With so many great defenceman to choose from, I am fairly certain this list will ruffle some feathers. Choosing the best defenceman in the National Hockey League is no easy task, so I will lay out the ground rules immediately, this way readers are well aware this list is based on specific criteria. The criteria is what ultimately determines a list like this. For example, if my opinion of the best defenceman in the NHL heavily favours offensive production it will variate drastically from a similar list that might consider defensive acumen most important.
Every defenceman on this list will be very capable of both offence and defence, however, some may lean more in one direction.
The list does not consider player age. A 35 year old is going to outshine an up-and-coming 22 year old on this list, if the older guy is better. In other words, the list is not about potential, it’s about right now.
Norris Trophies will be considered but they are not the be-all-end-all of defensive certification on this list. Norris Trophy winners will definitely be on this list, however, non-Norris winners may appear ahead of defenceman who have won the Norris.
The four most important considerations determining the list will be:
1) If the candidate is removed from his team with no comparable compensation, how badly will they suffer?
2) Can the candidate excel in a variety of situations, offensively and defensively?
3) Can the candidate dictate the flow of a game from the backend, lead a rush, gain the offensive zone regularly, while performing superbly defensively? A lot of high scoring D men will not meet this criteria.
4) Is the candidate so dominant at one aspect without entirely compromising other elements of his game. For example, if the candidate scores at the point pace of an all-star forward and plays top four minutes on a playoff team, chances are they can hold their own defensively, regardless of the stigma that surrounds their defensive reputation.
The Top Ten Defenceman In The National Hockey League
10. Kris Letang
Kris Letang is no one’s top shutdown guy but his defensive instincts aren’t as bad as people think. He’s highly aggressive offensively, which causes him to make errors. That being said, Kris Letang is really good NHL defenceman.
What makes Kris Letang uniquely talented and borderline unstoppable is his ability to control the pace of a game. When he’s moving and flowing through the neutral zone, opposing teams simply aren’t going to touch the puck very often while he’s on the ice. He has the necessary skills to produce offence almost as abundantly as many of the top forwards in the league. Certainly, being offensively gifted doesn’t make for an amazing defenceman, unless that defenceman is so offensively productive they can directly influence the outcome of a hockey game on a nightly basis. For three of the players on this list, that is the case.
9. P. K. Subban
Much like Letang, P. K. may not be a shutdown guy just yet, however, he’s a good defenceman in his own zone, trending upwards. Subban’s biggest defensive blowups stem from his desire to do too much. Many young players suffer from over aggressive pinches and inopportune attempts to throw big hits. As he gains experience, Subban will pick his spots better and settle into his role as one of the best defenceman in the National Hockey League. As of right now, he’s already lethal enough to be considered one of the elite blueliners in hockey.
After holding out at the beginning of 2013, Subban signed a bridge deal and joined the Habs a few games into the season. In 42 games he tallied 38 points, tying him for 1st among defenceman with Kris Letang. Subban has a very powerful, effective shot from the blue line. His 11 goals last season ranked him 2nd in NHL defenceman goal scoring, behind Mike Green, who had 12.
8. Niklas Kronwall
Last season was the coming out party of Nik Kronwall. Before his first year without Nicklas Lidstrom leading the defence corps of the Detroit Red Wings, it was easy to look past his prowess at both ends of the ice. With Lidstrom out of the picture, it was assumed the Red Wings’ incredible streak of playoffs was over, but Kronwall stepped up and took charge.
The big Swedish defender is very adept in all aspects of the game. He’s a strongly positioned physical force in his own zone, as well as, a hard shooting, underrated offensive defenceman. Kronwall is by far the least praised of the players on this list but that is about to change. If he duplicates another performance like last season, he will no longer be possible to ignore and finally get the credit he deserves as one of the elite defencemen in the National Hockey League.
7. Brent Seabrook
Brent Seabrook’s reputation as one of the NHL’s top defenceman suffers a little because he shares the ice with another great defenceman. Make no mistake, Seabrook is one of the best in the business. His combination of size, strength, mobility and offensive instincts allow him to excel in almost any situation. He’s a very strong defensive defenceman, also capable of scoring blasts from the point, and making clean, crisp passes out of his zone while under pressure.
Seabrook has been a key contributor throughout two Stanley Cup runs with the Hawks. He’s as tough as they come too. The Hawks bruising blueliner isn’t phased by the physicality of the game. In fact, he seems to prefer it, often playing his best hockey in high pressure, intense playoff games. Every team wishes they had a player like Brent Seabrook patrolling their blue line.
6. Ryan Suter
Finally away from Shea Weber’s giant shadow in Nashville, last season, Ryan Suter proved he is far and away one of the best defenceman around. Suter is almost always in the right place defensively, and when he isn’t, he’s such a tremendous skater, he recovers quickly. His offensive chops are versatile. Some good defenceman are great puck movers, but don’t shoot well, others have a great point shot, but lack mobility. Suter is very good at both.
The addition of Suter single handedly transformed the makeup of the Minnesota Wild. Coach Mike Yeo can rely on his stud defenceman in every situation, a luxury most coaches don’t have in their bag of tricks. Suter logged on average, 27 minutes a night for his new club in 2012-13. Unfortunately, until he gets some qualified veteran assistance, he will continue to be over worked.
5. Erik Karlsson
If Erik Karlsson was a defensive force he would be hands down #1 on this list, but that’s not really his style. The young Swedish blueliner is simply a cut above the other offensive defenceman in the National Hockey League. He scores points like an elite forward, a trait unseen in defenceman since the 1990’s.
