Value can come from any position on the ice, but there’s something really advantageous to having a well-rounded defenseman on the backline. A physical presence can deter streaking offensive players from getting close to the net, and also make them think twice about coming into the zone with a big hit impending. Certain defensemen also have enough skills to get the puck moving on an offensive counterattack, which can be a turning point in the game.
Goalies and scoring forwards usually get the most attention, but we’re going to take a closer look at the players who do the dirty work on the backend. Their effort is critical to their team’s success, even if individual glory is fleeting.
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
From a narrative perspective, there are a lot of fans who would like the Colorado Avalanche to beat traditional NHL odds by bringing home their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. Still, currently, their future odds of winning the championship stay put at +600. Hence, the organization is in a great position to achieve the goal, as the vast majority of their core players are under the age of 30. In theory, even if they don’t get back to the finals this season, they should be a contender in the Western Conference for years to come.
The main reason why Colorado is such a strong team is thanks to the tremendous play of Cale Makar. He’s not only making a push to become one of the best defenseman in the NHL; he could very well end up as one of the best hockey players of all-time. He brings a level of strength that deters the opponent from getting the shots they want, and he is also a tremendous facilitator.
Makar’s goal scoring statistics are a bit down from a year ago, but his ability to pass the puck to get others in position to do damage is remarkable. At just 24 years old, Makar has more hardware in his name than most players would bring home in a career. He’s won the Calder Trophy, the Norris Trophy, the Smythe Trophy, and of course, a Stanley Cup last season.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The only thing sports fans seem to remember is what happened most recently, which makes the Tampa Bay Lightning’s bid to become a dynasty seem like it was in the distant past. However, they were in the Stanley Cup Finals only one year ago, and had a chance to win three straight cups. The franchise will look to return to that series this year, and one reason for their continued success is Victor Hedman.
It’s not often that athletes get better with age, but that seems to be the script Hedman is writing in his early thirties. One would think that an aging defenseman would be less inclined to catapult his body in front of searing slapshots, but that’s not how Hedman is going about it. He has a chance to record a career high in blocks, one year after he nearly tied his career high in that category with 129.
Unlike the Avalanche, whose championship window seems infinitely open, Tampa Bay will need to take advantage of another golden opportunity this year. Hedman is 32 years-old, as is star Steven Stamkos. It seems clear that based on his regular season production, he’s willing to do anything to get another ring.
Adam Fox, New York Rangers
If it wasn’t for the exploits of Makar, more hockey fans might be talking about how well Adam Fox’s career has started with the New York Rangers. He’s not quite the finisher that Makar is from a goal scoring perspective, but he does have a similar feel with regards to clearing the puck into a position where his teammates can do damage. He’s only 25 years-old, and the sky truly is the limit.
Fox has a great story, considering that he was born in New York, and is motivated to take the Rangers to new heights. He’s been a big part of their turnaround, as he played an integral role in their run to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago. One of the best things about Fox’s game is that he doesn’t force things, and always seems to know when to make the right play.
It’s going to be interesting to see if Fox can step his game up. He and the Rangers will likely have to go through the Lightning at some point in the Eastern Conference. This means that his exploits will be directly compared to Hedman’s, which will be a huge test for the young player.
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins are having one of the most remarkable seasons in NHL history. They’ve set records thanks to their dominance, and their infusion of young talent on defense is a big reason why. Charlie McAvoy has helped anchor the backline with a physical brand of hockey.
While certain defensemen like to do their work with their sticks in order to deflect pucks, McAvoy likes to use his body to punish defenders. He’s posted over 100 hits in three out of his six NHL seasons. While his numbers in that category are a little down, McAvoy’s value to the team remains extremely important.
On such a stacked roster, McAvoy isn’t going to be asked to step outside of his comfort zone, which is a good thing for him. He may be able to setup a breakaway here and there, but will make his largest impact checking a star scorer into the boards. If the Bruins are able to win a ring this season, McAvoy may make a serious case for himself as the premier defenseman in the NHL.