Whether it’s breaking things down at even strength by analyzing shooters, playmakers, the beasts of transition play from the defensive end, or powerplay work, we’ve taken some deep dives on who is creating the most offence in the NHL on an individual level.
However, the player who has the puck on their stick more than anyone else in the NHL — pro-rated for their ice time — is Mathew Barzal, and every 20 minutes at 5-vs-5 he’s only in control of the puck for a whopping one minute and 52 seconds. That leaves over 18 minutes where Barzal is playing without the puck.
Playing without the puck doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing defensively, there’s offensive positioning, picks and transition play all to be done while supporting the puck carrier on your own squad. But a big chunk of that time is going to be spent playing defensively as well.
Considering how much of the game is spent defending, it’s about time we look into that side of the game. So, who are the game’s best defensive forwards?
Through general knowledge we know the first few names that will jump into everyone’s heads here. Patrice Bergeron is the gold standard of defence from the forward position, Sean Couturier is the player most likely to win the Selke this season and due to previous years of research I’m confident that the best defensive winger is likely still Mark Stone.
But based on the data, who comes out on top?
The answer to that question will probably come down to what you value more: on-ice results or the individual defensive actions of a player. But let’s do our best to narrow it down. Like every other time we’ve broken down even strength metrics, we’re going to limit our sample to 500 or more minutes played at 5-vs-5, and we’ll start out with on-ice results relative to teammates.
In this graph, since we’re looking at reducing the chances against, it’s better to be in the bottom left instead of the top right — and we have some unexpected results.
While there are some names — like Zach Aston-Reese and Adam Lowry — that check out here, the names in the quadrant that represents the best impact on their team are not the type of players you might expect.
The big-time defensive players we talked about previously in Bergeron and Couturier are nowhere near the right place, both stuck solidly in that middle mass of dots. It’s not a good idea to completely write off results if they don’t fit with preconceived notions, but one thing that a lot of players have in common here is that they aren’t playing high-leverage minutes.
When we’re looking at things like shot attempts, there’s not a lot of variance caused by the quality of opposition a player faces. However, when you slice things down to the highest quality plays that require high level skill to complete, matchups play a gigantic role in the results.
Any line that gains offensive zone time and outplays the opposition in terms of possession can send pucks towards the net. An average first line in the NHL will create more than twice as many slot passes as an average fourth line, though, so playing tougher minutes not only means being on the ice for more of those high-end events against, but also far more than their teammates who don’t.
So, if on-ice quality offensive plays against isn’t a reliable indicator of who is making the biggest impact, what can we look at to quantify defence?
When I’m trying to evaluate defensive play on the individual level for forwards, I’m essentially looking at two things:
• How often is the player able to stop an opponent’s possession by removing the puck from them with a stick check, body check, blocked shot, or blocked pass?
• How often, when that puck is poked, jostled, or blocked loose, can a player recover it and turn the tables for their team in a positive direction?
Adding on top of those two factors, we can look at how often a player enters an even engagement for a loose puck with an opponent and comes out on the winning side. What players stand out when we look at the individual plays that account for changing defensive posture into offensive posture?
Looking at what the players are doing individually, here is where the reputation and the eye test gets confirmed.
Every year that Sportlogiq data has been tracked, if you display these metrics out in this way, Bergeron will be in the exact same position. There is no player over the last five years — and probably more — who has so regularly been able to change an opponent’s possession into an offensive possession.
The 34-year-old perennial Selke favourite is the most aggressive defensive forward in the NHL, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down at the moment either. Playing against the opponent’s best every single night, Bergeron is the linchpin of the best line in the NHL over the past several seasons, and no one is particularly close to challenging him in that area.
The next group of elite defensive forwards are a bunch of known strong defensive players in Aleksander Barkov, Phillip Danault, and Mikko Koivu, alongside an extremely underrated defensive player in Evgeni Malkin.
The biggest surprise in that top group is Jack Hughes, who has faced a lot of criticism this season for his lack of offensive results, but is putting up Selke-candidate levels of defensive involvement. It would be a very fair argument to say that part of what boosts Hughes’s numbers there is that the New Jersey Devils haven’t controlled the puck very often while he’s been on the ice this year — with his 46 per cent Corsi rating ranking him 306th of 336 forwards who have played 500 or more minutes at 5-vs-5 this season — but he still has to make the successful plays here.
While Hughes’s numbers may be inflated a little, there are very few players who have been so defensively involved over the last few seasons who didn’t go on to have strong defensive impacts, with a good example being Danault as a rookie.
Looking back further into the pack, down in below-league average territory we get an on-ice leader from the last graphic in Aston-Reese looking far less impressive when we take stock of what he’s done on an individual level.
That’s significant. While the events that happen during a player’s time on the ice matter, there are nine other skaters out there as well, and an individual can make strong defensive plays and still be undone by a teammate missing assignments, or playing against high-level competition.
Until someone can come closer to challenging him, I don’t see how you can possibly take the title of best defensive forward away from Bergeron.