2016 NHL Prospectus: Top 20 Defencemen Right Now Heading Into 2016-2017 Season


2016 NHL Prospectus: Top 20 Defencemen Right Now Heading Into 2016-2017 Season
M.D. Wright
8.6.2016

As we approach the World Cup of Hockey (September 17-October 1 on ESPN Networks), we will be dissecting teams and players, as we saw a bevy of moves involving big-name players — as some predicted would be the case before this offseason arrived. Therefore, it is a good time to assess who is the creme de la creme among National Hockey League players in advance of the World Cup, which will represent countries that are home to some of the best players in the NHL. Tonight’s lists will involve the Top 20 Forwards, Defencemen and Top 10 Goalies in the NHL heading into the 2016-2017 season.

  • – Note: Not a representation of cumulative career accomplishments; solely where players are in their careers at the moment, regardless of experience and compiled statistics.

TOP 20 DEFENCEMEN IN THE NHL

20. Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers.
Although he plays for a rival team, I like Gostisbehere’s unabashed style. He’s not big or overly physical, but he can develop in that area as he is still young. As an offensive defenceman, he does not turn down shots when he has an open lane. In fact, teams learned last season that they have to challenge him more, which opened up the ice for some of the Flyers top two lines offensively; helping them with their surge into the playoffs. In 64 games, he accumulated 17 goals (8 via the power play) and 29 assists for 46 points. Not bad for a rookie.

19. Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche.
Barrie is a lot like Gostisbehere, albeit with a little more size and more experienced. A top end puck rusher, he can make plays while quarterbacking the Avs’ power play, and also score himself (13 goals in 2015-16). the concern you have with smaller d-men is their ability to play physically with the power forwards of the league, which does somewhat work against players such as Gostisbehere and Barrie.

18. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars.
Klingberg had a breakout season last year in Dallas. He hopes to build upon it heading into next year, as the team basically got rid of the two other NHL-worthy defenceman they had on their team (Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers; although Demers left as a free agent).

17. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes.
Another one of those Swedes who isn’t known to be physical, but Ekman-Larsson is a maven with the puck, and overall a sound, smart player. So much so that the Coyotes felt comfortable to trade Keith Yandle two years ago. To be fair, the Coyotes robbed the Rangers blind in the trade (perspectives held both at the time and in retrospect) given that the Coyotes received multiple assets as compensation — including future star Anthony Duclair — while the Rangers only had Yandle for 15 months.

16. Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks.
Seabrook is good, even scored 14 goals (and 35 assists) last season, but he’s more a product of the Blackhawks’ system. Not all world like some would suggest — although he has a penchant for scoring clutch goals.

15. Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers.
If the Panthers are smart (and with the money they are paying Yandle, one would only hope that they will be), they’ll pair Yandle with Aaron Ekblad and watch for both players’ numbers to take off. With the multitude of skilled forwards that the Panthers have accumulated in the past few years, and Ekblad poised for a huge season, Yandle is the perfect complement. One of the league’s best puck-rushers, Yandle is an elite quarterback on the power play, and has great instincts in the offensive zone. He is ranked at 15 because he’s just adequate in his own zone, if not sometimes awful (particularly with giveaways). However, his numbers the past two years were held down because of the galling misuse of his skills by the New York Rangers.

14. Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers.
McDonagh has been weighed down by the anchor that Dan Girardi has become over the past two seasons, but make no mistake, McDonagh is a complete two-way defenceman. If he had a better skater to pair with, McDonagh would be free to do more in the offensive zone than he has. As it is, his numbers are stifled because the Rangers have routinely spent more time in their own zone since their 2014 Stanley Cup Finals appearance; now to the point where they actually made Henrik Lundqvist look human by the end of their brief cameo in the 2016 playoffs. Can’t score if you’re always defending.

13. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues.
There isn’t anything this guy cannot do, and does not do well. It is not an insult to be #13 on this list. Could be as high as #3 or #4 if you ask some people (objective people who aren’t diehard Blues fans, that is).

12. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning.
You’d like for Hedman to be more physical than he is, but the Swedes often aren’t (although Ulf Samuelsson would be quick to object). As it is, Hedman is an exceptional player in the offensive zone, and his long reach (6’6″ 230 lbs) and elite skating ability allow for him to play a more zonal role defensively, rather than a bone-crusher like Chris Pronger, who played at that size in his day.

11. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild.
Defencemen are a tricky breed to gauge, because once they enter their early 30s — particularly those who play the body or take hits while making the first pass out of the zone — they begin to decline rapidly (Wade Redden?) Suter’s been all world for a long time, and hasn’t really shown any decline. Never a major scorer, but an all-around complete defenceman in the way that Drew Doughty (five years younger) has become.

10. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets.
You just stay out of his way when he’s on the ice (6’5″ 265 lbs). Between the hits and the rocket shot on the power play. Just stay away. Much more nimble than one would expect from a guy that size. Still going strong heading into his age-31 season.

9. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks.
Keith’s very good, occasionally sparkling. But he is most importantly solid and rarely makes bad plays when he’s on the ice. Outside of the dirty slashes that he’s taken on opponents, that is. Somewhat overrated, as Blackhawks players in the past seven or eight years often (although not always) are, but he’s not a spring chicken anymore, either.

8. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens.
Weber is still a very good defenceman, let’s get that straight. No one defeats Father Time, however. He has shown that he’s lost a bit of agility (put on tape of the Nashville Predators’ 2016 playoff series with the San Jose Sharks, for instance). That said, his game was never predicated on speed, but using his 6’4″ 235 frame and his physical tools to anchor his defensive pairing, while skating with  a more nimble left defenceman. Before Roman Josi and others, it was Ryan Suter, in Montreal it will be Nathan Beaulieu.

Ooof.

7. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames.
Giordano plays in Calgary.

Alberta.

Canada.

Outside of diehards, most don’t appreciate his overall ability.

6. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators.
Josi lived in Shea Weber’s shadow the past couple seasons (while lowkey carrying Weber, who has shown the first signs of decline over the past year or so), but he is an electric puck-rusher and elite playmaker. He is also good in his own zone, although Joel Ward embarrassed him in the 2016 playoffs on a play that a junior league player would have snuffed out.

5. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators.
Everyone loves stats. Karlsson routinely stuffs the stat columns every year. He was a point per game in 2015-2016 with 16 goals (66 assists led the entire NHL). We know what Karlsson does in the offensive zone. He’s a smaller defenceman, and although he does play the body quite often, he has always been a minus player (yes, +/- stats have nuances, of course). In this case, that stat does speak a bit toward the fact that Karlsson is serviceable in his own zone. Not a bum. But not great, either. Otherwise, he could be a nice second-line right winger?

4. Kris(topher) Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins.
This list is purely about skill and ability, not personal biases against certain players and teams. Not many non-Penguins fans like Letang. In fact, many hate him, because of his dirty antics and the like, but from a purely skill standpoint, Letang is one of the best in the league. He is an offensive weapon, and he’s physical in his own end (albeit often dirty). One thing he does that Doughty does not is gamble and blow assignments several times per game. This is yet another reason why Doughty won the Norris Trophy and Letang and others did not.

3. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators.
Subban is as versatile as a defenceman can be. He can skate with the best of them, finishes his checks as often as possible, has the hands of a forward, quarterbacks the power play and often pinches in and penetrates the offensive zone with rushes to the net. Much like the Top 10 among forwards, there isn’t much separation between the top three on this list. That’s top three, not top 10, as there is certainly a delineation between 1-3 and 4-10.

2. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks.
Burns’ size (6’5″, 230 lbs), skating ability, and ability to get off shots from virtually every possible angle or contortion is unrivaled. Having played forward in the past has helped with this aspect of his game, as he continues to become an all-around defenceman in his own zone, as well. Scored 27 goals (with 48 assists for 75 points) last season, while playing all 82 games in the regular season, and every playoff game.

1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings.
Stats only tell part of the story, as we know. Doughty is the most complete and effective defenceman — in both the defensive and offensive zones — in the NHL. Period. End of discussion.

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