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Do Canadian teams have the two best pairings in hockey?

Filip Hronek Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks Filip Hronek Quinn Hughes - Getty Images

Do the NHL’s two best defensive pairings both reside in Canada?

It’s a thought I considered watching the venerable Josh Morrissey wheel around the ice last weekend for the Winnipeg Jets. Morrissey has well established himself as a top-calibre defender in this league, but his play this year with pairmate Dylan DeMelo has been outright dominant. Together, they’ve laid a critical foundation for a Jets team that’s suddenly looking the part of a real playoff contender.

Meanwhile, further out West, what more can you say about the dynamic duo of Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek? Like DeMelo, Hronek has been a masterful complementary piece. And like Morrissey, Hughes has established himself as one of the premium blue-liners in the league — so valuable all year long, you are going to continue to hear Norris Trophy chatter for as long as the Canucks are in contention.

The play on the ice is just highlight reel after highlight reel from both pairings, and yet the numbers tell an even more compelling story. If we look at how both Winnipeg and Vancouver have played respectively with these top-pairs on the ice versus without, it is a true night-and-day scenario.

Let’s start with the Jets. Winnipeg’s been a game team across the board this year, but the results at the top of the lineup are truly impressive. The Morrissey and DeMelo pairing – they play primarily with the Mark Scheifele line – have cooked teams at even-strength, out-scoring their opponents by 19-goals while carrying about 53 per cent of the expected goal share. That’s playoff-calibre production from your top-pairing, period. Behind them, Winnipeg’s a much weaker team territorially, but even their depth group has out-scored the competition (+7 goals) on the year:  


Then there’s Vancouver, where the results have more sizable differentiation. The Canucks are dominant with their top-pair on the ice – the Hughes and Hronek pairing are 18-goals better than the opponents they have faced. What’s interesting is this group is getting their success more so off of volume than quality chances: they are carrying just 49 per cent of the expected goal share as a pairing, but 54 per cent of the shots, which has been a boon for their offensive production.


Those goal advantages these pairings have created for their teams don’t just stand out on their respective teams, but are some of the best numbers you will find league wide. In fact, if you look at pure even-strength goal differential across the entirety of the league, they remain outliers to the upside:

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Both pairings have skaters who are capable both ways, but it is not lost on me the core strength with this group is skating and puck transitions. Both pairings are instrumental in mitigating defensive zone damage when necessary, but more critically, play a decisive role in transitioning the ice and jump-starting the attack.

You need the horses to turn these transitions and offensive zone pressure opportunities into goals, and in both Winnipeg and Vancouver’s case, they have them.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference