NHL 500: Ranking the Top 75 Right Defensemen

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 2, 2015

NHL 500: Ranking the Top 75 Right Defensemen

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    Tom E. Puskar/Associated Press

    We recently introduced a new project, the NHL 500, by looking at the game’s top 50 goaltenders. Today, we shift our focus just a little bit forward, taking in the game’s 75 best right-side defencemen. For the most part, these will be right-shooting defencemen, though a number of left-shot players who primarily appeared on the right side in 2014-15 will also be included.

    What are we looking for here? We can explain it in one question: Taking into account the available evidence, what would a reasonable person expect from every player in the league in this coming year? Our analysis is primarily rooted in major-league work, which means we’re omitting new rookies. We don’t care about contracts or long-term trade value. We don’t care about what happened last year, except insofar as it predicts what will happen in the coming year.

    Our process leans heavily on analytics, and involves creating a 100-point scale for every position. A grade of 50 indicates an average player at his position, with a higher total obviously being better. For the most part talent tends to cluster around the average, with elite players being relatively rare.

    For defencemen specifically, we’ve divided our analysis into three parts.

    Defensive zone play (45 points) will encompass both even-strength work and effectiveness on the penalty kill, with a primary focus being how good players are at preventing chances against once the puck arrives in the zone. It will also take into account contextual items like how good the opponents a player regularly lines up against are.

    Offensive zone work (35 points) covers employment on both the power play and at even-strength. Point-scoring rates are our primary measure here. Transitional play (20 points) is a category which traditionally has been undervalued but has taken on increasing relevance in modern analytic thought. For defenceman, the majority of the score comes from how effective players were at preventing opponents from carrying the puck over the defensive blue line. We also consider how frequently these players carried the puck into the offensive zone.

    We hope you continue to enjoy our comprehensive assessment of the NHL’s players.

    Other NHL 500 installments:

    Top 100 Players

    Top 120 Centers

    Top 90 Right Wings

    Top 90 Left Wings

    Top 75 Left Defencemen

    Top 50 Goaltenders

A Note on Sources and Methodology

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    There are just a couple of points that should be made about the process here. If you’d like to get to the list, feel free to skip this page; it explains how we’ve done what we’ve done and isn’t properly part of the list that follows. With that said, if you’re planning an angry comment reading this first may help.

    First: The list which follows is heavily based on analytics. We use quality of competition metrics to get a feel for the kind of opposition each player faces, and we’ve taken into account items like starting a lot of shifts in the defensive zone. On-ice metrics like scoring chances and Corsi were consulted. We’ve also made use of manual tracking, particularly in the transitional play category

    Statistics which follow come from several sources. War-on-Ice.com was our primary tool, providing numbers for every area of the game. The with or without you function on Puckalytics.com was extremely useful for identifying linemate effects. NHL.com was consulted infrequently for some basic numbers, such as size and age. Finally, Corey Sznajder’s incredible work manually tracking zone entries and zone entry defence was the primary source for information in that area.

    Finally, while the list which follows is primarily built on analytics data, it is a subjective list. There is no consensus on exactly how various parts of the game should be weighed, or how much linemate, competition and team effects influence a player’s results. We’ve done our best to consider as many factors as possible and balance them correctly, but at the end of the day this is one interpretation and should not be mistaken for the consensus view of the hockey analytics community.

    In other words, the list which follows is our own, as are any mistakes therein. We’ve also opted for a cautious approach; we’re trying to responsibly forecast the most likely outcomes, and so a breakout candidate who succeeds will be underrated on this list, as will any goalie that collapses entirely. There’s lots of room for reasonable people to disagree with these projections.

Nos. 75-71

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    75. Brad Stuart, Colorado Avalanche

    39/100

    Defensive Play: 21/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 9/20

    Stuart is better than 1,000 games into an NHL career that has seen him roam all over, and he’s getting close to the end of the line. His offensive game, which was a big selling point back on draft day in 1998, has almost entirely dissipated. He’s still reliable in his own end and is still capable of moving the puck, but he’s a diminishing player.

    74. Michal Rozsival, Chicago Blackhawks

    40/100

    Defensive Play: 20/45; Offensive Play: 11/35; Transition Play: 9/20

    The 37-year-old Rozsival has been a solid two-way defenceman who's contributed in all three zones for pretty much the entirety of his career. He’s nearing the end, though, and we’ve seen steady erosion in his abilities in all three areas as he’s worked his way through his 30s. He was still a useful No. 5 defenceman last spring, but we expect him to take a step back. Given his age, it might even be a steeper one than we have projected.

    73. Connor Murphy, Arizona Coyotes

    41/100

     Defensive Play: 21/45; Offensive Play: 10/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    A first-round pick of the Coyotes in 2011, Murphy pushed his way on to the team full time last season after splitting the previous campaign between the AHL and NHL. An intelligent player with good size and at least some offensive upside, Murphy should be able to take advantage of a weak Coyotes depth chart to carve out an expanded role for himself this year.

    72. Mark Pysyk, Buffalo Sabres

    42/100

    Defensive Play: 23/45; Offensive Play: 12/35; Transition Play: 7/20

    Pysyk’s handling in Buffalo has been weird. A first-round pick of the team in 2010, he showed plenty of two-way ability when he graduated to the NHL in 2013-14. Instead of keeping him in the majors, though, the Sabres sent him back to the AHL for the majority of 2014-15 despite the presence of younger players in the lineup and a list of veteran defencemen that was, to put it politely, suspect. We think he’s ready, though if he spent last season working on defending the blue line, it would not have been misspent.

    71. Christian Folin, Minnesota Wild

    43/100

    Defensive Play: 20/45; Offensive Play: 14/35; Transition Play: 9/20 

    The 24-year-old rookie showed an impressive range of skills in a 40-game cameo last season. He’s big, competent at both ends of the rink and is not bad moving between them, either. The only real uncertainty here relates to sample size; he needs to play this well for a longer period of time.

Nos. 70-66

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    70. Dalton Prout, Columbus Blue Jackets

    43/100

     Defensive Play: 24/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    Prout is a meat-and-potatoes, defensive defenceman. He left whatever offensive aspirations he had in junior and has virtually no impact on that side of the NHL game. However, he’s a big, physical, competent defender who does strong work at the defensive zone blue line and in front of the net. There is plenty of room for that kind of player on third pairings around the league.

    69. Ben Lovejoy, Pittsburgh Penguins

    44/100

    Defensive Play: 26/45; Offensive Play: 10/35; Transition Play: 8/20

    Lovejoy is a player type we see pretty frequently in the NHL, almost exclusively in depth roles. He’s not a threat in the offensive zone, and he can get caught out of position when the puck heads up ice in a hurry, but he’s big, physical and holds his position and the front of the net effectively in the defensive zone.

