Ranking the Top NHL Defensemen in the Next 5 Years

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2021

Ranking the Top NHL Defensemen in the Next 5 Years

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Many of the best defensemen in the NHL this season are in their late-20s or early-30s. It usually takes young blueliners several seasons to fully develop their skills at the big league level.

    Notable examples include last season's finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi (the 2020 Norris winner) is 30, as is the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman. Meanwhile, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals is 31.

    Recent former Norris winners and finalists, including the Calgary Flames' Mark Giordano, the San Jose Sharks Brent Burns and the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty, also fell within that age range.

    Most of them remain among the NHL's best blueliners. However, there are a number of young rearguards under the age of 25 who are already joining their ranks. In a few years, they will supplant their older peers as the best in the league.

    Some, such as the Colorado Avalanche's Cale Makar, quickly established themselves as stars. Others, such as Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, have quietly become the best rearguards on their teams.

    Here's our ranking of the top-10 NHL defensemen in the next five years. Offensive and defensive skills, time on ice and special-team play were among the factors used for this compilation.

10. Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The presence of teammate Cale Makar often means Samuel Girard is overlooked among the Colorado Avalanche's top defensemen. Opponents, however, do so at their peril. Though small in stature, the 5'10”, 170-pounder has quietly blossomed into a skilled puck-moving blueliner in his own right.

    Only 22, Girard has steadily developed his game since his rookie season in 2017-18. With 31 points in 41 games, he will shortly exceed last season's career-best 34-point performance. His average ice time of 23:31 is third among Avalanche skaters and he's sitting fourth with 22 even-strength points.

    Girard may have taken a little longer than Makar to blossom but he's quickly establishing himself among the league's best offensive blueliners. He's become a key part of the Avs core and will only get better over the next five years.

9. Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    This season saw Jakob Chychrun's long-awaited breakout performance. With 13 goals in 45 games, the 23-year-old defenseman is jockeying with the Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse for the goal-scoring lead among NHL blueliners. His 31 points also rank among the top-10 for this season's blueliners and among the Coyotes leading scorers.

    Chychrun's development over the past two seasons is even more impressive considering he overcame two major knee surgeries earlier in his career. He's emerged this season as the Coyotes' best puck-moving defenseman, leading them with 23:09 in ice time per game. His 73 blocked shots rank second among his teammates.

    Having supplanted captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the Coyotes top defenseman, Chychrun is playing a significant role in their battle for a playoff spot in the Honda West Division. His performance this season bodes well for a productive career over at least the next five seasons.

8. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Overshadowed by superstar Victor Hedman, the Tampa Bay Lightning's Mikhail Sergachev is steadily developing into one of his team's top defensemen. From showing promise playing sheltered minutes as a rookie in 2017-18, the 22-year-old is now a skillful all-around blueliner who helped the Lightning win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

    Sergachev averaged just 15:22 of ice time per game with some time on their second power-play unit while tallying a career-high 40 points in his rookie season. This season, the 6'3”, 216-pounder sits second among the Lightning in ice time per game (22:08) while his shorthanded ice time has increased to 1:45. He's second among Bolts rearguards in points (26) and third with 60 blocked shots.

    Sergachev's youth and ongoing development ensure he'll take on a larger role as veterans like Hedman and Ryan McDonagh grow older. With those two under expensive long-term contracts, Sergachev could price himself out of Tampa Bay when his contract expires in 2023. If that happens, his next NHL club will be getting one of the league's top defensemen.

7. Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    After developing his game through his first two promising seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, Shea Theodore emerged last season as one of their best defensemen. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by off-season acquisition Alex Pietrangelo, the 25-year-old continues to play a significant role on the Golden Knights blue line.

    Having tallied a career-best 41 points in 71 games in 2019-20, Theodore led Vegas in postseason scoring with 19 points. He's averaging 22:27 of ice time this season while leading the Golden Knights with 3:01 of power-play time per game. He's also their third-leading scorer this season with 34 points and leads their defensemen with 19 takeaways.

    Theodore is emerging as a top defenseman in his own right. He stepped up when Pietrangelo was sidelined 15 games this season with COVID-19 and an upper-body injury. That could happen more often over the next five years as age and injuries begin to take a toll on Pietrangelo.

6. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

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    Rich Lam/Associated Press

    After two seasons starring with the Michigan Wolverines, Quinn Hughes made the jump to the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks in March 2019. A swift-skating blueliner with strong offensive skills, he gave fans of the rebuilding club a tantalizing glimpse of the future with three assists in five regular-season games.

    In his first full NHL campaign, Hughes was the rookie scoring leader with 53 points in 68 games. He also performed well in his first NHL postseason, tallying 16 points in 17 games to finish third among Canucks postseason scorers. The 5'10”, 180-pounder was a finalist for the 2019-20 Calder Memorial Trophy, playing a big role as the Canucks reached the playoffs for the first time in five years.

