If Zdeno Chára, Keith Yandle and P.K. Subban all retiring Tuesday morning sent you into an existential crisis, you’re not alone. The three defensemen, each leaving behind a unique legacy, logged 53 seasons and 3,977 total NHL games combined.
That's a lot of memories and a lot of sonks.
Part of Chára’s lore was his longevity. He took care of himself so well that he managed to stay in the league and make an impact for 24 seasons despite the wear-and-tear inevitable with his style of play. When you stick around the NHL for nearly 1.5 decades, though, you’re bound to play through some changes.
And when someone like Chára retires, we all tend to reflect on those changes.
For one, scoring is on the rise all around—the league average goals per game has been steadily increasing over the past five years, and the 3.14 average last season was the highest in 26 years. The 2021-22 expected goal rate per 60 was the highest its been since the metric was born in 2007.
While plenty of this is because of your elite forwards like Auston Matthews hitting the 60-goal mark, more and more defensemen are getting comfortable jumping the rush.
The shutdown style Chára mastered during his prime hasn’t totally disappeared, but hockey has undeniably gone through a transitional period, and the rigid, heavier style of the dead puck era has given way to a more positionless, skill-based game in which all skaters are expected to contribute offensively.
Eight NHL defensemen registered at least 60 points last season. That number was two per season in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Further, more of these points are turning into goals, and much of it is coming from younger players (two of the last three Calder winners are defensemen, and the last two Norris winners are under 25)—indicating even more of this on the horizon.
The new-age star defenseman must thrive in transition, quarterback a mean power play and jump the rush when necessary. Active veterans like Victor Hedman and Roman Josi have had instrumental roles in the evolution of the modern defensive star, but let’s look even further into the future.