A goalie's job is to prevent pucks from entering the net. This job is much more difficult when the defensemen sitting in front of him cannot pull their weight and alleviate some of the pressure that is put on the goalie. Without defensemen that can block shots, hit opposing players and essentially keep the opposing team out of the zone, it often means that the goalie is left hung out to dry.
Marc-Andre Fleury is one of those goalies who has had both stellar and awful defenders play in front of him. It has been crucial to his career goals against average of .912 and his goals against average of 2.59. The goals he lets in are sometimes not entirely his fault as the play from his defenders has been subpar at times. When the players in front of him cannot block the necessary shots or stop the opposing team from completing a one timer, things get awfully hard for Fleury in goal.
Fleury is not alone. Even some of the most elite goaltenders in the NHL such as Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist need to deal with dreadful defenders playing in front of them. Some of these bad defenders do not have long tenures with their team, as they hurt the chances of their team and can destroy the confidence of their goalie. A goalie letting in more than four goals a game needs to have a very strong mindset, since it could easily put them in a different state of mind that would affect their future starts. Management is responsible for making sure they acquire suitable defensemen to compliment their goaltenders. If they fail to do so, the team pays the price.
15 Best: Ryan Whitney
Unfortunately for him, Ryan Whitney was traded right before the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, but this did not stop him from excelling in the four years that he played in front of Fleury. He was a point machine, producing a career high of 59 points with 14 goals and 45 assists in the 2006-07 season. This was convenient for the Penguins as he was able to put up points while protecting his goaltender by blocking more than 100 shots a season.
The Penguins were also lucky enough to have Ryan play for them at his best. In the following years, he was unable to match the season highs that he recorded previously and his career went downhill. At only 33 years of age, he has already retired but he can look back at his stint with the Penguins as a successful one.
14 Worst: Douglas Murray
In the 2012-13 season, Penguins general manager Ray Shero thought that his team needed grit, therefore, he acquired Douglas Murray for two second round picks. All of this was a waste as Murray’s stint didn’t last long for the Penguins. He didn’t average much ice time playing as a bottom-two defensemen and when he did, pucks would find their way in back of Fleury.
After the 2013 playoffs, he was not even re-signed by the Pens even though they paid a hefty price tag for his services. His career was off to a major downfall as even his next team, the Montreal Canadiens, would not fare well with him on defense. He recorded 2 pts in 53 games with a horrid plus minus of -12. This is a lesson learned for the Penguins–do not overpay for gritty defensemen.
13 Best: Justin Schultz
The Oilers had just enough of Justin constantly being on the ice for goals against, earning him a horrible career plus minus of -78. This all changed when the Penguins took a gamble on him in 2016. He has now transformed into a solid top-four defender for the Penguins, which is much appreciated by Fleury and Murray who are in net during his presence. He has incredibly changed his career and is now an option the Penguins rely on.
His increased workload has shown impressive results. He is a positive player with his new team and has shown that he can put his body on the line to block shots, hit and score some goals so that the goaltenders he supports know that he is dependable. Long gone is the Justin Schultz who was unreliable and out of position.
12 Worst: Christian Ehrhoff
Another defender the Penguins had high hopes for was Christian Ehrhoff. Unfortunately, they caught him at the decline of his career. Christian was unable to alleviate a lot of the pressure put on his goaltender. There were numerous times where he was caught out of position or gave the puck away obliviously. He was no longer someone you want your goaltender to have to rely on for defense.
What made matters worse was the fact that he had a big contract, and was unable to live up to that money. He changed teams three times in a span of three years, which didn’t make matters better for Ehrhoff. In the end, management was smart by only signing him to a one year deal because his services were not missed by the Penguins when his deal expired.
11 Best: Alex Goligoski
Alex Goligoski was best known for being able to play the puck in the offensive zone while being defensively solid as well. It was a nice touch for Fleury who had a young and reliable defender blocking shots for him, as well as aiding his team to collect the win at the end of the night.
Alex was also not shy to perform well in the playoffs. In the year before the Penguins shipped him to Dallas, he was able to put up 9 points in 13 games in the playoff. He also did his work on the backend as well, blocking almost two shots per game. At the age of 31, he has serviced two other teams and is still showing the world that he can play his position well.
10 Worst: Deryk Engelland
Deryk Engelland served the Penguins defense for five seasons, and he was underwhelming at times. As a bottom-two defender, there weren't many expectations for Deryk. He was decent at knocking around the opponent, dishing out more than 100 hits a season, but it was pretty much all he did. When it came to bailing out his goaltender, there was not much he can do in that particular area.
Averaging less than 15 minutes a game, he was unable to stay positive throughout most of his career as a Penguin. It is a shame since he became a solid shot blocker who does a lot for his goaltender, as soon as the Penguins moved on from Deryk. He now serves the Calgary Flames and blocks more than 150 shots a season for his team, something Fleury did not get the luxury of seeing with his former teammate.
9 Best: Matt Niskanen
It was a very interesting string of events for the Penguins, as they were able to turn Alex Goligoski into Matt Niskanen and James Neal. Niskanen would go on to become a huge asset for the Penguins. He made a name for himself when he notched a career-high 46 points in the 2013-14 season. All of this was accompanied with a plus-minus of +33.
