NHL teams thrive on having the best of the best at specific positions. For example, the New York Rangers for years were led by Henrik Lundqvist, and would annually win the "best goaltender in the NHL" ranking's top spot. Now that bar has been passed to Carey Price or Braden Holtby for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the defense. A goaltender can steal games here and there, but without a top notch defense they cannot be expected to win too many games.
Defenses are interesting in the sense that they can be comprised of quite different players. For example, the defense could feature an offensive minded defenseman to help move the puck to the forwards, a defensive minded defenseman to make sure the puck is not going into their own net, and four two-way defensemen that don't exactly specialize in anything, but also don't have tremendous weaknesses in any areas.
With six defensemen playing every night and at least one defenseman waiting for their turn to crack the lineup, one third of the roster is comprised of the defense, and more than one third of the roster is comprised when you consider the scratched players. Each and every defenseman plays a major role in helping the team win, and a poor defense can bury any team. Let's take a look atwhich teams boast the top defensive corps in the NHL, and which teams need major upgrades if they wish to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup.
30 Colorado Avalanche
The worst team in hockey has the worst defense in hockey, and we do not believe that is a coincidence one bit. Colorado's defense suffers some because Erik Johnson is constantly out with injuries, but even with Johnson in the lineup the team only boasts one top pair defenseman. Tyson Barrie is a top pair defenseman, Erik Johnson is a fine second pair defenseman, and Patrick Wiercioch and Nikita Zadorov can be good defensemen in time. After that, however, Colorado's defense falls off of a cliff. Colorado stitched together waiver wire pickups and cheap free agent signings to claim they have an NHL ready defense, when in reality they have something of an American Hockey League squad masquerading as NHL players. No wonder they struggled so much this season.
29 New York Rangers
When Henrik Lundqvist owns a .907 save percentage and is constantly out of position and trying to compensate for the players in front of him, you know there is a major problem with the defense. New York's defense crushed them in the playoffs last season, but the Rangers managed to somehow get worse on the blueline. Gone was Keith Yandle, in came Nick Holden. Holden has been fine, but Ryan McDonagh is the only definitive top four defenseman on the roster. After that the Rangers have two of the worst contracts in the NHL in Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, a should-be healthy scratch in Kevin Klein, and rookie Brady Skjei attempting to get his feet wet in the NHL. Not the setup you're looking for.
28 Vancouver Canucks
Henrik Lundqvist is one poor Swede, but he is not the only poor Swede. Lundqvist's countrymates, the Sedins, are suffering through a topsy turvy season thanks to a horrendous defense playing behind them. Alexander Edler is a fine defenseman, and Christopher Tanev is a good defenseman as well. After that, the Canucks own the towering yet ineffective Nikita Tryamkin, a series of youngsters in Alex Biega, Ben Hutton, Philip Larsen, and Troy Stecher that are simply trying to learn NHL hockey, and a pair of ineffective big bodies that the Vancouver Canucks misunderstood as effective defensemen in Erik Gudbranson and Luca Sbisa. In other words, the Canucks have no one to rely on to stop opposing offenses, and that is understandably a major concern for playoff hopefuls.
27 New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils are a defensive hockey team, keeping the score low nearly every night. A team with a defensive reputation normally is understood to have a strong defense, but the Devils buck that trend. New Jersey's defense is not all bad, as Damon Severson has some potential, and there are some options in the American Hockey League that could help. But the current NHL defense is led by Andy Greene, and considering most hockey fans have not heard of Andy Greene, that is a major problem. New Jersey does not have an offensive defenseman in their group of six, nor do they have a star defensemen. They have a bunch of fifth and sixth defensemen playing the safe style of hockey that New Jersey is known for.
