Skip to Main Content
Top Players

#NHLTopPlayers: Top 20 Defensemen

NHL Network reveals best of current crop

by David Satriano @davidsatriano / Staff Writer

Whether it's breaking up a big play, setting up a goal, or scoring on the power play, some defensemen can do it all. NHL Network experts chose the top 20 defensemen in the League for a special program that premiered Sunday as the second in a nine-part series leading up to the regular season. Here is the list:


[#NHLTopPlayers Right Now: Defensemen on the bubble | Top 20 centers | Centers on the bubble]


1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Hedman won the Norris Trophy last season. It was the first time he was voted the best defenseman in the NHL. He scored 17 goals, tied for the most among NHL defensemen with Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers and Dougie Hamilton of the Calgary Flames, and his 63 points ranked fifth. His plus-32 rating was his NHL career high and second among NHL defensemen behind Josh Manson of the Anaheim Ducks (plus-34). The 27-year-old averaged 25:51 of ice time (fifth in the NHL) and had an NHL career-high 216 shots on goal.

"He's as good as it gets," said Ken Daneyko, an NHL Network analyst who was a New Jersey Devils defenseman for 20 seasons (1982-2003) and won the Stanley Cup three times (1995, 2000, 2003). "He takes what's given to him. With his size (6-foot-6, 223 pounds), his reach, he can shoot the puck, he can control the tempo of the game. The element that I love the most is the subtle element in the neutral zone. Nobody stands up like him."

Video: Victor Hedman lands at No. 1 on the list


2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

Doughty led the NHL in total ice time for the second straight season and third time in the past four in 2017-18 (2,200:31). He had double-digit goals for the third straight season (10), and his 60 points were an NHL career high. The 28-year-old was plus-23 and played all 82 games for the fourth straight season. He won the Norris in 2015-16 and has been a finalist three of the past four seasons.

"For me, Drew Doughty is the total package," Daneyko said. "He's big, he can change the game with a hit, he has the puck on his stick more than any other defenseman in the NHL, and so I always say that he changes the complexion of the game. He controls the tempo of the game. ... There's nothing he can't do."

Video: Drew Doughty is named No. 2 on the list


3. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

Karlsson managed to put up good offensive numbers last season even though the Senators finished with the second-worst record in the NHL and were 25th in scoring (219 goals). He had 53 assists, the fourth time in five seasons he's had at least that many, and finished with 62 points in 71 games. The 28-year-old captain averaged 26:44 of ice time, third in the NHL behind Doughty (26:50) and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild (26:47). A two-time Norris winner (2011-12, 2014-15), Karlsson had 120 blocked shots last season, second on the Senators behind defenseman Cody Ceci (171).

"I don't know if he was 100 percent, but you still can't drop him out of the top five because he's the best offensive defenseman in the game today," Daneyko said. "He's so dynamic [with] the passing ability, the skating ability, and just blowing past defenders when he has the puck on the stick. ... He can do things that no other defenseman can, and that's with his on-ice awareness."

Video: Erik Karlsson comes in at No. 3 on the list


4. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

After getting off to a slow start offensively (12 points through 25 games), Burns picked it up and finished with 67 points (12 goals, 55 assists), second among NHL defensemen behind Hedman. His 27 power-play points ranked fourth among NHL defensemen, and his 332 shots on goal were third in the NHL behind forwards Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (355) and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars (335). The 33-year-old won the Norris in 2016-17, when he led NHL defensemen in goals (29) and points (76), and hasn't missed a game in the past four seasons. Burns had at least 60 points each of the past four seasons. He was voted to the NHL First All-Star Team in 2016-17 and the Second All-Star Team in 2015-16.

"He's one of the rare defensemen that can beat a goalie clean with a wrist shot from the blue line because the velocity is so unbelievable and it's that heavy," Daneyko said. "I don't know how you pick up a guy like Brent Burns. ... He's one of the most dynamic players in the League."

Video: Brent Burns takes the No. 4 spot on the list


5. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators

Subban's second season in Nashville was one of the best of his NHL career, and he was voted to the NHL Second All-Star Team. His 16 goals were an NHL career high, and he had 43 assists, 59 points (25 on the power play) and a plus-18 rating in 82 games. The 29-year-old has scored at least 10 goals in five of the past six seasons and has topped 50 points in four of the past five. Subban won the Norris in 2012-13 with the Montreal Canadiens. He finished third in 2017-18, the third time in six seasons he's been a finalist for the award.

"We know he has the offensive flare, the heavy shot and can beat players 1-on-1, but I think he's improved his defensive game tremendously since joining Nashville," Daneyko said. "Sometimes learning the defensive game takes years to really understand ... and he now uses his stick much better in his defensive positioning."

