Ranking the top 25 NHL defensemen in 2019-20

Sporting News

The age-old debate when it comes to any sport, any league, any team: who are the best of the best?

With the NHL's preseason on the horizon, let's takes a look at the top 25 players at each position right now: forward, defense and goalie. This list takes into account both recent NHL performance and what is expected from the player in the year to come.

MORE: Ranking the top 25 NHL forwards in 2019-20

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Here are the top 25 NHL defensemen for the 2019-20 season:

Honorable mentions: Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators); Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins); Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets); Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia Flyers).

25. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Miro-Heiskanen-Dallas-Stars
Miro-Heiskanen-Dallas-Stars

Stars fans fell in love with Heiskanen after just one season and for good reason — just take a look at his first-ever NHL shift from last October.

Heiskanen charged down the ice with the puck the second he felt it on his stick and immediately created scoring chances for Dallas. When the puck came back into his zone, the then 19-year-old calmly put his body between his man and the puck, shifted the puck back to his partner and created another zone entry for the Stars. Reminder: that was his first shift in the league.

Heiskanen rode those kinds of shifts to the tune of 33 points in his rookie season, enough to place him directly behind Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin for fourth in Calder Trophy voting.

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24. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

Rasmus-Dahlin-Buffalo-Sabres
Rasmus-Dahlin-Buffalo-Sabres

Speaking of Dahlin, he scored 44 points on a Sabres team that can't seem to find its way out of the league's basement. While his time on ice numbers place him as the teams' fourth-best defenseman last season, the Swede consistently showed skill on both ends and a keen ability to play in his own zone well ahead of his years.

In his second NHL season, Dahlin will likely be given more difficult matchups to continue his development. He could fall victim to the sophomore slump, but if his rookie year was any indication, it's only the beginning of the Dahlin era of hockey in Buffalo.

23. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes

Dougie-Hamilton-Carolina-Hurricanes
Dougie-Hamilton-Carolina-Hurricanes

Call Hamilton a risky pick for No. 23, but among defensemen, only Brent Burns has scored more goals than Hamilton over the last three seasons. The 26-year-old was initially pegged as the next-big-thing in Boston, and although he has not quite reached a "dominant" level at the position, he is one of the more effective point producers from the blue line in the NHL.

A native of Toronto, Hamilton joined his third NHL team last season and contributed 39 points to the Hurricanes' successful year, helping them reach the Eastern Conference finals. More must be seen from him this season if he is to climb up this list, but for now, the goal-scoring makes him a valuable asset.

22. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Kris-Letang-Pittsburgh-Penguins
Kris-Letang-Pittsburgh-Penguins

Letang finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting last season after tying a career-high in goals (16) and setting a new high in points (56). He did all of this in only 65 games — giving the Penguins' top defenseman one of the best points per game (0.86) marks among all players in his position last year.

The 32-year-old regularly puts in the work in all facets of Pittsburgh's game — whether offensively or defensively. He faces a challenge keeping the Penguins competitive as he and the team's other stars age into their 30s, but it's a safe bet to assume Letang will continue producing for a few more years to come.

21. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

Zach-Werenski-Columbus-Blue-Jackets
Zach-Werenski-Columbus-Blue-Jackets

Werenski, 22, has excelled at the NHL level since he entered the league with Columbus at age 19. He is younger than teammate and fellow defenseman Seth Jones by two years but already has three 35-plus point campaigns under his belt.

Werenski plays a simple, opportunistic game in the offensive zone — many of his goals come when he jumps into the play in his opponent's end and receives the puck in the slot. Once it's on his stick, Werenski is hard to stop but it's even more difficult to stop him from getting to an optimal shooting spot in the first place.

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20. Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan-Provorov-Philadelphia-Flyers
Ivan-Provorov-Philadelphia-Flyers

Another 22-year-old, Provorov has logged more than 20 minutes per game since his very first one at age 19. By the 2018-19 season, he was playing up to 25 minutes a night, leading all Philadelphia skaters. He can score with a powerful slapshot and has a physical edge to his game, too.

Provorov's goal-scoring dipped back to single-digits (7) last season but he plays harder minutes than most defensemen his age are given. His stats may not reflect it on paper, but the 2015 first-round pick is on the cusp of becoming a household name for fans around the league.

19. Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators

Thomas-Chabot-Ottawa-Senators
Thomas-Chabot-Ottawa-Senators

Chabot, 22, is another youngster who has quickly developed into a top-notch, point-scoring defenseman — a skill the Senators needed after the Erik Karlsson era ended. As a rookie in 2017-18, he saw less than 18 minutes of ice time per game on average and still netted 25 points. In his second season, those minutes went up as he assumed first-pairing duties — he played nearly seven more minutes per game on average — and the 2015 first-round pick ultimately scored 55 points.

Considering the Senators' top scorers last season were both traded at the deadline, Chabot emerged as the team's scoring leader by the end of the year. Knowing that Ottawa will be hard-pressed to score goals this coming season, Chabot's skill at both ends of the ice will be tested frequently.

MORE: Potentially goal-starved Senators pledge to tighten up defensively

18. Jacob Trouba, New York Rangers

Jacob-Trouba-New-York-Rangers
Jacob-Trouba-New-York-Rangers

Trouba found a new home in New York when the Jets traded him to the Rangers in June, and the restricted free agent signed a long-term contract . Fans still missing what former captain Ryan McDonagh offered the team, will find Trouba a more than suitable replacement.

The American defenseman broke out for 50 points for the first time in 2018-19 and has been playing second-pairing minutes or more in Winnipeg since his rookie season. At just 25, and the Rangers' rebuild nearing completion, he should grow into a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden.

17. PK Subban, New Jersey Devils

PK-Subban-Nashville-Predators
PK-Subban-Nashville-Predators

It's rare to see such a top-tier player be traded twice in the first 10 years of his career; Subban moves to New Jersey in anticipation of leading a young and suddenly dangerous roster to the playoffs after missing out in 2018-19. Well known around the league for his flashy physical play, dangerous offensive game and philanthropic work in the communities he plays in, Devils fans are in for a treat.

Injuries limited Subban to just 63 games and 31 points last season — the worst of his career. However, playing with 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and the league's top prospect Jack Hughes, should inspire Subban for a remarkable bounce-back season. Expect to see him higher up on the list this time next year.

MORE: Subban's top five quotes after being traded to New Jersey

16. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

Ryan-Suter-Minnesota-Wild
Ryan-Suter-Minnesota-Wild

Only Drew Doughty has played more minutes than Suter over the last three seasons and Minnesota's star defenseman has handled one of the heaviest workloads in hockey for years — he has averaged over 25 minutes of ice time since 2010-11. Despite the workload, Suter, who will turn 35 this season, rarely misses a game. The Wild recruited him away from the Predators in 2012 exactly for those type of minutes; they know Suter will reliably contribute somewhere between 40 and 50 points.

Suter's sound positional play and ability to contribute in all three zones make him a well-rounded, quality defenseman. He may not have any hardware to his name, but the American consistently gets the job done for the Wild.

15. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Morgan-Rielly-Maple-Leafs
Morgan-Rielly-Maple-Leafs

Rielly had a breakout year in 2018-19 with 20 goals and a 72-point campaign that saw him finish fifth in Norris Trophy voting. Last season also marked the first time the Vancouver native started more than 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone — a factor that, along with his taking more shots than ever before (223 last season), could explain his offensive outburst.

The 25-year-old defenseman also benefitted from some puck luck as his shooting percentage ballooned to 9.0%, a far cry from his career average of 5.2. If Rielly can find a way to keep up the pace, he could reach 20 goals once more; but, the keyword is could.



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14. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks

Marc-Edouard-Vlasic-San-Jose-Sharls
Marc-Edouard-Vlasic-San-Jose-Sharls

The Sharks have two of the best scoring defensemen in the NHL in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns; however, Vlasic's efforts cannot go unnoticed. He has never scored more than 40 points in a season, but his impeccable efforts on defense provide the rest of his team space to hunt goals.

Vlasic may never win a Norris Trophy without a top-tier offensive performance, but he is widely regarded as one of the best "defensive defensemen" in the game.

13. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

John-Klingberg-Dallas-Stars
John-Klingberg-Dallas-Stars

Klingberg was deployed at even strength for more than 20 minutes per game in 2018-19 — most among all Dallas skaters — and averaged three minutes of power-play time per game. He missed 18 games last season and still scored 45 points. It was short of the 67 that put him in Norris Trophy consideration the season before, but Klingberg remains one of the best point-producers at the position.

12. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

Torey-Krug-Boston-Bruins
Torey-Krug-Boston-Bruins

How offensively-minded can a defenseman be before they are too offensively minded? That's eternally the question when it comes to Krug, the Bruins' top point-producer from the blue line. No. 47 has never logged top-pairing minutes in Boston, but he functions as a second-pairing and powerplay specialist that scores with the best of them.

Last season, he and the Bruins embraced a creative powerplay approach, bringing Krug down to the hashmarks in the offensive zone for cross-ice passes. They also had him leading forwards into the offensive zone by sending the puck ahead of them.

Krug has scored 163 points in the last three seasons — only four more defensemen in the league have more over the same period. His contract is up at the end of next season and his impending free agency is expected to be one of the hottest stories surrounding the Bruins this year.


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11. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

Seth-Jones-Columbus-Blue-Jackets
Seth-Jones-Columbus-Blue-Jackets

Drafted by the Predators, Jones initially seemed the heir apparent to Shea Weber and Roman Josi's throne, but one trade and six years later, he now anchors Columbus' defense instead. Just 24-years-old, he played 25+ minutes per game last season and contributed 46 total points, fifth among all Blue Jackets skaters.

Columbus lost a number of its top players in free agency; without the services of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, a playoff run in 2019-20 seems unlikely. Considering the Blue Jackets will rely on him now more than ever, the two-time All-Star and Norris Trophy contender could be in the final mix for some individual hardware soon enough.

10. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

John-Carlson-Washington-Capitals
John-Carlson-Washington-Capitals

Carlson has grown into one of the league's top power-play weapons from the point and posted career-highs in power-play points (33) and points (70) in 2018-19. Over the last two seasons, he's ranked at the top of the league's defensemen in power-play points (66) and only San Jose's Burns has accumulated more primary assists than Carlson.

Along with superstar scorer Alex Ovechkin, Carlson bears a heavy load on the Capitals' power play — both averaged more than four minutes each game last season — but it certainly pays off when they consistently contribute to the scoresheet in Washington.

9. Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay Lightning

Ryan-McDonagh-Tampa-Bay-Lightning
Ryan-McDonagh-Tampa-Bay-Lightning

Lightning fans now have two top-tier defensemen to cheer for since Tampa Bay added McDonagh at the trade deadline in 2018 to go along with Victor Hedman, and No. 27 has benefitted from moving to ultra-skilled Tampa Bay. The 30-year-old American reached a career-high 46 points last season while primarily logging defensive minutes for the Lightning; he was the team's top penalty killer and averaged more time at even-strength than any other skater on the team.

Expect more of the same from McDonagh in 2019-20; he provides rock-steady defense with an added ability to spread the puck around the ice and create offense at even strength, too. Another career year could lift him higher into the Norris Trophy conversation than ever before.

8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes

Oliver-Ekman-Larsson-Arizona-Coyotes
Oliver-Ekman-Larsson-Arizona-Coyotes

Ekman-Larsson has anchored the defense in Arizona for almost a decade now and has rarely missed a game along the way. Whether it's due to playing in a small market or that the Coyotes have missed the playoffs the last seven seasons, No. 23 is surely one of the league's best-kept secrets. The 28-year-old ranks seventh among all defensemen in goals scored (40) over the last three seasons and was the Coyotes' second-highest point-scorer last season.

In his last action before the offseason, the Coyotes' captain scored eight points in eight games at the IIHF World Championships for his home country, Sweden.


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7. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

Roman-Josi-Nashville-Predators
Roman-Josi-Nashville-Predators

Ryan Suter's departure from Nashville in 2012 initially appeared to leave an irreparable hole in the Predators' defense. However, instead, the move elevated Josi, who quickly assumed top-pairing duties. The 29-year-old maneuvers himself well in the offensive zone and can drive the puck to the net, shifting around opposing defenders as easily as he can stand back and fire off a slapshot.

A two-time All-Star, Josi has finished within the top-11 in Norris Trophy voting each of the last five years. His active presence on Nashville's blue line has made him the team's captain and a reliable double-digit goal scorer each season.

6. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

Alex-Pietrangelo-St-Louis-Blues
Alex-Pietrangelo-St-Louis-Blues

Pietrangelo's impressive 19-point playoff run ended with the Blues captain lifting the Stanley Cup. He recorded six points in the final, matching Boston's top point scorer Krug every step of the way, and even potted the late first-period goal in Game 7 that seemed to decimate the Bruins' chances to win well before the game had finished.

The 29-year-old defenseman plays a reliable two-way game, capable of jumping into the play to create offense as well as providing a sturdy presence on the backend. St. Louis' remarkable championship run is due in large part to Pietrangelo leading the way on a big, burly defense that wreaked havoc on even the best scorers in the league when it mattered most.

MORE: St. Louis, the Blues and the Stanley Cup come together in perfect harmony

5. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

Brent-Burns-San-Jose-Sharks
Brent-Burns-San-Jose-Sharks

Burns is defenseman with the mind of a high-flying forward. No. 88, known just as much for his beard as for his offensive talent, has played both forward and defense over the course of his career. The 2017 Norris Trophy winner leads all NHL defenseman in total points (226) over the last three seasons. He and teammate Erk Karlsson are the only defensemen with 82+ point seasons in the NHL's salary cap era . Since 2015, Burns has led his team in shots on goal by a wide margin each season.

Burns take the ice each night with an offensively-minded approach rarely seen among defensemen — who can also play a physical game. The Sharks are happy to deploy him as such.

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4. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

mark-giordano-calgary-flames
mark-giordano-calgary-flames

Giordano has appeared on Norris Trophy ballots every year since 2014 and has played meaningful minutes for the Flames for longer than that. He is coming off a career-best year after he racked up a whopping 74 points. This feat, especially in his age 35 season, earned the Toronto native his first Norris Trophy win as the league's top defenseman.

Can Giordano's repeat his fantastic season? Well, he does still feel young and fresh .

But, according to Evolving Hockey , over half of Giordano's 57 assists were secondary helpers, which are harder to replicate. Yet, at the same time, he was tied for fifth among all defensemen in primary assists (25) and third in goals (17). The Flames had struggled with goal scoring over the last three seasons; now that the team has more high-end scorers, Giordano is reaping the rewards.

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3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Victor-Hedman-Tampa-Bay-Lightning
Victor-Hedman-Tampa-Bay-Lightning

Hedman, unlike the two remaining players on this list, was not necessarily a star from his career's beginning; however, as the Lightning morphed into a league juggernaut, Hedman has morphed into a dominant presence on the blue line.

One thing Hedman excels at is making safe, effective passes ; when he is in his own zone, this results in effective breakouts and earned offensive possession. When he is already in the offensive zone, the 2018 Norris Trophy winner often receives the puck at the blue line and calmly sends it to one of the team's shooters excellent shooting forwards.

This ability is in part why No. 77 was fifth among all defensemen with 28 power-play points last season.

2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

Drew-Doughty-Los-Angeles-Kings
Drew-Doughty-Los-Angeles-Kings

For those who feel Karlsson skews too far in the direction of "offensive-minded" defensemen, there is Doughty who plays well in all three zones while still contributing offensively. The 2016 Norris Trophy winner's zone deployment has skewed toward playing in his own end more in recent years (51.3% of his zone starts in 2018 came in the defensive zone). Though his team suffered its worst season in 11 years, Doughty powered through, scoring 45 points while playing way more (26:36 minutes per game) than any other LA skater.

Doughty plays a fantastic all-around game. He is able to drive the puck up the ice and score on his own while also effectively pushing around forwards in front of the net and in the corners to win the puck back. His team has been on a downswing, but Doughty stands tall among the elite at his position.

1. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

Erik-Karlsson-San-Jose-Sharks
Erik-Karlsson-San-Jose-Sharks

A first glance at Karlsson's stat line from 2018-19 tells you the superstar had the closest thing to a "pedestrian" season since the beginning of his career (45 points). When you account for the fact that he only played 53 games, you realize the 29-year-old Swede is still one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game. Karlsson amassed 0.85 points per game while playing through a groin injury that carried into the playoffs where he still collected 16 points in 19 playoff games, third-most among all San Jose skaters.

Karlsson is the face of today's puck-moving defenseman who regularly contributes in the offensive zone, driving play with the puck on his stick while sacrificing some of the position's traditional physicality along with it. The Swede has finally found his home on the San Jose Sharks, and if he fully recovers from groin surgery by this fall , he should compete for a third Norris Trophy.

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