calgary's #2 not because of lack of depth in their lineup, but because of his amazing progression at such a young age. This guy has superstar written all over him, and should soon be their #1 dman. Still he showed some rookie mistakes into the playoffs last year, but that's too be expected.
#3- Roman Hamrlik: While he may not be the 3rd best overall dman on the team, he's maybe their 2nd best 2-way dman after Phaneuf. He did struggle at times last year fitting into the strict Calgary defense, and it also hurt Phaneuf's game when he struggled, but he's still a quality dman, and should be a threat on the PP.
#4- Rhett Warrener: Maybe best in a #5 role, but he's certainly solid defensively, and maybe the best #4 dman in the division. That speaks as much about the lack of depth in the division in this spot, as it does to Warrener's solid defensive play.
#5- Andrew Ference: He's turned into a solid 2-way defender in recent years. Does not hurt the team at either end, and makes up for his lack of size with his smarts. Arguably the best #5 in the division - but that could change in the coming year with others progressing.
#6- Andrei Zyuzin: At this point is Calgary's #6. On paper he looks like a steal for that spot, but in reality, he was a healthy scratch at times last year in Minny because he couldn't adhere to their strict system. Can he do that in Calgary? In a smaller role he could be the best #6 in the conference! At $1.4mill though, I'm sure Calgary is hoping he's more than a #6 for them.
Overall, Calgary's got the best defense - in terms of individual talent - in the division thanks to their depth overall. They have maybe the best #4-5-6 in the division.
Depth: Richie Regehr; Marc Giordano; Brad Ference; Tim Ramholt
Their depth is strong - as strong a #7-10 as you'd expect from any team. The hidden gem here could be Ramholt, but he's been hyped up for the past couple years after his strong performances in the Swiss league. It's still an unknown if he can come close to meeting that hype. The rest have lower ceilings, but all have the upside to be at least competent #7 dmen in the NHL.
Vancouver comes in 2nd in terms of individual talent on the defense. This is largely thanks to their tremendous top 3, which is arguably the best in the division.
The depth chart:
#1 - Mattais Ohlund: Arguably the best dman in the division. Ohlund has been playing 25 minutes a night for the past several years now, and has recovered - as well as can be expected - from his serious eye injury from a few seasons ago. Although Ohlund admits that his eye will never be 100%, it's good enough to land him among the elite in the game today. This guy can do everything well and carry a team's defense. He has proven over and over again that he can take the average dman as his partner and make them look well above average.
#2 - Sami Salo: Has taken over Ohlund's tag as one of the most underrated dmen in the game. Salo was so solid last year that it made Jovo that much more expendable! He was the canucks best dman through the year. While he has had a couple of consistently healthy seasons when first arriving in Vancouver, last year's injury during the Olympics has everyone believing he's back to being injury prone, so he will have to again show he's above that tag next season. Outside of that, he's as solid as they come at both ends, and while not overly physical is one of the smarter defensive dmen in the game. Maybe the division's 2nd best #2 man, behind Phaneuf.
#3 - Willie Mitchell. Again the canucks have one of the best #3's around in Mitchell. Many Wild fans saw him as their #1 dman a year ago, and has developed the reputation of being one of the top shutdown dmen in the game. He should take a lot of defensive pressure off of Ohlund, allowing Ohlund to take on a bigger offensive role with the team.
#4 - Lukas Krajicek: This is where the drop off begins for the canucks. Krajicek is untested in a #4 role, and is arguably one of the weaker - if not the weakest - #4 in the division. He will need lots of shelter from the top 3.
#5 - Kevin Bieksa: He was solid during his call-up last year, and has earned his 1-way contract with the canucks. While he'll get minutes beside Ohlund next year, he'll likely be slotted into the #5 slot in overall minutes. Offensively he was strong in the AHL, but at the NHL level this isn't a part of the game which should be expected much of from him. Still, he's a solid defensive dman that brings a meanstreak and attitude that more than make up for his lack of size back there.
#6 - Luc Bourdon: A complete unknown at this point. There is a chance he gets sent back to junior after the first 10 games. There is no denying the guy's talent, but anyone that thinks he's the second coming of Phaneuf needs to look a little closer at his last season - where he missed most of the year, and at a key development age, due to serious injuries. Bourdon can one day become this club's #1 dman, but for next season, expectations to make the team as a regular are already high enough.