Video: P.K. Subban lands at No. 5 spot on the list


6. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

Jones had NHL career highs in goals (16), assists (41), points (57), power-play goals (seven), power-play points (24), game-winning goals (four), shots on goal (249) and rating (plus-10) last season, his fifth in the NHL. The 23-year-old led the Blue Jackets in average ice time (24:36) and was third in blocked shots (124).

"His stock has risen more than any defenseman in the NHL," Daneyko said. "His skating ability, the shot, his physicality, he's getting to become the total package. He is the go-to man in Columbus."

Video: Seth Jones is named No. 6 on the list


7. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

Josi continues to be a steady presence offensively and defensively. He had 53 points (14 goals, 39 assists), second among Predators defensemen behind Subban, and an NHL career-high plus-24 rating in 78 games last season. The 28-year-old captain scored double-digit goals in each of the past five seasons and had at least 15 power-play points in each of the past four. He also led the Predators in shots on goal (253), blocked shots (120) and ice time per game (24:28).

Video: Roman Josi comes in at No. 7 on the list


8. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

Carlson's 68 points led NHL defensemen last season, his 53 assists were tied for third, and his 32 power-play points were one behind Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers for first. Carlson had 146 blocked shots, second on the Capitals behind defenseman Brooks Orpik (168), and scored four game-winning goals. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 28-year-old had 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) and was plus-11 with 12 power-play points (tied for second in the NHL) to help Washington win its first Stanley Cup championship.

"He showed it all year long and again in the playoffs when things heated up," Daneyko said. "He's got a terrific one-timer, wrist shot and it's accurate. He got better and better last year, and his gap control has become real strong. He's a big reason why the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup."

Video: John Carlson takes the No. 8 spot on the list


9. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

Pietrangelo had NHL career highs in goals (15) and points (54) in 78 games last season. The 28-year-old captain had a plus rating for the third straight season and fourth in the past five (plus-8). Pietrangelo had 13 power-play points and five game-winning goals, and he led the Blues in total ice time (2,007:27) and average ice time (25:44; sixth in NHL).

"He's a general on the back end," Daneyko said. "Everything is smooth, moves the pucks well, he changes angles so well in the offensive zone, terrific wrist shot. He's a big stud for the St. Louis Blues."

Video: Alex Pietrangelo lands at the No. 9 on the list


10. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Klingberg's 67 points in 82 games last season were one behind Carlson for the lead among NHL defensemen, and he led the position in assists (59). He increased his point total by 18 from the previous season, and his 204 shots on goal were 80 more than he had in 2016-17. Klingberg, who turns 26 on Aug. 14, was plus-10 and played 24:04 per game, an average that has increased three straight seasons. He had a shot attempts differential at 5-on-5 (SAT) of plus-187, which led the Stars and was 17th among NHL defensemen.

Video: John Klingberg is named No. 10 on the list


11. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

Byfuglien had 45 points (eight goals, 37 assists) in 2017-18, the seventh straight full NHL season he's had at least that many. His plus-15 was an NHL career high, and his 22 power-play points ranked third on the Jets. The 33-year-old had 147 hits, topping 100 for the seventh straight full NHL season, and reached 100 blocked shots for the third straight season (100 in 2017-18; 124 in 2016-17; 105 in 2015-16). He had 16 points in 17 playoff games to help the Jets advance to the 2018 Western Conference Final, when it lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

"There's nobody that is 260 pounds and moves like him," Daneyko said. "He's nimble on the ice and has one of the hardest shots in the NHL, and yes, he'll make you pay the price. ... He's big and dynamic. He's a beast. He's a linebacker on skates and changes the game in many different ways."

Video: Dustin Byfuglien comes in at No. 11 on the list


12. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

Werenski has developed into a top-tier defenseman in his two NHL seasons. A finalist for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in 2016-17, his average ice time increased from 20:55 to 22:35 last season, when he scored five more goals (16 from 11). The 21-year-old's 92 blocked shots ranked fourth on the Blue Jackets, and he was third on Columbus with an SAT of plus-245.

"Here's a kid that came in the League like a 10-year veteran," Daneyko said. "I get amazed by how he sees the ice so well. He never panics. He's so smooth for such a young defenseman. He has a terrific wrist shot and is poised for a young guy. He has great on-ice awareness and is only going to get better.

