Top five defencemen of the decade: Karlsson embodies evolution of game

Watch as Erik Karlsson goes top corner to score on Jonathan Quick.

It feels like a great time to be a defenceman in the NHL.

The position has evolved a lot in the past 10 years, following the league’s trend towards faster, shiftier puck-movers while also very much still valuing the traditional big body on the blue line.

Some of the best leaders can be found on defence — take Shea Weber, who has captained two different teams this decade — as can the most underrated (we finally see you, Mark Giordano). Playmakers like Kris Letang, P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman and, more recently, John Carlson, have played important roles in the evolution of the defensive skillset, and evidence of that can be seen in some of the young stars emerging today.

Putting this list together was… difficult… but in a good way — we’ve seen so many elite defenders this decade, each bringing their own style to the game (and we’re not just talking about Brent Burns’s arena-arrival outfits).

The biggest question while looking at the long list of contenders kept coming back to this: What do you value in a good defenceman?

Is it the ability to drive offence from the blue line or quarterback a power play? The steady stay-at-home presence that allows forwards to go forward with confidence? The lock-down, shut-down, take-you-down grinder that will have offences thinking twice about entering enemy territory, or the shifty puck-mover that will pick your pocket and skate circles around you while exiting the zone?

All of the qualities above are represented in this list of the top five rearguards of the past decade.

1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators/San Jose Sharks

In addition to being the best defencemen, Karlsson is also one of the best NHLers of the past decade, period.

From his smooth skating and elite passing to his smart playmaking and sound defending, the 29-year-old is a perfect representation of the term “offensive defenceman.” He leads his blue-line peers in assists (452) and points (583) this decade and sits third in goals (131). That points total puts him in the conversation with some of the league’s most productive forwards, tied with Patrice Bergeron and sitting at No. 22 among all skaters’ point totals in the past 10 years.

He’s also proven himself to be a strong playoff performer, leading all defencemen in points per game (0.79). His best playoff performance was in 2017-18 when he captained the Ottawa Senators to within a single win of the Stanley Cup Final — and did so with a fractured foot.

He’s got two Norris Trophies to his name (2011-12 and 2014-15) and is in the conversation almost every awards season. Though injuries have taken a bit of a toll of late, Chapter Two of Karlsson’s career promises several more Norris nods to come next decade.

2. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks

Though he’s fallen out of elite conversations in the past few seasons, Keith was atop the league for much of the past 10 years. He was the steady, gritty presence on the Chicago Blackhawks’ blue line, logging marathon-like minutes to propel the team to three Stanley Cups.

His dominance started when the decade was still new, winning his first Norris Trophy in 2010 — the same year Chicago’s dominance began, which is certainly no coincidence. He also won Olympic gold with Team Canada that year, a feat he’d repeat in 2014. (He won the Norris Trophy again that year, too.)

Keith’s 426 points over the past decade rank him 10th among all NHL defencemen in the regular season, but it’s his playoff resume that really sets him apart — he leads all rearguards in average post-season ice time (28:45), assists (57) and points (75) and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts when the Blackhawks hoisted their third Cup of the decade in 2015.

3. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

Doughty is a dream for those who love to watch — and read about… and write about — hockey: He talks the talk, with many a great soundbite coming from his mouth on any given night, and he backs it up by walking the walk, too.

Through his honest comments in the media — whether about rivalries, how to contend, or knowing your worth on the open market — Doughty has become one of the biggest voices in the game, and one of the strongest forces on the ice.

He’s won just about everything there was to win this decade: Olympic gold (times two), the Stanley Cup (times two) and the Norris Trophy — and it could easily be argued there should’ve been another “times two” beside that one, too.

He has proven himself incredibly durable, completing seven full seasons of the last ten and missing just 15 games through the other three and has built a reputation as one of the league’s best endurance athletes — his average ice time of 26:39 over the decade ranks second among all players.

4. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

Burns’s brief stints as a forward earlier in his career are evident in how he plays the game as a defenceman, unafraid to jump into offensive zones — that’s what sets him apart from his blue-line peers, and why he’s on this list. While his risk-taking style can come back to bite the Sharks at times, his offensive skill-set puts him among the elite players of the game regardless of where you line up at puck drop.

Burns leads all defencemen in goals (166) over the past 10 years and sits second in points (544) behind his teammate, Karlsson. His incredible 83-point campaign in 2018-19 was the best season of any d-man this decade, and his 67 assists ranked him fifth across all skaters in the category. He’s a weapon on offence and a true force on his own zone — that take-you-down style mentioned in the introduction can definitely be applied to the six-foot-five, 230-pound powerhouse.

His contributions to the game extend beyond his one-ice accomplishments, as one of the most notable personalities in hockey — and that’s a victory for the growth of the game, too.

5. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

Is he the dominant force now like he was at the beginning of the decade? No, but when you look at the past 10 years overall he’s still very much been one of best blue liners in the game. His game isn’t comparable to the others on this list in terms of production, but that’s never been his M.O. In a game quickly being handed over to fast puck-movers and dynamic playmakers, Chara is a grand example of the value of a big body, a long reach, a little sandpaper and the traditional laser-beam slapshot from the blue line.

Longevity alone makes him worthy of a spot on this list, but while much of today’s commentary on Chara is centred around how the 42-year-old is able to continue playing at the level he is — we’re talking Tom Brady-like stuff here — what he’s doing on the ice is still incredibly impressive regardless of age.

He opened the decade fresh off a Norris Trophy win (2008-09) and though he didn’t win another in the 2010s, he landed several nominations thanks to his sound, lock-down defence.

Chara led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and is a major reason why the club has returned to challenge for Lord Stanley’s chalice almost every year this decade, including two more trips all the way to the Final. The NHL’s longest-tenured captain leads all defencemen this decade in playoff appearances (119), and ranks eighth in average ice time (26:15) during that time.

The most astounding number on Chara’s stat sheet, though, is his plus/minus rating: he’s plus-207. Compare that to the others on this list and, well, there really is no comparison at all.

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