26 Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are among the worst teams in hockey, and their defense is not helping the cause. Led by Rasmus Ristolainen playing an unreasonable amount of minutes per game, the Sabres defense is a consistent weakness among a team that is not strong altogether anyway. Buffalo traded Mark Pysyk away for the inferior Dimitri Kulikov in the off-season, as well as bringing in career minor leaguer Justin Falk. Cody Franson is a solid defenseman, but Dan Bylsma does not trust him to play him enough minutes. That leaves aging veteran Josh Gorges, the tough but not defensively strong Zach Bogosian, and youngster Jake McCabe as the remainder of the Sabres defense. Not quite the most inspiring group for a playoff hopeful, to say the least.
25 Dallas Stars
The Stars are an interesting case because their goaltending is so poor that it makes their defense look worse in the process. Yet the goaltending is also made worse by the fact that the defense cannot cover up for any of their mistakes, as the defense is putrid as well. John Klingberg is a rising star in the NHL, but he is having an off year when the team needs him the most. Julius Honka, Stephen Johns, and Esa Lindell have potential, but they cannot be relied on yet. Jordie Benn is a fine third pair defenseman, while Dan Hamhuis is aging and losing his ability to take a stand against opposing offenses. Overall, the defense is lacking 2-3 defensemen that are sorely needed in the lineup.
24 Detroit Red Wings
Barring an unforeseen drastic change in the standings, the Detroit Red Wings will be kept out of the playoffs for the first time in over two decades this season. The goaltending tandem of Jared Coreau and Petr Mrazek have not helped matters, but the real issue is the defense. Detroit is an obvious case of missing a top defenseman. Nicklas Kronwall is far too old to be "the guy" anymore, as is Mike Green. Green's offensive game helps, but he is often injured and losing speed in today's NHL. Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith are fine bottom four defensemen, while Jonathan Ericsson can get by on the team's defense. Yet there is no strong point, and no true defensive defenseman. Detroit needs plenty of help.
23 Calgary Flames
Another team that has struggled mightily to keep pucks out of their own net due in part to defensive deficiencies. The Flames thought they solved their goaltending issues by signing Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, but learned the hard way that a large portion of the problem was actually the defense. Before we get to the negatives, it's important to understand that the Flames do have three solid defensemen in T.J. Brodie, Marc Giordano, and Dougie Hamilton. After those three, however, there is a major tailspin. Jyrki Jokipaaka is not yet ready to play a major role on a playoff contender, Brett Kulak provides no value, and Dennis Wideman's losing ability as he ages. The Flames are in dire need of a bottom three upgrade.
22 Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia is another case (as you can see there is a trend happening here) where a goalie that was expected to be good is struggling. Steve Mason is a fine goaltender, yet he is having an awful season. That can be explained by the defensemen playing in front of him. Michael Del Zotto is often injured and struggling with the defensive aspect of the game. Shayne Gostisbehere is likely the best defenseman on the roster, yet is a healthy scratch often. Radko Gudas is more often suspended than contributing. Andrew MacDonald owns one of the worst contracts in hockey, while former Islanders teammate Mark Streit is struggling to recapture his success. Brandon Manning and Nick Schultz do not belong on an NHL roster. That leaves only rookie Ivan Provorov, and Philadelphia is giving him far too many responsibilities this early into his career.
21 Ottawa Senators
Ottawa has not struggled much in keeping pucks out of the net, so this may come with some controversy attached. It would be difficult to argue that the Senators defense has been a negative this season, but in context it can be understood that the defense is not a strength, either. Guy Boucher's style is to play conservative hockey and keep either team-his own or the opponents-from getting plenty of chances. With that, the Senators defense simply needs to play his style and they will avoid making many mistakes in the process. Having Erik Karlsson as the top defenseman helps a lot, while Cody Ceci has plenty of potential as well. Ottawa is brought down some by Dion Phaneuf and the lack of flare on the remainder of the defense.
20 Boston Bruins
A team in heavy competition with the Ottawa Senators for positioning in the Atlantic Division standings is the Boston Bruins. Boston's defense has done a fine job like Ottawa's in keeping the puck out of their own net, but there is a lack of offense and a lack of overall talent on the defense anyway. Brandon Carlo has been a nice surprise on the backend, while Zdeno Chara remains Zdeno Chara. Torey Krug is a fine top four defenseman, but after that trio the defense falls off. John-Michael Liles brings little to the table, Adam McQuaid has not been effective in years, Kevan and Colin Miller are average at best, and Joe Morrow has bounced around the NHL for good reason. More is needed to succeed.