No other defenceman in the NHL is capable of dictating the flow of a game like the Senators’ young franchise player. Karlsson is dominant on the attack, which is good because he’s always attacking. He manages to repeatedly find room, maneuver, and shift around in the offensive zone, making him highly deceptive and illusive. Karlsson is possibly the best at sneaking into scoring lanes and finishing plays with a goal, or smart pass. He’s still young, and will likely only get better over the next few seasons. Right now, he’s #5.
4. Shea Weber
The Predators Captain, Shea Weber, is a fearsome presence on the back-end. Big Shea is a beast with a powerfully accurate point shot and unbelievable knack for timing his attempts on goal perfectly. Playing in Nashville doesn’t garner a lot of attention for most who have worn the Preds jersey, but he’s so good it’s impossible to let him slip under the radar. He’s the most recognizable Nashville Predator in franchise history, and quite possibly, the only recognizable one.
Weber is a big rearguard who gets around the ice incredibly well for his size. There is no other man of his stature who compares with his underrated agility and exceptional balance. He’s as solid as a rock and thunderous as a storm. There is a reason he gets paid the big bucks to captain one of the league’s Southern franchises. As far as NHL defencemen go, they don’t get much better than the Nashville Predators’ captain Shea Weber.
3. Drew Doughty
He doesn’t quite dictate the pace of a game like Karlsson or Letang, but he’s close. He doesn’t fire off as heavy a shot as Weber or Subban, but he’s not too far off. And, he won’t destroy his opponents with a body check like Seabrook, oh wait, yes he will. Drew Doughty is basically amazing at everything. The Kings’ franchise defenceman has not disappointed since joining the NHL as an 18 year old in the Fall of 2008. He sees the ice with exceptional poise, defends with the calmness of a ten year veteran, and rushes the puck through the opposition several times a game.
Drew Doughty and the final two defenceman on this list have the rare distinction of quarterbacking their teams to recent Stanley Cup Championships, and it’s no coincidence. All throughout NHL history, the best defencemen have been winning Stanley Cups. Look at a list of Norris Trophy winners and you’ll notice only a handful don’t have their name on Lord Stanley’s Mug, as well. Doughty, however, has never won a Norris, but there is still time, he’s only 23.
2. Duncan Keith
There is no defenceman in the league who possesses the incredible combination of skating ability, puck carrying finesse, defensive responsibility and raw tenacity of Duncan Keith. He really can do it all. Over the last four years the Chicago Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups largely because of their ability to always have possession of the puck. It starts with Keith, who is perhaps the best in the game at recovering loose pucks and transitioning them from dangerous situations to all out offensive attacks. Of course, what has made the Blackhawks so good over the last half decade is their strategy to roster a few elite puck movers to help Keith out. Out of all of them, Keith is the best.
Keith plays with an edge. This is one aspect of his game that really separates him from other highly mobile guys. Duncan Keith is vicious. He’ll sneak attack you with an elbow or chop you down with his stick. Unlike other smooth skating defenceman in the NHL, you can’t hurt Duncan Keith. He’s a country boy who feels no pain. In the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals the Boston Bruins bombarded the Hawks #2 with a steady onslaught of damaging blows to the body. Keith took every hit with a smile, got right back up, and continued to battle. He’s incredibly tough for his size, insanely fast at closing gaps, and undeniably motivated to win hockey games and championships. That’s why Duncan Keith is the 2nd best defenceman in the NHL.
1. Zdeno Chara
If Zdeno Chara ceased to be a member of the Boston Bruins, they would be a different team, it’s that simple. Big Z defines the historic franchises’ identity to perfection. Like Keith, Chara symbolizes the identity of his club. No other two defencemen in the NHL carry this distinction.
It’s arguable that no other player in the National Hockey League is capable of dominating at one position the way Chara does on his own side of centre ice. Any forward within 10 feet of the big Slovak’s unrelenting reach is at risk of losing the puck and receiving a ferocious beating along the boards. He stands 6 feet, 9 inches tall, weighs 255 pounds, and it doesn’t prevent him from shutting down supremely faster opposing forwards because he reads the game incredibly well. Chara sees plays before they happen.
When the Bruins need a goal, Chara literally takes over. Very few defenceman can do this. Lidstrom and Pronger could in recent memory, but few others are capable. His ability to take charge makes him more than just an elite defenceman. He’s a leader who rises to the occasion, embracing pressure and fear.
Z won’t pile up offensive numbers because that’s not him, but he could if he wanted to. Zdeno Chara has the hardest shot in the NHL. If goal scoring was an ambition of the Bruins captain, he’d selfishly take more point shots and score a lot of goals. Furthermore, Chara could greatly boost his offensive numbers if he decided crashing the net on every rush down the ice would win his Bruins some more hockey games. If he chose to get out of position and crash the net on a regular basis no one would stop him. Chara doesn’t do those things because he’s more effective preserving his energy at 5-on-5, ensuring his team allows very few goals against and loses few hockey games.
It’s almost not fair that a man of Chara’s size is allowed to compete against all those little fellas on other teams. That being said, if it was easy for a giant like Zdeno to play hockey at the highest level, every team would have one. Chara is a remarkable athlete and fierce competitor. He is the difference between winning and losing. He’s the best defenceman in the NHL.
Andrei Markov, Keith Yandle, Alex Pietrangelo, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Carlson, Viktor Hedman, Marc Staal.