The Best Defenseman of the Playoffs Is Not Erik Karlsson

Many would look at Erik Karlsson and his 11 points in as many games as the undisputed best defenseman in this year’s playoffs. I shudder at the thought of a 100% Karlsson during these playoffs, but alas, we are left with a banged up point-per-game Karlsson that continues to be the driver of Ottawa’s plays. He remains an integral part of Ottawa’s offense, as he has been directly responsible for 33% of the Senators’ offensive output, while being on the ice for over 50 % of Ottawa’s goals for. This is Conn Smythe worthy play from the captain of the Senators, but does it mean he is hands down the best D-man in the league? Let’s take a look at certain stats as of today!

  • Points per Game (PPG)

Erik Karlsson leads the league in points per game with a flat 1 point per game played. He drives the play for the Senators on the breakout, which results in a multitude of assists. Notwithstanding his crazy goal from behind the goal line in Game 2 against the Rangers, Karlsson hasn’t been asked to score as it seems Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman have pulled their weight in that department. Karlsson is followed closely by Nashville Predators defensemen Ryan Ellis (.9PPG) Roman Josi (.7PPG) and P.K. Subban (.8 PPG). This trio of Smashville defensemen have carried the offensive load for Nashville, as they are out-producing their forwards in regards to points, while also providing key defensive coverage against the likes of Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Shwartz. Anaheim blueliner Cam Fowler (.8 PPG) has been dynamite for the Ducks since coming back from his end-of-season injury. He has led the Ducks offensively and defensively, whilst having to deal with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

  • TOI (Time On Ice)

Once again, Erik Karlsson leads the group with an average TOI of 28.57. However, he was closely trailed by Alex Pietrangelo (28.16) and Rangers rearguard Ryan McDonagh (27.16). Much can be said of Karlsson’s ice time compensating for the lack of offensive depth on Ottawa’s blue line, but McDonagh’s minutes speaks volume to his defensive assignments. Alain Vigneault has depended more on McDonagh as the playoffs have progressed, displaying his worth to the team’s success. Cam Fowler (26.28) has been given first pairing minutes since returning from his injury, and has done his part in limiting Connor McDavid to one goal during the first six games of Anaheim’s series with Edmonton. Josi (25.34), Subban (25.24) and Ellis (23.52) have played monster minutes for the Nashville Predators, as coach Peter Laviolette tends to limit his third pairing of Yannik Weber and Matt Irwin as the games progress. Adam Larsson (23.52) has proved his worth to the Edmonton Oilers, as he has had to shut down the potent offense of Edmonton’s Pacific Division rivals San Jose Shark and Anaheim Ducks.

  • (HPG) Hits Per Game

Of the aforementioned group, Ryan McDonagh leads this category with 3.45 hits per game. The Rangers’ captain has played a two-way game with a physical edge since game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens. He has since continued this trend against the Ottawa Senators, with a couple of highlight reel hits against their speedy wingers. Adam Larsson (3.08 HPG) trails by a small margin. Many will point to the fact that the Western Conference has a far more physical aspect to its game, with Edmonton playing the physical Sharks and Ducks, but Larsson has stepped his physical game up a level in order to punish incoming forwards in the corners and along the boards. P.K. Subban (2.3 HPG) continues to physically dominate in the defensive zone with some bone crushing hits, while Kevin Shattenkirk (1.72 HPG) continues to try to spark an often dazed Washington Capitals blue line. Ryan Ellis (1.4 HPG) continues to dish out the hits regardless of his smaller stature (listed at 5,10’ 180lbs). With his partner Josi (1.4) mirroring his hitting output, they surprisingly form one of the more physical first pairings in the playoffs.

  • Blocks Per Game (BPG)

Out of the listed ten defensemen, Ryan Ellis is the most consistent in this category with a whopping 3.2 Blocks Per Game. Making Pekka Rinne’s work much easier against the likes of Chicago and Saint Louis, Ellis was often well placed to make the block and turn the puck the other way for many odd man rushes. Following Ellis is Ryan McDonagh (2.91 BPG), who, as we have seen, has been the most consistent two-way force from the blue line. He is expertly able to position himself within the shooting lanes and has often saved goaltender Henrik Lundqvist from having to make the difficult saves. Alex Pietrangelo trailed the Rangers rearguard ever so slightly (2.36 BPG), as he was often tasked with covering the opposing team’s top lines. His excellent defensive play, including a high shot blocking total, can directly correlate to St Louis’ shut down of the offensively gifted Minnesota Wild. Karlsson and Shattenkirk both sit at 1.91 BPG, with many wondering if the Senators’ captain totals would be as high as staggering ratio of 2.6 BPG during the regular season if not for his injury.

  • Takeaway/Giveaway Differential

Leading this category is Pietrangelo with a differential of +5, as his three giveaways were outweighed by his eight takeaways. Pietrangelo often broke up incoming plays to quickly begin a counter attack, which served the Blues well in their series against the Wild.  Cam Fowler (+1) has been thrown back into the lineup and has adequately limited his giveaways, while breaking up the Oilers’ play for a quick counter attack. Schultz (-1) and Ellis (-2) have better either even or, on some nights, a slight negative in this category. Although this can be expected from the up and down play of Schultz, Ellis was often seen loosing/ turning over the puck in the offensive zone when not on the ice with the Predators’ first line. Surprisingly, Roman Josi is at the bottom of this list with a -15 differential. Often credited for his sound defensive play, Josi has been the target of many of Chicago and St Louis’ heavy hitters and this had led him to quickly turn the puck over along the boards. Luckily, Ekholm and Subban’s minutes increased accordingly, where Subban (-6) seemed to handle the pressure and increase his takeaway totals as the series wore on.

  • Conclusion

If we factor in Erik Karlsson’s production with his TOI, one can see that Nashville rearguard Ryan Ellis and Ranger’s Captain Ryan McDonagh have produced more points per 60 minutes. If we were to make a general points system per category, it is clear to see that Karlsson, Ellis and McDonagh are the top defensemen during these playoffs, with a potential push by Fowler pending a possible game 7 win against the Oilers and series against the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference Finals. Ultimately, it seems that Karlsson’s injury has allowed Ellis and McDonagh to advance themselves in the Conn Smythe category, with McDonagh being the defensive and offensive catalyst for the Rangers on the backend. Even with the emergence of young Brady Skjei, McDonagh is far and beyond the best defenseman on his team, while Ellis is currently at the top of a dominant defensive quartet. In my personal estimation, the biggest test for McDonagh’s bid for best defenseman is in front of him with Game 6 against Ottawa. If he can continue to play up to his current trend, he will undoubtedly lay claim to the title of best defenseman for these playoffs.

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