Projecting Every NHL Team's Top Two Defensive Pairings in 2017

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIISeptember 10, 2013

Projecting Every NHL Team's Top Two Defensive Pairings in 2017

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    An old mantra in hockey is that “offense wins games and defense wins championships.” The best NHL teams tend to have superior defensive cores. This year's Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks are a great example of this.

    The process of developing a great top-four group is not easy. One of the key differences between young defensemen and forwards is that development time for defense prospects is almost always much longer.

    Additionally, many defensemen do not see their overall games begin to peak until they are in their mid-20s. Learning defensive play is complex, both from an individual and a team standpoint. Developing defensemen from within the organization itself, seems to be the best method for NHL clubs.

    Several players taken in this year’s draft may not be contributing regularly to their new NHL teams for at least two or three seasons, if not more. While elite forwards will often make the jump straight to the NHL, it is very rare for even top defensemen prospects to do so. Nashville's Seth Jones might be the exception this year.

    With this in mind, here is a breakdown of every NHL team’s projected top two defensive pairings in 2017. 

    Basic stats can be found on

    Advanced stats are available on Behind the Net.

    Salary information is from 

Anaheim Ducks

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Cam Fowler & Sami Vatanen

    (P2) Hampus Lindholm & Luca Sbisa 


    How They Stack Up

    Despite the fact that Anaheim is likely to have an aging forward group by 2017, the Ducks should have a solid top four on the blue line.

    Sami Vatanen continues to improve his all-around game, and if he keeps developing as he has been, he should be a No. 2 defenseman in four more years. His ability to move the puck quickly out of his own zone is exemplary, and he and Cam Fowler are likely to anchor the Ducks’ power play by this time. Cam Fowler has loads of talent and should be the No. 1 defenseman in Anaheim for a number of years.

    Hampus Lindholm and Luca Sbisa could be an excellent second pairing, and they would be expected to play a lot of the hard minutes against some of the league’s top lines by 2017. This would be a very mobile and versatile group.

Boston Bruins

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Dougie Hamilton & Joe Morrow

    (P2) Matt Bartkowski & Adam McQuaid


    How They Stack Up

    GM Peter Chiarelli has had his contract extended with the Bruins. This was well deserved as he’s built a very good team in Beantown. He’s one of the top general managers in the game, and has been for a number of years.

    By 2017, it is likely that both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg will no longer be in Boston. Seidenberg might be, but it would not likely be as part of the Bruins’ top four. His contract with the Bruins expires at the end of the upcoming season. Chara is signed through 2017-18, but he will be 41 at the end of that season. An earlier retirement is highly likely.

    The emergence of Dougie Hamilton as a potential Norris Trophy candidate seems inevitable, and the Bruins are likely to remain strong defensively with him anchoring the group. Joe Morrow has all kinds of promise and projects as at least a No.2 blueliner.

    Torey Krug played some great hockey for the Bruins in last year’s playoffs, so he could also be in the mix to become a part of the Bruins’ top four on a permanent basis. It remains to be seen if he can take the pounding, season after season, at the NHL level with his relatively small frame.

    While Matt Bartkowski and Adam McQuaid would not be the flashiest pairing in the league, they will be a formidable duo with even more experience by 2017.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Rasmus Ristolainen & Mark Pysyk

    (P2) Nikita Zadorov & Tyler Myers


    How They Stack Up

    The Buffalo organization and their fans have to be patient for the next few seasons. There is some excellent talent within their system, but defensemen take some extra time to mature.

    The Sabres have some solid veteran defensemen on today’s roster, but they will not continue to be top players in four more years given the pace of play. Tyler Myers deserves the opportunity to rebound following some relatively poor play recently, and there is a lot of talent within, for him to do so.

    Former WHL standout Mark Pysyk has very good two-way capabilities. By 2017, he could be joined by Finnish standout Rasmus Ristolainen on the Sabres’ top pairing.

    Nikita Zadorov and Myers could form one of the more intimidating second-pairing duos in the NHL by this time. They would be approaching a combined 14 feet on skates.

Calgary Flames

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Mark Giordano & T.J. Brodie

    (P2) Tyler Wotherspoon & John Ramage


    How They Stack Up

    The Calgary Flames do not have a lot of organizational depth on their blue line. Things are improving up front, but they are in a full rebuild mode right now. Mark Giordano is signed through 2016, and it is difficult to believe that any defenseman, outside of T.J. Brodie, could unseat him as their top defender any time soon.

