5 First Line Defencemen That Need To Step It Up

So far this season has been all about subverting expectations. Whether it’s positively, with the Vegas Golden Knights performing above expectations, or negatively with last years Norris Trophy contenders underperforming. Needless to say, no one was expecting this season to go the way it has so far, and surely among that group are some of the league’s top defencemen. It’s been an incredibly slow start for some top blueliners and although there’s plenty of hockey left to play, there are a number of D-men that need to think hard about their new year’s resolutions.

Erik Karlsson

26 1 19 20 -15 6 77 1.29 26:00

Stats as of 12/18/17

For many reasons, Karlsson hasn’t been able to escape the headlines in recent weeks, but he also hasn’t been able to escape the ice during goals against. Karlsson sits with a -18 plus-minus on the season, being on the ice for a number of critical goals that have contributed to Ottawa’s 11-13-7 record. In addition to a number of glaring defensive mistakes, Ottawa’s captain hasn’t been getting pucks to the net in the numbers we have come to expect. 1 goal on the season after only 77 shots puts him at a shooting percentage that isn’t even worth mentioning (1.29% if you really care). The fact of the matter is that Karlsson needs to completely flip his game around. Get pucks away from Anderson and get them towards the other net. Sounds simple, but if it was that easy for him right now, he’d already have been doing it.

Erik Karlsson
12/13/17: Ranger easily gets around Karlsson, netting uncontested tap in.

Rasmus Ristolainen

24 0 9 9 -10 8 64 26:55

Stats as of 12/18/17

He’s missed 9 games so far this season, but even with that in mind, Ristolainen hasn’t been able to produce that much during his time on ice. This time last year Ristolainen had 21 points in 29 games played, more than half of which came on the man advantage, making him a huge contributor to the Sabers power-play. This year, however, Rasmus and the struggling Sabers haven’t been able to make much happen, with an extra man or not. 9 points in 24 games and a plus-minus of -10 Ristolainen hasn’t been able to produce for Buffalo. He’s had no shortage of chances either, as he currently has the second highest time on ice per game out of all defencemen at 26:55. Buffalo currently sits at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a goal differential of -39, and obviously, Ristolanien isn’t solely to blame for that. However, with the amount of ice time he’s been getting, it’s a little concerning that he hasn’t been making a more positive difference out there.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

35 6 12 18 -25 12 92 6.52 24:51

Stats as of 12/18/17

18 points in 35 games isn’t that bad, 6 of which were goals, putting Ekman-Larsson in a thirteen-way tie for 5th overall in defencemen scoring (I know that stat sounds ridiculous but hey, I’m trying to cut the guy some slack where I can). At a glance, it may look as though Ekman-Larsson has had a pretty decent start to the season. Although if you look a little closer, you’ll notice that Ekman-Larsson is the overwhelming leader in one undesirable stats column. With a -25 plus-minus record, he sits with the worst plus-minus in the league, only second to yours truly, Erik Karlsson. Ekman-Larsson’s Coyotes sit at the bottom of the Pacific, so it’s no surprise that a D-man on that team would be suffering in the plus-minus category. However the same thing can be said for Ristolainen’s Sabers, as discussed, they sit at the bottom of the Atlantic. Ristolainen though has a much better plus-minus record than Ekman-Larsson by a difference of 15. Clearly the defensive side of Ekman-Larsson’s game isn’t clicking quite yet this season, and with Arizona in a nose dive on a 5 game losing streak, things don’t seem on track to turn around.

Oliver Ekman Larsson - HQ
12/16/17: Ekman-Larsson blows a tire on the backcheck, Penguins score.

Kris Letang

34 2 22 24 -12 24 102 1.96 25:43

Stats as of 12/18/17

The last two players mentioned here are the most debatable for sure, but Kris Letang has a place for two reasons. For one it couldn’t hurt if he stayed out of the box a little more, as Letang dwarfs the other defencemen on this list with 24 penalty minutes already this season. D-men are obviously expected to get more penalties than your average forward and Letang is no stranger to the box. Although ideally if Letang can reduce his penalty minutes, then he’ll have more ice time to put his offensive efforts to work, which have been a huge asset for the Penguins so far this season. Similar to Ekman-Larsson, Letang could benefit from a strong defensive game. He can help the Pens put pucks in the net, but when it comes to keeping them out of his own, he’s been struggling. Unlike Buffalo and Arizona, Pittsburgh has been having a good start to the season, sitting only one position below a wildcard spot. Which means Letang’s bad plus-minus can’t be blamed on a struggling team, Letang and Letang alone needs to work on his defensive play.

Brent Burns

31 6 14 20 -10 14 128 4.68 25:19

Stats as of 12/18/17

Burns has recently started to show signs of the bearded warrior we all know and love, but up until three weeks ago, Burns had yet to score a single goal this season. For most blueliners, that’s nothing out of the ordinary, but for Burns, going scoreless in the first 20 games of the season, that’s definitely uncharacteristic. The weirdest part of Brent’s goal drought is that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Burns has the most shots of any defencemen in the league this season at 128. Making it even more puzzling as to why it took the big man 84 shots before one finally found the back of the net. Thankfully Burns has had a couple multi-goal games since bursting out of his slump, so if he can manage to keep the goals up and reel in his -10 plus-minus than Burns is looking to be in decent shape heading into January.

Brent Burns
12/10/17: Burns collides with Jones giving Wild an empty net.

Who’s Gonna Bounce Back In 2018?

Brent Burns and Kris Letang seam on track to have a much more productive second half of the season. The two A-listers are fortunate to have strong teams to fall back on, giving them extra breathing room to work out the kinks in their game. As for the other players on this list, Karlsson and the team he captains shouldn’t be completely written off yet. As mentioned up top, there’s still plenty of hockey left to play, and it’ll only take the Senators a couple more wins to break even with their win-loss record.

Ekman-Larsson and Ristolainen have a more undesirable 2018 season coming up. No matter how you slice it, both of their teams sit at the bottom of the league, and there’s only so much one player can do about that. When you play a lot of minutes on a losing team the stats aren’t gonna be kind to you, that’s just how she goes. Ekman-Larsson and Ristolainen are gonna have a tough road ahead, but they’re not getting their minutes for no reason, so here’s to hoping they can start to make something of it.


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