What the NHL's best defense pairs can teach us about building elite blue-line duos

We examined the similarities and differences of 13 of the best NHL duos to gain some insight on what makes a truly great defense pair.

Creating a strong defense pairing that can thrive at the NHL level isn't an easy task.

Even if you put two talented blueliners together who appear to have complementary characteristics, there's no guarantee they will mesh. Sometimes seemingly-illogical duos — that come together out of desperation when a coach is willing to try anything — work unbelievably well together.

In order to gain some insight on what makes a great defense pair, we looked at some of the best the NHL has seen in recent years, and examined their similarities and differences.

Below is a rundown of what we found.

How are we defining an elite defense pair?

Because we're interested in examining recent defense pairs we can describe as elite with a high degree of confidence, the criteria here isn't particularly inclusive.

That means looking at players who have spent lots and lots of time alongside each other in recent years, while consistently posting strong results. Specifically, we'll look at how their teams have fared when they're on the ice in 5v5 situations.

The combination of prioritizing a high sample size of ice time and strong team results led us to these qualifications for elite pairs:

  • More than 1,000 minutes of 5v5 ice time since the beginning of 2021-22, with time together in multiple seasons

  • Their team must have shots for and expected goals for percentages above 50% with them one the ice

  • At least one of those metrics must be better than their team's average during that time

Beating 50% in two possession metrics while topping a team average in one may not seem like a high bar, but as you'll see it's one very few pairs can clear over a significant ice-time sample.

If there had been a case where a pair met these criteria, but produced absolutely nothing offensively, their qualification for elite status may have come under question. While not every unit that fit the bill was putting up gaudy offensive numbers, all of them had something to add on that end of the ice.

The pairs who fit the criteria tended to include stars who did more than just drive possession.

So, who are we talking about?

There are 13 defense pairs who fit our definition of "elite" for their play in recent seasons.

Most of the names below shouldn't be particularly surprising:

This list includes three of the last four Norris Trophy winners and five of the last eight — as well as two pairs from the defending Stanley Cup champion which was widely praised for its blue-line prowess.

The criteria that built this group out could be tweaked in a variety of directions depending on how much you want to weigh ice time or whether you'd rather prioritize goal differential over underlying metrics. While it's worth questioning if these are precisely the best pairs the NHL has seen in the last couple of years, there's no doubt this cohort is exceptional.

Common threads

While these players have plenty of things that set them apart from each other, there are some notable commonalities with this group of elite defensemen.

The cohort's most-shared characteristic is that the vast majority of the pairs have a right-handed shot and a left-handed shot. This is relatively intuitive as we tend to think of defensemen as being more effective with their forehands against the boards.

Only the Suter-Heiskanen and McNabb-Theodore pairings are left-left, and in both cases the more offensively-gifted defender plays on the off-side, opening up shooting possibilities in the middle of the ice.

Another pattern here is the stereotype of top duos including one strong offensive contributor and one player with more of a stay-at-home game proving to be accurate.

Out of the 13 pairs in our sample, 10 of them included one partner scoring at least twice as many points as the other. In the case of one of the exceptions — Dunn and Larssen — the former fell just seven points short of doubling up the latter, and has done since breaking out offensively in 2022-23.

Cale Makar and Devin Toews combine to be one of the best defense pairs in the NHL. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Among these pairs there are only two examples of relatively similar point outputs from both partners.

Both situations were cases where neither defenseman was a massive offensive standout — and each was broken up prior to the 2023-24 season.

In their time together between 2021-22 and midway through 2022-23, Orlov and Jensen combined for 96 points, with the Russian accounting for 54. While Orlov clearly brings more offensive flair to the table than Jensen, those totals are still relatively close.

Brodin and Dumba were the closest to equals as the former managed 44 points in their time together while the latter produced 41. Neither would be described as an electric offensive contributor, but each made a competent contribution in their own way with Brodin setting up teammates more while Dumba provided a larger threat with his shot.

In the era of single-defenseman power plays, it's harder for multiple d-men within a pair to generate massive point totals — and teams rarely seem to want to put their most aggressive blueliners together. It seems logical to spread the skill out a bit and let defensemen who really thrive with the puck on their sticks do so alongside partners who specialize in playing without it.

An interesting pair to watch that exists outside this common framework is the Devils' current top pair of Luke Hughes and Dougie Hamilton. Both players are significant offensive threats, and it will be intriguing to see how they're able to work off each other in the weeks to come, and whether some of what they bring to the table feels wasted.

Factors with minimal consistency

While our group of elite defense pairs has quite a lot in common there are some qualities that varied by a significant amount from duo-to-duo with no discernible pattern.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of them was size — both from a collective standpoint and a contrast within pairs. Seven of the 13 pairs had a collective listed weight above 400 pounds and the range was from 438 to 372.

The idea of a pair including one bigger, stronger player and one smaller, quicker one didn't tend to apply to this group. Only three of the duos had a weight discrepancy greater than 15 pounds.

Age was also all over the place. While it's notable that there weren't any especially young partners in the group — Fox and Lindgren's current age of 50 was the lowest — above that floor there was plenty of room for variance.

The oldest pair was Pietrangelo and Martinez at 69, but they weren't alone with Burns and Slavin coming in at 67. The most common age band was 54-57, which captured five of the partnerships, but there wasn't much consistency beyond that.

What have we learned?

Nothing definitive, as is always going to be the case when you're looking at something this subjective through an objective lens.

The similarities the best defense pairings in the NHL have are intriguing, though. The idea of one partner being a primary driver of offense is pervasive. Having a left-handed and right-handed shot is also a common theme — although that's a rule of thumb that most coaches use in general.

The information above seems to reinforce conventional wisdom about ideal defensive pairs.

NHL coaches are likely to keep throwing their best offensive defenseman into pairs with responsible, defensive-minded veterans with opposite handedness to them until there's persuasive evidence they should be doing something else.

This examination of the NHL's best recent pairings indicates that's a logical course of action.