    68. John-Michael Liles

    45/100

     Defensive Play: 19/45; Offensive Play: 17/35; Transition Play: 9/20 

    The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Liles for their blue line in the summer of 2011. The timing was terrible; he turned 31 early the next season and a steep decline in his overall play started then. He’ll be 35 in November and is fighting time now. He’s still a capable defenceman with the puck but is not the scorer he was at the height of his career, and we’re seeing steady erosion pretty much across the board in his game.

    67. Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild

    45/100

    Defensive Play: 17/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    As an NHL rookie last season, the Wild gradually broke Dumba into the league. The No. 7 pick from the 2012 draft, he offers intriguing upside offensively and through the neutral zone, though he still needs to round out a suspect defensive game. He has plenty of time yet.

    66. Matt Greene, Los Angeles Kings

    45/100

    Defensive Play: 26/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 10/20 

    Greene has been a good third-pairing defenceman for a long time, but age and injury are starting to wear away at his effectiveness. He never contributed much north of the red line, and these days he does less, while his work defensively at evens and on the penalty kill has started to decay.

Nos. 65-61

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    65. Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres

    46/100

    Defensive Play: 22/45; Offensive Play: 14/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    Only time will tell if the Sabres are going to regret tossing Ristolainen in the NHL before he was really an NHL-caliber player. Part of the problem is that Buffalo has just been so bad over Ristolainen’s time with the team, but even by the Sabres' standards, he’s been unimpressive in pretty much every department other than the penalty kill. We love this player’s potential and hope he’s able to put the past couple of seasons behind him. 

    64. Adam McQuaid, Boston Bruins

    47/100

    Defensive Play: 27/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 11/20

    McQuaid has spent a lot of time with Torey Krug in recent years, and it’s an interesting pairing because both players are specialists, just at opposite ends of the ice. McQuaid is seemingly allergic to carrying the puck and is a non-factor offensively, but once the puck crosses the red line, he’s suddenly extremely important. Unlike a lot of stay-at-home types, McQuaid plays an aggressive game at the defensive blue line and is good at breaking up attempted entries by the opposition. His size and strength make him extremely competent on those occasions the enemy manages to gain Boston’s end of the ice.

    63. Andrej Sustr, Tampa Bay Lightning

    47/100

    Defensive Play: 23/45; Offensive Play: 10/35; Transition Play: 14/20

    It’s possible to see a lot of things in Sustr, a 6’8” rearguard who had a decent offensive track record in college and is still only 24 years old. So far, though, he’s not as physical or as thorough as one would like in the defensive zone, and that offensive success at other levels has yet to translate to the majors. His wingspan and intelligence make him extremely able in transition; the hope the Lightning have is that as his game develops at either end of the rink, he’ll turn into a two-way threat. 

    62. Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers

    47/100

    Defensive Play: 29/45; Offensive Play: 10/35; Transition Play: 8/20

    It’s hard to be a difference-maker without a range of skills, but there’s still hope for Gudbranson. He’s played just under 250 NHL games, but he’s only 23 years old and could yet develop beyond what he is now: a big, strong, effective defender who struggles for relevancy past the blue line.

    61. Willie Mitchell, Florida Panthers

    48/100

    Defensive Play: 27/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    There’s a lot more highway in the rearview mirror than there is on the horizon. The 38-year-old Mitchell, a veteran of 861 NHL games, is coming off a strong season with Florida. He excelled in the defensive zone and, as he has his whole career, made it difficult for opponents to cross the defensive blue line. What little scoring touch he had has evaporated away. At his age, the wheels could come off at any point.

Nos. 60-56

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    60. Tom Gilbert, Montreal Canadiens

    48/100

    Defensive Play: 21/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 11/20

    Gilbert’s game has eroded over the years; he’s 32 now and pretty obviously in decline. Still, he’s a competent enough presence in all three zones that he still has value. He can fill in on either special teams unit or even against tough opposition at evens in a pinch, and that makes him useful as a third-pairing defender capable of moving up the lineup.

    59. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators

    48/100

    Defensive Play: 19/45; Offensive Play: 21/35; Transition Play: 8/20

    More than 200 games into his NHL career, Ellis still isn’t killing penalties. That’s OK, though, because he adds value in other ways. He’s an elite five-on-five scorer (though he has yet to post big numbers on the power play), and that scoring punch from the third pair is a valuable thing for a traditionally low-octane Predators team.

    58. Kyle Quincey, Detroit Red Wings

    48/100

    Defensive Play: 28/45; Offensive Play: 10/35; Transition Play: 10/20 

    After years of slow cooking in Detroit’s system, Quincey was claimed on waivers by Los Angeles and burst onto the NHL scene with a 38-point season. He’s never repeated that level of production, and his offensive game these days leaves a lot to be desired, but like a lot of Red Wings-trained players, he plays responsible two-way hockey.

    57. Cody Ceci, Ottawa Senators

    48/100

    Defensive Play: 20/45; Offensive Play: 17/35; Transition Play: 11/20

    It’s telling that the Senators deploy Ceci on the penalty kill with regularity; it makes it clear that they see him evolving into a defenceman who can have an impact at both ends of the ice. That’s a reasonable belief, given Ceci’s combination of size and mobility, but the 21-year-old is a long way from being polished at the defensive blue line or behind it in the here and now. His offensive play isn’t terribly remarkable, though he is a solid puck-rusher already and has loads of potential.

    56. Kevin Bieksa, Anaheim Ducks

    49/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 8/20

    The 34-year-old Bieksa has enjoyed an excellent NHL career, but we’re now well into the decline of a player who used to be a complete two-way threat. His offensive game has fallen off in recent years, and on the defensive end of things, he’s not good at holding the blue line and is getting worse at dealing with opponents who make it into the defensive zone. Projecting further erosion is the only reasonable course of action for us to take.

Nos. 55-51

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    55. Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers

    49/100

    Defensive Play: 15/45; Offensive Play: 22/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    The Edmonton Oilers seemed oblivious to Schultz’s faults in his early years with the team, and in some ways, it’s possible to understand why. He’s a very good puck-rushing defenceman who's shown flashes of high-end ability on the power play. He has issues in the defensive zone and is only adequate at holding the defensive blue line. He could improve his standing league-wide in a big way if he can capitalize on a Todd McLellan-coached power play.

    54. Dan Girardi, New York Rangers

    49/100

    Defensive Play: 27/45; Offensive Play: 15/35; Transition Play: 7/20

    At this point, Girardi’s best asset is partner Ryan McDonagh, to whom he has been welded at the hip for the last several seasons. His abilities in the offensive zone and neutral ice have slowly and steadily deteriorated, and increasingly, the Rangers’ results at even strength and on the penalty kill with Girardi on the ice have softened. It’s debatable whether he’s a legitimate top-four defenceman at this point.

    53. Luke Schenn, Philadelphia Flyers

    50/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 15/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    Schenn was overrated for so long that it is possible people just didn’t notice when the bad press surrounding him had gone past the mark. He’s yet to become the elite shutdown defender he was drafted to be but is excellent on the penalty kill and very effective breaking up opposition attacks at the defensive blue line. He's equally as good defending the area in front of the net on those occasions the opposition breaks through. His lack of an offensive dimension is an obvious weakness, but lots of defencemen manage to be useful without contributing to that part of the game.

