An NHL team rosters 6 defencemen every night, we all know. And of that 6, successful NHL teams typically have at least one that is amongst the game’s best at the position. Really great NHL teams usually have two or three that fall into this category. There is no denying the correlation between high-end defencemen and winning hockey games. In 2007, the Anaheim Ducks regularly ruined opponents with a Big 3 consisting of two Norris Trophy winners and a very good 3rd. Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin provided the Ducks with elite performance on a nightly basis, while eating up big minutes.
The New Jersey Devils of the early 2000’s rocked a Big 3 that did everything. Captain and bruiser Scott Stevens, the above mentioned Scott Niedermayer, and elite offensive defenceman Brian Rafalski helped carry the Devils to two Stanley Cups in four years from 2000-2003.
If you recall the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell played the part of the Big 3. One could even consider the tremendous work of Nicklas Hjalmarsson and call it a Big 4. Big 4’s are also a surefire way to have success in the National Hockey League. However, a really good Big 3, is usually enough to do the trick.
There are some very solid Big 3’s in the National Hockey League at the moment. In the paragraphs that lie ahead, only the league’s absolute best Big 3 defence corps will be mentioned. To make the list, a Big 3 has to have one of two things going for it. 1) A proven track record of winning big games, like, Stanley Cup clinchers, for example. Or 2) Three individuals with hard earned, proven reputations as strong NHL defencemen. A really great Big 3 within a defence corps attributes a variety of complimentary skills to a blue line unit. That is definitely the case with the first Big 3 on this list.
The Top 10 Big 3 NHL Defence Corps
10. The Nasvhille Predators
There must be something in the Nashville water, because the Predators turn out great defencemen like no other franchise in the league. Every time one of their exceptional home grown blue liners departs, the Preds call the next number and voila, all is good again on the league’s most amazing revolving crop of defenders. With big Shea Weber leading the charge, lesser known and underrated Roman Josi in 2nd spot, and the surefire rookie Seth Jones in 3rd, the Nashville Predators Big 3 pieces on defence are lights out amazing.
It’s well publicized how great Shea Weber is. Big shot, big hitter, big leader, he’s elite. A book could be written on the impressive attributes associated with Shea’s game, but it would be redundant because everyone knows, the Preds Captain, is oustanding.
Roman Josi emerged last season, thanks to an opportunity provided by the departure of Ryan Suter. Quickly, the promising Swiss defender proved he can play quality hockey. Josi is mobile and stable, trending upward toward all round staple and house hold name.
Not since Chris Pronger has an NHL defenceman entered the league with so much hype surrounding his name. The Preds were very happy when Jones fell to 4th in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft for good reason. They just drafted another franchise defenceman, something many teams don’t have one of. He may not be great his rookie season, but he’s in one of the most perfect situations to succeed, in Nashville, where defencemen always turn out and meet their potential. The only reason the Preds aren’t higher on this list is because Seth Jones hasn’t played an NHL game yet.
9. The Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets will reap the rewards of a competitive advantage in the form of Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian this season. In the three studs on Winnipeg’s back line, many unique and coveted qualities exist and flourish.
Tobias Enstrom is one of the game’s savvy, smaller players. Size doesn’t seem to hinder the Swede too often. As one of the NHL’s calmest thinkers, Enstrom anticipates and positions himself smartly and regularly. His ability to let the play come to him helps in over coming his small frame and lack of physical aggression. The way the game is played now, throwing big hits and playing a hard nosed style doesn’t always translate to strong defensive defenceman, something Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings proved over the last two decades. A great stick check and strong positional play can be just as effective as superior strength and force. Smart and steady is Enstrom’s game. Oh, and yeah, he’s pretty good offensively.
Dustin Byfuglien is one heck of a great power forward, something he showcased in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was traded the following off season to the Winnipeg Jets and he’s played defence ever since. I guess you can say he’s one of the NHL’s most versatile players because he’s really good on the blue line, too.
Big Buff is an excellent point man, possessing a canon of a shot. In his first year with the Jets he blasted home a remarkable 20 tallies, and he did so while playing defence all season. His 20 from the point is something very few defenceman have been able to accomplish post 1993ish.
Zach Bogosian had a slow start to his career, one could say. Being drafted 3rd overall always comes with very high expectations. Regardless, defencemen develop at different times, and Bogo is not unlike many greats who took a few years to grow into the National Hockey League. Bogosian has arrived, and he’s beginning to earn mainstream respect as one of the league’s fiercest young defencemen.
