Skip to Main Content
Top Players

#NHLTopPlayers: Top 20 Defensemen

NHL Network reveals best of current crop

by David Satriano @davidsatriano / Staff Writer

Whether it's breaking up a big play, setting up a goal, or scoring on the power play, some defensemen can do it all. NHL Network producers and analysts chose the top 20 defensemen in the League right now, and they were revealed Sunday in the first of a nine-part series. Here is the list:


20. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Rielly led NHL defensemen with 20 goals, finished third with 72 points, and was plus-24 in 2018-19. He followed that up last season with 27 points (three goals, 24 assists) and a plus-6 rating in 47 games, missing time with a broken foot. Rielly led the Maple Leafs in ice time per game (24:12).

19. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators

Ellis scored 38 points (eight goals, 30 assists), three from matching his NHL career high despite being limited to 49 games because of injury and the regular season being paused and ultimately cut short due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. He was plus-16 and ranked second on the Predators in ice time per game (23:30) behind Roman Josi (25:47) and third in blocked shots (96). Ellis has scored at least 32 points each of the past five seasons.

"Ryan Ellis has been that steady presence, both ends of the rink," NHL Network analyst Ken Daneyko said. "Especially if you're a guy his size (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), he's not the biggest of stature, you have to have a high compete level and he has an extremely high compete level. …He's a guy that continues to be a steady force for the Nashville Predators."

Video: Ryan Ellis lands on the Top 20 Defensemen list

18. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

Karlsson led the Sharks with 40 points (six goals, 34 assists) in 56 games through Feb. 14 before missing the remainder of the season with a broken thumb. He was second on San Jose in ice time per game (24:31) behind Brent Burns (25:25). Karlsson scored at least 62 points in five straight seasons for the Ottawa Senators from 2013-18, and his 603 points since entering the NHL in 2009-10 are the most among defensemen in that span. He is a four-time Norris Trophy finalist and was voted winner of the award for best NHL defenseman in 2012 and 2015.

17. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes

Slavin set NHL career highs in assists (30) and points (36) in 68 games last season, when he led the Hurricanes in ice time per game (23:24) and blocked shots (107). He led the NHL with 81 takeaways and was tied for second with a plus-30 rating. Slavin ranked sixth in the NHL in shorthanded ice time (210:55) last season and has scored at least 30 points in four straight seasons.

16. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

In 65 games last season, Weber scored 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists), was plus-8, and led the Canadiens in ice time per game (24:00) for the fourth straight season. He had 114 blocked shots (27th among NHL defensemen) and 112 hits (tied for 33rd). Weber has scored at least 40 points nine times and at least 15 goals 10 times in his 15 NHL seasons.

Video: Shea Weber once more on the Top 20 Defensemen list

15. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

Doughty was second in the NHL in average ice time last season (25:49 per game) and has finished third or better in the NHL each of the past six seasons. He scored 35 points (seven goals, 28 assists) in 67 games, the 10th time in 12 NHL seasons he's scored at least 30. Doughty is a four-time Norris finalist, winning the award in 2016, and played in 460 straight games before missing a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 29. He has missed 19 games in his NHL career.

14. Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights

Theodore set NHL career highs in goals (13), assists (33), points (46), rating (plus-12), power-play points (16), game-winning goals (four) and shots on goal (219) in 71 games last season. He led the Golden Knights in average ice time (22:14 per game) and power-play time (3:06 per game). In the postseason, Theodore scored 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 20 games to help Vegas advance to the Western Conference Final.

"He kind of had his coming out party this season and going into the playoffs, he had a terrific playoffs as well, he's going to be in the top-10 sooner than later," Daneyko said. "…We knew he had all the ability, the skating, the shot, but it's about reading plays on the ice, when to jump in, when not to."

Video: Shea Theodore lands on Top 20 Defensemen list

13. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

Burns scored 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists) and averaged 25:25 of ice time in 70 games last season after he led NHL defensemen with an NHL career-high 83 points (16 goals, 67 assists) in 2018-19. He scored at least 60 points in each of the previous five seasons. He has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy in three of the past five seasons and won the award in 2017. Burns, who has not missed a game in the past six seasons, leads NHL defensemen in goals (144) and points (474) since 2012-13.

12. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

Werenski set an NHL career high and a Blue Jackets record for goals by a defenseman with 20, the most in the League at the position, and was on pace for a career high in points before the season was paused. He scored 41 points, 13 power-play points (five goals, eight assists) and four game-winning goals, and was second on the Blue Jackets in ice time per game (23:59), the third straight season he's increased his average.

11. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

The runner-up for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year last season, Hughes led NHL rookies in assists (45), points (53) and power-play points (25; three goals, 22 assists) in 68 games, and his 21:53 of ice time per game was second (defenseman Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers, 21:58). Hughes helped the Canucks reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014-15 and scored 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) in 17 postseason games.

Video: Breaking down Quinn Hughes' outstanding skillset

10. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Heiskanen scored 35 points (eight goals, 27 assists) in 68 regular-season games, was plus-14, and averaged 23:46 of ice time per game to lead Dallas. In the postseason, he set a record for points by a Stars defenseman with 26 (six goals, 20 assists), including eight on the power play (two goals, six assists), and was plus-8 in 27 games averaging 25:58 of ice time.

"He has a Norris Trophy in his future, there is no question in my mind that Miro Heiskanen will win it one year," Daneyko said. "He just continues to get better and better. He adjusts to however his team is playing. … As smooth a skating as you're going to see. …Nobody is smoother than Heiskanen, he's like silk."

Video: Top 20 Defensemen Right Now: Miro Heiskanen

9. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

After getting off to a slow start last season, McAvoy tied his NHL career high in points (32) and set his career high in assists (27) in 67 games. He led the Bruins in ice time per game (23:10) and blocked shots (131), and he ranked third in hits (131). McAvoy averaged 1:00 more per game last season than he did in 2018-19, and he was plus-24 to improve to plus-58 in three NHL seasons.

8. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Letang scored 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 61 games last season, when he averaged 25:44 of ice time, third in the NHL. He tied his NHL career high with six power-play goals and reached double-digit goals for the seventh time in 14 seasons. A three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins (2009, 2016, 2017), Letang has scored 537 points (127 goals, 410 assists) in 808 regular-season games and 80 points (21 goals, 59 assists) in 136 postseason games.

7. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes

Hamilton ranked fourth among NHL defensemen with 40 points and was tied for second with 14 goals when he broke his fibula Jan. 16, causing him to miss the remainder of the regular season. His plus-30 rating was second in the NHL at the time. Hamilton, who is first among NHL defensemen with 49 goals over the past three seasons, returned for the Eastern Conference First Round against the Boston Bruins and scored two points (one goal, one assist) in a five-game loss.

"I just like how he's focused on his own game in the zone as well, using his size (6-6, 229), using his reach, playing with more compete, playing with more aggressiveness around his net," Daneyko said. "He improved in a lot of areas."

Video: Top 20 Defensemen Right Now: Dougie Hamilton

6. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

Makar, who won the Calder Trophy last season, led NHL rookie defensemen in goals (12), power-play goals (four) and even-strength goals (eight), and he was second to Hughes among NHL rookies in assists (38), points (50) and power-play points (19; four goals, 15 assists). He scored four game-winning goals, had a plus-12 rating, and averaged 21:01 of ice time in 57 games, third among rookies. Makar, who set the Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques record for points by a rookie defenseman in one season, scored 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 15 postseason games.

Video: Top 5 Cale Makar plays from 2019-20

5. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

In 2019-20, he led Columbus in average ice time (25:17 per game) for the fifth straight season and in shorthanded ice time per game (2:25). Jones, who scored 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) and was plus-10 in 56 games, was a big reason the Blue Jackets were tied for third in the NHL in goals-against average (2.61 per game). He scored at least 42 points each of the previous three seasons, including an NHL career-high 57 (16 goals, 41 assists) in 2017-18. Jones set an NHL record for ice time in a game (65:06) in a 3-2 five-overtime loss to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round.