Overall, the canucks have the best 1-2-3 in the division, but putting Krajicek in a key #4 spot hurts the team overall. If the canucks had a better #4 - even a guy like Carney, they could challenge Calgary for the best defense - in terms of individuals on paper - in the division.
Depth: Yannik Tremblay; Rory Fitzpatrick;
Tremblay and Fitzpatrick are both solid as #7-8 guys. Problem is that there is nothing behind them. Last year the canucks went 10 deep thanks to injuries - using Butenchon, Brookbank, Mojzis, and even Prestin Ryan in games! If injuries happen again, Nonis will need to add another 1-2 minimum wagers on 2-way deals.
I comtemplated whether to put Colorado here or Minny or Edmonton, and it could go either way. Colorado lost a huge asset though when Rob Blake left. He was playing over 24 minutes a night on their defense and was their #1 guy in every situation. Replacing that won't be easy.
The depth chart:
#1 - JM Liles: Has developed nicely overall as a PP QB, but is he really ready for a #1 role? He seems like the best answer for it though, as the others in the top 4 are a step behind. Still one of the weaker #1's in the division, and will have a hard time filling any of Blake's responsibilities outside the PP. His minutes should shoot up next year, after being the #5 guy on the blueline last year.
#2 - Karlis Skrastins: Solid defensive dman overall. Has been a pleasant surprise for Colorado since arriving there a couple seasons ago - enough to get a nice raise and continously a bigger role on their defense.
#3 - Jordan Leopold: A couple seasons ago, he was supposed to be the future on the Flames PP, but had a very difficult season last year. It all started when Regehr went down to injury, and Leopold struggled without his regular partner. By the end of the year he became one of Calgary's most replacable players with Hamrlik and Phaneuf overtaking his importance on the PP.
#4 - Patrice Brisebois: Played better in Colorado than under the hate cloud that followed him in Montreal. Seemed like fans there were just waiting for him to make a mistake so they could boo him. He was the Avs #2 dman last year in icetime and overall shifts taken. And his 10 goals and 38 pts are definitely good for a dman.
#5 - Brett Clark: Was the #4 man last year in icetime in Colorado. Played well enough in almost 20 mins a night in action to earn himself a new contract there.
#6 - Ossi Vannanen: Was a disappointment last year, after being projected as a future top 4 guy that should have reached there already. Last season he had to deal with injuries, but when he played he was limited to just 13:30 a night in icetime. Was the team's #6 last year, and looks to be in the same position again next year.
Depth: Ken Klee; Kurt Sauer.
Colorado's #7/8 spot is solid with 2 guys that can play at the NHL level. Maybe the best #7/8 in the division.
Overall Colorado's got some nice depth guys on defense, but are missing a #1 there. Liles, from who big things will be expected next year, was a #5 guy last year for them, getting 1 min/game less than Clark played! Leopold, another guy who'd be expected to play a major role on their defense, was a disappointment last year in Calgary. Skrastins, as solid as he is, doesn't have any more upside, and was a team worst -7 last year on defense (the only minus dman on the team). And Brisebois - his solid season last year often gets lost in a plethora of on-ice mistakes throughout his career.
If Liles and Leopold step up, it could be a nice overall defense.
You can't start taking about Edmonton's defense without taking about Pronger's loss. Yes it's been beaten to death, and doesn't need to be said again how much he raised the level of the entire defense there. Now a very solid #2 man in Smith will be asked to play a #1 role, while a solid #3 in Staios will be asked to play a #2 role - that alone will hurt the team, as you're not going to get the best from either of those two, if they're asked to play roles not suited for them.
The depth chart:
#1 - Jason Smith: As solid as they come defensively. He is a very capable defensive dman, and one of the top defensive leaders in the game. He will be a fixutre on their shutdown pairing, but can he lead as the #1 on their team. The Oilers had problems when Brewer was asked to fill that role, and he was ahead of Smith on their depth chart. Will Smith be able to handle that pressure?
