Unless you’re a fan of the team or a hockey nerd, when you got a notification on your phone or saw the news that Mattias Samuelsson of the Buffalo Sabres and Mikey Anderson of the Los Angeles Kings were signed to respective seven and eight-year extensions, you probably were wondering why they got that kind of term. You were may have even wondering who they were.
But, those two players are the start of a new market for defensemen, particularly the archetype of the defensive defenseman. They don’t have the slick skating and hands of a Cale Makar or a Roman Josi, but they bring a completely different combination of skills to the table that allows them to be good at what they do, and it’s why they are worth the kind of term they’ve started to receive.
Last week, I took a look at why some veteran defensemen are starting to end up on bad contracts when they reach their UFA years, largely because of how the league has changed, and a lot of the people in the sport still haven’t caught up. This week, I’m going to be a lot nicer and look at why these two particular defensemen are great examples of what “catching up” looks like.
The New Defensive Defenseman
What the defensive defenseman is now is not necessarily a brand new concept, but it has evolved significantly.
When a lot of people think of a defensive defenseman, they picture the good old days of Scott Stevens and Chris Pronger. Those specific players could put up points, so they weren’t true defensive defensemen, but they best represented the ideology of it. In the 2000s, they’d be that big physical presence on the blueline that would make a forward’s life difficult in front of the crease and along the boards, lay out a big hit if they caught someone with their head down, and allow their more offensive partner to focus on scoring.
That balance continued into the 2010s, but the game became a lot faster and a lot smarter, so the defensive defenseman adapted to that stay-at-home presence that you paired with your offensive defenseman so that they could jump up into the rush. The puck-mover had that rock behind him that would provide some coverage in case things went wrong. Sometimes they still had that physical touch, like Johnny Boychuk, and sometimes they were an under-the-radar defenseman playing above their weight who could still hold their own with a play-driving partner, like Michal Kempny.
However, the 2010s were also the start of what has since become the norm in the 2020s, because just being able to stay at home wasn’t enough to really thrive in that role. It often meant that one defender was relied on a bit more to move the puck, which allowed players to focus more on one defender to keep the puck from going up the ice. So in order to really gel and succeed as a pair in the modern era, a team needs both defenders on a pair to move the puck well, and give the team multiple threats on the back end for outlet passes and zone exits to create pressure on the other team.