The race among NHL forwards for the Maurice "the Rocket" Richard Trophy and the Art Ross is usually down to just a few elite snipers by the three-quarter mark of the season. Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Martin St. Louis—whichever five or six players are competing in the goal and point sprints have put a lot of separation between themselves and the pack by then.
For instance, 2011-12 scoring champ Evgeni Malkin posted 109 points to win the Art Ross. Sitting in fifth that year was Ilya Kovalchuk. His points total? 83.
That's a pretty large gap between No. 1 and No. 5.
The competition to be the NHL's top-scoring defensemen, on the other hand, is a ridiculously tight affair on a yearly basis. Except for when a player like Erik Karlsson or Mike Green posts gaudy, forward-like numbers of course.
There was no runaway defensive scoring king in 2013. P.K. Subban put up 38 points and was the No. 1 scoring defender. Kris Letang tied that total, and only three other defenders broke the 30-point barrier.
After that, seven points separated the sixth-placed Niklas Kronwall and the 30th-placed John Carlson.
All of this illustrates just how small the gap between a top-five and a 30th-place defender is. As tough as it can be to guess who will win the defensive scoring race (and usually, the Norris Trophy because of it) we've put together our best wagers as to which blueliners will do the most damage in 2013-14.
2013 Point Total: 24 (21st overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 46
Why He's Here: After a long, difficult bargaining process, the St. Louis Blues and Alex Pietrangelo agreed to a seven-year pact that will see the 23-year-old defender make an average of $6.5 million a season, according to Cap Geek.
That amount of money makes him one of the highest-paid defensemen in the NHL, putting him in a league with the likes of Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. With that kind of green comes increased expectations and responsibility, so we wouldn't be shocked to see Pietrangelo push even higher up this list.
A 40-point season is well within reach for the talented Blue, though, and anything less than a top-10 finish in points would be deemed a major disappointment after his massive extension this summer.
Many pundits are expecting St. Louis to make a big jump—The Hockey News predicted that the Blues would win the Stanley Cup this season—and any forward motion (Cup or no) will largely be due to Pietrangelo upping his level of play.
2013 Point Total: 25 (19th overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 47
Why He's Here: There's a chance that the Los Angeles Kings might not have won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago if not for the emergence of Slava Voynov.
Because the young Russian developed so quickly at the NHL level, the Kings were able to trade Jack Johnson away to the Columbus Blue Jackets, picking up Jeff Carter in return. Carter put L.A. over the top and helped the team win its first championship.
We may be creating daisy chains here, but it says a lot about Voynov that the Kings were able to deal a quality player like Johnson away because of him. He's taken over as power-play quarterback for the squad completely and could crack the 50-point barrier for the first time in his career this season.
The Kings had the 10th-best power play in the NHL last year, and with an entire season the the helm, Voynov is set to reach new heights.
2013 Point Total: 27 (14th overall)
Projected 2013-14 Total: 49
Why He's Here: The Philadelphia Flyers shook up their roster once again over the summer, cutting ties with ex-goaltending savior Ilya Bryzgalov and Daniel Briere while bringing in Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit.
Streit brings leadership and stability to a defensive group that needs it and is in line to put up some beastly numbers while quarterbacking Philadelphia's power play. Kimmo Timonen has been close to a 40-point defender while doing that over the last six seasons, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the offensively dynamic Streit come away with 50 or more.
The Flyers had the third-best power play in the NHL last season and lean on special teams play heavily for their goals. Streit will be in charge of running the unit (at least in concert with Timonen), which will give Philadelphia one of the better one-two offensive combinations on the back end in 2013-14.
2013 Point Total: 28 (11th overall)
Projected 2013-14 Total: 49
Why He's Here: At the close of the 2013 season, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press made waves with a report that Dustin Byfuglien weighed more than 300 pounds, making him an untradeable, out-of-shape asset.
The Toronto Globe and Mail quietly noticed that Big Buff appeared trimmer and more in shape upon reporting to training camp for the 2013-14 season. When asked about his slimmer appearance, he played it off a bit:
I was on the ice a little bit more, doing what I had to do to come to camp ready to go. When I was on the ice I just did a little bit more skating ... working on the edges and the stick handling and puck movement, just a little bit more than I used to do.
The fact that Byfuglien is in shape is an outstanding indicator moving forward for the most important player on the Winnipeg Jets. It indicates that he may finally be maturing, gaining footholds in understanding what it takes to be an elite NHL player.