19 Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are an odd case in that they were in heated contract negotiations, and started the season without their best defenseman, Jacob Trouba. Trouba is an excellent, young top four defenseman, joined by other top four defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. Tobias Enstrom is a fine defenseman, and while healthy Tyler Myers is the same, but Myers is rarely healthy. The issues come in after those four, and in the fact that those four are all right handed shots. Winnipeg lacks depth, any ability on the left side, and value overall on defense. They are constantly plugging in young defensemen in hopes something sticks, but the real issue must be solved by acquiring a left handed shot to complement their stable of right handed defensemen this year.
18 Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes are the second worst team in hockey, and although the majority of the problems stem from their lack of offense, their defense cannot get too much credit either. The defense is led by all-world defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, followed by a variety of young, inconsistent defensemen. Jakob Chychrun has been fine in his first taste of the NHL, Alex Goligoski is a solid second pair defenseman, Connor Murphy and Mark Stone can be effective second pair defensemen when everything is going right, and that says a lot about the ability for the defense to be a positive. Unfortunately Luke Schenn provides negative value, and things are not always going right for the Arizona Coyotes. Hence their record this season, and this spot on the ranking.
17 Edmonton Oilers
One of the most essential goals for the Edmonton Oilers this offseason was to fix their defense. To do so, the Oilers signed shot-blocking machine Kris Russell, and traded elite forward Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for second pair defenseman Adam Larsson. Neither move exactly pushed the bill much for the Oilers, thus this spot on the ranking. Edmonton has a series of average defensemen on the roster, ones that will not tank the team, but will not push the team ahead of their opponents. Andrej Sekera is a solid defenseman, Darnell Nurse is an up and comer when healthy, and Oscar Klefbom appears headed for a nice career. Yet the Oilers are missing a top pair defenseman, and it certainly shows.
16 Toronto Maple Leafs
As we enter the top 16 defensive corps in the National Hockey League, remember that 16 teams make the playoffs every season. An interesting way to look at this list is to see which teams that will not be making the playoffs are in the top 16, and which teams that will be making the playoffs are in the top 16. Then, you have the teams that could make the playoffs, but it is too soon to tell. Count the Toronto Maple Leafs among those teams. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are fantastic young defensemen leading a group of young defensemen, but there is a serious lack of veteran steadiness, and the veteran steadiness that is there is not steady. Just say no to Roman Polak.
15 New York Islanders
The New York Islanders started this season more likely to win the lottery than to make the playoffs, but things have turned around since they fired Jack Capuano and replaced him with Doug Weight. Still, the Islanders do not appear headed for the postseason, and if that is the case the defense will be passengers in the tough ride. Travis Hamonic is having a difficult season, and Johnny Boychuk's contract is looking like a disaster. Still, the Islanders have young talent in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, while Thomas Hickey provides solid value on the back-end. Calvin deHaan is his usual average self, and Nick Leddy has emerged as a top defenseman for the Islanders. They are an average team with an average defense.
14 Tampa Bay Lightning
Count the 2016-17 campaign as disastrous for the 2015 Eastern Conference Champions, who also managed to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Tampa Bay's defense is led by one of the top combinations in the entire National Hockey League, with All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman and his fellow Swede Anton Stralman leading the way. Jason Garrison's booming slapshot is a solid contribution from the second pair, and Andrej Sustr appears more comfortable in his game than he ever has before. Yet the Lightning are lacking a third pairing, and Braydon Coburn's continuous decline is not helping matters. The Lightning appear to be in the market for defensive assistance, and their spot in the standings certainly explains why that is the case.