    Brodie will have signed a new contract by 2017. He has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two seasons. He’s a heady player who could become a very good No. 2 defender by his mid-20s.

    The Flames have a few defensive prospects with Tyler Wotherspoon at the head of the class. He needs more development time, but he has high-end skills. John Ramage is a mobile defenseman who could be a solid No. 4 guy on the point.

    The Flames do need to focus on acquiring some more defensemen either through trades, the draft or free agency in the next few seasons as it is currently an acute area of concern.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1)Ryan Murphy & Danny Biega

    (P2) Justin Faulk & Keegan Lowe


    How They Stack Up

    In Ryan Murphy, the Hurricanes have one of the most dynamic young defense prospects in the NHL. There are more physically gifted players, but Murphy gets the maximum out of his size. Paired with Danny Biega in a few years, this duo would form a great set of puck-movers. Biega isn’t huge either, but he’s a very good skater with excellent hockey sense.

    Justin Faulk and Keegan Lowe continue to develop their games. Lowe has all the attributes of a good second-pair defender. He is bright and brings some physicality to every shift.

    There are a few older players ahead of Lowe in the Hurricanes’ system, but Lowe really made some strides playing for a strong WHL team in Edmonton during his junior career.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Duncan Keith & Nick Leddy

     (P2) Niklas Hjalmarsson & Adam Clendening


    How They Stack Up

    The Blackhawks have an embarrassment of riches throughout their organization. They are likely to have some cap issues in the coming seasons with the number of talented players they will have to pay if they want to retain them. While it is difficult to predict who may not make the cut, it would not be surprising to see Brent Seabrook part ways with the Blackhawks when his contract expires in 2016.

    Duncan Keith has been the steadier of the two, particularly over the past two seasons. Nick Leddy should be an even more important contributor at both ends of the ice by this time, and he already is on most nights.

    Hjalmarsson has become a solid defender for the Blackhawks. While he’s unlikely to ever be a big point producer, he is mistake-free on most shifts. Paired with Adam Clendening, the Blackhawks would have a dynamic second duo by 2017.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Duncan Siemens & Tyson Barrie

    (P2) Chris Bigras & Stefan Elliott 


    How They Stack Up

    The Colorado Avalanche play an attacking style of hockey, and with their burgeoning talent at forward, this will not change any time soon.

    Tyson Barrie has great vision from the point, and he should be an anchor on the Avalanche blue line by 2017. Duncan Siemens has all kinds of upside as he has both size and the potential to contribute offensively. He was a young draftee in 2011 so the club needs to remain patient with his development.

    Chris Bigras and Stefan Elliott are both works in progress, but by 2017, they have the kind of talent that could see them flourishing as a second pairing for the Avalanche.

    Joe Sakic will likely have to continue to add to the organizational depth on the blue line in the next couple of drafts as the Avs could use further prospects on the point.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Jack Johnson & Ryan Murray

    (P2) James Wisniewski & Tim Erixon


    How They Stack Up

    The Blue Jackets have some talented young defenders and seem poised to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. They have shored up their goaltending situation by re-signing Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and they have a number of elite prospects at both forward and defense.

    Ryan Murray is a magician with the puck, and combined with Jack Johnson, this potential duo could be a dominant one. Johnson is tough, skilled and capable of playing big minutes. He often averages over 25:00 TOI.

    The second pairing would be similar in many ways, although neither player is as dynamic offensively as Murray who has the potential to score a lot of points at the NHL level. Tim Erixon has enough promise to be a top-pairing defenseman eventually. James Wisniewski plays an honest game that all coaches love to have on the point.

Dallas Stars

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Trevor Daley & Jamie Oleksiak

    (P2) Brenden Dillon & Patrik Nemeth


    How They Stack Up

    The Dallas Stars have a stronger forward prospect pool than on the blue line, however there is some good defensive talent in the system. The Stars have one of the more intimidating prospects not playing regularly in the NHL in Jamie Oleksiak. The 6’7” Toronto native could be a great complement to the smooth-skating Trevor Daley who is a premier NHL puck-mover.

    This second pairing wouldn’t offer a lot in the way of offense, but they could be an excellent pair of defenders who could shut down other teams’ top offensive players.

    There will be a lot of turnover on defense in Dallas with Sergei Gonchar, at the age of 39, unlikely to be playing by 2017. Alex Goligoski's contract expires in 2016, and it seems likely that he would be eclipsed by younger and cheaper defenders by that time.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Jakub Kindl & Niklas Kronwall

    (P2) Ryan Sproul & Danny DeKeyser 


    How They Stack Up

    The Detroit Red Wings have a great blend of veteran and young talent at the defense position. Because the Red Wings put a premium on puck possession and smarts, and less on pure speed, Niklas Kronwall could still be a top-pairing defender even in 2017.He will be 36 by then, but he does not show signs of slowing down any time soon.