8. The Vancouver Canucks
Say what you will about the aging Vancouver Canucks’ chances in the 2013-14 NHL season, but there is one thing that cannot be questioned. The Big 3 combination of Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa is a luxury most teams don’t have. As with all the Big 3’s, this one is solid throughout and offers up an array of special skills and attributes.
Dan Hamhuis is as steady as they come in the National Hockey League. This graduate of the Nashville Predators incredible school of defencemen is one of the quieter studs in the game today. While he doesn’t put up huge numbers like some other big name players slotted into the defence section of the lineup card, Hamhuis shuts it down with a reliability that borders on impossible. John Tortorella is going to love him some #2.
Alex Edler is a big fella at 6’3″ 215 lbs. He shoots a heavy shot, and compliments it with excellent skating and very keen eye for noticing, and quickly preventing, approaching, dangerous situations. Not the best defensive defenceman in the world, and not the most lethal offensive threat, Edler is strong in both areas. He’s a rock.
Kevin Bieksa is one fired up NHLer. He’s got a rocket blast from the blue line and he’s smart with his placement, an under appreciated skill amongst point shot takers. Nothing beats a very hard low shot on net from the point – it’s easier to deflect, leads to juicier rebounds, and is much harder for goaltenders to track through traffic. Besides, if a goalie isn’t screened and a point shot is high, it’s a lot easier to catch with a glove by flailing an arm than it is to stop with a kicked out leg, incapable of smothering without corralling and pouncing. Sergei Gonchar has been perfecting the low hard point shot for years, and Kevin Bieksa is damn good at it, as well. This mean streaked, smooth skating, bomber from the point is a serious weapon on one of the league’s best defence corps’
7. The New York Rangers
It’s no wonder the New York Rangers are such an outstanding defensive hockey club, they possess two of the game’s absolute rocks on their rough and rugged blue line, complimented by an offensive weapon. Too often, very good stay at home defencemen don’t get enough credit, but let’s face it, they win games for their hockey clubs, and hockey is about winning, not individual achievements. No stay-at-homer has enjoyed as much acclaim as Adam Foote in recent memory, and the Rangers have two who are cut from the same cloth. You get everything from this unit – Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto.
Marc Staal has battled injuries in recent years, but when he’s playing, he’s a difference maker. Since he and his two assistant defenders have been a mature unit for the Blueshirts they have finished 4th and 2nd overall in goals against. Of course, Lundqvist has a lot to do with the success of his defenceman, but don’t for a second discredit how much they influence his performance. Marc Staal is a giant dominator of individual battles and altercations along the boards. He’s a lock for Team Canada if healthy, where he’ll play a key role as a shutdown defenceman and penalty killer against the big shot power plays from around the world.
Dan Girardi is all heart, and on a list that celebrates the best 3 man units amongst NHL defence corps’ Girardi is as deserving as they come because he excels in one aspect that is conducive to winning. Last season’s NHL shot blocking leader doesn’t score a lot of goals, he saves a lot of goals. The Rangers will have to find a way to get more scoring out of their under achieving, constantly altering forward group in the upcoming season, so Girardi’s efforts may go rewarded.
It was really tough to decide between Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh for the 3rd spot in this Big 3, and to be fair, it’s easy to accept the Rangers as a team with a Big 4, admitting both deserved of a placement on the list. However, for the sake of versatility, Michael Del Zotto takes the cake. One of the strongest defensively focused set of defencemen in the NHL would be less effective without Michael Del Zotto’s smooth ability to move the puck forward at an elite level. He’s a strong power play point man, as well.
6. The Washington Capitals
The Caps may not meet expectations in the post season, but it’s not the fault of their Big 3 on the defence corps. Powerful at what they do, each individual on this solid Caps blue line is a true specialist. The stability in complimentary skills provided by John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green ensures the Washington Capitals will be tough to beat this season.
John Carlson simply does not get enough credit for how great a hockey player he is. Capable of both explosive offence and steady defence, the Caps franchise guy at rearguard is good at everything. He moves the puck with pace and crisp. He has a goal scorers shot from the point, he doesn’t use often because there are two better shooters to choose from. Plus, John Carlson is highly mobile for his 6’3″ frame.
