Examining the NHL’s best positional units


The free agent of signing of John Tavares in Toronto and the San Jose Sharks’ acquisition of Erik Karlsson helped give two of the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders an embarrassment of riches at two of the most important positions.

By signing Tavares, the Maple Leafs added a top player to a depth chart that already had Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri down the middle, while the Sharks are going to be running a defensive unit out on the ice every night that will have three Norris Trophy contenders on it.

It puts both teams in the discussion for having the best depth at each position, and makes us asks a few questions, specifically: Which positional group around the league is the NHL’s best? How does Toronto’s center depth compare to recent Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington? Has San Jose’s depth on defense surpassed Nashville’s?

We take a look at all of those depth charts and many more and leave it up to you to vote.

Penguins centers

Let us start with the obvious here: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best players of their era, and they alone make this group one of the best in the NHL.

Over the past five seasons Crosby and Malkin are second and third in the league in points per game (1.14 and 1.13 respectively), trailing only Connor McDavid.

Over their careers they have combined to win four scoring titles, three MVP awards, and three Conn Smythe Trophies. They are both Hall of Famers, they are both generational talents, and at any given time each one of them can make a convincing case for being the best player in the world.

But it’s not just about them when it comes to the Penguins’ center depth.

They also have Derick Brassard as their third-line center, and even though his first impression with the Penguins post-trade deadline wasn’t quite what the team expected, he is still an outstanding option as a third-line center. Keep in mind that over the same five-year stretch mentioned above, he is 57th in points per game out of the 238 centers that appeared in at least 100 games, meaning that he is probably at least a second-line center on a lot of clubs. Add in Riley Sheahan and Matt Cullen as fourth line options and there are only one or two other teams in the league that have a depth chart down the middle that can even come close to matching up with the Penguins.

Sharks defense

The top-three on this defense with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just … absurd.

First, from an offensive standpoint Karlsson and Burns are in a class all of their own.

Over the past five years they are first and second among the league’s defenders in total points, and by a pretty significant margin. Karlsson’s 355 are first in the league, and are 29 ahead of Burns’ 326 in second-place. The next closest defender to Burns (Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman) is 51 points behind him, which is the same as the gap between Hedman and the No. 16 ranked defender on the list (Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson).

When it comes to the Norris Trophy, all three are regular vote-getters, with Karlsson and Burns being constants in the top-10.

Where each player has finished in the voting over just the past five years…

Karlsson: 7th, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 12th
Burns: No votes, 21st, 3rd, 1st, 8th
Vlasic: 12th, No votes, 20th, 21st, 11th

Just one season all three of them were in the top-12 of the voting, while Karlsson and Burns have combined to win it three times in their career and been finalists a total of five times.

The Sharks’ defense may not be quite as deep as, say, a team like Nashville, in the 4-7 spots, but there is nobody in the league that has a top-three on defense quite like this.

Predators defense

This is a remarkable unit because the top-four is not only full of outstanding players, but they are also all signed to long-term contracts that do not break the team’s salary cap structure.

P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all signed for at least the next two years, while Subban, Ekholm and Ellis are all signed for at least the next four years. The total salary cap commitment for those four players in each of the next two years: $19.2 million in 2018-19, and $22.95 million in 2019-20. That is incredible value for four players of that caliber, especially when Subban is the oldest player in the group at age 29.

Nashville’s management has done such a great job building this defense that it is still this deep even after trading two players like Seth Jones (for Ryan Johansen) and Shea Weber (for Subban) over the past three years. If most teams traded two players at the same position of that caliber it would totally crush them. The Predators, somehow, managed to come out of the trades even better as a team and still have one of the best blue lines in the league.

Jets wingers

Thanks to some great drafting over the years the Winnipeg Jets have assembled a powerhouse offense in the central division. And while they have a great top center in Mark Scheifele, the strength of this offense is built on the wings where they boast Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor for their top-two lines.

As far as wingers go, this group should be the envy of the entire league.

Wheeler has been one of the league’s most underrated and most productive players for several years now, while Laine has already emerged as one of the top-three goal-scorers after just two seasons in the league.

Not enough to impress? Well let’s throw in the fact that Ehlers has already recorded a pair of 60-point seasons before his age 22 season, something that only 19 forwards have done in the salary cap era. That list if a who’s who of superstars across the league.

Then there is Connor who only scored 30 goals as a rookie this past season and finished fourth in the Calder Trophy voting.

Usually Stanley Cup contenders are built on their strength down the middle. The Jets have taken a slightly different approach and have their big-ticket players on the outside.

Maple Leafs centers

What makes the Maple Leafs so intriguing in a discussion like this is that pretty much all of their top forwards are natural centers: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri … even the ageless Patrick Marleau. So they have a ton of versatility and options here, especially in the event of an injury.

But looking at things from a practical matter the players that are going to get the most time at center are going to be the Matthews, Tavares, Kadri trio.

In Matthews and Tavares they have two of the elite offensive players in the league, while Kadri has turned into a terror of a shutdown center that can also score 30 goals, which is just an outrageous combination. Their top two centers aren’t quite as good as Pittsburgh’s, but as a total group they are as good as anybody else in the league.

Ducks goalies

In this three seasons as the Ducks’ starting goalie John Gibson has never had a save percentage lower than .920 and has been in the top-10 in each of the past two seasons. When he is healthy, he is one of the league’s elite goalies and he is still only 25 years old.

Backing him up is long-time NHL veteran Ryan Miller who excelled in relief of Gibson last season with a .928 mark in 28 appearances. Together, Gibson and Miller combined for one of the top save percentage marks in the league. Miller is no longer a top-tier starter, but if needed to be he would still be an average to above average goalie on a regular basis. As a backup option he is one of the best in the league and helps form one of the strongest goaltending duos in hockey.

Predators goalies

This is a great duo because it gives the Predators a strong present and future.

Pekka Rinne has been the starter in Nashville for the better part of the past decade. He’s had some peaks and valleys along the way, but the 2017-18 season was the best season of his career and finally brought him his first Vezina Trophy after having a couple of near-misses earlier in his career (he was a finalist three different times, including a runner-up on two occasions).

His time in Nashville is pretty getting close to coming to an end, however. Not only is he entering his age 36 season, but he is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Are the Predators going to be loyal to their long-time starter and bring him back for at least one more year? If they do not (and maybe even if they do) his eventual replacement is already backing him up in 23-year-old Juuse Saros.

All Saros has done in his limited action as an NHL goalie is stop the puck and put up big numbers, with a .923 save percentage in his first 48 appearances.

He is also signed for next-to-nothing over the next three seasons, counting just $1.5 million against the salary cap each season.

Capitals centers

Now we get to the defending Stanley Cup champions. While Alex Ovechkin is the heart and soul of the team, the engine that drives it is down the middle where the trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Lars Eller resides. All three played massive roles in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run a season ago and were not only among the team’s top point producers in the playoffs, they also scored some of the biggest goals (or played a key role in the biggest goals) along the way.

Backstrom and Kuznetsov are both elite playmakers and among the most productive players in the world, while Backstrom has also become an outstanding defensive player to bring a great two-way game to the rink every night.

Eller isn’t going to score at the same level as a Brassard (Pittsburgh) or Kadri (Toronto), but he proved his worth in the playoffs this past year when he became an unexpected star for the Capitals by providing essential secondary scoring and depth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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