How defensemen became the NHL's most valuable asset

Defensemen who can drive their teams' offense from the back end, such as the Predators' fleet-footed P.K. Subban, are particularly prized in today's game. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

It really all started June 29, 2016, when the Edmonton Oilers dealt All-Star Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson, who had barely established himself since being drafted fourth overall in 2011. Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli was mostly savaged for the trade, which was immediately overshadowed by the blockbuster deal the same day that swapped franchise defensemen P.K. Subban and Shea Weber.

A year later, between Subban and the Nashville Predators' run to the Stanley Cup Final and the Vegas Golden Knights' stockpiling blueliners in the expansion draft, defensemen have never been more valuable. If you want to acquire even a serviceable D-man, it'll cost you.

"I don't know if it's just the way that the league is going or the style of play that teams are having success with, but defensemen are at a premium," Hall said. "You have to draft them. If not, then you have to give up good players to get them."

Perhaps no player understands that better than the left winger, who was the first-overall pick in 2010.

"In Edmonton, for so long we needed defensemen. It was very obvious. Then I get to New Jersey, and what do we need? We need defensemen," Hall said. "Right now defensemen are certainly hard to find."

After losing the 2004-05 season to a work stoppage, the league took the opportunity to institute several rule changes -- most notably allowing two-line passes and cracking down on obstruction -- designed to open up the game and revive offenses. The game has gotten faster, and one thing has become abundantly clear: defensemen must be able to skate.

Since so many of the league's most dynamic players now occupy spots on the blue line, every team is looking for an elite defenseman. Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Drew Doughty have established themselves as franchise players by becoming the engines that drive their respective teams' offense from the back end. Any defenseman capable of making a swift tape-to-tape pass out of his own zone might have a place in the NHL.

When it came to defensemen driving the attack, the Predators' fleet-footed quartet of Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm proved crucial in Nashville's run to the Stanley Cup Final, in which it lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. When those four generated offense, the Predators won. In fact, the Preds went 5-0 in the postseason when they got goals from Josi, who was named on Sept. 19 to replace Mike Fisher as the team's captain.

"To have somebody that can help you get out of the zone, that's a big plus. A guy who has two guys coming at him and he still gets the puck out and on the tape -- not just distributing on the boards," said veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cup with the Penguins before the Golden Knights made him their first expansion draft pick. "When you have guys like that, it can get it out of your zone quickly. The transition is so much easier, and you have more puck possession also, which leads to more goals."

Fleury has witnessed firsthand the evolution of NHL defensemen. He backstopped the Penguins to a championship in 2009 alongside the defensive pair of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. Although the shutdown duo was typically matched against opposing teams' best offensive players, Scuderi and Gill weren't exactly known for their balletic skating stride. Pittsburgh relied instead on their keen defensive minds, toughness and stickwork.

Championship bonafides notwithstanding, the Scuderi-Gill combo represents where the game used to be.

"I think it has changed. Don't get me wrong: I love Scuds, I love Hal. They're awesome, and they played the best guys on the other team," Fleury said. "They were our shutdown guys. But maybe the game is a little quicker and more about skating now."

Mere weeks after Pittsburgh beat the Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights set the market for defensemen in the expansion draft. With limited assets to work with, Vegas general manager George McPhee identified defensemen as his ultimate bargaining chip.

McPhee, who was required to select a minimum of nine defensemen, picked 13 before quickly trading away four for draft picks.

When the NHL draft rolled around the next weekend, it became apparent that the age of the hulking intimidator on the blue line had come and gone. Of the nine defensemen picked in the first round, five measured 6-feet or shorter.

Free agency kicked off days later. Its prime target: puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers.

"It seems like if you can't skate, you can't play. Now everyone needs to move the puck and support the offense. You can't just have guys backing up and playing defense and blocking shots," Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. "That's where a lot of the offense starts from nowadays. You have to have those puck-moving D-men who give you the first pass and then join the rush."

The new emphasis on mobile defensemen isn't just introducing a new challenge for general managers. It's also creating careers for players who wouldn't have been considered pro prospects just a few years ago. Such is the case with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Chris Tanev. A 19-year-old nonentity among scouts when he arrived at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2009, Tanev was undrafted, unheralded and mostly unwanted. In 2015, less than five years after being discovered by Vancouver, Tanev established himself as a fixture on the Canucks blue line by signing a five-year, $22.25 million contract extension.

"I don't think anyone knew who I was. I was planning on going to school for four years and graduating and doing my thing after that. I was going to school for finance. I'd probably be in accounting or in finance somewhere," Tanev said. "The game changed a bit, where there's less clutching and grabbing and hooking and holding. You have guys who are mobile out there and can pivot and turn. That definitely played a huge role in me being discovered. If the game was played the way it was in the '90s, I probably would have never been found at all."