We now transition from the frontline to the blue line, looking at the top five defenders in the Central Division. Whether it be the physical enforcer, finesse “offensive defenseman”, or somewhere in between, the division is filled with top-tier defenseman. Here are my top five, in descending order.
5. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues-
The 23-year old was a first round pick in 2007, and has performed like it thus far in his young career. He had a massive season that went largely unnoticed in 2011, mostly due to the Norris-like performance of his pair mate Alex Pietrangelo, dolling out 34 assists and adding nine goals, along with a +/- of 20. Perhaps the biggest improvement over his rookie season was the physicality of his play, tallying 60 penalty minutes, ranking sixth on the Blues. Further, Shatty was a workhorse for the bluenotes, averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game. Another overlooked element of his game is special teams, where he registered 18 power play points last season. But, the best thing about Shattenkirk is that his best years are surely in front of him, and that playing with Pietrangelo will surely elevate both of their games to new heights in the upcoming season.
4. Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets-
After being traded from the LA Kings to Blue Jackets mid-season, most expected Johnson to slump along with the worst team in the NHL. But, in only 21 games, he registered 14 points, and an unbelievable (at least for a Columbus defender) +/- of 5. The third overall pick in 2005 has had a stellar career so far, and has career highs of 42 points and 153 shots on goal. He is not an overly physical player, but is a good matchup defender, and has very good durability – playing in all 82 games the past two seasons. In Columbus, he will join a solid defensive unit that recently picked up top prospect Tim Erixon in the Rick Nash trade, along with Nikita Nikitin and James Wisniewski. I believe the 25-year old is due for a 60+ point season, even with one of the worst offenses in the west up front, as he will continue to improve on the offensive end.
3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks-
The Blackhawks’ alternate captain has been a staple for the former Stanley Cup Champions since 2005, after being drafted in the second round in 2002. Keith is a great all-around defenseman, making huge contributions on both ends of the ice, and special teams. He registered 36 assists and 4 goals in 74 games last season, while garnering 42 penalty minutes (8th on the team) and a +/- of 15. Keith also mans the point on the power play, picking up 12 assists and 1 goal on the man-up unit. Further, Keith was 11th in the NHL in average time on the ice, putting up almost 27 minutes per game. At 29, he is in the midst of his prime, and should be a solid contributor to the Blackhawks for another decade, barring a serious injury.
Pietrangelo exploded on the scene in 2011, putting up the fifth most points in the NHL for defensemen
with 51, 39 of which were assists. A Western Conference all-star, he was a Norris Trophy finalist for top NHL defenseman, finishing in the top five in voting. He anchored a defensive unit that was ranked first in the NHL in goals against per game, and was on the ice almost 25 minutes per game, tops of all St. Louis blue liners. The 2007 first round pick has excelled in his role in the top defensive pair along with Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as on the power play, where he garnered 24 extra-man points in 2011. The Blues need to lock up Pietrangelo well past next season (somewhere in the ballpark of 10 years), and ensure that he does not hit the open market after 2013-2014.
1. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators-
Arguably the top defenseman in the NHL, Shea Weber signed a 14-year, 110 million dollar offer sheet with Philadelphia, which was subsequently matched by the Predators, who had already lost D Ryan Suter to free agency. Shea Weber is a fantastic all-around player, who is both a physical presence and offensive threat on the blue line, putting up 49 points, 22 of which were on the power play, and tallying 46 penalty minutes. He is also very a top-tier penalty killer, contributing to one of the top units in the NHL, and adding two short-handed goals in 2011. Further, Weber averaged over 26 minutes of ice time per game, good for fifth in the NHL. To be sure, at only 26, Weber will be a huge factor for a Nashville franchise, which is attempting to reload after arguably the most successful season in team history, for at least the next decade.