    He is signed until 2019. Potentially paired with Jakub Kindl by this time, the duo would be wonderful at protecting the puck and making intelligent plays.

    Ryan Sproul has been named the CHL Defenseman of the Year, so his talent level is obvious. Former college star Danny DeKeyser seems destined to occupy a top-four spot on the blue line. He’s polished thanks to a great collegiate career and he would be enjoying his prime NHL years by 2017.

Edmonton Oilers

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Justin Schultz & Darnell Nurse

    (P2) Oscar Klefbom & Martin Marincin 


    How They Stack Up

    Justin Schultz had a very strong NHL debut last season, but he did fade as the season wore on. He played more hockey than at any other time in his career with his AHL games factored in as well.

    The only other current Oiler defenseman who might be a top-four defender by 2017 is Ladislav Smid, but that is doubtful given the organizational depth. Darnell Nurse has all the makings of a No. 2 NHL defenseman with his skating ability and his physical edge. He needs to fill out more in the next few years, and provided that happens, he may be a dominant rearguard by 2017.

    Sweden's Oscar Klefbom is coming off significant shoulder surgery, but regardless, he has top-four defenseman written all over him. Martin Marincin has size and mobility. If he continues to cut down on his defensive errors, he could easily be a very good No. 4 defender, if not even higher in a couple of seasons.

Florida Panthers

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Erik Gudbranson & Dmitry Kulikov

    (P2) Alex Petrovic & Colby Robak


    How They Stack Up

    The Panthers’ defense remains relatively thin on talent at the NHL level, but by 2017, there is reason to believe that they will be much improved. Former OHL star Erik Gudbranson is on track to be a very good all-around defender who plays well in all game situations. He has averaged just under 20:00 of TOI, but that will increase as he develops further. He is a mobile defender with the ability to create offense and shut down opponents. Fans need to be patient with this talented 6'5" blueliner.

    Dimitry Kulikov is not a well-known name for many, but the former first-round selection has great tools.

    The second pair of Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak has a lot of potential. Colby Robak has the potential to be at least a No. 3 defenseman, if not a top-pairing blueliner based on his AHL play and earlier WHL play.

    The Panthers won't be world-beaters next year, but things should improve with some of the good young prospects they have.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Drew Doughty & Slava Voynov

    (P2) Jake Muzzin & Derek Forbort


    How They Stack Up

    The Los Angeles Kings are one of the best teams in the Western Conference, and they are an early favorite to win the new Pacific Division in 2013. The Kings have two players that are capable of being No. 1 defensemen in Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. The 23-year-old Voynov put up 13 points in 18 games in the 2013 playoffs, and given the overall strength of the Kings, he will be in an environment that will allow him to grow and mature even further.

    Drew Doughty is one of the best defenseman in the game, and he should be in the middle of his best years by this time.

    Jake Muzzin has size and the ability to play an intimidating style of game. He’s perfectly suited to being a sterling second-pairing defender. Derek Forbort is now transitioning to the pro game following a great career at the University of North Dakota. 


Minnesota Wild

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Ryan Suter & Jonas Brodin

    (P2) Mathew Dumba & Jared Spurgeon


    How They Stack Up

    The Minnesota Wild have one of the strongest prospect pools in the game. They have some very good prospects at all positions, and the blue line is no exception.

    Ryan Suter should still be a dominant defenseman in four years, and paired with Jonas Brodin, a sublime talent, they could be one of the top two or three duos in the entire league.

    Jared Spurgeon is undersized, but he offers mobility and the ability to play at both ends of the rink. The sky is the limit for Mathew Dumba.

    By 2017 he could be pushing to be a top-two defenseman. It would be a nice problem to have for Minnesota’s senior management team if Dumba needs even more ice time than a No. 3 spot would mean.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) P.K. Subban & Nathan Beaulieu

    (P2) Jarred Tinordi & Alexei Emelin


    How They Stack Up

    The Montreal Canadiens are in a good place in terms of having some solid veterans, as well as a very promising group of young players, at every position.

    By 2017, Andrei Markov is not likely to be playing in the NHL, and with the talent in Montreal, Josh Gorges will be hard pressed to be a top-four defender with the Canadiens. Although signed through 2018, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him traded to make room for talented players like Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu.

