Last week, the Calgary Flames made waves with the signing of T.J Brodie to a 5 year, 23.25M contract, in a move widely praised by the Canadian media, well aware of the offensive upside and all-around qualities of the 24-year old defenseman. However, for the casual NHL fans, Brodie is still a relatively unknown player, mostly because he plays for the Flames, a franchise in rebuild, on a loaded Western Conference. Despite the responsibilities Brodie and teammate Mark Giordano take on, and excel at, in every game, their performances frequently fail to be noticed and they’re far from household names in the NHL.
With this in mind, I decided to dig into the NHL rosters and pick a group of five defenseman who deserve more respect than they get. In this list you won’t find players from the premier teams in the league, which, for better or worse, make regular appearances on televisions and/or news outlets, not only during the regular season but also due to recent successful playoff runs. Thus, I tried to avoid picking Blackhawks, Kings, Rangers, Bruins (the last four SC finalists), and also Penguins, Capitals and Flyers (ok, no real candidates here). I also decided to further narrow my player’s poll by establishing a series of screening parameters that I listed below:
- Selected players must be in the 20-30 years range
Younger players are usually talked about high draft picks, and older players benefit from a capital of experience and recognition based on several years in the league. This stipulation rules out names like Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, Olli Maatta, Morgan Reilly, Andy Greene, Tom Gilbert, Trevor Daley, Christian Ehrhoff or Johnny Boychuk
- No 1st round picks
Names like Dougie Hamilton, Victor Hedman, Ryan Murray, Erik Johnson, Dmitry Kulikov, Jonas Brodin, Nick Leddy, Oliver Ekman-Larsson…
- No former All-Stars
The Karlssons, Webers, Suters, and Subbans of the NHL.
- No former Canadian or American Olympians
On a North American league, European Olympians can fly under-the-radar, but Canadians and Americans shouldn’t. So, no Dan Hamhuis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Seabrook, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, John Carlson…
After all this, for relevancy purposes, I only selected players who are undoubtedly used as Top 4 defenseman on their teams, therefore playing an average of, at least, 18 minutes per game. Ok, introduction is over, let’s get down to business.
Justin Braun (San Jose Sharks)
The Sharks have been able to successively present good teams over the last fifteen years and their ability to find unheralded players like this 27-year old is one of the reasons. Braun usually plays alongside the excellent Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who until last year would have a perfect candidate for this list, and the par excels as the team shutdown defensive unit. Not overly physical despite standing at 6’2’’ and 205 pounds, the Minnesota native is, in the current season, the third defenseman of the team in ice time, playing around 21 min/per game (behind Vlasic and Brent Burns), and the second one on shorthanded time per game, with almost 2:30 min of use. Last season, on a great possession team, Braun was the third best defenseman in 5on5FenwickRel% (a measure of puck possession that compares the team performance when the player is on the ice and off the ice), after Vlasic and the sheltered Jason Demers, and this year he’s performing even better, trailing only Logan Couture on the whole team. Not bad for a former 7th round pick who is on his fourth NHL season and has seen his ice time and responsibilities grow steadily every year. Braun signed a five-year extension with the team in September, agreeing on a deal that carries a cap hit a 3.8 M until 2020 and is certainly a bargain for a quality shutdown defenseman on his prime years.
Roman Josi (Nashville Predators)
After the departure of Ryan Suter in 2012, the Predators were left with a big hole on their defence, not only because Suter is an all-star quality player, but also because he was a perfect complement to Shea Weber. However, the Preds solved the problem with aplomb when they decided to hand the task to a young swiss defender who had just completed his first NHL season. Roman Josi was a 2nd round pick by the team in the 2008 draft and in many characteristics resembles Suter: he is a left shooter, a complete defender with decent size, has good puck moving abilities and a lack of a physical edge. Plus, the Bern native can shoot, reaching the 10-goal plateau last season, something the American has never done. On a team with a young defence, Josi and Weber form the top pair, take on all the difficult minutes and are also asked to provide offense, with the duo raking up more than 28 minutes per game, a number that includes more than 3 min in both power play and penalty kill situations. With all this responsibility, their possession numbers have suffered this season, despite the team’s good start, but both should rebound quickly, since Josi (and Weber) finished last season above water. After the expiration of his entry-level deal in 2013, Josi signed a seven-year extension with the Predators for an average of 4M per year, a number below average for a player who looks to be a good third defenseman when Seth Jones develops to his full potential.
Chris Tanev (Vancouver Canucks)
Christopher Tanev is a 24-year-old defenseman that excelled last year on a deep Vancouver Canucks defence. The Toronto native started his fourth NHL season as the fifth defenseman on the depth chart but ended up playing the toughest minutes on the team, alongside Canadian Olympian Dan Hamhuis, and finished above water (positive FenwickRel%), something more heralded colleagues, like Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa, couldn’t do. On a total of roughly 20 minutes of ice time per game, Tanev only trailed Hamhuis in shorthanded assignments and practically never saw the ice on the power play, finishing with 6 goals and 17 points on 64 games. Entering 2014-15, the departure of Jason Garrison meant the opening of a top 4 spot for the mobile defenseman, and his usage moved a bit under the new coach, with Tanev partnering with Alexander Edler, starting more shifts in the offensive zone and having a chance on the power play. The result is an even better shot differential (at even strength) and the opportunity to pile up the points using his good puck moving skills. Tanev, who was never drafted and signed with the Canucks in 2010 out of college, is on a one year deal that pays him 2M, with a raise expected for next July.
Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild)
The number 46 of the Minnesota Wild is worn by a small (5’9’’) defenseman that was drafted on the sixth round of the 2008 NHL draft by the New York Islanders. Spurgeon signed with the Wild organization in 2010 and only needed a year to gain a permanent place on the NHL team, impressing with is two-way qualities, agility and skating prowess. About to turn 25, the Edmonton native usually plays on the team’s second pair, alongside Marco Scandella, and logs over 22 minutes per game, more than three of them on the power play. On a team that spreads the shorthanded responsibilities by the top two defensive lines, in order to keep Ryan Suter fresh for 5on5 play and power play duties, Spurgeon is right behind Jonas Brodin and Suter on quality of competition, having posted the best FenwickRel% of the regular defensive group in 2013-14. After the 5 goals and 26 points obtained last season, the defenseman is off to a nice scoring start this year and should surpass his maximum offensive totals, increasing his chances of getting a nice raise in 2016, when his current 3 year, 8M contract expires.
Travis Hamonic (New York Islanders)
For over three years, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic formed the designated shutdown unit of the New York Islanders. But, even if MacDonald signed this summer a big deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, only one member of the par did a good job solving the task handed to them, and it wasn’t him. In fact, while MacDonald was repeatedly a possession black hole, posting worse shot differentials than the rest of his teammates, Hamonic managed to stay on the positive side in every season, except for 2012-13.
Last season, the Manitoba native averaged 25 minutes per game, by far tops on the team after his partner was traded, and handled the biggest responsibilities on the penalty kill too, with over 3 minutes of daily work. At the age of 24, Hamonic is a physical defenseman with a good frame (6’2’’, 217 pounds) and some offensive upside, mainly due to a powerful shot, that is considered one of the building blocks of the rejuvenated Islanders. The former 2nd round pick is on a seven-year deal that runs until 2020 and pays an average of 3.8 M per year, definitely excellent value for a top paring defenseman signed through his prime years.