    52. Damon Severson, New Jersey Devils

    50/100

    Defensive Play: 22/45; Offensive Play: 17/35; Transition Play: 11/20

    Severson was one of the big surprises of last fall, stepping off the Kelowna Rockets' blue line and into the Devils lineup without any real time in the minor leagues. He mostly played a five-on-five role, and we can expect him to make further strides in 2015-16. He was a solid point producer in junior, so he’ll grow in that area of the game, and we’ll likely see him take on more minutes in shorthanded situations, too.

    51. Kevin Klein, New York Rangers

    50/100

    Defensive Play: 24/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    Generally speaking, defensive defencemen don’t have breakout offensive seasons at the age of 30, so we’re dubious that Klein’s scoring is going to stick around. Still, he’s a useful defenceman in all three zones and a handy guy to have on the penalty kill.

Nos. 50-46

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    50. Dennis Seidenberg, Boston Bruins

    51/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    A key player in the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win, Seidenberg used to be a very good two-way defenceman who could provide a lot of value at both ends of the ice. He’s slipped at both ends as age and injury have taken a toll on him, and at 34, the bottom could fall out at any moment. His offensive game has pretty much disappeared, he’s only lukewarm in transition and his once extremely strong defensive game is showing signs of erosion, too. One bright point is that he’s still capable of playing either side of the ice defensively.

    49. Dan Boyle, New York Rangers

    51/100

    Defensive Play: 22/45; Offensive Play: 17/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    The 39-year-old Boyle is rapidly approaching the end of the line, but he still has some tricks left. He’s always been good in transition at five-on-five, and that’s still part of his game. He can run the point on the power play better than many young pups, though the numbers tailed off for him last year. His five-on-five offence has deteriorated, and he gets by in the defensive zone through intelligence and experience, though eventually, he won’t be able to do that any longer, either.

    48. Thomas Hickey, New York Islanders

    51/100

    Defensive Play: 24/45; Offensive Play: 14/35; Transition Play: 13/20

    One of the great waiver-wire finds in recent memory, Hickey has now played more than 200 games for the Isles after the Los Angeles Kings discarded the former fourth overall pick without so much as having seen him play a major league game. Hickey plays a thinking man’s game and is a three-zone presence.

    47. Mark Fayne, Edmonton Oilers

    51/100

    Defensive Play: 32/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    A Devils-trained defenceman, it should be no surprise that Fayne shines on the defensive side of the game. He’s big, strong and smart positionally and can handle the toughest opposition at even strength and on the penalty kill. He has no offensive game to speak of and is not as aggressive at the blue line as he would be in an ideal world.

    46. Marek Zidlicky, New York Islanders

    52/100

    Defensive Play: 19/45; Offensive Play: 21/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    Zidlicky may be 38, but he proved last season that he could still help an NHL team. Not only did he play 84 games (yes, that’s correct), but after joining the Red Wings post-trade deadline, he managed 11 points in 21 contests. Ideally, he’s a third-pairing defenceman and power-play weapon.

Nos. 45-41

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    45. Simon Despres, Anaheim Ducks

    52/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 15/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    Sometimes, a second opinion is needed. Despres, a mammoth defenceman with offensive upside, got that from Anaheim and both team and player alike have benefited. The Ducks deployed Despres on the penalty kill immediately and boosted his ice-time; Despres in turn hit new heights at both ends of the rink.

    44. Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings

    52/100

    Defensive Play: 31/45; Offensive Play: 14/35; Transition Play: 7/20

    Ericsson plays shutdown minutes for Detroit, and he’s at his best when the puck is in the Red Wings zone, be that on the penalty kill or at even strength. That’s an essential skill for a defenceman, but Ericsson’s offensive deficiencies, and particularly his difficulties holding the defensive blue line, take away from that admirable trait.

    43. Jason Demers, Dallas Stars

    52/100

    Defensive Play: 24/45; Offensive Play: 20/35; Transition Play: 8/20

    After an ugly start to last season in San Jose, Demers was shipped off to Texas; he promptly rediscovered his game. He’s a useful second-pairing, right-handed defenceman who can handle assignments at either end of the ice and has value on both special teams. He’s 27 years old and has 361 regular-season games under his belt, falling right into that sweet spot between callow youth and fading elder.

    42. Justin Braun, San Jose Sharks

    53/100

    Defensive Play: 26/45; Offensive Play: 17/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s regular partner lacks the elite shutdown game of his most frequent collaborator, but he’s a useful player in his own right. He’s not as error-free in the defensive zone as Vlasic, but he’s big and knows where to be. He lacks the offensive touch of a Brent Burns, but he’s been a competent scorer all down the line and put up 23 points last year. He’s the kind of versatile presence every NHL team needs to fill gaps.

    41. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils

    53/100

    Defensive Play: 23/45; Offensive Play: 18/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    The fourth overall pick from the 2011 draft has had an uneven development curve, but he had a breakout season of sorts last year in the NHL. His defensive game has improved, he’s contributing offensively and he’s still a good neutral-zone player. He’s only 22 years old and has plenty of time to evolve into a top-pairing defenceman.

Nos. 40-36

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    40. Jason Garrison, Tampa Bay Lightning

    54/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 23/35; Transition Play: 6/20

    Garrison’s overall effectiveness is proof that a defenceman can impact the NHL game without being particularly good in the neutral zone. Garrison isn’t all that good at holding his own blue line, but once the puck is in the zone, he plays a strong game. He isn’t good at rushing the puck into the offensive zone himself, either, but once it’s there, his heavy shot is a real asset to his team.

    39. Braydon Coburn, Tampa Bay Lightning

    54/100

    Defensive Play: 30/45; Offensive Play: 12/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    Originally drafted as a two-way defenceman, Coburn hasn’t developed along those lines, despite some promising flashes at points. Instead, he has emerged primarily as a defensive specialist. He’s brilliant at the defensive blue line, and there’s no drop-off as he backs into his own zone. The Lightning added him hoping to add a shutdown element to their blue line last spring—and he delivered.

    38. Dennis Wideman, Calgary Flames

    54/100

    Defensive Play: 19/45; Offensive Play: 26/35; Transition Play: 9/20 

    Wideman enjoyed a magnificent season at 32 in 2014-15, posting a career-high 15 goals and 56 points. He’s liable to regress somewhat from there, but his offensive game remains excellent even in the back half of his NHL career. He’s competent in transition, but defensively, Wideman doesn’t inspire confidence. He also lacks the benefit of having a strong partner.

    37. David Savard, Columbus Blue Jackets

    54/100

    Defensive Play: 25/45; Offensive Play: 20/35; Transition Play: 9/20

    The presence of Savard likely made the Blue Jackets feel more comfortable about trading James Wisniewski, as he’s shown an ability to play the right point on the power play. He isn’t particularly potent five-on-five, and his play in transition could use some work, but he logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill and seems to do a good job of holding the area in front of the net.