    Tinordi has the chance to be an excellent shut-down defender. Along with rugged Alexie Emelin, there could be players coming down with the Montreal flu on some nights.

    Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban should continue to be the anchor of this defense through the next four years and beyond. He continues to add to his stellar offensive repertoire with his creativity and intelligence.

Nashville Predators

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Shea Weber & Seth Jones

    (P2) Roman Josi & Ryan Ellis


    How They Stack Up

    The Predators have a host of reasons to be excited about their future on the blue line. Seth Jones is one of the most highly touted defensive prospects in the past two decades. He has all of the tools to be Norris Trophy winner down the road, or at the very least, a perennial All-Star.

    They already have Shea Weber who will continue to be the team’s leader for the foreseeable future. Roman Josi is not particularly well-known, however his new contract that runs to 2020, reflects the trust the organization has in him.

    Ryan Ellis has not developed quite as quickly as hoped, but given enough time, he should be an impact player from the No. 3 or No. 4 spot on the blue line. This could be an outstanding defense by 2017, led by both Weber and Jones.

New Jersey Devils

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Adam Larsson & Jon Merrill

    (P2) Alexander Urbom & Damon Severson


    How They Stack Up

    The New Jersey Devils have been a defense-first team for years now, although Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk were dynamic offensive players as Devils.

    The club is likely to continue to struggle to score this year, particularly with Kovalchuk no longer in the fold. With Cory Schneider now in New Jersey, and more than one good goalie prospect in the system, the worries associated with Martin Brodeur’s retirement are eased.

    The Devils are not flush with elite defense prospects though. Adam Larsson should be a top-pairing defender by 2017, and Jon Merrill has the kind of skills to join him there.

    It would not be surprising to see the Devils go the trade route to add more depth defensemen, but without knowing whom they might target, Alexander Urbom and the talented junior Damon Severson offer some good promise.

New York Islanders

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Travis Hamonic & Griffin Reinhart

    (P2) Matt Donovan & Thomas Hickey


    How They Stack Up

    The New York Islanders have a great stable of young defense prospects at varying degrees of NHL readiness. One of the more difficult things is trying to predict who might end up being impact defenders, rather than having difficulty identifying promising prospects. The Islanders have so many assets, that it will be very surprising if they don’t trade some of their young players for playoff runs that are almost inevitable now.

    Griffin Reinhart should be a top-pairing defender by 2017. He has great size, poise with the puck and a very mature game even now. Matt Donovan is still young, but seems on a path to being at least a No. 3 defenseman, if not on the top pair. Travis Hamonic isn't a household name, but he should be soon. His upside is very high.

    Thomas Hickey continues to improve and his upside is very good. Finnish standout Ville Pokka and 2013 draft pick Ryan Pulock are other players to watch as they could be pushing to be part of this top group by 2017.

New York Rangers

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Ryan McDonagh & Marc Staal

    (P2) Michael Del Zotto & Dylan McIlrath


    How They Stack Up

    The New York Rangers are beginning a new era under head coach Alain Vigneault. He will expect attention to detail, but the Rangers are likely to open it up a little more than they did on many nights under John Tortorella.

    The Blueshirts have a good defense group core in 2013, and there is a possibility that all of them could be playing in the Big Apple in 2017.

    Dan Girardi is due to become a UFA following the upcoming season, and he may get some very good offers from other clubs. It is possible that he could be moved before then if general manager Glen Sather does not get him signed to a contract extension. The Rangers should have some room to negotiate

    If he doesn’t, Dylan McIlrath offers a comparable skillset to Girardi. It is conceivable that McIlrath would be the Rangers No. 4 defender by 2017.

    Ryan McDonagh is already signed to a longer term contract, and it seems very likely that Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto will be locked up soon. A 2017 top four including these players, would be the envy of most NHL teams.

Ottawa Senators

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Erik Karlsson & Patrick Wiercioch

    (P2) Marc Methot & Cody Ceci


    How They Stack Up

    The Ottawa Senators have one of the better development systems in the entire league. The Binghamton Senators have had to be leaned on heavily in the past few seasons with regular roster turnover, and the number of injuries that they have suffered. Because of their organizational depth, the Senators have remained very competitive despite some of these challenges.

    The Senators have Erik Karlsson under contract until 2019, and he will be counted on to be the key defenseman in Ottawa. He is one of the most talented offensive defensemen the league has seen in the past 10 years, at least.

