Monday, September 26, 2022

Ranking the NHL’s top 10 defensemen: Can Cale Makar continue his meteoric rise?

Defensemen are the backbone of every NHL team. They’re the last line of defense between some of the league’s elite goal scorers finding themselves all alone against the goaltender. On the defensive end, players are expected to be physical and limit the opposing team’s scoring chances. On the other hand, they’re looked at as quarterbacks on the power-play and sometimes lethal scorers on the offensive end.

And now more than ever, NHL defensemen are more expected to produce on the offensive end. During the 2021-22 season, there were eight NHL defensemen that registered at least 60 points. 

Since defensemen are such an integral part of the sport, I compiled a list of the league’s top 10 blue-liners. Career production, where their career currently stands and how they could perform in the future were all factors that were taken into account:

10. Moritz Seider, Red Wings

It may be crazy to already include Seider among the league’s top defensemen, but the Red Wings blue-liner has accomplished a ton in just one season. He proved to be an asset on both ends of the ice and cemented that fact by winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. At 21, he provides a physical presence and laid his fair share of big hits throughout his rookie campaign. And then there’s his puck-handling ability, which allows Seider to dish those sensational passes that we saw on several occasions last season. The sky is the limit for Seider.

9. Miro Heiskanen, Stars

He might not always be flashy, but Heiskanen has developed into one a great defensemen. He has topped the 30-point mark in three of his first four professional seasons, including a career-high 36 points during the 2021-22 campaign. During the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Heiskanen set a Stars playoff record with 26 points (6 goals & 20 assists) while also registering the fourth-most points by a defenseman in a given postseason in NHL history. He isn’t the type of blue-liner that will score 20 goals in a season, but he’s an extremely smart defenseman. His vision in the offensive zone is some of the best around while still possessing a very lethal shot when he gets a chance to uncork one. Heiskanen is as steady as they come.

8. John Carlson, Capitals

Carlson is one of the more offensively-gifted blue liners around. After all, he has tallied at least 70 points in three of his last four seasons. In addition, the Washington Capitals defenseman scored a career-high 17 goals during the 2021-22 season, including seven coming on the power-play. Carlson is also a tremendous passer that has a knack for finding gifted teammates like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in high percentage scoring chances. The 32-year old continues to be a stabilizing force in the offensive end, especially on the man-advantage.

7. Aaron Ekblad, Panthers

The Panthers were the talk of the league after capturing the Presidents’ Trophy during the regular season in 2021-22. A big reason was the dependable presence manning the blue line in the form of veteran defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Despite only playing in 61 games, Ekblad still managed to tally a career-best 57 points. The 26-year old’s previous career-high point total was 41 during the 2019-20 campaign, which came in 67 games. He has never had a problem finding the back of the net, as he’s registered double-digit goals in seven of his eight professional seasons. However, the assists department was where Ekblad saw a large uptick (42). Ekblad has certainly vaulted himself into the upper echelon of the league’s defenders.

6. Kris Letang, Penguins

It seems almost criminal placing a future Hall of Famer like Letang outside of the top five of this list. But that just speaks to the current level of talent at the position. Letang proved that he has plenty of gas left in the tank this past season, producing career highs in points (68), assists (58) and hits (171). He also finished in the top 10 in the Norris Trophy voting for the third time over the past four seasons. Letang is a true workhorse as he logged an average of 25:47 of ice time on a nightly basis. When his career is all said and done, Letang will be bound for Toronto, but he can likely still play at an elite level for several more seasons. 

5. Charlie McAvoy, Bruins

In just five seasons, McAvoy has developed into one of the league’s top defensemen. The 2021-22 campaign was really the catalyst for the Bruins blue-liner as he registered a career-high 56 points (10 goals and 46 assists). His 10 goals were also a career-high and it was the first season in which McAvoy scored double-digit goals. McAvoy has a beautiful sniping shot that can easily find the back of the net, especially if there’s traffic in front. It also doesn’t hurt that the 24-year old isn’t afraid to lay a big hit in open ice. McAvoy has transformed into one of the NHL’s premier defensemen and it’ll be interesting to see where his ceiling will be after a career season.

4. Adam Fox, Rangers

Fox had a tremendous campaign during the 2020-21 season and ultimately won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in just his second season. As impressive as that was, the Rangers blue-liner produced an even more sensational season in 2021-22. His 63 assists were the third-most among defensemen behind only Roman Josi of the Predators and Victor Hedman of the Lightning. He has established himself as a terrific puck-handler in the open ice and that’s one of the key reasons that Fox is one of the top playmakers at his position. It definitely won’t be a surprise if Fox adds a few more Norris Trophies to his collection before his career is finished.

3. Roman Josi, Predators

Since entering the league, Josi has established himself as one of the top defensemen around. He really had a season for the ages in 2021-22. In 80 games, the Predators blue-liner registered a career-high 96 points (23 goals and 73 assists) while also registering a league-best 11 power-play goals. His 11 power-play tallies even bested the likes of Cale Makar and John Carlson. His vision on the ice was in a completely different stratosphere last season as his 73 assists led all of the NHL. His 26 power-play assists were also good for fourth among defensemen. At 32, Josi still has several elite years left in the tank and has to be included amongst the league’s top blue-liners.

2. Victor Hedman, Lightning

Josi and Hedman were neck-in-neck as far as my rankings go for the top three defensemen in the NHL. But the Lightning blue-liner gets the slight edge, in large part because his career accolades are nearly endless. He’s appeared in four All-Star Games, won the Norris Trophy in 2020, won the Conn Smythe Award as the playoff MVP in 2020 and hoisted back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2019 and 2020. On top of all of that, Hedman is a massive specimen of a defenseman that stands at 6’6, 240 pounds and has no problem imposing his will. His physicality allow him to thrive on either end of the ice and it also doesn’t hurt that he has a cannon of a shot from the point. His 20 goals during the 2021-22 season were a career-best, but it was also the eighth time in the past nine seasons in which Hedman scored double-digit goals. When his career is over, Hedman is going to go down as one of the top blue-liners to ever lace up a pair of skates.

1. Cale Makar, Avalanche

Were you expecting someone else? Despite only have three NHL seasons under his belt, Makar has firmly placed himself atop this list of elite defensemen. The Avalanche blue-liner won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman this past season even in facing some stiff competition in Josi and Hedman. The 23-year-old star had a banner year, one in which he helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup as he tallied 29 points (eight goals and 21 assists). Makar has drawn comparisons to former Bruins legend Bobby Orr thanks to his offensive acumen — and that’s not a comparison to take lightly. If you need a remainder of just how gifted Makar is, look no further than his game-winning overtime goal against the Blackhawks last season. Makar can stop on a dime and make defenders look downright foolish. Realistically, 100-point seasons may not be out of the question down the road if Makar keeps elevating his game like he has across his first three NHL campaigns. For now, he’s definitely the top active defenseman in my book.

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