Video: Zach Werenski takes the No. 12 spot on the list


13. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Coming off of a neck injury in 2016-17, Letang didn't miss a step last season, leading Penguins defensemen in goals (nine), assists (42) and points (51). He had 20 power-play points and 222 shots on goal, the second-highest total of his 12-season NHL career. Letang, 31, had 109 hits and 108 blocked shots, and finished ninth in the NHL in ice time per game (25:20).

Video: Kris Letang lands at No. 13 on the list


14. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

Suter broke his right ankle March 31 and missed the final four games of the regular season and five playoff games after missing a total of eight games in the previous seven seasons. His 26:47 of ice time per game was second in the NHL to Doughty's 26:50. Suter had 51 points (six goals, 45 assists), the second time in three seasons he had at least 50 after failing to reach 50 in his first 10 NHL seasons. The 33-year-old has been first or second in the NHL in ice time in each of the past six seasons.

Video: Ryan Suter is named No. 14 on the list


15. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes

Ekman-Larsson had 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 2017-18. It was the fifth straight season he had at least 12 goals, 20 assists and 39 points. He had at least six power-play goals and 15 power-play points in each of the past six seasons, and has taken at least 200 shots on goal in three of the past four. The 27-year-old has led the Coyotes in total and average ice time in each of the past six seasons.

Video: Oliver Ekman-Larsson comes in at No. 15 on the list


16. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

Krug increased his assist and point totals for the third straight season, finishing with NHL career highs in goals (14), assists (45) and points (59) in 76 games in 2017-18. His 25 power-play points were one shy of his career high, and his 7.1 shooting percentage was the second best in his five NHL seasons. The 27-year-old, who played 20:24 per game, has been a steadying presence for the Bruins, who are tied for third in the NHL in goals-against per game since Krug became a regular in 2013-14 (2.49).

"He's a guy that competes extremely hard," Daneyko said. "He's great at breaking out the puck. … He has a tremendous slap shot and gets all of his power into it. He's a terrific defenseman."

Video: Torey Krug takes the No. 16 spot on the list


17. Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers

Gostisbehere had 65 points last season (26 more than in 2016-17), including an NHL career-high 52 assists. He finished fourth in points among NHL defensemen, his 33 power-play points tops at the position. His plus-10 rating was his best since joining the Flyers full-time in 2015-16. The 25-year-old played an NHL career-high 21:27 per game last season, up from 19:36 in 2016-17. He has increased his hits and blocked shots totals in each of the past two seasons.

"He really came into his own last year," Daneyko said. "This kid is dynamic, and for me, I think there are some defensive liabilities, but because how offensive the game has become and defensemen being part of that offense, Gostisbehere can do it all. He's shifty and can make a pass in the blink of an eye for a great scoring chance."

Video: Shayne Gostisbehere lands at No. 17 on the list


18. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes

Hamilton's 17 goals for the Flames last season were tied for the NHL lead by a defenseman (Hedman, Provorov). He has scored double-digit goals and had at least 42 points (44 in 2017-18) in four consecutive seasons. Traded to the Hurricanes on June 23, the 25-year-old had NHL career highs in power-play goals (six), shots on goal (270) and average ice time (21:32).

Video: Dougie Hamilton is named No. 18 on the list


19. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

McAvoy was impressive as a rookie last season, when he had 32 points (seven goals, 25 assists) and was plus-20 in 63 games. He had five points (one goal, four assists) in 12 playoff games. The 20-year-old played 22:09 per game on the top pair with 41-year-old Zeno Chara, who led the Bruins at 22:54.

"He's already shown flashes of what he can do," Daneyko said. "He sees the ice so well and moves the puck well. … He's going to be a stud defenseman, and the way he played right out of college and in the playoffs (in 2017) really opened my eyes. He felt no pressure, and he's going to get better and better."

Video: Charlie McAvoy comes in at No. 19 on the list


20. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators

Ellis' value to the Predators was shown in their record with and without him in the lineup. In the 44 games he played, they were 30-8-6; they went 23-10-5 in the 38 games he missed to begin the season while recovering from knee surgery. The 27-year-old had 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) and a plus-26 rating, second highest on Nashville (Filip Forsberg, plus-27). His 0.73 points per game led Predators defensemen. Ellis, who played 23:21 per game, averaged nearly two blocked shots per game (1.91).

"He's a great skating defenseman who moves the puck so well, can shoot the puck, creates a lot of offense," Daneyko said. "He's a good all-around defenseman who sometimes gets lost in the shuffle because of how good the Nashville Predators defense is. … The game is now about jumping in on the play, supporting the offensive attack, getting your shots through, and he does all those things so well."

Video: Ryan Ellis takes the No. 20 spot on the list

View More

The NHL has updated its Privacy Policy effective January 16, 2020. We encourage you to review it carefully.

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.