    36. Zbynek Michalek, Arizona Coyotes

    54/100

    Defensive Play: 31/45; Offensive Play: 9/35; Transition Play: 14/20

    Michalek is a wonderfully effective shutdown player and has been for ages now. He plays the toughest available minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill yet somehow sees fewer chances against than the vast majority of his teammates. He’s not just strong in the defensive zone, either; he’s excellent on the blue line, breaking up scoring chances while they’re still just twinkles in a winger’s eye.

Nos. 35-31

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    35. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

    55/100

    Defensive Play: 19/45; Offensive Play: 26/35; Transition Play: 10/20

    It’s pretty hard to ignore 40 points from a first-year defenceman in just 65 games, though the NHL’s Calder voters tried pretty hard. Klingberg’s numbers at other levels (12 points in 10 games in the AHL in 2014-15, 28 points in 50 games in Sweden’s top league in 2013-14) give us confidence that he’s not a flash in the pan. He was eased into defensive situations in his first year in the league, but that’s not surprising—every rookie is. It’s going to be fun to see what he can do for a sequel, particularly if the Stars have a bounce-back campaign.

    34. Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

    55/100

    Defensive Play: 24/45; Offensive Play: 18/35; Transition Play: 13/20

    Jones progressed in his second NHL season and continues to show clear signs as to why the Predators took him fourth overall in 2013 despite already having a wealth of defencemen. The structure of his game is excellent, and he’s already better than most major league defencemen in transition. He still has fine points in both the offensive and defensive zones to figure out, but given that he just turned 21, that’s par for the course. He’ll be a top-pair defender very soon now.

    33. Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings

    55/100

    Defensive Play: 21/45; Offensive Play: 23/35; Transition Play: 11/20

    Martinez has long been one of the better even-strength scoring defencemen in the NHL, an accomplishment made even more impressive by the fact that he manages to do it in Los Angeles. He’s a reliable though not exceptional presence defensively and would find a steady home on the second pairing on most NHL teams. He is a left shot but and has played on both sides of the ice.

    32. Chris Tanev, Vancouver Canucks

    55/100

    Defensive Play: 27/45; Offensive Play: 16/35; Transition Play: 12/20

    There’s nothing terribly flashy about Tanev, a defenceman whom former Devils and Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire would have loved (and we mean that as a compliment). He quietly goes about his business in the defensive zone, substituting intelligence, discipline and thoroughness for big hits. As might be expected, he makes opposition-zone entries difficult and is not bad at getting the puck to the offensive zone himself, though he generally leaves the scoring to others once it gets there.

    31. Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild

    55/100

    Defensive Play: 22/45; Offensive Play: 18/35; Transition Play: 15/20

    There aren’t very many 5’9” defencemen who lack an elite offensive game in the majors. Spurgeon made it by being quick, highly intelligent and relentlessly competitive. He’s a wonderful player to watch who contributes value in all three zones.

30. Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

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    Marianne Helm/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    26/45

    Trouba’s inexperience has at times showed in the defensive zone, but he’s remarkably proficient for a player just entering his third NHL season. He’s already a real asset on the penalty kill and is likely to be an elite shutdown defender at some point in the not-too-distant future.

    Offensive Play

    18/35

    So far, Trouba’s offensive game is more potential than reality, but we felt comfortable forecasting modest growth in this area for the 21-year-old. His even-strength numbers are already excellent; all that’s left is for him to break through on the power play.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    A ready-made puck-rusher from the moment he stepped into the NHL, it took Trouba no time at all to adapt to that side of the game. Where he needed (and to a lesser degree, still needs) work was at the defensive blue line, though he’s progressing nicely.

    Overall

    56/100

    A potential franchise defenceman in the making, we don’t expect Trouba to hit those heights this season. He’s so good already, though, that it’s likely to be only a matter of time.

29. Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    30/45

    Bogosian is a reliable penalty-killer and can be trusted to play effective minutes in the defensive zone. Size is of course a big part of the equation. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, Bogosian is admirably equipped to clear the front of the net. At the relatively tender age of 25, he’s already decidedly more advanced in this area than most of his peers.

    Offensive Play

    16/35

    Though drafted as a two-way threat, Bogosian’s offensive game has never really taken off in the NHL. He’s used frequently on the power play where he’s ineffective. His offence at even strength comes and goes but in the aggregate comes in just south of the NHL average.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    Bogosian’s transition game is about average for the NHL, which is to say in this category alone he’s probably a fringe top-four defenceman. He’s neither especially strong nor especially weak at either blue line.

    Overall

    56/100

    Last season’s trade that saw Tyler Myers end up in Winnipeg and Bogosian end up in Buffalo had a lot of other moving parts, but at defence, it probably helped out both teams. Myers was a hit immediately in Manitoba, but Bogosian brings a level of defensive responsibility to a Sabres organization that was in dire need of it.

28. James Wisniewski, Carolina Hurricanes

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    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    22/45

    Wisniewski is an effective penalty-killer. At even strength, he fares extremely well in terms of shot attempts against but not as well in terms of chances against, suggesting that while the puck is mostly at the right end of the rink, his five-on-five defensive game could use a little work.

    Offensive Play

    25/35

    At even-strength, Wisniewski’s scoring is well above the NHL average but still pretty clearly a step below the NHL elite. That distinction disappears on the power play, where he has been extremely effective in recent years.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    Wisniewski’s hurt a little at both ends by his caution. He doesn’t carry the puck into the offensive zone. At the defensive end of the rink, his positioning is strong enough to force a lot of dump-ins, but he hasn’t historically been that effective at creating turnovers.

    Overall

    57/100

    Don’t get too caught up in that baffling episode in Anaheim that ended Wisniewski’s year. This is a player who was effective for a long time and who got caught in a numbers game with his new team. Carolina stole a quality defenceman here.

27. Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    This player’s bread and butter is defensive-zone play. He’s typically matched against top opposition at even strength, and often, his shifts start in his own end of the rink. He’s provided the Isles with strong work on the penalty kill.

    Offensive Play

    18/35

    Hamonic’s performance at the junior level and in the AHL always suggested he could score a bit, so last season’s 33-point showing wasn’t entirely unexpected. He’s useful on the power play and roughly average as an even-strength scorer.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    Hamonic delivers value at both ends of the neutral zone. He’s capable of carrying the puck in offensively but, more importantly, is aggressive at his own blue line and forces turnovers.

    Overall

    57/100

    As much as Hamonic is primarily a shutdown defenceman, it’s his versatility that makes him as valuable as he is to the Isles. He can contribute in all three zones, and there are no glaring weaknesses to his game.

26. Tyler Myers, Winnipeg Jets

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    25/45

    On a wretched Buffalo Sabres team, Myers was only average to just above average in terms of contribution to both the penalty kill and to suppressing shots and chances against at even strength. It’s hard to get a firm read on him because that team has been such a tire fire in recent years, so for the moment, we’re projecting him as being just slightly above average in this category.

