In a recent issue of The Hockey News, senior writer Adam Proteau compiled a one-to-30 ranking of NHL defense corps based on feedback from league executives, scouts and coaches. The most superb group of six, it was determined, belonged to the Philadelphia Flyers, though not one Philly D-man cracked our top-10 ranking of Norris Trophy candidates right now.
We certainly recognize the fleeting nature of a list like the one below and acknowledge that any coach interested in prolonged employment wouldn’t take many defensemen ahead of Chris Pronger if given the opportunity to build a back end from a league-wide pool. And if Kimmo Timonen isn’t a top-10 defender in the NHL when you look at his entire body of work, he’s darn close.
But right now, neither would be a Norris candidate, which hammers home just how well the Flyers blueliners are playing as a group. Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell, two off-season pickups, have done a great job stabilizing the bottom end of the corps. Meszaros went from a minus-14 showing with Tampa Bay last year to a plus-25 mark that has him tied for third in the league in that category. Matt Carle might be among the more underrated defensemen out there and while Braydon Coburn still hasn’t developed into the beast many predicted he would become, he still brings a fairly mobile 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame to the table.
Nicklas Lidstrom, ranked No. 1 on our list of Norris contenders, anchors the No.2-ranked ‘D’ crew in Detroit, a team that has made a habit of relying on sound defensive play to relieve some of the burden on unspectacular goaltenders.
Not surprisingly, a New York Islanders rearguard collection that’s been without Mark Streit all year was identified as the worst in the league, but perhaps more intriguing is the No. 17 ranking assigned to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts have tons of talent up front and get stable crease work from Dwayne Roloson, but a blueline ensemble littered with names such as Brett Clark, Randy Jones and Matt Smaby still has to show it can stand up to the NHL’s more tenacious teams. It’ll be on veteran Mattias Ohlund and fellow Swede Victor Hedman, who’s quietly putting together a quality sophomore campaign, to carry mail.
Perhaps no team has more issues on the back end right now than the Vancouver Canucks, who probably lost another blueline body to injury while you were reading this sentence. The latest victim is Kevin Bieksa, who is out indefinitely with a small break in his left foot. He joins a defense-laden infirmary that already included notables Andrew Alberts, Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis and, perhaps most crushingly, Alex Edler. Of the guys on that list, only Ballard is expected to return soon as his sprained knee is almost healed. When rookie Evan Oberg suited up Thursday night, it meant the Canucks had dressed an unlucky total of 13 defensemen this season.
The good news for Vancouver is its ‘D’ corps was rated third-best in the league in our poll, so if they can get the bodies back in time for the playoffs, the Canucks will have the solid back end any team in search of a championship requires.
GAME OF THE MONTH: One injured Canuck defenseman we didn’t even mention is Lee Sweatt, who’s out with a broken foot. At 5-foot-9, Sweatt is undersized and didn’t even play his first NHL game until this year, at age 25. However, that Jan. 26 debut was one to remember as Sweatt scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory over Nashville with less than 10 minutes to go in the game. Then bad Canuck luck struck and Sweatt broke his foot in practice.
RISING: An All-Star Game appearance and a 10-game point streak at the end of January helped bump Keith Yandle’s league-wide profile and put him in the thick of the Norris race. He posted three assists to further bolster his standing in a win over Atlanta on Thursday.
FALLING: Speaking of the Thrashers, Tobias Enstrom’s ranking slipped a bit, but only because he was sidelined with a fractured finger. He contributed an assist in a big 3-2 win over the Rangers in his first game back in the lineup Feb. 11. Atlanta desperately needs his return to change its fortunes.
MAKING THE CASE
Graced the cover of our most recent issue, where we anointed him the best 40-year-old in NHL history
Has really turned things up offensively since 2011 began, to the tune of 19 points in 21 games
His 18 inter-division points leads all blueliners, as do his 50 total points
Hasn’t scored in 13 games since Jan. 17 hat trick, but still B’s most important skater
Plays more than any Penguin and will be leaned on even more heavily with Evgeni Malkin joining Sidney Crosby on the sidelines
Thrashers were 1-4-1 when he was out of the lineup with a fractured finger
Keep expecting him to drop off this list, but apparently he’s not going anywhere. His 25 even-strength points are the second-most by a defenseman league-wide
Random stat: the former forward is 1-for-1 on faceoffs this year
Thirteen-game pointless streak took off some of the shine, so ‘Big Buff’ needs a big finish
It’s been a trying year for the defending Norris champ and his team, but you can’t ignore the huge minutes Keith continues to log and he could still hit 50 points with a strong stretch run
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Jay Bouwmeester may never put up the points people expect of him, but the guy plays a ton in every situation. Only Dan Boyle has seen more ice time than the big Flames blueliner this year as Bouwmeester chases down that elusive first career playoff appearance.
THN Puck Panel: Yandle, Weber deserve Norris consideration
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
THN.com's Norris Trophy Watch will appear monthly throughout the season and don't miss out as we'll also track the Hart, Vezina and Jack Adams.