Karl Alzner forms the other half of the Caps top pairing. The tough Canadian boy plays the game with an old school respect for preventing goals and making smart, simple, effective decisions with the puck. Extremely mature for his age, you won’t see a lot of mistakes from the Caps #2 defenceman.
Mike Green is an offensive weapon, it’s plain and simple. He led all defenceman in goals last season with 12, and it wasn’t the first time he’s accomplished the feat. In 2008-09 Mike Green lit up the NHL for an almost unimaginable 31 markers. He’s got a rocket from the blue line and even better shot from the top of the circles, where he can be found sneaking in close for a better opportunity, often translating to a goal for him or one of his teammates.
5. The Boston Bruins
You don’t go to the Stanley Cup Final in 2 of the last 3 seasons unless you have a Big 3 of undeniable defencemen, capable of carrying big minutes, scoring big goals, and shutting down opponents. Obviously, strong NHL defence is a team game helped by strategic coaching, all star goaltending and responsible forwards. That being said, as much as one could argue the Bruins Big 3 are a product of their environment, it’s equally valid that the opposite is true. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk form a Big 3 that will hurt you, shut you down, and flat out beat you.
Zdeno Chara, the Captain, the big man with the hardest shot in the Naitonal Hockey League. He plays massive minutes, hits like an astroid, and holds the distinction as the most intimidating player in the National Hockey League to play against. It’s possible he shelters the players around him but that’s all in a day’s work for the #1 on an NHL Big 3.
Dennis Seidenberg has really found a home on the Bruins. The reliable product of German hockey is one of the game’s most competitive shut down men. His long reach and smart positional play ensure Seidenberg is always in position, preventing scoring chances. For a big stay-at-home type, Dennis can transition well too. He won’t carry the puck up the ice with speed and grace, but he’s a mistake free, quick off the stick, first passer, and smart decision maker.
Few players have more heart than Johnny Boychuk of the Boston Bruins. Blocking shots, throwing hits, and competing fiercely every shift are qualities that separate the Bruins blue liner from most defencemen in the league. And Johnny can score. He has one of the league’s hardest shots, a rocket that finds the back of the net, more frequently in the playoffs when goals are needed, and ten times more meaningful.
4. The Ottawa Senators
The Sens are a defence wins games thinking hockey club under Head Coach Paul MacLean, and you can’t play solid defence without having some very good defencemen holding down the fort. Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot, and the still-got-it greybeard Chris Philips of the Ottawa Senators rival anyone’s Big 3 for all encompassing variety and specialty.
Erik Karlsson comes as advertised. He’s electrifying offensively and he boasts the numbers to support that claim. His offensive instincts dictate and influence entire hockey games. He’s a smart defensively, as well, although he’ll never be known for that side of his game.
Marc Methot has emerged as a rock on the Sens blue line. Opposing teams will struggle to out compete and gain position on one of the NHL’s most competent and strong stay-at-home defenceman. He can shut down top scorers, which is something he did a lot last season, and will continue to do for the Sens, in 2013-14.
Chris Philips may be an old man in hockey terms, but he’s still got it. The Sens longest serving member has been patrolling the Ottawa blue line since Erik Karlsson was a little child. Philips provides calmness, experience, and reliability at the highest level. His feet don’t move as fast as they once did, but his mind for the game is so elite, he’s figured out a way to adapt and evolve into one of the game’s most positionally sound defenders. Philips is a great first passer and top level decision maker under pressure. He’s very good at what he does.
3. The Montreal Canadiens
Many were shocked when the Montreal Canadiens won the Northeast Division a year ago, but it’s not that surprising when you consider their Big 3 on defence is superbly skilled and adept at all areas of the game. Andrei Markov, P. K. Subban and the fearless Josh Gorges can carry the Habs on their back, with a little help from a locked in Carey Price.
Andrei Markov is one of the best NHL defencemen of the last decade, and all throughout the 2012-13 NHL season, he displayed his dominance for all to see. The Habs top defender is a goal scorer, puck mover, incredible passer, with a positionally sound mind for hockey. It’s no coincidence that when Markov is healthy, the Habs usually win a lot of hockey games.
P. K. Subban experienced a breakout season of epic proportions last year. His high level play earned him the Norris Trophy, as the NHL’s top defenceman. His monster of a shot from the point powers its way past goaltenders, unscreened. He hits with malice, keeping players heads up when he’s on the ice. P. K. Subban is on the rise, meaning the Habs’ Big 3 promises to shine in 2013-14.
