THE NHL'S TOP BLUELINE PAIRS

2023-10-10 · 3 min read · NHL/Hockey
Cale Makar and Jaccob Slavin

David Zalubowski/AP | Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

As promised here we are with the NHL’s best defensive pairings. I had some trouble with this list due to the bevy of banging blueline duos, but I wanted to keep it top five. Thus, we crunched the numbers, watched the tape and without further ado let’s get into it.
  • The Devils had a huge turnaround last year and this pairing is one of the main reasons why. Hamilton is an offensive force, both his shooting and playmaking from the point are huge drivers of the Devils' offence. His defensive ability isn’t quite what it used to be but it’s still good, plus he drives play at a high enough rate to easily make up any deficit. It also helps that he has his polar opposite in play style by his side in Jonas Siegenthaler. He’s been a happy breakout for the Devils, emerging as one of the best shutdown defenders in the league. That tight style complements Hamilton perfectly, as it lets Dougie do his thing offensively and help push the play for the likes of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Co, while Siegenthaler cleans up any garbage that may emerge from it, allowing the two to be an extremely cohesive pair.
New Jersey outscored opponents 61-38 with the duo on the ice at five-on-five while hogging around 56% of the scoring chances and high-danger opportunities. Siegenthaler's shutdown style is well-suited to Hamilton's offensive approach, which is reminiscent of what Jaccob Slavin brought to the table as Hamilton's partner for three seasons in Carolina. Their 3.59 goals per 60 was the third-highest clip among all pairs to see at least 500 minutes together at five-on-five. However, Siegenthaler and Hamilton didn't take the lion's share of the reps against opponents' top players last season. That may change in this upcoming campaign. Graves departed to Pittsburgh, and the Devils may not want to saddle rookie Luke Hughes with too much responsibility right out the gate.
  • Sure, Grzelcyk and McAvoy struggled in the playoffs, but they have enough of a proven record that we can call that a blip (for now…). That's great news for the Bruins, who could use some consistency and familiarity in the aftermath of Selke king Patrice Bergeron's and David Krejci's retirements. Boston outscored opponents 36-15 at five-on-five with the duo on the ice last season, the NHL's second-highest ratio among all pairs to skate at least 500 minutes together. Grzelcyk and McAvoy also posted a minuscule 1.49 goals against per 60 and a hefty 3.58 goals for per 60, which both rank in the top five league-wide.
They didn't see as much time together last season as the other pairings on this list, but that's partially due to both starting the campaign injured. Grzelcyk has been McAvoy's most common partner since 2020-21, and the results have paid dividends. Over the past three seasons combined, the duo ranks third in CF% (58.1) and first in GF% (72.9) and xGF% (61.2) among all pairs to see at least 1,000 minutes together at five-on-five. Simply put, the Bruins have controlled the puck and kept it out of their net at staggering rates when Grzelcyk and McAvoy are off the bench.
3.  Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren (New York Rangers)
- Fox could play with most of the league's blueliners and still make this list. Like somebody else on this list, it's impressive how quickly Fox established himself as an elite defenseman, going from a dark horse Calder candidate in the stacked defensive class of Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes to winning a Norris Trophy in just his second season. The Rangers' underlying metrics have been somewhat iffy these past two seasons, but that’s not the case when Fox is on the ice, as he drives play like few can on the back end while also being one of the best in his own end, a rare but highly valued combination.
Lindgren has been his usual partner since Fox entered the NHL, and there’s a reason why. Lindgren has proven to be an excellent defender in his own end, making it difficult for opponents to get good scoring chances when both of them are on the ice. Lindgren doesn’t drive offence as well as Fox, but he can get the job done meaning the Rangers they don’t have to rely on Fox to move the puck up the ice and allow their opponents to target Fox. It’s created an excellent pair that can take on the tough minutes and allow K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba to roam free in lighter minutes.
  • Despite the Norris trophy candidates littering this list, it's this parking that grabbed the No. 2 spot on this list. That's how talented the oft-underrated Slavin is. The Hurricanes stalwart and shutdown wizard is likely to again play alongside grizzly vet Brent Burns and his booming shot. The opponents had an awful time getting anything done whenever Burns and Slavin were off the bench last season. The Hurricanes controlled a whopping 61.1% of the high-danger chances (312-199) and 62.8% of the scoring chances (726-431) with the duo on the ice at five-on-five. Those impressive rates are the highest of all pairings to see more than 500 minutes of action together in 2022-23.
But wait, there's more! Burns posted his highest point total (61) since 2018-19 in his first season with Slavin and ended up back on the Norris Trophy ballot after a three-year drought. Slavin's entire thing is about making his running mate look great, so it'd be logical if Carolina wants to keep him and Burns together. But that's also why the Hurricanes may think a reunion with Tony DeAngelo makes sense. As long as the now 38-year-old Burns can keep up with the game and the Canes keep them together, this should be a great top pair for the Canes for the remainder of his contract.
  • Any pair that has Makar on it is automatically going to get consideration for the No. 1 spot, but it's not fair that his partner in crime is Toews. Avalanche fans (whose top forward line is also one of the best) fans, you're being spoiled. Their dominance is best displayed through their plus-minus last season: Toews led all rearguards at plus-52, while Makar was in second at plus-48 while averaging over 25 minutes per contest against the league's top players. Toews may not get as much credit but the responsible blue-liner admirably shouldered the hefty workload in his Makar’s absence last year. In a little under 750 minutes at five-on-five with Toews on the ice sans Makar, Colorado dictated 51.5% of the shot attempts, 56.5% of the goals, and 53.5% of the expected goals. Despite missing time, Makar was still named a Norris Trophy finalist after posting 17 goals and 66 points in 60 games while leading the league in average ice time (26:23).
When healthy, he and Toews formed the NHL's most formidable tandem, out of all defensive pairs to see at least 500 minutes of ice time together at five-on-five, Toews and Makar ranked third in xGF% and fifth in GF%. Makar gets the bulk of the attention after he basically swept the NHL's award season in 2021-22, but the underrated Toews is vital to the team in his own right. Colorado controlled 51.4% of the goals and 58.9% of the expected goals with them on the ice at five-on-five during their run to the Cup two years ago. They also filled up the scoresheet. Makar took home the Conn Smythe Trophy after he led all defensemen with 29 points in 20 games, while Toews ranked fourth with 15. It's terrifying to think that Makar and Toews are likely to only get better from here. The rest of the league better watch out.
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By: Chase Howard

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