Ranking the NHL’s top defensemen: Why Victor Hedman is so far ahead of his peers


Evaluating the top 10 defensemen in ESPN’s 2021 NHL position-by-position rankings is a study in competing philosophies on how to properly evaluate the position.

What metrics best define value for scoring defensemen or “defensive” defensemen? Do the elite have to do both well, or can one aspect compensate for the other?

I once asked Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom how he evaluates other defensemen. He said the best of the best play instinctually, like he did. But there is one stat he scrutinizes: How much they play, and how good they are after playing a ton of minutes.

“That means you’re playing all the power-play minutes but also have to have the ability to play against the opponents’ top lines. You have to be able to defend,” he told me. “I’ve seen players where their ice time goes up and their performance declines. They get fatigued. They make mistakes. If you’re able to handle that ice time and still perform, or even get better as the game goes on, that’s very important.”

Lidstrom retired in 2012, so he wasn’t a voter in our survey. We canvassed 10 active NHL players — seven skaters, three goaltenders — and 10 individuals in team hockey operations, from coaches to general managers to player personnel executives. The surveys were conducted over the past two months.

Respondents were asked to rank their top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 20 to 30 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 on each ballot were given a numerical score: No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned nine points and so on.

After ranking the wingers last week, here are the positional rankings for defensemen for the 2020-21 season, according to those in the NHL we surveyed. The blueliners who didn’t make the cut are as noteworthy as those who did.

Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.

I’ve made the case that the Lightning defenseman could be the best all-around hockey player in the world. Our survey respondents agreed that Hedman is, at the very least, the best defenseman in the world. He was ranked No. 1 on 14 of the 20 ballots. Two more had him second. Two more had him third.

“He’s just a hell of a player,” said one NHL coach.

Hedman, 30, has played every season with the Lightning since coming into the NHL as a 19-year-old in 2009-10. He is second to John Carlson of the Capitals in points-per-game average among defensemen since the 2017-18 season (0.83). His plus-98 places him firmly at No. 1 in that span, ahead of Zdeno Chara (+82).

Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season, leading the Lightning to their Stanley Cup championship with 22 points in 25 games and 26 minutes, 28 seconds of average ice time. He’s been a Norris Trophy finalist in four straight seasons, winning the award in 2017-18 for the first and only time.

He controls play in his own zone as a defensive stopper. He has been on the plus side of puck possession in eight straight seasons. While Hedman is no doubt the beneficiary of having an incredible assemblage of offensive talent around him, he’s also an integral part of that offense with his puck-rushing and passing skills.

One of the aspects of his game that doesn’t get enough attention: That the Lightning have been able to play him with anyone and still Hedman excels. He had four different primary defensive partners — Jan Rutta, Dan Girardi, Jake Dotchin and Anton Stralman — during his four straight Norris nominations.

“Hedman came in young. He had a longer runway than other young players,” Lidstrom told me recently, “but boy, did he ever take off, in every aspect of his game.”

Speaking of younger players…

Is it too soon to declare that the 22-year-old blueliner for the Avalanche is the second-best defenseman in the NHL? Not according to the players and team officials in our poll.

Makar was ranked No. 1 among all defensemen on two ballots: one from a general manager and one from another NHL defenseman. Makar was listed in the top five on 15 ballots. He was listed in the top 10 on 19 of 20 ballots, save for one veteran goaltender who didn’t rank him among the 10 best.

(For the record, it’s not the same goalie who left Nikita Kucherov off his ballot and potentially cost him the No. 1 slot among wingers.)

Makar won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year last season, compiling 50 points in 57 games. He is second to Carlson in points per game during Makar’s first two seasons (0.90), with 41 of his first 69 career points coming at even strength. He has 15.8 goals scored above average in his first two seasons, nestling in between the totals for Connor McDavid (15.9) and Mark Stone (15.8) in that metric.

Some of the respondents who ranked Makar lower than second overall pointed out issues that are typical of young defensemen, like inconsistent play in their own zone and forcing things offensively at times.

“He tries to make so many plays that sometimes they really blow up on him,” said one NHL coach that had him fifth overall. “But when you have the puck as much as him, s— is going to happen.”

The 2019-20 Norris Trophy winner was the clear No. 3 behind Hedman and Makar. He didn’t earn a first-place vote, but no one had more second-place tallies (7) than the Predators defenseman. He was ranked between second and sixth on 16 ballots.

Josi, 30, is fourth in points (140) and fifth in points per game (0.78) over the past three seasons, through 179 games. He skates 25:20 per contest, and he plays in all situations. His Norris win came in his first season as a finalist, after scoring a career-best 65 points in 69 games with a plus-22 for Nashville.

Respondents praised his poise and his ability to excel in both ends of the rink.

“He rarely makes the wrong play, no matter how much pressure he’s under,” said one team official. “In the defensive end, he’s very good away from the puck, at things like boxing out and tying up other players’ sticks.”

Josi was also third in the NHL Players’ Association poll on best defensemen for the 2019-20 season.

The Knights’ free-agent prize was ranked in the top five on 11 ballots: first (1), second (1), third (3) and fourth (6).

Over the past three seasons, Pietrangelo has 103 points in 159 games and has skated to a plus-21. He averaged 24:17 in ice time per game in that stretch, and he played in all situations. He’s never been a Norris finalist, finishing as high as fourth in the 2019-20 season, which was the best offensive season (0.74 points per game) of his career — and not coincidentally, the one that preceded him signing a seven-year, $61.6 million free-agent contract with Vegas.

But Pietrangelo, 31, was completely left off of four rankings.

“Overrated,” said one skater who snubbed him.

A coach who left him off of his ballot was a bit more diplomatic. “He’s fine. He’s good. Is he worlds ahead of other defensemen? Not really,” he said.

