The 5 best defence pairings in the NHL through the 2019-20 season

Nashville Predators' Roman Josi, left, celebrates with Ryan Ellis after scoring a goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, in Uniondale, N.Y. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Twice before this season we’ve broken down the best lines in the NHL by how well they control play at 5-vs-5; once at around the quarter mark of the season and once around the halfway point. That’s all well and good, but what about defencemen?

Defence pairings are as important as forward lines to the success of a hockey team, right? So it’s unfair to highlight the forwards and never get around to the best defence pairs in the league.

With the majority of the season already played, we can get a very good grasp on which pairings are driving play. With more games played and defence pairings involving only two players instead of three, we can set the bar higher for how consistent these pairings have to be to qualify. In order to make it, the two defencemen on each pair need to have spent at least 300 minutes together at 5-vs-5.

As always, the top-five listed pairings are in no particular order, but these are the duos that ended up at the top of the league by the math.

The Lightning went from having no lines in the top-six of the league the first time I did the best forward line piece, to having arguably the best line in the league by the halfway point in Brayden Point centering Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. And as crazy as that line is, their defence might be even more stacked.

The Lightning’s second pairing of reclamation project Kevin Shattenkirk and young Mikhail Sergachev are controlling nearly 68 per cent of all goals scored while they’re on the ice at even strength, and they’re doing so by controlling the highest quality plays, like shots on net from the inner slot and passes to and through the slot.

In both those quality areas, the duo is controlling over 60 per cent of the totals while they’re out there, which is especially impressive because neither Sergachev or Shattenkirk have ever been accused of being two-way defencemen.

The pair is still strong in shot attempt volume control but not to the same level, but when you can control quality like they do, it doesn’t much matter.

This one hurts a little because Dougie Hamilton isn’t going to be back for a while after fracturing his fibula in mid-January, but the Hurricanes boasted one of the most balanced and dominant defence pairings in recent years with Hamilton and stalwart defender Jaccob Slavin.

Slavin and Hamilton have long been darlings of the analytical hockey community, and while some pairings on this list are getting it done on the goals side in possibly unsustainable ways, this duo controlled over 59 per cent of all on-ice goals and may have even been a little unlucky in the process.

No defence pairings have a higher expected goals-for rating than these two, according to SPORTLOGiQ’S data, at 62.6 per cent. The Hurricanes are a scary team to deal with even without Hamilton in the lineup, and the division leaders in the Eastern Conference have to be hoping that they keep struggling down the stretch and don’t sneak into a wild card spot.

Remember how I mentioned that Tampa Bay’s defence is stacked? Well they have two pairings solidly within the top-five in the league. Like the Hurricanes, the Lightning are missing one of the two players on this pairing right now in Jan Rutta, but I think we all know that Rutta isn’t the one driving the bus here.

Victor Hedman is having the season that many awards voters thought he had when he was given the Norris Trophy for the Lightning having a great power play in 2018. Playing with Eric Cernak now instead of Rutta might be even more dominant, but those two haven’t hit the minutes played cut-off yet.

Playing tougher minutes than Shattenkirk and Sergachev, the numbers for Hedman and Rutta aren’t quite as gaudy overall, but they’ve actually managed to control goals at an even higher rate, approaching a 69 per cent of all goals scored while they’re taking shifts.

Hedman’s giant frame and aggressive style of defending drastically cuts down on the opponents’ ability to complete passes into the slot, both by getting in lanes and intercepting the passes themselves, and by bodying players and forcing turnovers before they can even think of making a pass. Roll that together with Hedman being a force to be reckoned with in the offensive end and you have an embarrassment of riches in Tampa Bay. Also they have Ryan McDonagh on another pairing. How did other teams let them build this roster?

It’s been an up and down season in Nashville that saw one of the longest tenured coaches in the league get sacked in Peter Laviolette. John Hynes hasn’t had much more success rounding the Preds into form to get back into a playoff position, but they’re within striking distance anyway.

One area where the Predators have been remarkably consistent all year long has been their first pairing, with Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi keeping the puck in the offensive zone almost constantly.

The profile of the way these two play together is very similar to that Sergachev and Shattenkirk pairing, strong but not dominant in shot attempts, but huge levels of control over inner slot shots and slot passes. That makes sense when you consider that all four of those defencemen are offence-focused first, but this pair plays far tougher minutes since they’re the undisputed top dogs in Nashville now.

Josi can leave a lot to be desired on the defensive side at times, but Ellis has done a great job accounting for that in his read and reacts all season long, and no pair in the league controls a higher percentage of on-ice inner slot shots than their 61.5 per cent.

Competing for rookie of the year just isn’t enough for Cale Makar, who has combined with Ryan Graves to form Colorado’s best defensive pair, and one of the best in the league.

This pairing is strong overall but it’s very clear that their main strength is in one area; the inner slot. Makar’s aggressive pinching style and ability to attack off the rush drives a ton of offence, but this duo is also very proficient at denying shots from the most dangerous area of the ice.

While they’re way above even in controlling slot passes, that is an area where the pairing struggles a little bit compared to the rest of the Avalanche roster, so there’s room to grow here on top of how dominant they are overall.

Of all the pairings within the top-five, this is the one who depends most on their goal differential to get here though, and there might be some regression on that front in short order. Hopefully for the Avalanche, that doesn’t happen in the playoffs.

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