It’s easy to calculate a top forward’s value to his team through the simple statistic of points, as top forwards, while also needing to be defensively responsible, are judged primarily on their offensive output. Defensemen, however, are more difficult to gauge based on a single statistic. Evaluating a defenseman’s play purely by points or other offensive statistic overly rewards one aspect of their game at the expense of how well they play in their own zone. Plus/minus, which is calculated by taking the number of goals the player’s team scored while he was on the ice and subtracting the number of goals against they were on the ice for, can be a valuable statistic, but its problem is that the statistic involves so much outside of a defenseman’s control. A poor defenseman on a team with a great goaltender or particularly lethal forwards can seem better than a good defenseman stuck with subpar goaltending or forwards unable to bury their shots.
In response, I have turned to the Corsi rating to try to form the fairest possible evaluation of a defenseman’s overall play. The rating first adds the number of shots on target or missed by a player’s team and shots blocked against a player’s team when he is on the ice. It then takes that number and subtracts the number of shots on target or missed the player’s team lets up when he is on the ice as well as the number of shots blocked by his own team when playing. The overall season statistics are then divided by 60 in order to ascertain how many more or fewer shots and scoring opportunities per game a player’s team has when they are on the ice. The Corsi rating is the leading component of advanced hockey statistics, the sport’s equivalent to the kind of statistics introduced into baseball and then popularized by Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, the book Moneyball about his career and the subsequent movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Though complex, the statistic offers a more complete view on how a team uses and controls the puck when a defenseman is on the ice, accurately factoring offensive and defensive components of the game while also eliminating some of the problems that plus/minus offers.
It is not without its flaws – it is solely based on 5 on 5 play, and therefore does not factor in a player’s performance on the power play or on the penalty kill. It also continues one of plus/minus’ biggest problems as a statistic, in that a player’s Corsi rating is not solely determined by an individual but also that of his teammates. While it negates some of the ways plus/minus does this, it still often favors players on better teams more than those on poor ones. Until hockey statisticians come up with a new statistic , however, I believe it to be the most fair way to assess a defenseman. By taking the cap hits of the top 50 defensemen so far this season and dividing them by their Corsi rating, I have determined which ten are providing their team with the best dollar values for their contract so far this season. I used the top 50 instead of the top 100, as I did for forwards, because each team has only half as many defensemen as forwards, so it provides an equal sample size based on the total number of players at that position across the league.
10 Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia Flyers: $6,000,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 9.41, $637,619.55 per Corsi Point
Kimmo Timonen has played in the NHL so long that the league no longer even holds the draft round he was selected in (the NHL Draft currently has only seven rounds, but Timonen was a 10th round selection in 1993). Timonen has consistently excelled at both ends of the ice, and has been named an NHL All-Star five times, most recently in 2012. Playing for several years in Nashville, Timonen shone from the blueline on a club which has often struggled to produce high-end scorers and as a result still holds the franchises’ career assist record with 222. Traded to the Flyers in 2007, Timonen proved his defensive game again by anchoring the back end after future NHL Hall of Famer Chris Pronger’s career ended due to injuries. Though the team has often struggled with goaltending and overall defensive issues, Timonen has provided solid and responsible play to his team. Over the last three years, Timonen has passed the 100 goal, 500 point and 1,000 game markers, another proof of his offensive acumen and longevity.
9 James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets: $5,500,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 8.82, $623,582.77 per Corsi Point
Wisniewski is probably best known to many hockey fans outside of Columbus for the two eight-game suspensions he has received, the first in March 2010 for driving Blackhawks’ defensemen Brent Seabrook’s head into the glass to retaliate for an earlier play, and the second in September 2011 for a hit to the head on Cal Clutterbuck in an exhibition game. Wisniewski is no mere physical threat, however, contributing at least 25 points from the blueline, a respectable if not spectacular number for any NHL defenseman, four times in his career. Though Wisniewski played for the Blackhawks, Ducks, Islanders and Canadiens before signing with Columbus in 2011, Wisniewski’s future in the city is secure, as he is in just the third year of a six-year contract. With Columbus in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Wisniewski may have the opportunity to play post-season hockey for just the third time in his nine-year career, after playing a significant role in improving the Blue Jackets’ overall play.