    Offensive Play

    19/35

    Myers knocked it out of the park after arriving in Winnipeg, scoring 15 points in 24 games to close out the regular season. That total represented more than he’d managed in his previous 47 games with Buffalo and is really the first sign of life we’ve seen since before the last NHL lockout. We’re being cautious here, because it might be an aberration rather than a corner turned. If it is the latter situation, this grade significantly undervalues Myers’ contribution.

    Transition Play

    13/20

    One piece of Myers’ offensive game that never went away was his ability to rush the puck; he loves carrying it himself and he’s good at it. He’s weirdly only average-ish at the defensive blue line, despite a 6’8” frame that would seem to be ideal for breaking up zone entries from the opposition.

    Overall

    57/100

    The trade that sent Myers from Buffalo to Winnipeg represented an opportunity at rebirth for the defenceman. He delivered immediately. It’s been a tough few years, and so we’re inclined to skepticism here, but this is the same player who won the Calder in 2010 and looked so brilliant early in his pro career. He just might be for real, and if he is, the Jets are going to be very happy with what he can give them.

25. Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    For many years, Petry has been playing top-flight opposition at both even strength and on the penalty kill, and he’s been doing a reasonably good job of it. He’s a good positional defender with mobility and reach, and that makes him effective. He could stand to improve as a physical defender in front of the net.

    Offensive Play

    16/35

    The expectation was always that Petry would develop some offensive game at the NHL level, but that hasn’t really happened. He’s struggled over his career on the power play, and his even-strength numbers are nothing to write home about, either.

    Transition Play

    15/20

    The strongest part of Petry’s game is in carrying the puck up the ice or preventing the opposition from carrying it down the ice. He’s been very good at defending his own blue line, and he gains the opposing team's zone with possession more frequently than the majority of NHL defencemen.

    Overall

    58/100

    Petry’s reputation took off in a big way following his arrival in Montreal at the trade deadline. He’s a capable veteran with a range of skills who can be relied upon to play heavy minutes and make good things happen when he’s out there.

24. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    23/45

    The only real mark against Ekblad is context. In his rookie season, his game was poised and mature, remarkably so given his age (19) and experience level. But understandably, the Panthers limited the amount of time he got against top opponents and largely kept him off the penalty kill. He’s six or more years away from his prime; this is going to be a real strength someday.

    Offensive Play

    23/35

    It’s always tough to know how far to trust rookie offence, particularly with a player like Ekblad whose numbers in junior weren’t mind-blowing. Still, it’s hard to entirely discount a 39-point season.

    Transition Play

    13/20

    A possession monster as a rookie, Ekblad’s physical tools are admirably suited to work on both blue lines.

    Overall

    59/100

    Inexperienced players are the toughest to project. Ekblad could fall into a swamp for a half-decade the way Tyler Myers did after winning the Calder in Buffalo, or he could be one of the league’s most dominant defencemen inside of three years. We like him a lot, but we’re not ready to project him higher than this just yet.

23. Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    18/45

    Young, undersized defencemen don’t typically excel in the defensive zone, and Barrie is no exception. He isn’t used on the penalty kill. At even strength, he’s on the ice for shockingly few shot attempts against but a comparatively high number of high-danger chances, which indicates his relative weakness when the opposition has the puck in Colorado’s end.

    Offensive Play

    29/35

    What Barrie does bring in spades is offence. No matter how one slices the numbers, he is an elite five-on-five producer, one of the best in the game; certain perspectives might even rank him No. 1 among NHL defencemen in this area. He’s still trying to bring his strengths in this area to the power play, where he has merely been adequate to date.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    Unsurprisingly, Barrie plays a relatively strong transition game. Like many offensive defencemen, he loves rushing the puck; he’s among the most active defenders in the game in this category. He’s also good at forcing his adversaries to dump the puck in rather than carry it, thereby somewhat offsetting his weaknesses behind the blue line.

    Overall

    59/100

    Barrie is only 24 years old and has less than 200 games of NHL experience. His offensive ability in the here and now is frightening. Further developments there and the maturation of his defensive game could eventually make him one of the league’s most valuable rearguards.

22. Cody Franson, Buffalo Sabres

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    24/45

    Franson is a solid citizen in the defensive zone. He kills penalties with reasonable skill, and at even strength, his size, strength and reach allow him to compensate for a lack of agility and speed. He’s spent a lot of time in recent years out against top opponents.

    Offensive Play

    26/35

    On the power play, Franson has shown time and again that he can be a force for good. He’s also well above average in terms of scoring at even strength and at times even puts points up at an elite level.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    Mobility is one of Franson’s weaknesses, and while he compensates for it in a lot of areas with size and intelligence, it clearly hurts him when it comes to lugging the puck up ice. He is an effective player at the defensive blue line, however.

    Overall

    60/100

    An ugly summer for free agents meant that Franson took a while to find an NHL home, and when he did, it was with a struggling team and at a lower price point than expected. He’ll help the Sabres with his ability to contribute at both ends of the ice.

21. Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    Johnson is the backbone of the Avs penalty kill, and not only does he get a lot of minutes, but he delivers strong results with those minutes. He plays tough opposition night in and night out and still manages to outperform team averages.

    Offensive Play

    21/35

    Twelve goals in just 47 games marks a career high in that category, one which may not be indicative of future results. Johnson logs a lot of minutes at even strength and slightly outperforms the average points-per-hour number for defencemen. His power play history is decent but not extraordinary.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    Johnson is good on both sides of the neutral zone, whether leading the Avalanche attack or thwarting the attempts of his rivals on the other side.

    Overall

    60/100

    Johnson is a solid defenceman, and he’s still in the prime years of his career. He’s not the franchise-altering player normally implied by a No. 1 overall selection, but he’s certainly the best defenceman on the Avs roster and the kind of complete player every club in the league could find room for.

20. Johnny Boychuk, New York Islanders

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    29/45

    Boychuk’s defensive metrics are a bit of a mixed bag. His even-strength chance-against numbers in Boston were really good but fall off on the penalty kill, while the reverse is true since his arrival to the Islanders. On the whole, he looks good but not great in this category.

    Offensive Play

    22/35

    Boychuk’s numbers at even strength have trended up from a disappointing 2012-13 campaign in which he was a sub-average five-on-five scorer. He was effective on the power play when finally given a shot upon his arrival in New York.

    Transition Play

    9/20

    Dragging down Boychuk’s numbers in this category is a tendency to play dump-and-chase hockey whenever he has the puck in the neutral zone. He’s roughly league-average when it comes to defending his own blue line.

    Overall

    60/100

    He isn’t a world-beater, but Boychuk was a stabilizing influence on a young New York blue line last season and should continue to provide quality minutes for several years to come.

19. Sami Vatanen, Anaheim Ducks

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Defensive Play

    22/45

    Vatanen isn’t really anybody’s idea of a defensive defenceman, but he stepped into a significant penalty-killing role this past season and was surprisingly effective. The Ducks’ even-strength numbers have also long been good with Vatanen on the ice, though of course, we need to make allowances for his coaches’ efforts to put him in a position to succeed.