13 Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets came out of nowhere this year to surge into the third spot in the loaded Metropolitan Division. The season included the second longest winning streak in NHL history, so the defense has to be good. Let's get the good covered first. Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, and Zach Werenski are three of the finest young defensemen in the NHL, with all of the three looking like future if not present stars. David Savard complements the trio well as a fourth defenseman. Unfortunately the Blue Jackets suffer the same concerns as the Lightning, as Jack Johnson fails to help in winning games, while the sixth defenseman spot is a rotating series of struggling youngsters or out of place waiver wire pick ups. Columbus needs a bit more.
12 Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes are attempting to find their way back into the postseason after a long drought, and if they do it will be largely thanks to their defense. The defense is young like the majority of the team, but they are also ultra-talented. Veteran Ron Hainsey helps keep the defensemen moving in the right direction, as when we say the Hurricanes defense is young, we mean it. Justin Faulk is an All-Star defenseman with some experience, but after him the age drops off tremendously. Noah Hanifin is 20 years old, Brett Pesce is 22 years old, and Jaccob Slavin is also 22 years old. There is plenty of room for growth for this Hurricanes defense, but it is also mighty impressive as it stands today.
11 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks defense has done wonders for their ability to remain relevant as the offense has lost depth and began to sputter. Chicago's leadership remains Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews, but Duncan Keith's role as an annually perrenial Norris Trophy winner must be remembered as well. Brent Seabrook is a tad overrated, but he still presents plenty of value to the Blackhawks' blueline. Nicklas Hjalmarsson is a steady force, and youngsters Gustav Forsling, Michal Kempny, and Trevor van Riemsdyk provide hope for the future, while also aiding the team in their present quest for the cup. Brian Campbell has been enigmatic this season and may be on the move, but Chicago can afford that with their variety of defensemen that contribute to the wins.
10 Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty may not be a fan favorite across the NHL, but he is still the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an All-Star, a Stanley Cup winner, and a top defenseman on any team in today's NHL. His presence makes the Kings' defense solid, and the presence of Jake Muzzin makes them a top 10 defense in today's NHL. Alec Martinez is a solid defenseman in his own right, Brayden McNabb can contribute as a fourth or fifth defenseman despite providing little to no offense, and youngsters Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel have shown that Darryl Sutter's system in addition to the fine forward depth the Kings boast can make any defensemen capable NHL regulars in Los Angeles. The Kings have nothing to worry about on their back-end.
9 Montreal Canadiens
It's incredibly impressive and interesting that the Montreal Canadiens managed to trade a former Norris Trophy winner, one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and current All-Star P.K. Subban, yet still rank ninth on this list. We wanted to give them a worse ranking for surrendering Subban, but it would not be fair to their current defensive group. Shea Weber, who was acquired for Subban, has filled in admirably as the top defenseman. Andrei Markov is having an impressive offensive campaign, while Jeff Petry is proving to be worth the contract the Canadiens gifted him a couple of offseasons ago. This Canadiens defense has depth, players with different skill-sets, and they also get the luxury of playing in front of Carey Price.
8 Washington Capitals
Perhaps the Washington Capitals defense will finally contribute enough to lead the team past the second round of the playoffs, but we wouldn't exactly bet on it still. The Capitals defense is solid, but Washington just cannot make it past the second round. Anyway, focusing on the defense, a top two of John Carlson and Matt Niskanen certainly gets the job done. Dimitry Orlov is developing into the defenseman everyone expected him to be, Karl Alzner remains a shot-blocking machine, and then the defense falls off some. Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt are not exactly premier defensemen in the NHL, and Brooks Orpik provides little to no value to any hockey team. Washington's defense gets credit due to their fantastic record, but it can also be better.
7 San Jose Sharks
For years the Washington Capitals were joined by the San Jose Sharks as the two most disappointing postseason performers, but the Sharks shed that label when they went to the Stanley Cup Final last season. San Jose was led by Brent Burns, who will likely win the Norris Trophy this season. The Sharks boast tremendous depth, players that can play all kinds of different roles, and zero weaknesses on defense. Burns is spectacular, Marc-Eduard Vlasic is one of the most underrated players in the NHL, Justin Braun is a solid second pair defenseman, David Schlemko was an impressive addition to an already excellent group, and we can go on and on. The only reason the Sharks do not rank higher is because other teams are just that good.