If a nearly 300-pound Buff can post 28 points in 43 games, he could reach new highs in 2013-14 as his new dedication to the game unfolds.
2013 Point Total: 32 (third overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 50
Why He's Here: The Minnesota Wild are about to go off, and Ryan Suter will be right in the thick of it. 2013 was a shaky year for the team as it adjusted to newcomers across the board. From Suter on defense to Zach Parise up front and a plethora young talent trying to get their legs under them, there was a lot of growth last season.
The team is now poised to take a massive step froward as the likes of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and possibly Mathew Dumba are ready to step up and take on bigger roles. Mikko Koivu is still in place, and Dany Heatley will be motivated to perform well due to his expiring contract.
Overseeing it all will be Suter on the back end. He has Jonas Brodin to watch his back, and we could see the most aggressive and engaged version of Suter ever in 2013-14.
2013 Point Total: 30 (fifth overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 51
Why He's Here: Good luck finding a more underrated defenseman than Keith Yandle. If he were a Detroit Red Wing or Boston Bruin, he'd be hailed as a blossoming All-Star capable of changing the outcome of a game in all three zones.
The fact that he's a Phoenix Coyote doesn't change that fact—only the coverage of it—and Yandle will be among the top five scoring defensemen in 2013-14 just like he was in 2013. The addition of Mike Ribeiro has been met with mixed reviews, but there's no doubt that he'll help increase the effectiveness of the power play.
That bodes well for Yandle and his point total. It's likely that he would have flirted with the 50-point barrier last season without the extra offensive help. With it, it wouldn't be surprising to see Yandle surpass it.
2013 Point Total: 27 (13th overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 57
Why He's Here: Seeing Justin Schultz this high on our list should surprise no one. His track record as a power-play QB is outstanding, and he managed to post 27 points in 48 games in his first NHL season. Schultz put up 48 points in 34 games with the Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout, truly flexing his offensive wherewithal on the blue line.
With his rookie year under his belt, Schultz is set to erupt in 2013-14. The Edmonton Oilers will posses one of the most outstanding power-play units in the NHL because of their embarrassing amount of young talent that is finally coming of age, and it will be No. 19 setting everything up from the blue line.
More so than anyone else on this list, Schultz is in a position to skyrocket over his projected total. With another year or so of seasoning, he could very well evolve into the next Erik Karlsson or Mike Green (circa 2008-09).
2013 Point Total: 38 (second overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 60
Why He's Here: If Kris Letang could manage to stay healthy for an entire season, he could run away with the defensive scoring title. He's been in the league for six years now, though, and has only managed to play one 82-game season.
Still, no one posts more points in less time from the blue line. He was the second-leading scorer from the back end in 2013 despite missing 13 games due to injury.
The Pittsburgh Penguins feature one of the strongest top-six forward groups in the NHL, and no defenseman in the league is passing the puck off to a lights-out finisher more often than Letang. If he plays in 70-ish games this season, 60 points is very doable.
If he can stay healthy? Our No. 1 better watch his back.
2013 Point Total: 38 (first overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 63
Why He's Here: P.K. Subban seems to know he hasn't reached his peak yet. Considering he just turned 24, there's little reason to believe he has. Subban didn't rest easy this offseason after winning the Norris Trophy.
He's coming into 2013-14 looking like a professional body builder, and there's no indication that he'll let up after matching his career high in points despite only playing in 48 games last season. Subban could very well walk away with the scoring title again, but we like one individual just a tad more.
2013 Point Total: 14 (59th overall)
Projected 2013-14 Point Total: 70
Why He's Here: There isn't a more dynamic offensive defenseman in the NHL than Erik Karlsson. We all know what he can do when he's healthy, and he told Marie Lehmann of Hockey Night in Sweden that he'll be able to skate 100 percent by opening night.
If that's the case and Karlsson is able to return to his 2012 form, then we'll have a new defensive scoring champ and possibly a new Norris Trophy winner in 2013-14.
The Ottawa Senators appear to be healthy as a whole heading into the season, which increases Karlsson's ability to produce points. Jason Spezza will be back in action after only playing in five games last year, and the addition of Bobby Ryan to the forward core could boost Karlsson's assist totals even higher.
Like Kris Letang, the key for Karlsson will be health, but we like his odds heading into 2013-14.