Heiskanen, 21, had a star-making performance during the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in the playoff bubble. He tallied 26 points in 27 games, averaging 25:58 in ice time. That caught a lot of attention — including that of Lidstrom.

“I’ve noticed him. Especially the way he played in the playoffs. When I first saw him play when he came into the league, he was very poised for his age. He’s been getting better and better as well,” said the Hall of Famer. “He’s a better skater than me. I was mobile, but I wasn’t as fast as Miro is. Maybe that’s one player that plays similar to my style, but probably a notch better skater, or faster skater, than I was.”

The Stars defenseman was ranked in the top five on eight ballots and made the top 10 on 16 ballots.

“He’s legit,” said one NHL coach who had him fourth overall, ahead of Makar. “I really like Miro. He’s got some flaws, but so does Makar.”

He hasn’t quite cracked the code offensively, with 51 points in his last 99 games — although Dallas isn’t exactly a scoring machine, either. But his all-around game gets him No. 5 overall in the survey.

“He’s so smooth and has a great stick on the defensive side,” said one veteran NHL defenseman.

One NHL coach who had Heiskanen ahead of Makar appreciated the Stars defenseman’s competence. “The best defensemen are efficient. They create a lot without giving up much. That’s what Heiskanen does. He’s in the elite category,” he said.

Despite not being at his best this season, Jones has clearly made enough of an impression on his peers and team officials to still rank sixth.

In fact, one coach ranked him at No. 1 overall.

“When he’s on his game, he’s the best defenseman in the league. He plays so effortlessly and he can play all night,” the coach said.

Jones, 26, is playing around the same offensive pace as last season (0.54 points per game in 35 games). That’s down from his best scoring season (0.73) in 2017-18, when he had his highest finish for the Norris Trophy (fourth). But he has struggled in other facets of the game, with the highest penalties taken per 60 minutes (0.79) of his career and just a 45.2 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5.

Jones appeared in the top 10 on 11 of the 20 surveys

“You want him on the ice whether you’re up a goal or down a goal,” said one veteran defenseman who had him ranked fourth overall.

Long considered one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, Slavin appeared in the top 10 on 14 of the 20 rankings — including one skater who had him at No. 1 overall.

“Right now, he’s the best defenseman in the league,” said the NHL veteran.

Slavin, 26, had his best offensive season in 2019-20 (0.53 points per game). Naturally, that uptick in offense finally earned him the attention of the Norris voters, and he finished fifth for the award last season.

His offense has regressed to the mean this season at 0.33 points per game, as he has settled back into a safety-net role for partner Dougie Hamilton.

Interestingly, the three goalies we polled had Slavin at an average ranking of sixth overall.

Carlson has been the best offensive defenseman in the NHL over the past three seasons in points (173 in 183 games) and points-per-game average (0.95), while skating to a plus-30. While playing on the same power play as Alex Ovechkin has its obvious benefits, Carlson leads all defensemen with 105 even-strength points in that span as well.

This season, he’s in the blueliner scoring title mix again, with 28 points in 34 games. Offense is never the issue. Stopping the other team, on the other hand, has proved more difficult.

The perception that Carlson, 31, isn’t a “well-rounded” defenseman cost him the Norris last season and hurt him in previous campaigns. This season, he has a 49.7 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5.

Carlson received one first-place ranking from a veteran forward, but he earned only four rankings inside the top five. He wasn’t included in the top 10 on seven ballots.

“A lot of times with offensive defensemen, you’re giving up something defensively. So you better be great at what you do,” said one coach who had Carlson ranked eighth overall.

Like Heiskanen, Theodore’s star went supernova in the postseason bubble last year for the Knights. He led all Vegas players with 19 points in 20 games, skating 22:24 per game.

Theodore, 25, has seen his offensive numbers increase over the past three seasons, including a 0.86 points-per-game average this season through 29 games. He was sixth for the Norris last season, and it’s just a matter of time before he ends up a finalist.

Theodore appeared in the top 10 in 11 rankings.

“He blew me away in the bubble. He’s taken the next step,” said one NHL coach who had him eighth overall. “And he’s so fast, I think he can beat out his own icing.”

The final spot in the top 10 goes to the Flyers’ 24-year-old defenseman.

Provorov is in his fifth NHL season. He’s playing as much as he ever has (25:07 time on ice per game), although his offense and puck possession are a tick down from last season.

He hasn’t gotten into the Norris conversation yet, but Provorov was ranked in the top 10 on seven ballots in the survey. One NHL general manager had him second overall, his highest ranking. That alone was the difference between Provorov getting the final spot by a slim margin over Brent Burns (27 points).

“I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Provorov,” said one NHL coach. Apparently he’s not alone.

Honorable mentions

After Burns, the next-highest-ranked defenseman was Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks (24 points). Had this survey been held at the end of last season, perhaps the Calder runner-up makes the top 10. But while Hughes’ offensive output has been strong this season, with 28 points through 37 games, a few respondents noted that his defense hadn’t taken the next step in the same way that Makar’s had.

“He’s been a turnstile this season,” said one team official.

A few other notes on the survey:

  • Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and John Klingberg of the Stars were right behind Hughes with 23 points.

  • Following them was Dougie Hamilton of the Hurricanes with 22 points. He was the only player to receive a second-place ranking — given to him by a team player personnel official — who didn’t ultimately make the top 10 overall.

  • Torey Krug, whom the Blues signed to replace Pietrangelo, received a single ninth-place vote. “I think he’s the best in the league in running the power play,” said one NHL coach.

  • Only one player in our pool of 25 D-men didn’t receive a single top-10 ranking from our players or team officials: Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens.

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