It’s getting chillier out, which can only mean one thing: the NHL season is right around the corner.
After two wonky seasons, 2021-22 is shaping up to be a full 82-game slate (knock on wood, please) chock-full of the slickest goals, flashiest saves and countless big-time moments. But before things get underway, and as the league hits the reset button, it’s the perfect time to sort through the rosters and select the top goaltenders, defensemen and forwards.
The NHL as a whole has become a young man’s game, and that is nowhere more prevalent than on the blue line. Adam Fox, in just his second season, snagged the 2021 Norris Trophy, with fellow sophomore Cale Makar right behind him. Then there are guys such as Miro Heiskanen, Aaron Ekblad, Quinn Hughes, Jacob Chychrun and on and on. These young rearguards may not have a whole lot of experience, but are bringing offensive sparks to their squads while controlling the play in their own end.
Taking into account recent numbers and who could be primed for a star-making season, Sporting News breaks down the top-10 defensemen in 2021-22:
Top 10 defensemen in 2021-22
Honorable mention: Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks), Shea Theodore (Vegas Golden Knights), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers), Jeff Petry (Montreal Canadiens), Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jakob Chychrun (Arizona Coyotes), Ryan Pulock (New York Islanders)
10. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
Remember him? Ekblad was having a Norris Trophy-worthy season in 2020-21 before suffering a fractured leg in late March. When the 25-year-old wasn’t injured, he tied for first in the NHL among defensemen with 11 goals (in just 35 games) and ate up a lot of ice time for the Panthers (25:05). Fast-forward six months later, and Ekblad is back, healthy, ready to go and expected to have a big year.
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9. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
At just 22, Heiskanen is among the impressive list of young NHL stars on the blue line. One of the smoothest skaters in the game, his offensive numbers slipped a bit in 2020-21 (27 points in 55 games) despite seeing his ice time rise a full minute (24:58) for ninth-most in the NHL. Fourth on the team with 52 blocked shots, his 5v5 numbers dipped; however, his play on power plays ticked up. His individual expected goals increased (1.97 in 2019-20 to 2.34 in 2020-21) thanks to his three goals with the man advantage, per Natural Stat Trick.
8. Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
How good was Dougie Hamilton last year? He finished fourth in Norris Trophy balloting thanks to 42 points in 55 games with the Hurricanes, boasting 56.03 percent of the shot attempts at 5v5 (according to Natural Stat Trick). That ranked sixth among defensemen who skated at least 800 minutes; he also ranked seventh with a 62.12 Goals For percentage. He has a new squad in 2021-22, but Hamilton should once again be a dominating blueliner.
7. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
With Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, McAvoy officially became the guy last season in Boston. He scored 21 even-strength points (one behind Adam Fox) during last season’s regular season and had the fourth-best Corsi For percentage (58.51) at 5v5 among defensemen who skated at least 800 minutes. He also claimed the top spot at Shots For percentage (61.13). He should get some more power-play time this season after scoring eight of his 12 points with the man advantage in the postseason. It’s a contract year for the 23-year-old, so expect big things in 2021-22.
6. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
The Norris Trophy winner in 2020, Josi is cool, calm and collected on the blue line. His offensive numbers dropped a bit year-over-year from 2019-20 to 2020-21, going from 65 points in 69 games to 33 points in 48, respectively. But he’s still a play driver: A 200-foot defenseman, according to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, Josi not only excels at possession out of the zone (59 percent) but on zone entries too (20.5 entries per 60). Translation: He gets the puck out of his own end and then creates offense efficiently.
5. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
If there’s anyone on this list who’s a pure defensive defenseman, this is your guy. There’s a reason he won the Lady Byng in 2021: He had only two penalty minutes per game, despite playing almost 23 minutes a game and facing the top guys in the league. Some question whether he can produce the same numbers this season without his partner Hamilton, but Slavin has been consistent with and without him by his side. Per Hockey Reference, Slavin has a career 51.3 percent Corsi For, with 55.3 percent of his starts coming from the defensive zone which is pretty solid.
4. Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights
There’s a reason Pietrangelo was already named to Canada’s Olympic team: He’ll provide leadership, but also is one of the top D-men in the league. He struggled a bit during the regular season (COVID-19 protocol and injuries didn’t help), collecting just 23 points in 41 games. Just 45.3 percent of his shots got through to the net, his lowest since 2013-14, and created only 0.20 goals per game, his fewest since 2015-16. He found his game again in the postseason, collecting 12 points in 19 games with 52.8 percent of his shot attempts getting through. He also saw his Corsi For percentage rise from 52.9 percent, to 54.2.
3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The 2021 regular season may not have been the Lightning defenseman’s best year (note: He had meniscus surgery in the offseason), but he was lights out in the postseason. After scoring 45 points in 54 games, the Swede scored 18 in 23 playoff games on the way to the Lightning’s second straight Stanley Cup. Hedman was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2021, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be back in the final group again this season.
2. Adam Fox, New York Rangers
Truth be told: The two guys in the top spots are really in a 1A-1B situation. There has been a lot of flip-flopping here on who should have in the top spot: Fox edged Makar for the Norris Trophy in 2021 after scoring 47 points in 55 games — good for 0.85 points per game — but for now, he’s No. 2 heading into the season. The Rangers scored 88 goals when Fox was on the ice (85 for Makar), and the Long Island native is an elite defenseman who drives the play of the Rangers; he created a fourth of the team’s goals per game in 2021, per Hockey Reference.
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1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Makar finished second in the Norris Trophy balloting in 2021, though that may have been strongly influenced by the talent he is surrounded by and the fact he only played 44 games. But make no mistake, this Calgary kid oozes talent. He led all defensemen in 2021 (min. 800 minutes), with a CF% of 60.88, which basically translates to, “The Avalanche dominated play when he was on the ice.” Colorado also had an xGF% of 61.77 when he was out there; the only guy better? His defensive partner, Devon Toews (63.09). He collected 44 points in 44 games and averaged 24:19 minutes, and is expected to continue his masterful play in 2021-22.