"He's Victor Hedman 2.0 to me, as far as, he continues to get better, he's 6-foot-4, so has that big frame like Victor Hedman," Daneyko said. "He uses his body well, he's physical, I think his offensive ability will continue to grow over the next few seasons. Again, powerful skater, long stride, joins the attack, uses his stick so well around his net. He defends so well."

Video: Jones ranks 5th on the top 20 defensemen list

4. Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights

Pietrangelo scored an NHL career-high 16 goals in 70 games for the St. Louis Blues last season, and his 52 points were two shy of his high, set in 2017-18. He also set NHL career highs in power-play points (22; six goals, 16 assists) and shots on goal (225) playing a St. Louis-leading average of 24:11 per game. Pietrangelo, who was Blues captain from 2016-2020, helped them to the best points percentage in the Western Conference (.662) after leading NHL defensemen with 19 points (three goals, 16 assists) in 26 games in the 2019 playoffs, when St. Louis won the Stanley Cup for the first time in its history. He scored six points (one goal, five assists) in nine games in the 2020 postseason before signing a seven-year contract with the Golden Knights on Oct. 12.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

Carlson led NHL defensemen in assists (60) and points (75), each an NHL career high, and tied his high from 2017-18 with 15 goals in 69 games last season. He averaged 1.09 points per game to become the first NHL defenseman since Ray Bourque (1.26), Sergei Zubov (1.14) and Al MacInnis (1.09) in 1993-94 to average more than one point per game for a season. Carlson was first among NHL defensemen in game-winning goals (six), second in power-play points (26; two goals, 24 assists) and tied for ninth in average ice time (24:38). The runner-up for the Norris Trophy for 2019-20, he had six assists in five postseason games.

"John Carlson quarterbacks the power play, he is a master back there at finding the open man or taking that big shot and burying it," Daneyko said. " … I would have had no problem with John Carlson - for the season he had - giving him the Norris Trophy, at all, and he finished second. He had that good of a year."

Video: John Carlson ranks 3rd on the top 20 defensemen list

2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

Josi, who won the Norris Trophy last season, set NHL career highs in goals (16), assists (49) and points (65) in 69 games, ranking second among NHL defensemen in each category. He was third in the League in average ice time (25:47 per game). Among NHL defensemen, he was fifth in power-play points (23; four goals, 19 assists), tied for seventh in rating (plus-22) and tied for 33rd in blocked shots (108). Josi scored at least 53 points in five of six seasons since 2014-15 and ranks third among NHL defensemen with 339 points (86 goals, 253 assists) in that span. He had four assists in four games in the 2020 postseason.

"I don't think we're going to get any argument having Roman Josi at number two, as the best defenseman," Daneyko said. "… He just eats, sleeps and breaths hockey. He wants to be the best he can be for his teammates and what makes him so impressive is he's hard to track, hard to defend, because he's always in motion with that beautiful fluid skating stride."

Video: Roman Josi ranks 2nd on the top 20 defensemen list

1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Hedman finished third among NHL defensemen behind Carlson and Josi with 55 points (11 goals, 44 assists) in 66 games last season. He was plus-27 (fourth among defensemen), had 47 takeaways (eighth), and averaged 24:04 of ice time (15th). Hedman, who was a finalist for the Norris Trophy for the third straight season (he won the award for 2017-18), ranks third in points with 244 (Burns, 271; Carlson, 250) and second with a plus-86 rating (Zdeno Chara, plus-88) among NHL defensemen since 2016-17. He scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) and was plus-13 in 25 games to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as 2020 postseason MVP and help the Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

"[Hedman is] 6-foot-6, agile, mobile, great reach, great shot, reads the play well, physical," Daneyko said. "He has all those attributes, so that's why he is the best defenseman in the National Hockey League. He always makes the right play. We talked about how good he was in the Playoffs and rightfully so won the Conn Smythe Trophy and well-deserved championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning."

Video: Victor Hedman ranks 1st on the top 20 defensemen list

View More

The NHL has updated its Privacy Policy effective January 16, 2020. We encourage you to review it carefully.

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.