Josh Gorges is fearless. He is the perfect compliment to the all round excellence of Markov and extreme offensive gifts of Subban. In Gorges, Habs Head Coach Michel Therrien can confidently trust that his hard nosed battler will bring his A game, every night. Gorges is a savvy defender, capable of quick, intelligent decisions. He’s a tried and tested warrior on the Habs back end.
2. The Chicago Blackhawks
You don’t win 2 Stanley Cups in 4 years because your defence is average. The Blackhawks sport one of the most dynamic Big 3’s amongst all NHL defence corps.’ The Hawks Big 3 have levels to their individual styles, that when mashed together, form a twenty plus minute playing machine that wins a lot of hockey games.
Duncan Keith is fast, furious and filthy offensively. One of the best skaters in the NHL can do more than just fly around and dominate the offensive zone, he can also play it tough on his side of centre ice, closing gaps and allowing little space for opposing forwards to attempt quality scoring chances against his team.
Brent Seabrook is a big boy with a lot of punch. One of the most mobile big men in hockey can join the rush with ease and find spots in the high slot to cash in on well placed goals. The Hawks defenceman has grown into a leader and one of the most intense competitors in the NHL.
Nicklas Hjalmarsson is often underrated because he plays in the same lineup as Keith and Seabrook, but the Hawks 3rd go-to-guy is top notch. Nick is one of the best penalty killers in the entire NHL, a quality that contributes a great deal to his team’s success. His very reliable defensive play is apparent by his active stick, smart reads, and deceptive closing speed. He’s smooth on transition and responsible enough to not jump at every offensive opportunity, which is a temptation every Hawks defenceman must learn to moderate, but only the clever learn to master.
1. The St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have the rare distinction of fielding the only Big 3 that are all capable of being #1’s. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester are three of the best blue liners in the National Hockey League, on their own. As a unit, the Blues Big 3 promises to be the key features on a defence corps that isn’t going to allow too many goals against this season. Shortly after acquiring Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary last season, the Blues recorded four shutouts in a five game span. It’s hard to generate offence against a team that always has an elite defenceman on the ice.
The recently signed Alex Pietrangelo has come into his own of late, establishing himself as one of the NHL’s finest puck movers and point shooters. Pietrangelo is solid defensively, to go along with his knack for creating regular offence. He’s on the cusp of entering the prime of his career where the sky is the limit for the young native of King City, Ontario. He will produce in every aspect of the game.
Kevin Shattenkirk is not too far off, when discussing best defencemen in the NHL. The Blues #1A American is an offensive threat and defensive rock. He has excelled and reached his potential since joining the Blues, and is nicely settling into superiority. This season, Shattenkirk will play big minutes on both sides of centre ice and he’ll produce like a star.
Jay Bouwmeester is quietly one of hockey’s most consistent bodies on the blue line. He’s the best 3rd of any Big 3 in the National Hockey League and quite honestly, a #2 on most of the preceding teams on this list. There is no other party of size and skating in the NHL to compare with Jay Bouwmeester’s smooth mobility. The Blues newly acquired 3rd ace, is very difficult to play against, providing his opponents no space to move thanks to a long reach and shark like ability to track. He’s an excellent first pass with a heads up tendency to naturally react safely in dangerous situations.
This was a difficult list to produce and it may be a little off the board in favour of defensive reliability. In the end, the goal of this list was to find a balance amongst three defencemen who combine to form an outstanding unit, capable of playing 20 plus quality minutes while providing their unique skills effectively all throughout, and in a variety of offensive and defensive situations.
Many, many, great players were left off this list because it was difficult to find a 3rd on some teams.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes compete with any team’s top two. And the rest of the Coyotes defence is strong, to boot. But there isn’t that 3rd guy who stands out and excels at the highest level in one specific aspect offensively, or defensively. Zybnek Michalek was closest and very arguably deserving.
In the case of the Penguins’ Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi there exists a Big 3 that won a Stanley Cup the last time they played together. Their absence in the top 10 was a difficult decision to make. They are very deserving of a spot.
The entire Top 10 and four teams mentioned afterward possess competitive advantages on defence that will help them win games throughout the course of the 2013-14 NHL regular season.