Which metric best defines the value of defenders or goal scoring defenders? Should elites do both, or can one aspect offset the other?
I once asked Hockey Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom how he rated other defensemen. He said the best of the best play instinctively, as he did. But there is one statistic he studies: How much they play, and how well they play after many minutes.
This means you’ll be playing every minute of the game on the power play, but you should also be able to play against your opponents’ top lines. You have to be able to defend, he said. I’ve seen players get more ice time and perform less. You’re tired. You make mistakes. If you are able to deal with that icy time and continue to perform or even improve as the race progresses, that is quite an accomplishment.
Lidstrom retired in 2012, so he was not a voter in our poll. We interviewed 10 active NHL players – seven skaters, three goalies – and 10 people working in the teams’ hockey operations, from coaches to general managers to directors of player affairs. The surveys were conducted over the past two months.
Respondents were asked to rank the top 10 players at center, forward, defense and goalie from a predetermined list of the top 20 to 30 players at each position. A numerical score was awarded to players who finished in the top ten in each round of voting: Number 1 got 10 points, number 2 got 9 points, and so on.
Following last week’s ranking of wingers, here are the position rankings for defensemen for the 2020-21 season that we polled around the NHL. The blueliners who didn’t make it are just as remarkable as those who did.
Statistics are collected on sites like Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.
I have said that a Lightning defenseman can be the best hockey player in the world. Our poll participants agreed that Hedman is at least the best defender in the world. He led in 14 of the 20 ballots cast. Two others took his place. Two others came in third.
He’s just a great player, an NHL coach said.
Hedman, 30, has played every season for the Lightning since entering the NHL as a 19-year-old in 2009-10. He is second only to the Capitals’ John Carlson in points per game among defensemen since the 2017-18 season (0.83). His plus-98 gives him an edge over Zdeno Chara (+82) over that span.
Last season Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup championship with 22 points in 25 games and 26 minutes and 28 seconds of average ice time. He was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in four consecutive seasons, winning the award for the first and only time in 2017-18.
He controls the game in his own zone as a defensive stopper. He has been on the positive side of puck possession for eight consecutive seasons. Hedman is surrounded by an incredible amount of offensive talent, but he is also an integral part of this offense with his ability to push the puck and pass the ball.
An aspect of his game that doesn’t get enough attention: The Lightning could make him play with anyone and Hedman would still excel. During his four Norris Award nominations, he had four primary defensive partners: Ian Rutta, Dan Girardi, Jake Dotchin and Anton Stralman.
Hedman arrived young. Lidstrom told me recently that his journey has taken longer than that of other young players, but that he has come a long way in all aspects of his game.
Speaking of young players…
Is it too early to declare the 22-year-old Avalanche blueliner the second-best defensive player in the NHL? Not according to the players and team representatives who participated in our survey.
Makar finished first among all defensive players in two polls, one by the general manager and another by another NHL defenseman. Makar was in the top five on 15 ballots. He was voted in the top 10 in 19 of 20 polls, with the exception of a veteran guard who did not vote him in the top 10.
(For the record, this is not the goalie who kept Nikita Kucherov off the ballot and may have cost him first place among wingers).
Last season, Makar won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in the NHL with 50 points in 57 games. He’s ahead of only Carlson in points per game in Makar’s first two seasons (0.90) and has scored 41 of his first 69 points in his career. He scored 15.8 goals in his first two seasons, which is between Connor McDavid (15.9) and Mark Stone (15.8) in that metric.
Some respondents who ranked Makar lower than second cited typical problems with young defenders, such as inconsistent play in their own zone and sometimes aggressive forcing.
He tries to play so much that sometimes they really explode on him, said one NHL coach who had him at No. 5. But if you have a puck like his, it will happen.
The winner of the 2019-20 Noris Trophy was the undisputed No. 3 behind Hedman and Makar. He didn’t finish first, but no one received more votes for the second round (7) than the Predators’ defensive lineman. He was between second and sixth on 16 ballots.
Josie, 30, ranks fourth in scoring (140) and fifth in points per game (0.78) over the last three seasons in 179 games. He makes 25:20 a game and plays in all situations. He won the Norris Trophy in his first season as a finalist after scoring 65 points in over 69 games for Nashville.
Those interviewed praised his composure and ability to shine on both ends of the ice.
He rarely plays poorly, no matter how much pressure he’s under, a team official said. Defensively, he is very good at defending the puck, such as out-rebounding and blocking other players’ sticks.
Josi was also ranked third in the NHL Players Association’s Top Defensemen Poll for the 2019-20 season.
The Knights Freelancers were represented in the top five of 11 ballots: First (1), second (1), third (3) and fourth (6).
Over the past three seasons, Pietrangelo has scored 103 points in 159 games and has a plus-21 record. He averaged 24:17 of ice time per game during that period and played in all situations. He was never a Norris finalist and finished fourth in 2019-20, which was the best offensive season of his career (0.74 points per game) – and not coincidentally the season before he signed a seven-year, $61.6 million contract with Vegas.
But Pietrangelo, 31, has fallen off all four rankings.
Overrated, said one skater who put him away.
The coach who left him without a vote was a little more diplomatic. He’s in good shape. It’s all right. Is he ahead of the other defenders? Not really, he said.
Heiskanen, 21, played on the All-Star bubble in the Stanley Cup Finals. In 27 games, he scored 26 points and averaged 25:58 of ice time. That got a lot of attention, including from Lidstrom.
I’ve noticed. Especially the way he played in the playoffs. The first time I saw him play when he came into the league, he was very well prepared for his age. He’s also gotten better, the Hall of Famer said. He’s a better skater than I am. I was agile, but not as fast as Miro. He could be a player who plays as well as I do, but maybe skates a little better or is faster than I am.
The star defender finished in the top five in eight polls and in the top ten in 16 polls.
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He’s for real, said one NHL coach who considered him a fourth-round pick before Makar. I really like Miro. He has some weaknesses, but so does Makar.
Offensively, he’s not out of it yet with 51 points in his last 99 games, but Dallas isn’t a scoring machine either. But his all-round play earned him fifth place in the poll.
He’s so smooth and has a great stick on defense, said a veteran NHL defenseman.
An NHL coach who had Heiskanen for Makar appreciated the expertise of the star defenseman. The best defenders are effective. They do a lot of things without giving much away. This is what Heiskanen does. He’s in the elite category, he said.
Although he has not been at his best this season, Jones has impressed his peers and team management enough to still finish sixth.
One coach even voted him number one.
When he’s in the game, he’s the best defender in the league. He plays so easily and can play all night, the coach said.
Jones, 26, is playing at about the same offensive pace as last season (0.54 points per game in 35 games). That’s down from his best season (0.73) in 2017-18, when he had the best Norris Trophy finish (fourth). But he has struggled in other aspects of the game, with the most penalties per 60 minutes (0.79) of his career and just 45.2 expected goals on 5-on-5 shooting.
Jones was in the top 10 in 11 of 20 polls.
You want him on the ice whether you score or not, said one veteran defenseman who ranked him fourth on the list.
Slavin, long considered one of the NHL’s best defensemen, ranked in the top 10 in 14 of 20 rankings – including one skater ranked No. 1.
He’s the best defenseman in the league right now, the NHL veteran said.
Slavin, 26, had his best offensive season in 2019-20 (0.53 points per game). Of course, that resurgence eventually caught the attention of Norris voters, and he finished fifth in the league last season.
His offense has deteriorated to an average of 0.33 points per game this season as he returns to his role as Dougie Hamilton’s safety partner.
Interestingly, Slavin has the sixth best score of the three goalies we studied.
Carlson has led the NHL in scoring (173 points in 183 games) and points per game (0.95) over the past three seasons, while holding a plus-30 record. Playing on the same power play where Alex Ovechkin has his clear advantages, Carlson leads all defenders with 105 points at even strength and in the same zone.
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He is back in the rookie scoring pool this season with 28 points in 34 games. Attacking is never a problem. Holding off the other team, however, proved more difficult.
The perception that Carlson, 31, isn’t a good defender cost him Norris last season and has played into his hands in previous campaigns. He has an expected 49.7% 5-on-5 field goal percentage this season.
Carlson received one vote in the veteran’s first place, but only four spots in the top five. In seven elections he failed to finish in the top ten.
Often we concede a little in defense to the forwards. So you better be good at what you do, said a coach who saw Carlson ranked eighth.
Like Heiskanen, Theodore’s star was a supernova on the postseason bubble for the Cavaliers last year. He led all Vegas players with 19 points in 20 games, making 22 of 24 per game.
Theodore, 25, has progressed in the last three seasons in an offensive capacity. He had an average of 0.86 points per game in 29 games this season. He finished sixth to Norris last season, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s a finalist.
Theodore has finished in the top 10 in 11 rankings.
He brushed me off at the bladder. He’s taken the next step, said an NHL coach who had him at No. 8. And it’s so fast it can beat its own icing.
The 24-year-old Flyers defenseman is ranked last in the top 10.
Provorov in his fifth NHL season. He’s playing as much as ever (25:07 per game), although his offense and puck possession are slightly worse than last season.
He’s not eligible for the Norris yet, but Provorov is in the top 10 in seven polls. An NHL general manager finished second, his highest ranking. That alone put Provorov in last place with a slight lead over Brent Burns (27 points).
I’m becoming more and more of a fan of Provorov, an NHL coach said. Apparently he’s not the only one.
After Burns, Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks (24 points) was the best defensive player. Had this survey been conducted at the end of last season, runner-up Calder could have been in the top 10. But while Hughes’ offensive production has been strong this season with 28 points in 37 games, many interviewees noted that his defense is not as good as Makar’s.
He’s been the linchpin this season, a team official said.
Some additional comments on the survey:
- Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and John Klingberg of the Stars follow Hughes with 23 points.
- He is followed by Dougie Hamilton of the Hurricanes with 22 points. He was the only player to earn the second spot, given to him by the team’s scout, and not a top-10 overall pick.
- Torey Krug, who the Blues signed to replace Pietrangelo, finished only ninth. I think he’s the best on the power play in the league, an NHL coach said.
- Only one player in our pool of 25 D-men did not receive a single top 10 rating from our players or team officials: Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens.
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