    Offensive Play

    27/35

    As a power-play dynamo and effective even-strength point producer, there’s never really been much question about Vatanen’s ability to impact the game on the offensive side of things.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    Vatanen doesn’t do a bad job of defending the blue line, but he’s really only average in that department. Where he excels is on the attack; few NHL defencemen carry the puck into an opposing team's zone as frequently as Vatanen does.

    Overall

    61/100

    The task for Vatanen now is to define himself as more than just a one-trick pony. He’s forced his way up the Ducks’ depth chart and only turned 24 this summer, so the potential for growth still exists.

18. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    24/45

    There are a lot of reasons why Burns has shuttled up to forward over the years, and one of them is that he’s not particularly spectacular as a defensive defenceman. He’s not bad, of course; he’s always provided his teams with average to slightly above average defensive play. But it’s not his primary calling card.

    Offensive Play

    28/35

    What really makes Burns pop as an NHL player is his offence. He’s always been a good scorer at five-on-five, and the fact that he was able to shift to right wing for two seasons without missing a beat says a lot about his abilities in that department. He’s also a very good power-play point man.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    The data we have for Burns is mostly as a forward, but what’s there suggests a player who is pretty average at both blue lines.

    Overall

    62/100

    This guy is a useful hockey player regardless of which position he plays. His first year back on the blue line was a little bumpy. We can probably expect better results this time around now that he’s had a season to find his comfort level.

17. Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    24/45

    Green has been asked to do less and less defensively the last few years, and not without reason. As an example, he used to play regular shifts on Washington’s penalty kill and he struggled badly. More recently, he’s seen only spot duty and has been more effective. It’s not that he’s a lousy defensive defenceman; it’s just that defensive responsibility isn’t what he’s best at.

    Offensive Play

    28/35

    Where Detroit’s shiny new right-shooting weapon excels is on the man advantage. Actually, that’s not entirely fair; Green is good on the man advantage, but he’s also brilliant at posting even-strength offence.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    Green’s fine when it comes to defending his own blue line but not more than that. He also carries the puck offensively less than one would expect given his fearsome offensive reputation.

    Overall

    62/100

    One can either choose to focus on Green’s limitations or instead embrace him for the creative, freewheeling, riverboat gambler that he is. Lots of good teams have made use of this kind of specialist, and Green’s ability to advance the puck in a hurry is going to be good for Detroit in many ways.

16. Alex Goligoski, Dallas Stars

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    In recent years, a makeshift Dallas Stars blue line has leaned increasingly heavily on Goligoski, and it’s understandable why. He’s delivered quality minutes at both even strength and on the penalty kill, suppressing chances and shots while facing tough competition and doing it without taking penalties. He’s undersized, but the Goose is one of the few getting the job done in Texas.

    Offensive Play

    25/35

    Goligoski is one of just 18 NHL defencemen to play in 100 games and average better than 1.0 points per hour at five-on-five over the last three seasons. His power-play numbers alternate up and down but have been weak the last two seasons.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    Goligoski is above average as a puck-carrier and just below average at holding the defensive blue line.

    Overall

    62/100

    One of the league’s underrated defenders, Goligoski would almost certainly look worlds better on a more established blue line.

15. Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    24/45

    Not known as a high-end defensive defenceman, Niskanen nevertheless saw his role on the defensive side of the game fleshed out a little with his new team last season. He played regular minutes on the penalty kill and, along with regular partner Karl Alzner, delivered solid results. He’s still not the league’s best player from the net to the defensive blue line, but he’s certainly competent.

    Offensive Play

    24/35

    Niskanen is a good five-on-five scorer. His power-play record is a little more mixed; in the last three seasons, he’s managed everything from an abysmal 1.5 points per hour in a regular assignment on the point for the Penguins to more than quadruple that (6.8 points per hour) with Washington’s dynamic power play. We’re betting that the truth falls somewhere between those two extremes.

    Transition Play

    15/20

    Our focus on neutral-zone play really rewards Niskanen, who is just wonderfully effective breaking up plays at the defensive blue line. He’s one of the rare NHL defencemen who forces dump-ins more frequently than he allows the opposing team to carry the puck in. He’s terribly conservative when it comes to carrying the puck in himself, which is the only reason we docked him points here.

    Overall

    63/100

    We really like Alex Goligoski, but how terrible was that trade the Stars made in 2011 shipping off Niskanen and James Neal to Pittsburgh for his rights? Washington found a good one here.

14. Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    31/45

    The value that Seabrook brings to the defensive zone is pretty obvious when one looks at his work on the penalty kill. He’s consistently Chicago’s most effective defenceman at suppressing shots.

    Offensive Play

    25/35

    There’s nothing particularly spectacular about Seabrook’s offensive game at evens; he’s better than the average NHL defenceman at point production but not to a massive degree. He has been a useful piece of Chicago’s power play, though.

    Transition Play

    8/20

    One of the reasons that Seabrook tends to get better press from traditional hockey writers than from new media types is because his possession numbers could be better, much of which stems from his transition game. Seabrook doesn’t rush the puck, and he’s consistently among the Blackhawks’ worst defencemen at holding the defensive blue line.

    Overall

    64/100

    s

13. Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    28/45

    It’s been fun watching the long-underappreciated Stralman get his due in Tampa Bay. He was excellent on the penalty kill in New York but was rarely used; the Lightning bumped up his playing time significantly and were rewarded with strong results. At even strength, Stralman’s chance-against numbers were also exceptional.

    Offensive Play

    22/35

    Given more ice time and responsibility, Stralman responded with the best offensive season of his career at even strength. Given his first crack at power-play time since his early days in New York, he had a very strong season in that department, too.

    Transition Play

    14/20

    Stralman isn’t a puck-rushing defenceman, but he’s excellent at holding the defensive blue line. He’s aggressive, forcing the opposition to make a tough choice upon entering the zone, and when he does trigger a turnover, he’s good at moving the puck up ice in a hurry.

    Overall

    64/100

    To some degree, Stralman is a late bloomer. To a larger degree, though, plenty of teams just didn’t think he was capable of being a top-pairing defenceman until he went to Tampa Bay, was given the minutes and delivered in fine fashion.

12. Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    26/45

    It’s not hard to see Faulk’s improvement over the last few years in virtually every area of the game, including defensively. Even as his responsibilities have increased and the Hurricanes have deteriorated as a team, Faulk has steadily reduced the number of chances allowed when he’s on the ice both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

    Offensive Play

    26/35

    It isn’t just the defensive side of the game that Faulk has improved upon. Offensively, he’s steadily ramped up his play every year. At even strength, he hit 1.0 points per hour last season, the third consecutive year that he’s improved on the previous campaign’s total. He also had a monster year on the power play, topping 5.0 points per hour (rarefied air) for the first time in his NHL career.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    He’s nothing to write home about yet, but Faulk plays an intelligent game at both blue lines and isn’t afraid to force things defensively.

