Ranking the Olympic defenseman groups

Led by Duncan Keith, Team Canada is stacked on the blue line for Sochi. Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY Sports

It’s only been four years since the last Olympic games, but the blue line groups of some of the biggest gold-medal contenders will look dramatically different this time around. Each of the favorites -- Canada, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. -- has lost at least one pillar of its defense from the Vancouver games, either to retirement or a philosophical shift to younger players.

The list of veteran defensemen gone from the 2010 games is impressive: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Sergei Gonchar, to start.

“You knew what you were getting,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, Team USA’s captain in 2010, of those veteran stars. “This time around, you’ve got a bunch of guys in there for the first time. Great players, all of them. But it’s a different stage.”

As much debate as there has been about the final forward spots or the starting goaltenders, the gold medal may come down to which team has a young player or two emerge on defense and star on the world’s biggest stage. Drew Doughty did it in 2010 and Team Canada won gold. This time around, there’s no shortage of candidates -- including P.K. Subban, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Cam Fowler, Olli Maatta -- and somebody is going to make a difference with their star turn.

On Wednesday, we looked at the top Olympic forward groups, with help from executives, scouts, coaches and players. Likewise, here's the collection of the top defenseman groups:

1. Team Canada

In polling a few people around the league, all picked Canada as their best defense, except one. Still, replacing Niedermayer and Pronger is no easy task.

“Those are two of the great guys of my generation,” Langenbrunner said. "Guys that not only performed at the Olympics, they did it year in and year out, winning Cups.”

There are only two Cup-winners on the Canadian defense, in Duncan Keith and Doughty, so responsibility falls on those two to lead. Both are more than capable, and nobody in the world is playing better defensively than Keith right now. Dan Hamhuis and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are both good players who will have to prove they’re ready for the spotlight. Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said he had conversations with John Tortorella about Hamhuis, saying he’s been overplayed at times in Vancouver. That won’t be an issue with Canada, and Babcock likes what he’s getting there.

“He knows how to play. A cerebral player. Really gets the puck going out,” Babcock said. “He’s solid defensively, understands the game.”

As for Vlasic, he’s blossomed under Larry Robinson in San Jose, an influence you can’t underestimate. “We’ve watched him a lot,” said Canada GM Steve Yzerman. “He really moves the puck well. He skates well. Positionally, very, very sound. On a very good team that is very well-coached.