8 Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks: $6,666,667 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 11.09, $601,142.20 per Corsi Point
Dan Boyle is one of the NHL’s elite offensive blueliners, having scored 50 or more points six times and 15 or more goals four times in his career. Like Timonen, Boyle has surpassed the 100 goal and 500 point plateaus, further reinforcing his talents. Boyle has enjoyed team success on a league and international level, winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa Bay and an Olympic gold medal for Canada in 2010. Boyle has played a large leadership role in San Jose since joining the team in 2008, and is currently an assistant captain with the team. Though many have suggested the team’s core is lacking after several years of playoff disappointment, the relatively low level of criticism directed at him related to the team’s playoff play is indicative of the respect he holds around the league. With San Jose once again sitting near the top of the NHL standings, Boyle will have another chance to prove his abilities, both offensively and defensively, and lead his team to a deep playoff run.
7 Lubomir Visnovsky, New York Islanders: $4,750,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 9.29, $511,302.48 per Corsi Point
When you look at Visnovsky’s career, it’s hard to argue that he’s had some tough luck when it comes to timing when he plays for teams. Visnovsky played for the Los Angeles Kings from 2001-2008, before being traded to Edmonton for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, both of whom were on the Kings’ roster when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012. Just two years out of making a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, Edmonton failed to make the playoffs in either season Visnovsky played for the team and finished in last place in 2009-2010, the second of his two seasons there. The team had hoped he could take the place of Chris Pronger, who was traded in the summer of 2006 to Anaheim after serving as the team’s best player during their 2006 playoff run, but Visnovsky could not make up for several deficiencies on a weak team. Late in the 2009-2010 season, Visnovsky was traded to the Ducks, who had won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with Pronger on their roster but had since traded him to Philadelphia. The Ducks then failed to make the playoffs in 2010 and 2012, and were upset in five games by Nashville during his only playoff appearance with the team in 2011.
Finally, in June 2012, Anaheim traded Visnovsky to the Islanders, but Visnovsky was so upset with the move that he filed a grievance to the NHLPA to attempt to void the trade, arguing the no-trade agreement he signed with Los Angeles was still in effect. His claim was denied and Visnovsky failed to report to the team in time to play the team’s first game in January 2013, but has since settled his grievances and even signed a two-year extension with the organization. If the world is just, Visnovsky will one day have the opportunity to join a team as it is at its peak and primed for a deep playoff run but, given his history, I wouldn’t bet on it.
6 Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings: $4,166,667 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 8.49, $490,773.50 per Corsi Point
Success very early in a player’s career can leave a person either entitled or hungry for more, and in Voynov’s case the latter seems to be the case. Winning the Stanley Cup in his rookie season with the Kings in 2012, Voynov has emerged into one of the Kings’ most important players and one of the league’s best young defensemen. Though Voynov, like the rest of his Kings’ teammates, has struggled offensively this year compared to past seasons, he has also excelled in his own end, helping the team concede the second-fewest goals so far this season, behind only Boston in that statistic. If the Kings continue to win several 1-0 or 2-1 games, don’t be surprised to see Voynov help the Kings make another deep playoff run by shutting down the top lines of opposing teams and contributing some secondary offense as well.
5 Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues: $4,250,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 10.64, $399,436.09 per Corsi Point
It’s safe to say that the Blues’ 2011 trade to acquire Shattenkirk, power forward Chris Stewart and a conditional second-round pick from Colorado for defensemen and former first overall pick Erik Johnson, centre Jay McClement and a conditional first-round pick has become one of the most one-sided trades since Boston got Tuukka Rask from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft. Johnson has struggled with Colorado and McClement is now playing for Toronto, leaving the Avalanche with little to show.
Though Stewart has struggled to reach his full potential at times, Shattenkirk has clearly emerged as the best player in the deal and been a significant part of the Blues’ rise to dominance in the NHL standings. He has averaged over half a point a game from the back end, and helped the Blues let in the third-fewest goals so far this season after Boston and Los Angeles. As part of a superb blueline with Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, the Blues are set for serious present and long-term success, and hope to end the team’s streak as the oldest franchise without a Stanley Cup. The team has existed since 1967, tying them with the Maple Leafs for the longest current Stanley Cup drought at 45 seasons and counting.
4 Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: $7,000,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 18.33, $371,747.2 per Corsi Point
Quite simply, Doughty is a special player and one of the league’s very best at the position right now, if not the best defensemen in the NHL. Doughty has proven his offensive abilities, putting up 59 points, third in the league by defensemen that year, in just his second season. Though his point totals have decreased since then, Doughty’s overall game has improved dramatically and he has developed into a complete player able to play at a high level at either end of the ice. Doughty won the Stanley Cup victory from 2012, and just added an Olympic gold medal to his trophy case with Canada at Sochi. Doughty has been nominated for the Norris Trophy just once so far in his career, losing to Duncan Keith in 2010, but expect to see him win the award for best defenseman at least once in his career.
3 Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: $5,538,462 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 17.4, $318,302.41 per Corsi Point
Speaking of Keith, the Blackhawks’ blueliner is putting together another Norris-caliber season. Keith is currently second in the league amongst defensemen with 48 points (behind only Erik Karlsson of Ottawa) and the Blackhawks are tied for second in the NHL with the Blues, sitting just three points behind the slumping Ducks, and first in the league in goals scored. Along with his aforementioned 2010 Norris Trophy, Keith has won two Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2013 and two Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.
Keith became famous in 2010 for having seven teeth knocked out by a puck in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose and continuing to play, exemplifying the toughness, determination and leadership that have made him one of the best offensive and shutdown defensemen in the league. Serving as an assistant captain, Keith is also midway through a 13-year contract extension he signed in 2009 that will keep him a Blackhawk throughout the vast majority of his career.
2 Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks: $5,800,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 18.55, $312,668.46 per Corsi Point
Seeing as it is almost impossible to discuss Keith without also discussing Seabrook, his defense partner, it is only fitting Seabrook would also be right beside Keith on this list. Seabrook is a strong offensive talent, reaching at least 25 points in five consecutive seasons from 2007-2012 and 20 points during last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. Seabrook has also joined his partner Keith on the international stage, serving as Canada’s seventh defenseman in their gold medal run in 2010.
Bringing more than just offensive talent, Seabrook is also known as the more physical part of the pairing, making the lives of any opponents miserable without incurring the defensive mistakes or lengthy suspensions suffered by some of his physically-minded defensive colleagues across the NHL. Seabrook and Keith are the league’s best defensive pairing, making their positions beside each other near the top of this list both fortuitous and sensible.
1 Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks: $4,250,000 cap hit, Corsi Rating of 17.93, $237,092.91 per Corsi Point
For several seasons, Vlasic has served as the unsung hero on the Sharks’ star-studded roster, shutting down opponents while adding an element of secondary offense. Vlasic has only scored 25 points or more in a season twice since arriving in the NHL in 2006, but his defensive talents helped him earn a spot on Canada’s Olympic blueline in 2014 at the Sochi Games (if you noticed that three of the top four members of this list were on Canada’s defense at Sochi, well done! Perhaps Steve Yzerman is a fan of the Corsi rating too). Though fans may have been barely aware of his presence on Canada’s team, because announcers called his name so rarely during games, the team’s gold medal and three goals allowed in six games are a testament to the type of play exemplified by Vlasic and indicative of his true quality.
The Sharks had to trade Miikka Kiprusoff to acquire the second-round selection they used to select him in 2005, but Vlasic has more than proved worth the price throughout his career. Nicknamed “Pickles” by his teammates, after the Vlasic Pickles Company, Vlasic’s name should become a household to NHL fans as the brand he shares it with, as he deserves credit for maintaining the Sharks’ status as serious playoff contenders and one of the most difficult teams to score against in the NHL.