    Overall

    64/100

    Faulk is probably the best unknown defenceman in hockey. If Carolina goes on a playoff run, he’s going to open a lot of eyes.

11. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    33/45

    It doesn’t hurt playing with Mark Giordano, but Brodie’s underlying numbers across the board are really good. His on-ice results in shot and chance suppression are excellent, he does it while playing tough competition and with tough zone starts and he’s one of the most disciplined defencemen in hockey in terms of penalty differential. He’s a fantastic defensive player.

    Offensive Play

    17/35

    Brodie’s offensive game is progressing at even strength, though the power-play scoring touch he exhibited his first two NHL campaigns has been tough to find the last two seasons.

    Transition Play

    14/20

    At either end of the neutral zone, Brodie contributes. He has a flair for carrying the puck into the offensive zone himself. Defensively, he doesn’t force the high number of breakups that partner Mark Giordano does, but he’s just as good at compelling opposing forwards to choose a dump-in over carrying the puck over the blue line.

    Overall

    64/100

    Brodie has been living in Giordano’s shadow, but a late-season injury to his partner allowed him to show his own quality. Down the stretch and into the postseason, Brodie provided the Flames with top-flight play.

10. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    Shattenkirk’s primary value is not on the defensive side of the puck, and that shows up in his usage. He isn’t the Blues' first choice for tough competition has only been cast in a supporting role on the penalty kill. In fairness, though, those are coaching decisions, and Shattenkirk has actually fared pretty well by most defensive metrics. No regular Blues defenceman over the last three years has lower chance-against numbers at evens, and the penalty kill has thrived with Shattenkirk out there. We like his work, even as we acknowledge that his coaches have likely deployed him in a certain way, at least in part because of how they perceive his limitations.

    Offensive Play

    29/35

    At even strength, Shattenkirk’s numbers are quite good, falling just below the magic 1.0-points-per-hour mark over the last three seasons. Where he really shines, though, is on the power play. No defenceman in hockey has been a more prolific scorer on a per-shift basis on the man advantage over the last three seasons than Shattenkirk has.

    Transition Play

    9/20

    Shattenkirk is pretty decent at carrying the puck into the opposition's zone, particularly given the constraints he’s under in St. Louis. However, anything he gains there is given back at his own blue line, where he allows the opposition to carry the puck in all too frequently and isn’t a consistent threat to break up entries.

    Overall

    65/100

    There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist, but it’s tempting to look at Shattenkirk’s defensive-zone metrics and wonder if he can’t be more than that. We aren’t wild about his work in the neutral zone, but with that exception, there’s a lot to like about this player.

9. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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    Marianne Helm/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    24/45

    The occasionally gaffe-prone Dustin Byfuglien draws a lot of heat for his defensive game, but at least in part it’s misplaced. Winnipeg’s penalty kill does a good job of suppressing shots and chances when he’s out there, and on the whole the team’s chance numbers aren’t terrible at even strength when he’s on the ice either. He’s not an elite shutdown defenceman, but he’s still better than the average NHL’er.

    Offensive Play

    27/35

    Our metrics lie to us a little bit with regard to Byfuglien because he’s spent time at forward the last few years, and of course, it’s much easier to put up points at right wing than it is at right defence. His work on the power play, though, has been very strong.

    Transition Play

    15/20

    Like a lot of players with long reach, Byfuglien is quite effective when it comes to defending his own blue line. Like a lot of good offensive defenceman, he also does strong work gaining the opposition zone with control of the puck.

    Overall

    66/100

    Byfuglien is not an elite defensive defenceman, but he’s nowhere near as bad as hyperbole occasionally makes him out to be. Despite those specific weaknesses, his successes offensively and in breaking up plays before they ever get to his end of the ice make him a valuable member of Winnipeg’s blue line and a legitimate top-pairing option.

8. Dougie Hamilton, Calgary Flames

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    27/45

    Hamilton’s defensive game is improving but still under development. It’s telling that while he has strong puck-possession numbers, his chances against figures aren’t quite as impressive; he’s prone to the occasional defensive-zone gaffe, as we might expect from a player who just turned 22 this summer.

    Offensive Play

    27/35

    There’s nothing wrong with Hamilton’s offensive game, which has developed nicely over the last couple of seasons. His 1.07 points per hour at even strength compares favourably with NHL luminaries such as Duncan Keith and P.K. Subban and last season saw him develop into a power-play weapon too.

    Transition Play

    13/20

    Hamilton isn’t a puck-rusher; despite his strong offensive totals, he generally prefers to dump the puck into the opposition zone rather than carry it himself. Where he does excel is in using his long reach to defend his own blue line. In 2013-14, his first full NHL season, he was the most effective defenceman in Boston at forcing opposition dump-ins.

    Overall

    67/100

    This is a cautious projection based more on where Hamilton was last season than on any projected breakthrough. He won’t turn 25 for three years, though, and he won’t hit the 200-game mark until later this coming season. So a big jump forward into bona fide No. 1 territory shouldn’t surprise anyone if it happens.

7. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    26/45

    One of the bigger surprises I had in doing this was digging into Carlson’s numbers and discovering his shot-suppression figures aren’t that good on either the penalty kill or at even strength. It’s not that he’s bad, particularly given the difficulty of the minutes he plays, but he just didn’t stand out from the pack in either category in a positive way.

    Offensive Play

    28/35

    The reason Carlson’s defensive numbers were surprising was because his overall totals have never been all that bad, and the primary reason for that is on the offensive side of the puck. He puts up points on the power play, he puts up points at even strength and Washington generates a crazy amount of shots when he’s on the ice.

    Transition Play

    13/20

    Carlson isn’t one of those swashbuckling puck-rushing defencemen, though he does all right in that area. His real skill comes at the defensive blue line, where he decidedly outperforms the Washington average in terms of breaking up opposition entries and forcing dump-ins.

    Overall

    67/100

    Last season saw Carlson hit career highs in pretty much every offensive category and step forward as one of the Eastern Conference’s better defencemen. He’s just 25 years old, so there’s no reason he can’t stay at the top end of this list for a long time to come.

6. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    28/45

    A year ago, the 25-year-old Pietrangelo would have ranked higher here, but 2014-15 saw a disappointing decline in his underlying numbers. Chances against jumped more than 10 percent for no discernible reason when he was on the ice; he and partner Jay Bouwmeester had the worst results in those terms of any defensive tandem in St. Louis over the last three years. A similarly dramatic drop-off took place on the penalty kill. We expect to see the player rebound, but even so this lousy season hurts his previously solid reputation.

    Offensive Play

    27/35

    While Pietrangelo’s defensive play took a hit last season, the same can’t be said of his work at the offensive end of the rink. His even-strength scoring remained steady, and he’s a top-10 NHL defencemen in that category over the last three seasons. He also continued to score well on the man advantage.