#2 - Steve Staios: Staios has developed nicely into a top 4 dman in the NHL, but he's still got a lot to prove to show he's a #2, especially on a team with at least playoff aspirations. He's solid defensively though, and can bring a bit of offense from the blueline, but is more a sterotypical #4, even a competent #3. He is playing over his head - like Smith - in a #2 position though.
#3 - Daniel Tjarnqvist:The #3 - and the #4 - spot for the Oilers is also an area of concern. Tjarnqvist is coming from the Wild system, where he did learn to play defense, and brings some offensive skill to the table, but so far he hasn't shown he's a strong top 3 dman. He is probably the Oiler's biggest question mark right now though on defense, as Smith and Staios, and Bergeron and Greene, have all played in the system, and we know more or less what to expect from them. With Tjarnqvist he has the equal potential to be a gem or a huge disappointment there.
#4 - Marc-Andre Bergeron: Last season Pronger helped his game tremendously. when Bergeron struggled offensively though, he was parked on the bench or even the press box in the playoffs. He will be asked again to carry much of the Oilers offense from the blueline, and have a key role on the PP - where he along with Tjarnqvist will play the role of the team's PP QBs.
#5 - Matt Greene - A young dman who's still developing into his own. The playoffs showed his inexperienace at times as he took his share of bad penalties when he couldn't control his own physical play. Still I see a lot of Smith in him, and he could develop into a nice shutdown dman one day. Next season though, he's going to have to show he's developing quickly, and relied on to play 15-18 minutes a game.
#6 - Ladislav Smid - An NHL rookie with a boatload of potential. He looks to be NHL ready though, after a season in the AHL, and is definitely ahead in his development over the canucks rookie Bourdon. He should start next season as the team's #6, but should quickly take over PP roles, and getting increased minutes through the season. Should be a future top 4, and has the potential to be a top 2 in the league.
Depth: Jan Hejda; Danny Syvret; Mathieu Roy
Three guys that should all start the season in the minors, but get a look through the season. They are all wild-cards though, with some potential to be regulars in the future.
Overall, the Oilers defense lacks a true #1, like Minnesota and Colorado. Their depth is decent, but there are question marks all around. They need bigger contributions from guys like Bergeron and Greene, who should both be regulars in the top 6. Bergeron especially will be expected to lead the team offensively, at least until Smid is ready, which may still be a couple seasons away.
Again 3-4-5 seem interchangable to me. Minnesota falls into last spot based on individuals alone, but their system makes up for that (see next ranking below).
The depth chart:
#1 - Kim Johnsson: Very solid dman overall, but has never been a #1 before. Can he fill that role in Minnesota? In Lemaire's system, it is definitely possible, as Mitchell - hardly a #1 dman himself - filled that role in a very stong Wild defense in the past. Talk is that they are opening the system up a bit, and that may put bigger demands on Johnsson to lead the back-end. Durability will again be an issue with him, but he's one of the smarter dmen in the game overall and should be a solid addition to the Wild blueline.
#2 - Nick Schultz: Developing nicely as an NHL dman. Still might be too early to have him as your #2, but again the Wild's system should make it easier for him.
#3 - Brent Burns: Seems like he'll be fully converted to a dman next season. Could take over the #2 spot with a good development season, or fall to the #4 spot behind Carney.
#4 - Keith Carney: As canuck fans we know this guy is solid. He's a very good #4 overall, and will rival Warrener as the best #4 in the division. Although if Schultz or Burns have a rough season, and Carney is asked to play a bigger role, at his age now, that might be too big a jump for him. Still he brings loads of character and veteran presense while being very consistent in his own end.
#5 - Martin Skoula: Seems like forever the enigma, he did adapt pretty well to the Wild system after the trade. Still with this guy his season always seems to be an unknown. Always has shown flashes of high end talent, while still showing the same level of inconsistency in his game. If anyone can turn him into a complete dman though, it's Lemaire - and if that happens, he could be a hidden gem in this league.