    Hughes' sophomore campaign has been more of a struggle. The 21-year-old rearguard is averaging a team-leading 22:55 of ice time per game and sits fourth among Canucks scorers with 28 points. His team-worst plus-minus of minus-17 suggests his defensive game needs work, though it could also be a result of the Canucks' poor overall defense. In time, however, that aspect of his play should improve. 

5. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Making his NHL debut in 2016-17, Zach Werenski tallied 47 points in 78 games to finish as a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy. It was an impressive start of a productive five seasons thus far for the 23-year-old defenseman.

    Werenski's production dipped to 37 points in his sophomore season but he rebounded with 44 points in 2018-19. He was on pace to set a new career-high in points when COVID-19 derailed the 2019-20 regular season, leaving him with 41 points in 63 games. His 169 total points and 22:32 in time on ice per game during those four seasons ranked second among Blue Jackets defensemen.

    This season was a difficult one for Werenski. A season-ending sports hernia surgery limited him to 20 points in 35 games. Nevertheless, he still averaged 24:22 minutes of ice time per game. Expect him to bounce back strong next season and remain among the league's best defensemen.

4. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Charlie McAvoy became the Boston Bruins' top defenseman after Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug departed last fall as free agents. After playing most of his first three seasons alongside Chara, the 23-year-old has proven he's up to the challenge.

    A strong skater and skillful two-way defender, McAvoy leads all Bruins blueliners with 23 points in 39 games. He's also the team leader in time on ice per game (24:20) and blocked shots with 63. He possesses a big shot but has just six power-play points, though that could be attributable to the Bruins' lack of secondary scoring for much of this season.

    McAvoy is filling the role he was projected to play when the Bruins selected him in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. He's only going to improve as he grows comfortable as their No. 1 defenseman. His solid all-around play could soon garner attention from Norris Trophy voters.

3. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    An excellent all-around defenseman, Miro Heiskanen joined the Dallas Stars over a year after they selected him third overall in the 2017 NHL draft. He led all rookies that season with an average ice time of 23:07 while finishing 10th in scoring with 33 points.

    Heiskanen's sophomore season heralded him as an up-and-coming NHL blueliner. He finished with a respectable 35 points in 68 but his play during Dallas' run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final garnered attention. The young Finn led the Stars with 26 points in 27 games, leading all playoff defensemen while sitting third among all scorers. He also led the Stars with 25:58 of ice time per game.

    Only 21, Heiskanen is a solid puck-mover with tremendous speed who maintains poise under pressure He averages a team-leading 25:02 of ice time, including time on their power-play and penalty-killing units. He also sits second among Stars blueliners with 22 points in 43 games. His play at both ends of the rink could make him a regular Norris Trophy candidate in the coming five years.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Cale Makar joined the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 NHL playoffs following two collegiate seasons starring with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He wasted little time making a positive impression. Despite his lack of big-league experience, the 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner acquitted himself well, with six points in 10 postseason games.

    It was a sign of things to come. A superb skater with outstanding offensive skills, Makar won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2019-20. The 5'11, 187-pounder finished second among rookie scorers with 50 points in 57 games and was also second among Colorado's leading scorers. He followed up with another solid postseason effort, finishing fifth among the Avs with 15 points.

    Now 22, Makar should become a perennial Norris Trophy contender over the next five years. He has 31 points in as many games this season. His puck-moving skills and ability to control the play is a key reason why the Avalanche has a league-leading 3.58 goals per game average. He's second among Avs skaters in ice time (24:06) and their leader in power-play ice time (4:20) and takeaways with 29.

1. Adam Fox, New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    It's taken just two seasons for the New York Rangers' Adam Fox to serve notice he's a rising star among NHL defensemen. Following an impressive 42-point rookie performance in 2019-20, the 23-year-old has 41 points in 44 games. He's jostling with veteran stars such as Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman and Washington's John Carlson for the scoring league among NHL defensemen.

    Following three seasons as a star with Harvard University, Fox has made a smooth transition to the big-league game. The 5'11”, 181-pounder sits among the Rangers' leading scorers while averaging a team-leading 24:29 of ice time per game. He's also second in power-play time (3:54), penalty-killing (2:28) and blocked shots (81) and tied with Mika Zibanejad for most takeaways with 29.

    Fox has supplanted veteran Jacob Trouba as the Rangers' No.1 defenseman, playing a significant role on the retooling Rangers. A game-changing all-around blueliner, expect to hear him mentioned more often in the Norris Trophy conversation in the near future.

                

    Player and team stats (as of April 19, 2021) via NHL.com