Top-pair defensemen: who are they, how can you get one, and why nobody agrees

Top pair D
Top Pairing Defensemen are the only target. Photo by Abelimages, via Getty Images, all rights reserved.

As this latest miserable season draws to a close with a few silver linings, everybody in Oilerland is at least thrilled about the offensive potency of the Chosen Line. Whatever happens in '12-'13 and beyond, at least when the new Oilers identity finally takes we can be satisfied that it won't be a boring mimic of the Minnesota Wild.

The topic on everyone's mind, however, seems to be about acquiring defensemen - really good defensemen, and how they will serve as a panacea to Tambellini's abortion. Lowetide is putting his laser pointer on a few blueliners, everyone's new favorite read Alan Hull has stoked a few fires, and the debates are raging as to who the Oil should acquire, and how they should be acquired in order to terminate this goddamn shitting disgrace of our team.

There was some debate as to whether the recently departed Tom Gilbert was a legitimate "top-pair" defenseman (TPD), to which Alan astutely replied that all 30 NHL teams have a top pair, meaning that there were 60 employed NHL defensemen who can rightfully be described as such. Agreed. Tom Gilbert is most definitely among the 60 best defensemen on planet earth, and therefore earns the moniker of TPD.

After the jump I'll take a quick glance at who else can legitimately be described as a TPD, get a sense of how the league's best teams leverage them, and look at a few case examples of how TPD's have been acquired in the recent past. On the last point what I've concluded is that their value in terms of acquisition cost as well as salary ranges markedly, and this key point is what separates competitive teams from those who dream of the lottery.


Often the TP term is misused to categorize a truly elite-calibre defender. Although elite is a sub-set of TP, those who occupy the elite category are in a league of their own.

Let's say there are 20 elite NHL defensemen - they're the guys who are basically infallible - wizards when it comes to positioning, and bulls on the puck. The guys McGuire and MacKenzie get wet dreams thinking about (Lidstrom, Weber, Chara, Pronger when healthy). The guys who are entrusted by their coaches to play in the most challenging circumstances (Boyle, Pietrangelo, Letang, Keith). They're rare. They're coveted. And they pretty much never get traded.


The other 40 who are merely TP guys are still extremely valuable. They play over 23 minutes a night, they all play the role of pp quarterback, are often also typified as "shut down". Most of the league's best teams have several of them. For example-

Vancouver has three credible top-pair defensement. Last year they might've had four. Despite the fact that none of their Dmen are truly elite, Vancouver's blueline is a major part of their success.

The New York Rangers have three guys (McDonagh, Girardi, and Del Zotto) with some pretty big quotas, with Girardi clocking in over 26 mins a night. With Marc Staal just returning from injury, the Rangers are gluttonous with defensemen ... none of whom I would categorize as elite, but at least three out of those four of those guys are among the league's top-60 or Top Pair.

Detroit and Boston both have an elite defensemen, and a few guys who can may be considered either TP or very good second-pair defensemen. Pittsburgh the same. Basically all the teams near the top of the standings have 3 or 4 guys who can be relied on for big minutes and tough situations without suffering.

What I find interesting here isn't just the Quality of the d-men that these teams boast, but the quantity. None of Vancouver's blueliners are all-star or Norris calibre, but you could throw Hamhuis and Edler over the boards in pretty much any situation and not flinch. Or Seidenberg and Boychuk. Or Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin.

Having two solid pairs means you can cover an entire penalty kill without having to roll the dice with Theo Peckham, or gas your crew because the coach doesn't want Marc Andre Bergeron near the ice in the last half period of a tie game. If you have four solid defensemen, you can play on the road and be pretty much assured that you have at least one dependable defenseman on the ice at all times against the other team's top line. Or you could get lit up with Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina running around in their own end in Philly while Giroux and Hartnell have a practice.


Not surprisingly, the bottom teams all have meagre defensive assets. Tampa Bay has scored 198 goals this season - more than the Rangers, Devils, and Capitals - and boast a top pair of Hedman and Brewer. You don't want to know who's on their second pair. Likewise Toronto has scored an amazing 205 goals this season, but after Dion (who is probably a TP guy ranked in the 40-60 range) who they depend on to play 25.5 minutes a night, they hand over 21 minutes each game to Gunnarson, Liles, and Gardiner. Yeesh.

What about Edmonton? Surely Steve Tambellini is architecting the re-build on the shoulders of dependable, sure-footed defensemen to make sure the puck stays out of their end and gets into the hands of those dazzling youngters! What? They just traded their only legitimate top-pair defenseman? Was he set to become a UFA? HE HAD TWO YEARS LEFT ON HIS CONTRACT? FAAAAAAAAAACKKKKK!!!!


Indeed. A re-building team needs to have several responsible defensemen on their roster before their General Manager can stand if front of the media and suggest they're ready to make a run for the playoffs. Despite giving up Gilbert, the Oilers still have Smid and Petry; neither of whom are top-pair, but appear to form a very credible second pairing. Nick Schultz is no top-pair guy, as was the guy he was traded for, but he's not too shabby either. Let's also assume that Ryan Whitney improves his play after a summer of rehabilitation, and after all these assumptions, assessments, and wishes upon stars, we're just two guys short of boasting a blueline that is playoff calibre.

So where do we get two more guys? History is funny because it's all over the place.

Dallas acquired Alex Goligoski and his 22 minutes and 27 points, but it cost them a top-line winger. Boo. Terry Pegula wanted to prove how goddamn rich he was and signed Erhoff to a 10-year contract. Colorado gave up a really good defenseman to obtain a decent one who offered the rare value of draft pedigree. Dale Tallon effectively got fired for committing about fifty million dollars to Brian Campbell. All of these were desperate moves. We don't want to repeat them.

Ray Shero signed Paul Martin to a slightly expensive, but altogether reasonable 5-year contract. Love him or hate him, Dennis Wideman was acquired by the Capitals for nothing significant. Brent Burns cost the Sharks a little bit more, but probably no real impact players.

So who should we target? Preferably guys in their 20's. Guys who are proven to be able to handle big minutes. Guys who won't cost $7M per season unless their name is Shea Weber.

Here is a short list of guys who I think can be obtained, but not at the expense of our golden lottery pick. Trade Paajarvi, trade Omark, trade next year's first, trade any of our non-NHL prospects if they will yield you: Tyler Myers, Keith Yandle, Tobias Enstrom, Mike Green, Michael Del Zotto, Fedor Tyutin, PK Subban, Tom Gilbert :).

Sign Dennis Wideman. He won't cost a freakin' asset. If you can't get him, at least sign Barrett Jackman or Carlo Colaiaccovo to take Corey Potter's shifts. Just don't pay Matt Carle $6M a season.

And if you're willing to trade the lottery pick, make sure it's for Ekman-Larsson, Weber, Carlson, Letang, ahh hell, maybe even Tyler Myers even Buff is willing to throw us back a pick.

Frankly I don't care who the Oilers get from the above lists. It doesn't have to be a pair will play on Team Canada in Sochi, it just needs to be a couple of guys who the world will agree are legitimate Top-60 guys over the next 4 or 5 years. Is that so much for a guy to ask?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.