    Transition Play

    12/20

    The Blues’ conservative style doesn’t allow for a lot of puck-rushing by the defence, but Pietrangelo still manages to find moments where he can carry the puck into the offensive end of the rink, and on a more wide-open club he’d doubtless do more. He’s more or less average at defending against opposition entries.

    Overall

    67/100

    One of the top up-and-coming defencemen in the game a year ago, Pietrangelo’s reputation as a cornerstone piece took a significant hit in 2014-15. If he rebounds, the slump will be forgotten in a hurry; if he doesn’t, the Blues may be in some trouble.

5. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    25/45

    Despite Letang’s reputation as a defensive liability, he gets heavy work on the penalty kill. Unfortunately, he’s not terribly effective in those minutes, with the Penguins’ shots and chances against climbing alarmingly when he’s on the ice. Pittsburgh’s chances-against figures when he’s on the ice aren’t great either despite the amount of time he spends in the offensive zone. In fairness, though, he does play reasonably tough opposition.

    Offensive Play

    29/35

    Letang ranks fourth among all regular NHL defencemen in points per hour over the last three seasons, reflecting his unique ability to create offence out of nothing. He’s also an integral part of one of hockey’s best power plays, ranking third among regular defencemen in points per hour on the man advantage.

    Transition Play

    14/20

    One of the reasons why Letang gets away with being a little looser in the defensive zone than one wants in a No. 1 defenceman is because he’s so good at keeping the puck from getting there in the first place. Not only does Letang break up a high percentage of opposition entry attempts, but he’s also extremely good at forcing dump-ins. He’s not as active on zone entries as some of the game’s elite offensive blueliners, but he still carries the puck in more than most defencemen manage.

    Overall

    68/100

    Letang isn’t a true two-way threat, but he’s so effective in the neutral and offensive zones that he’s still capable of impacting a hockey game in a positive way.

4. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    Ronald C. Modra/NHL/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    33/45

    Weber entered the league primarily as a defensive defenceman, but it’s interesting to note the way his reputation compares to his numbers. He does play brutally tough opposition to be sure, but the Predators tend to allow more chances when he’s on the ice than when he’s off it—though that may be related to his work at the blue line. The penalty kill gives us a chance to look primarily at his own-zone work, and there he’s magnificent, which matches what the eyeball test typically says about his own-zone work.

    Offensive Play

    26/35

    Weber’s blistering slap shot is the stuff of legend, and he’s quite effective on the man advantage. His even-strength scoring numbers are quite good, but a little south of elite-level.

    Transition Play

    10/20

    In contrast with his work in the defensive zone, the job Weber does of defending his own blue line isn’t particularly spectacular; he allows the opposition to carry the puck in more frequently than one would like to see from an elite defenceman. He’s also not much of a puck-rusher offensively, at least when it comes to carrying it into the opposition zone.

    Overall

    69/100

    Weber is a player who tends to divide stats writers because at first glance his numbers aren’t particularly good. Our metric likes him better than most but still tends to play him just outside the absolute upper level of NHL defencemen.

3. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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    Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

    Defensive Play

    30/45

    The most underrated part of Subban’s game is probably his work in the defensive zone. It’s telling he plays a regular shift on the penalty kill and more impressive that he does such strong work in those situations; the Canadiens get significantly better at preventing chances when he’s out there vs. when he isn’t. Despite his willingness to jump into the attack and the frequency with which he plays against top attackers, Montreal doesn’t surrender many chances at even strength when he’s out there either.

    Offensive Play

    29/35

    Offence is of course what Subban is most known for. Over the last three seasons, only Erik Karlsson has been better at putting up points on the power play; he’s an elite defenceman in that category. At even strength Subban is also tough to top, and he’s been getting progressively better over the years. In 2014-15 he scored a career high of 1.22 points per hour; only three regular NHL defenders have bettered that figure over the past three seasons.

    Transition Play

    15/20

    Subban carries the puck into the offensive zone less than many other defencemen in the league, which in all likelihood says more about the strategy preferred by Michel Therrien than it does Subban himself; he easily leads all Montreal defencemen in this category. He’s also been effective at preventing opponents from gaining the Canadiens’ zone.

    Overall

    74/100

    Subban is one of the great young defencemen in hockey. He just turned 26 in May and already outperforms most of the veteran rearguards in the league. He should be a fixture in Norris Trophy conversations for much of the next decade.

2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    38/45

    Doughty is one of the NHL’s most effective defencemen. He’s very good at both even strength and on the penalty kill at suppressing shot attempts and scoring chances against. His game took off after head coach Darryl Sutter took over the team, and now he has few peers around the league.    

    Offensive Play

    21/35

    In certain quarters there’s a lot of handwringing that a defenceman as obviously good as Doughty and as successful in the playoffs as Doughty hasn’t won a lot of individual hardware. The reason for that is he just isn’t an elite defenceman offensively. Six defencemen have played at least 100 games for L.A. over the last three years; Doughty ranks fourth in five-on-five scoring, and that’s where he’d stand on most NHL teams. He does have some power-play ability—which buoys his score—but nowhere near enough to make him elite in this category.

    Transition Play

    17/20

    Much of Doughty’s success comes from the work he does in the neutral zone. He’s extremely good at defending his own blue line, even by Los Angeles Kings standards. Critically, he’s also one of the NHL’s elite defencemen when it comes to gaining the opposition zone with the puck. He doesn’t mind carrying it across the blue line himself, and that facilitates attacks.

    Overall

    76/100

    Doughty is an elite puck-possession defenceman. He’s an effective defender, but he doesn’t have to defend as much as many players because he’s really good at getting the puck and not giving it back. The only thing separating him from dominance at his position is that he’s not a truly elite defensive scorer.   

1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive Play

    32/45

    Despite his reputation as a one-way player, Karlsson is an extremely competent defender. One strong indicator is his work on the penalty kill, something he’s done less of in recent years as the coaching staff tries to get him out in more offensive situations. This may be a mistake because no Senators penalty-killer has been on the ice for fewer shots or chances against per minute than Karlsson. He isn’t forced to take penalties after being caught out of position in the defensive zone either.

    Offensive Play

    32/35

    While his defensive game is generally underrated, there’s no question Karlsson’s primary calling card is in the offensive zone. Over the last three seasons, only Victor Hedman has scored more points per hour among NHL defencemen at even strength, and Karlsson is also a top-10 per-minute scorer on the power play over that span.

    Transition Play

    16/20

    Karlsson is one of the game’s better defencemen in the neutral zone too. The data we have makes a case for him as an elite puck-carrying defencemen; he carries the puck in on nearly half of his zone entries, which is an elite number for an NHL defenceman. He does a good job of defending the blue line too, breaking up opposition entry attempts roughly 10 percent of the time and forcing dump-ins an additional 30 percent of the time.

    Overall

    80/100

    Because a player’s defensive game is generally harder to measure, hockey fans often fall into the trap of conflating offensive brilliance with defensive negligence. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Karlsson, who is strong in all three zones and one of the game’s most dynamic talents.

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