    Patrick Wiercioch has developed into a great defender, and he should be a very good No. 2 by 2017. Marc Methot is a steady rearguard, and young Cody Ceci shows a lot of promise at this very early stage of his career.

    The Senators have few concerns in terms of their defensive personnel.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Shayne Gostisbehere & Robert Hagg

    (P2) Samuel Morin & Luke Schenn


    How They Stack Up

    The Philadelphia Flyers have a veteran crew on their blue line at present with several defensemen in their mid- or late 30s. It is difficult to imagine that the older defenders will still be playing top minutes in the NHL by 2017.

    There has been a lot of speculation around Braydon Coburn since the end of the 2013 season, and he may not be a long-term solution in the City of Brotherly Love. The Flyers do have some very good prospects in their system, and seeing three of them, along with the rugged Luke Schenn, as part of the 2017 top four on the blue line, could happen.

    Shayne Gostisbehere has shown a lot of promise against his peers. The Florida native is not a large defenseman, but he is a great skater with very good hockey sense.

    Robert Hagg is another prospect with tremendous offensive instincts. He’s a fluid skater with a lot of polish at his relatively young age. He'd form a dynamic pairing with Gostisbehere.

Phoenix Coyotes

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Oliver Ekman-Larsson & Keith Yandle

    (P2) David Rundblad & Michael Stone


    How They Stack Up

    The Phoenix Coyotes have had a lot of off-ice adversity to deal with for a few seasons. That should stabilize with the ownership issues resolved for the foreseeable future.

    The Coyotes have done a very good job of icing a relatively competitive team, and their blue line has become a strength. There are a number of veterans that are unlikely to remain with the Coyotes until 2017, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson will not be going anywhere. He has the kind of skill that could make him a Norris Trophy candidate by 2017.

    Keith Yandle has been the subject of many trade rumors, but it would be surprising to see him be traded with the Coyotes' financial situation more settled than previously.

    David Rundblad and Michael Stone both have a lot of upside. This second pairing would be dynamic, as well as having decent size in dealing with strong opposing forwards that they would face in the Pacific Division.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Kris Letang & Simon Despres

    (P2) Matt Niskanen & Derrick Pouliot


    How They Stack Up

    The Pittsburgh Penguins have a very good set of defensive prospects. They also have a number of aging veterans on their current roster; therefore, it is unlikely that Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi will be in their top four in 2017.

    Kris Letang projects to be the No. 1 defender in Pittsburgh through until 2017 and beyond. He's one of the best attacking defensemen in the game.

    He could be joined by Simon Despres who has begun to develop his all-around game to a degree that he projects to being a No. 2 defender in a few seasons.

    Matt Niskanen is a former first-round pick, and while he may not be a great offensive threat, he is a bright player that is good in his own zone. Young Derrick Pouliot has a lot of upside, and is another defender that should develop into an impact NHL defenseman in time.

San Jose Sharks

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Marc-Edouard Vlasic & Matt Tennyson

    (P2) Mirco Mueller & Dylan Demelo


    How They Stack Up

    The San Jose Sharks have a mix of veteran defensemen and others just entering their prime. Veterans Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart are very unlikely to be playing by 2017.

    The skilled Marc-Edouard Vlasic plays a complete game and could be an anchor on the Sharks blue line by 2017. Matt Tennyson is transitioning to the pro game and has all the tools to be a top-pairing defender. He makes the simple play, is a very good skater and can take the body when needed.

    WHL star Mirco Mueller will be only 22 by 2017, but he’s got all kinds of promise. By his mid-20s, it would not be surprising to see him as the No. 1 or No. 2 rearguard for the Sharks. He’s got size, skill and grit. Paired with prospect Dylan Demelo, they would give the Sharks a strong second pairing.

St. Louis Blues

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Alex Pietrangelo & Jay Bouwmeester

    (P2) Kevin Shattenkirk & Jani Hakanpaa


    How They Stack Up

    The St. Louis Blues have all of the pieces to continue to be a very good club over the next few seasons. They have a lot of size, speed and players that are willing to pay the price to win every night.

    While it is difficult to predict that Barret Jackman will still be in the Blues’ top four by 2017, with his competitive drive it’s not inconceivable.

    It is more likely that current RFA Alex Pietrangelo will be anchoring the Blues defense, and it would be surprising if he hasn’t won, or at least been nominated for a Norris Trophy by 2017. He’s an exceptional defenseman.

    New St. Louis Blue Jay Bouwmeester could be a great partner, and one of the best skaters in the game shows no signs of slowing down.

    Kevin Shattenkirk would be a very good No. 3 defenseman and if the Finnish giant Jani Hakanpaa can improve his mobility, he’d be a good No. 4 option for the Blues. Jordan Schmaltz is another prospect that could be in the mix to be a top-four defender for the Blues by 2017.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Matt Carle & Victor Hedman

    (P2) Slater Koekkoek & Radko Gudas


    How They Stack Up

    The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted winger Jonathan Drouin in the 2013 draft, and he should be flourishing as an NHL forward by 2017 given his talent.

    Steven Stamkos should be sniping as well as ever, so scoring should not be an issue for Tampa Bay.

    The Lightning have had issues defending as a team, finishing 26th in goals against in 2013, but that could improve greatly if Tampa’s defense can develop as management hopes.

    Matt Carle should still be in his prime and Victor Hedman will just be reaching his. Former OHL star Slater Koekkoek has great potential. While not likely to be ready for top-pairing status by 2017, he could be shortly after.

    Radko Gudas has defied the odds a few times now in his young career. Don’t bet against him being a top-four defenseman in Tampa despite being somewhat undersized.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Jake Gardiner & Morgan Reilly

    (P2) Cody Franson & Mark Fraser


    How They Stack Up

    The Toronto Maple Leafs have some personnel choices to make in the here and now, and in the near future. Their cap situation is less than ideal.

    Cody Franson remains unsigned currently, but the Maple Leafs need him on their blue line. Franson’s Relative Corsi Number has been very good over the past four seasons, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t be just as solid, if not better in the future. In four years, he could easily be a top-pairing defender, but given Jake Gardiner's talent, Franson may be one of the best No. 3 defenders in the league instead.

    Morgan Reilly has a chance to make the Leafs roster this year, and in four years it will be very surprising if he’s not a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman. He has exceptional vision, and is a puck-possession defender that makes good decisions on an ongoing basis.

    It will be challenging to retain all of them, but the Leafs could have one of the best top-four defense groups in the NHL by 2017.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Alex Edler & Frank Corrado

    (P2) Chris Tanev & Jason Garrison


    How They Stack Up

    The Vancouver Canucks have been integrating some young defenders onto their roster while still relying heavily on veterans Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. It is unlikely that both Bieksa and Hamhuis will be part of the top-four defense core by 2017 given their ages and contract situations.

    Alex Edler is signed through 2019 while Jason Garrison has a contract until 2018. Therefore, those two are likely to remain with the Canucks while two of the most promising defenders in the Canucks’ system, Chris Tanev and Frank Corrado, should also be playing valuable minutes by 2017.

    Both Tanev and Corrado are developing good all-around games. By 2017, they should be counted upon to be playing in all game situations for the Canucks. Given the level of competition that will exist in the newly formed Pacific Division, the Canucks will need all of their young talent to blossom by then.

Washington Capitals

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) John Carlson & Karl Alzner

    (P2) Tomas Kundratek & Madison Bowey


    How They Stack Up

    The Washington Capitals are going to move to a much tougher division in 2013, but with the way they finished the regular season, they should be competitive. The Capitals have some dynamic forwards up front, including Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin.

    Defenseman John Carlson has become a very good young blueliner. He’s mobile and intelligent with the puck–a great combination. He should be the No. 1 defenseman for years in Washington.

    Mike Green has had significant injury issues, and it is difficult to forecast him as a top-four defender in Washington in four more years.

    Karl Alzner is a very good defensive defenseman. He would allow the more offensively skilled Carlson the room to be creative.

    The second pairing could be a young duo with Madison Bowey having the kind of skill that could make him a top-pairing defender in the future. Fellow prospect Tomas Kundratek plays a straightforward game that is built on dependability first.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Top Four Defensemen: (P1) Zach Bogosian & Paul Postma

    (P2) Tobias Enstrom & Jacob Trouba


    How They Stack Up

    The Winnipeg Jets have all kinds of defensive potential at both the NHL level and within their deep minor-league system. Dustin Byfuglien is a key contributor today, but given the issues the Jets are likely to face with the salary cap in a few seasons, it would not be surprising to see him move on when he becomes a UFA in 2016.

    What could also happen, is that he could move back to the wing given the young talent that the Jets have on defense in their system.

    In 2017, Tobias Enstrom and Paul Postma could be a dynamic top pair, while Trouba and Bogosian would be entering the heart of their primes. These particular pairing would be 1 and 1A in many game situations.

    This foursome would be one of the better groups not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire league. If these players all continue to mature and improve as much as they have over the past few seasons.