This really helped Fleury in net as Matt was not a defensive liability and was able to hold his ground. He blocked shots and used his body appropriately in order to stop the opposing team from carrying the puck too deep. Niskanen played some of the best hockey of his career with the Pens and his goaltenders were grateful to have him on their side.
8 Worst: Ben Lovejoy
Ben Lovejoy was not necessarily a bad defender, he was just too inconsistent. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies came often when Fleury manned the crease. His play was stellar in front of Matt Murray during the recent Stanley Cup win, but the same cannot be said for his play in front of Fleury.
Several times, Ben happened to fall victim to a horrible giveaway or an improper read of a play. This led to many goals that should have not have occurred. His play continued to improve, but he was never really a good shot blocker for the Penguins in the early stages of his career. We saw stellar play from him from his time in Anaheim where he amassed 200+ hits and 150 blocked shots in a single season, something we never saw when he wore a Penguins jersey.
7 Best: Paul Martin
Marc-Andre Fleury owes a lot to Paul Martin. The five-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Penguins often put his body on the line for his goaltender. While averaging more than 100 blocks a season, there was passion in the way Paul handled himself on the ice. His stellar play earned him a career plus-minus of +45 with his time as a Penguin, which was well-deserved as he got the job done.
Martin alleviated a lot of the pressure put on his goaltender and ensured that pucks would stay out of his defensive zone. His play was also replicated in the playoffs where he repeatedly made shot blocks and kept the puck out of the zone for his goaltender. It is unfortunate that he was not on the roster for any Stanley Cups, but his time in Pittsburgh will not be forgotten.
6 Worst: Mark Eaton
Mark Eaton had the luxury of helping the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup of the 2000s era, but there isn’t much else to say about him. His time with the Penguins was greatly affected by his injuries and it reflected with his play on the ice. He was unable to put pucks in the net for long periods of time, and often times found himself on the ice for a goal against.
His work in the playoffs was no better. Other than his decent play the year they won the cup, there was no other season where he played a major part in helping his team. This doesn’t make things easier for Fleury in net because he needs to face whatever mistake his defender makes.
5 Best: Brooks Orpik
If there is one man the Pittsburgh Penguins need to thank for sticking up for his teammates, it is Brooks Orpik. Not only did he provide consistent shot blocking for his goaltender, he was also able to hit pretty much anything that moved. Brooks finished most seasons with 200+ hits and the players felt his impact on the ice when he controlled his defensive role.
Although, he did not collect many points throughout his lengthy career as a Penguin, Brooks’ job was to provide solid play for his goaltender and that is exactly what he did. The Penguins undoubtedly miss his presence on defense, as it's tough to come by a player who is willing to give that much effort in order to keep pucks out of the net.
4 Worst: David Warsofsky
David Warsofsky is a perfect example of a defender who is having trouble adapting to the NHL level. With less than 20 games played in a Penguin jersey, it was sometimes tough to watch how he left his goaltender out to dry. David has allowed 13 giveaways in only 18 career games. This is not something you wish to have from a goaltender averaging more than 15 minutes a game and it makes the job of the goaltender much harder.
Meanwhile, this cannot be said for his time spent in the AHL. As of this writing, he has 38 points in 39 games playing for Wilkes-Barrie. An impressive stat but it is no use for the Penguins if some of that success in the AHL cannot be replicated to the NHL level. Hopefully, David has a bright future as a pro hockey player.
3 Best: Kris Letang
A healthy Kris Letang can change the entire Penguins team. This is something that his goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, can vouch for as well. There is no replacing Letang. His scoring touch is one thing but his work on the defensive end it is often forgotten. He is a consistent shot blocker who delivers his fair share of hits as well.
All this put into retrospect, Fleury is in good hands when Kris is on the ice. It is extremely rare to find a defender that can put up 50 to 60 points a season and be defensively solid as well. The only downside to Letang is the fact that he is often injured and at times, he can miss large portions of the season.
2 Worst: Rob Scuderi
There is no doubt that Rob Scuderi played a huge part in the Penguins Stanley Cup of 2009. His play was outstanding during that run. The reason he is on this list is due to his lackluster play when the Penguins decided to bring him back in 2013, as he was a major liability in his second run as a Penguin. He carried a heavy cap hit of $3.3 million and could not make things easier for Fleury, especially in the playoffs.
Scuderi's play was not what we were used to seeing from him. The giveaways were plentiful, and it was painful to watch his bad positioning, leaving Fleury to face odd man rushes where he was unable to stop the attack of the opposing team. Scuderi may be a two- time Stanley Cup winner, but his second run with the Penguins is one that the fans and Fleury may want to forget.
1 Best: Sergei Gonchar
Sergei Gonchar is one of the best defenders Marc-Andre Fleury had playing in front of him. He was able to do it all. His offensive strengths were only one of his amazing traits as a hockey player. Gonchar was able to deliver shot blocking for his goaltender, making it difficult for opposing players to strip him of the puck.
There was just so much Gonchar could do that it was tough to spot his weaknesses. His contribution to the team is outstanding, and it felt well deserved to see him lift the Stanley Cup in 2009. While only spending 5 of his 22 seasons with the Penguins, it was difficult to see him go, and his presence was something revolutionary for the entire Penguins organization.