#6 - Kurtis Foster/ Petteri Nummelin: I'm lost here as far as which one takes the #6 spot. Cases can be made for either. And the Wild are definitely a candidate to go with 7 dmen, with Burns being able to play forward as well. Although you'd think that at this level in his development, they'd want him to stay on defense. Foster led the Wild defense in goals and points last year, while being #3 in overall icetime among dmen. He shoots more so than any other wild dman as well. Lemaire also seems to love his game, so you can bet that he'll get his icetime next season as well.
Still, Nummelin was brought in to fill a PP void for the team, and has been advertised as a solid offensive dman, although with defensive limitations. Still the guy signed a 2-yr deal at $1.1mill/yr, and at that salary he should be expected to be a fulltime NHLer. Foster is signed for one more season at $775K.
The depth: One of their top 6 guys - like Nummelin or Foster, may be relegated to the #7 role. After that, I'm a little uncertain as far as their depth goes on defense. Clayton Stoner at 21 now, should get some games in, while Thelen is close to ready as well to start playing a role in their development system. Foster graduated to the NHL fulltime last season. After that there is little depth in their system.
The Wild have a capable crew of dmen, however there is no #1 there who's capable of leading and carrying a defensive core - like Ohlund or Regehr. This will make the top guys' job harder as they'll have to take on bigger roles than they have before.
II - Defensive Systems
Despite saying they're going to play a more open style next year, any Lemaire system has to be given the benefit of the doubt here. The Wild have been maybe the best defensive team in the NW for the past few years, and while opening it up may hurt that group overall, Lemaire knows how to plug defensive holes on the team. While on paper the Wild, IMO, have the worst group of individual defenders in the division, I don't doubt for a moment that they will play bigger than their names on paper, as a group.
While they are solid, I think it has as much to do with their depth and talent on defense as it does the system. Put this same group in the Wild system, and it would be even more suffocating to play against. They are disciplined and know their system and roles, and have the right individuals in the right roles to get the most out of that lineup. Calgary - especially with the league's best goalie backstopping them - should be among the league leaders again in goals against.
Based on coming together as a team last year to advance to the finals, even despite the loss of Pronger, I'd have their team defense at this point. Filling Pronger's void will be huge, but the rest of the guys have been there, and know what it takes. Overall team success can have a massive impact on individuals, and should provide them with the motivation to continue working as a team. MacTavish also proved that he is capable of pulling a team together - and this after a full regular season of Oilers fans asking for his resignation. A playoff run later, and he's now considered elite in his field?? go figure...
The saving grace here for Vancouver are their top 3 guys, as well as having Luongo backstopping them. Although at this point, there is still a lot of uncertainty there with a change in philosophy overall. They could improve up the rankings here depending on how this mostly new team, comes together.
Blake's loss will be huge on this defense as well, like Pronger's is in Edmonton. This is a team that was 10th in the conference last year in goals against - more than Vancouver! Their goaltending next season is not anymore certain, and Blake's loss will add to that. If Theodore can play like he did in his Vezina season, than that all changes, but he's struggled recently and is very much a question mark for next season - and like the Oilers defense without Pronger shielding the impact in front of their goal, Theodore will have to deal with similar situations in Colorado.
III - Overall Division rankings - Individuals:
1- Ohlund (Vancouver)
2- Regehr (Calgary)
3- Johnsson (Minnesota)
4- Smith (Edmonton)
5- Liles (Colorado)
1- Phaneuf (Calgary)
2- Salo (Vancouver)
3- Staios (Edmonton)
4- Skrastins (Colorado)
5- Schultz (Minnesota)
1- Mitchell (Vancouver)
2- Hamrlik (Calgary)
3- Leopold (Colorado)
4- Burns (Minnesota)
5- Tjarnqvist (Edmonton)
1- Warrener (Calgary)
2- Carney (Minnesota)
3- Brisebois (Colorado)
4- Bergeron (Edmonton)
5- Krajicek (Vancouver)
1- Ference (Calgary)
2- Skoula (Minnesota)
3- Clark (Colorado)
4- Greene (Edmonton)
5- Bieksa (Vancouver)
1- Vannanen (Colorado)
2- Foster (Minnesota)
3- Zyuzin (Calgary)
4- Smid (Edmonton)
5- Bourdon (Vancouver)
IV: Overall rankings:
Based on system, individuals, drop offs from #1 through #6, and players in their right roles: