Which team has the NHL’s best defensemen?
Today we are talking defense.
Specifically, the NHL’s best defense, and which team has it.
I feel the need to point out there is a big difference between “best defensive team,” and “best defense.” The former takes into account the overall structure of the team, the contributions of the forwards, the goaltending, and every other variable that goes into goal prevention. A team like, say, Boston would fit that argument quite well because of their structure, forwards, and goalies. They may not have the best defensemen, but you know they are going to be tough to score against.
The latter is just talking about which group of defensemen, the players that actually play that position, is the best on paper.
We are focussing on the latter with these seven teams.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
They have what is arguably the NHL’s best defense pairing with Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. Both players were in the top-eight in the Norris Trophy voting for the 2019-20 season, and are among the best all-around players at the position.
That alone is a significant argument in their favor.
But they also have depth.
Brett Pesce is one of the most underrated players in the league (and not the fake Nicklas Backstrom or Aleksander Barkov type of underrated, where everyone knows the player is actually really good; I mean actually underrated where nobody knows about him) while Jake Gardiner and Brady Skjei are both very good second-pairing players.
This is a rock solid group with two elite players at the top and strong depth behind them. There is no real weakness.
If they could ever figure out the goaltending long-term they would be the toughest team in the league to score against.
The focus in Colorado is always on the All-Star forwards, and they are the foundation of the organization.
But it is the defense that really makes this team a potential juggernaut in the Western Conference. It is already an outstanding group, and it has the potential to get even better given their ages and potential.
Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews, and Ryan Graves are all age 26 or younger, and they still have 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram waiting in the wings.
Makar and Graves formed one of the league’s most dominant defense pairings a year ago, with the former looking like he is on track to be a superstar in the league.
Adding Toews to this group over the offseason is a perfect fit for their style of play, and it would not be a shock to see him flourish with the talent around him and in a system that suits his skillset.
Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are sensational, and Esa Lindell is as solid No. 3.
Klingberg has always been a little underappreciated, and Heiskanen might have Norris Trophies (yes, multiple) in his future.
Along with being the driving force behind their goal prevention ability, the Stars’ defense also plays a significant role in the team’s offense and was a major factor on their run to the Stanley Cup Final this past postseason.
The Predators have been a defense factory for 20 years now, churning out impact player after impact player at the position.
This is a team that has traded Seth Jones, Shea Weber, and P.K. Subban over the past five years and STILL has an outstanding blue line.
Roman Josi is the league’s reining Norris Trophy winner, while Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have been consistently reliable throughout their careers. Ellis missing 20 games due to injury this past season was just one of the many factors behind Nashville’s disappointing season.
St. Louis Blues
Losing Alex Pietrangelo definitely stings, but Torey Krug is a heck of a replacement.
Justin Faulk’s contract might turn out to be a headache, but he is still a really good player.
There may not be a Norris Trophy contender on this roster, and maybe there isn’t a true “No. 1" player, but there also isn’t a weak link anywhere on the group. All of these guys can play for a contender without looking out of place. There is a lot to be said for that.
Tampa Bay Lightning
They have the best all-around defenseman in hockey in Victor Hedman, so that is always a big plus in giving your blue line an edge. On a team that has superstar forwards like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos, as well as a Vezina caliber goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, it is Hedman that drives the bus for them. A magnificent player in all three zones and in every situation.
But the defense does not stop with him.
Ryan McDonagh is about as strong of a No. 2 as you are going to find in the league, and Mikhail Sergachev is still only 22 years old even though it seems like he has been around forever. And he is really good.
Vegas Golden Knights
Shea Theodore is tremendous and was one of the best players in the playoffs this past season, while the addition of Pietrangelo gives them a true No. 1 defenseman.
Alec Martinez may not be the same player he was at his peak in Los Angeles, but the Golden Knights do not need him to be a top-pairing player. They just need him to give them a solid No. 3-4 defender and he is still very capable of providing that.
So which defense gets your vote? Or is there another that we omitted?
Speaking of omissions...
The notable omissions
Boston Bruins. This goes back to “best defensive team” vs. “best defensemen.” The Bruins are the former. Their forwards are relentless defensively. They have two starting caliber goalies. They play a strong defensive system. All of that makes them the toughest team in the league to score against. But following the departure of Krug the defense itself has some question marks when you get beyond Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo.
New York Islanders. Again, it comes down to their defensive success being built around coaching and goaltending. There are some very good players on the blue line, but it just does not strike me as “best group of defensemen in the league.”
San Jose Sharks. Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are all big names, and the former two are among the best players of their era. But they struggled MAJORLY last year and are starting to get older. Are they still elite players? They did not play like it the last time we saw them. They have to prove it this season.
Columbus Blue Jackets. I almost included them in the group above simply because Seth Jones and Zach Werenski form as good of a pairing as you will find in the NHL. But there is a huge depth issue beyond those two players.