6 Pittsburgh Penguins
In a cruel twist of fate, one of the teams that fit into the "just that good" category is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Defense was a concern in the offseason for the Penguins, but the defending Stanley Cup champions must not worry about their backend anymore. Kris Letang remains an elite defenseman, but in a surprising twist of fate, he is now joined by Justin Schultz, points machine. Schultz has stepped up his two-way game, but most noticeably his offensive game. That has allowed Olli Maataa to focus on his defense first, helping to shutdown opposing offenses. Ian Cole has been his normal steady presence, and Brian Dumoulin has shown he is here to stay. Add Trevor Daley to the mix, and you have a solid defense.
5 St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are in the midst of a disappointing campaign, but the defense must not be blamed for that. Jake Allen has been a disaster in net all year, and Carter Hutton has not helped matters behind him. We expect St. Louis' spot on this list could change soon due to the likely departure of Kevin Shattenkirk, but for now Shattenkirk is here and he is one of the Blues' many excellent defenseman. Alex Pietrangelo is captain for a reason, as he provides excellent defense with a twinge of offense. Carl Gunnarsson is an excellent defensive defenseman, and Colton Parayko is one of the most underrated young defensemen in the NHL today. The Blues boast depth and different styles, so they should be better overall.
4 Florida Panthers
We understand if it is odd to see a team out of the playoffs today ranked fourth on this list, but the Florida Panthers deserve credit for having an outstanding defense. It's on the coaching staff to get the most out of their talent, but the talent is absolutely there. Aaron Ekblad will be a superstar in the NHL, and he is on his way to doing so. Keith Yandle is an elite offensive defenseman, Jason Demers is a fantastic two-way defenseman, and Mark Pysyk was a terrific get by the Panthers for the inferior Dimitri Kulikov. Even Alex Petrovic is a solid member of the Panthers defense. There is everything you look for in a defense, even if the team is not meeting their expectations.
3 Minnesota Wild
We have reached the portion of the list where the teams will be forced to make a trade before the Expansion Draft, or they will lose one of the players mentioned for essentially nothing. The Minnesota Wild are one of the teams with too many good defensemen for their own good, as Ryan Suter leads the way with his ability to play heavy minutes in all situations and serve as veteran presence. After Suter comes the wildly underrated Jared Spurgeron, the terrific youngster Matt Dumba, and a variety of other fine defensemen that will have long careers in the NHL. Jonas Brodin is the most likely to go unprotected in the Expansion Draft, but the mere fact that he will likely be left unprotected is a testament to Minnesota's excellence on defense.
2 Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks are another team that will likely forfeit a solid defenseman to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, unless they move a defenseman at the upcoming Trade Deadline. Everyone expected Cam Fowler to be traded this past offseason, but instead he stayed on board and proved to be one of the best defensemen on the entire Ducks' roster. Fowler was a deserved All-Star, even scoring the first goal of the All-Star game. The Ducks also have Kevin Bieksa, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Sami Vatanen, and even more defensemen that are either young, ultra-talented, or both. There is no weakness on the backend for the Ducks, as their biggest problem is trying to figure out who to scratch for undeserved reasons each night.
1 Nashville Predators
The top defense in the entire NHL is owned by a team currently trying to just get themselves into the playoffs. Led by new acquisition and All-Star representative P.K. Subban, the Nashville Predators defense is outstanding. After Subban comes a representative from last year's All-Star game, Roman Josi. After Roman Josi comes an outstanding young defenseman in Matthias Ekholm, and a reliable two-way defenseman in Ryan Ellis. Yannick Weber does not get nearly enough credit as an offensive defenseman to help aid the Predators offense, and the Predators have plenty of options in the system as well. The beauty of the Predators defense comes in that they can handle all situations and there is no let up at any point. They will succeed with this defense.