B/R NHL Position Rankings for 2023-24 Season: Top 10 Defensemen
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We continue our look at the best players at each NHL position with the top 10 defensemen in the league for the start of the 2023-24 season (as well as a few honorable mentions).
In these rankings we are taking into account the total package a player has to offer, including offensive impact, defensive value as well as the ability to play big minutes, drive possession and impact the game across all phases.
We are also looking at where players are for this season, so while someone’s track record over the long haul is certainly relevant, it is also important to try to keep in mind the player they are right now.
So let’s get into the rankings, starting with five players who just missed the cut.
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Jaccob SlavinJosh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images
Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets
After showing a lot of promise for a few years, Josh Morrissey finally had a breakout season for the Winnipeg Jets and earned a top-five finish in the Norris Trophy voting.
A lot of that was due to an offensive showing that saw him put 76 points on the board in 70 games. He still has a few shortcomings defensively and has only played at this high of a level for one year, so there are still some questions regarding him going into the 2023-24 season. That keeps him in the honorable mention category. For now.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
The biggest thing that has held Kris Letang back in his career is his health. Both on and off the ice. He has come back from two strokes and battled numerous injuries throughout his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but when he has been on the ice, he has been one of the most complete all-around defenders in the NHL.
He blends elite skating, great offensive skill and an oftentimes underrated defensive game and physical edge to make him one of the top defensemen in hockey, even as he gets into his mid- and late 30s.
Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche
When the Colorado Avalanche landed Devon Toews for the low price of two second-round draft picks and then signed him for $4 million per year, it immediately looked like a steal and a perfect situation for team and player. It has worked out to be exactly that for everybody involved (except for the New York Islanders, who traded him).
Toews may not have the offensive production of some of the other top defensemen in the NHL, but there are few players in the league better in transition, driving possession and helping to control the pace of the game. He has been just outside the top 10 in Norris voting since joining the Avalanche in 2020 and is just outside the top 10 on our rankings.
Hampus Lindholm, Boston Bruins
Lindholm had a career year for the Bruins in 2022-23 and was one of the reasons they won an NHL record 65 regular-season games. Everything clicked for him as he played great two-way hockey and set a career high with 53 points in 80 games. He was always a little on the underrated sign in Anaheim, but getting him onto a strong roster with a good supporting cast really allowed him to excel this past season.
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Solid. That is simply the best way to describe Jaccob Slavin. He does everything well and has no major weaknesses, and even though his offensive production from a goals and points perspective is not among those of the top players, he still does a great job of helping to feed Carolina’s offense by getting the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice. He is also one of the best defensive players in hockey. Just rock solid across the board.
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Victor HedmanAndrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
No. 10: Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
It has taken a few years, but Rasmus Dahlin has officially arrived as one of the top defensemen in the NHL. As the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, he came with massive hype, but a terrible roster around him, constant coaching changes and different systems played havoc on his early development.
But the Sabres seem to have found the right formula for Dahlin (and the roster as a whole) with coach Don Granato, and better days finally seem to be on the horizon. Dahlin cracked the top 10 of the Norris voting this past season and is just entering what should be the prime years of his career. His ability to drive the offense and Buffalo’s resurgence should get him significantly higher on the Norris list in years to come.
No. 9: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
It seems wrong to have Victor Hedman this far down the list given how great his career has been, but we are looking ahead here. Not back. While Hedman has been one of the best players of his era and one of the best defenders of this era, his game has shown some signs of slowing down a little bit.
He is still outstanding. He is still a top-10 player at the position. But his days of being a lock for a top-three spot in the Norris voting are probably in the past. He might still get there on occasion—just do not expect it every season. The next wave of talent has started to pass him.
No. 8: Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
From the moment he arrived in the NHL, Miro Heiskanen was getting high praise from teammates and opponents alike, and he just manages to keep getting better. He has always been a strong defender and transition player, but during the 2022-23 season he really saw his offensive game start to hit a new level as he recorded a career-best 73 points, shattering his previous high. The Stars have All-Star level players all over the roster, and Heiskanen is the type of big-minute, all-situations defender who every team needs to win a Stanley Cup.
No. 7: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Critics will argue that Quinn Hughes has too many flaws defensively, but those flaws are greatly overstated. He is far from a liability on that side of the puck, while there are only a handful of blueliners better offensively. Hughes is an elite playmaker from the back end and has topped the 60-assist mark in each of the past two seasons. Those are big numbers for a defender. He has been one of the few constant positives on a consistently mediocre Vancouver team.
No. 6: Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
There might not be a more underappreciated player in the NHL over the past decade than Dougie Hamilton.
Whether it was in Boston, Calgary, Carolina or in New Jersey, there has always seemed to be some kind of ridiculous criticism of his play or him as a teammate (remember when his apparent interest in museums was considered a problem?). But all the guy does is produce and play hockey at an incredibly high level.
He is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and consistently has some of the NHL’s best underlying numbers.
Over the past three years there have been 238 defenders to log at least 1,000 minutes of five-on-five hockey. Hamilton ranks among the top 18 in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, high-danger scoring chance share and expected goals share, while also scoring 41 goals in 199 games (that is a 16-goal pace per 82 games).
No. 5: Erik Karlsson, Pittsburgh Penguins
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There were a couple of years there when Erik Karlsson looked like his play was dramatically slowing down, but he showed in 2022-23 that as long as he is healthy, he can still play like one of the all-time greats.
His performance was one of the best individual seasons we have seen from a defenseman in decades. Especially when you take into account how bad the team around him was.
He not only won his third Norris Trophy (putting him among the legends of the game), but he also became the first defender in 30 years to top the 100-point mark in a single season. All while playing for one of the worst teams in the NHL.
Karlsson’s impact was so significant that when he was on the ice during five-on-five play, the Sharks actually had an even goal differential. On its own, that might not seem great, but when you consider the Sharks were outscored by more than 50 goals when he was not on the ice, it becomes incredible.
He helped make one of the league’s worst teams at least look passable when he was on the ice. Now he gets to join a Pittsburgh team that is still trying to keep its Stanley Cup window open with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang.
No. 4: Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
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Roman Josi has been one of the best, most consistent defenders in the NHL for more than a decade.
You know at the end of every season he is going to score around 15 goals, put around 60 points on the board and play 25 heavy minutes per night. He is not that far removed from a Norris Trophy (and another year as a runner-up) and is one of the most productive scorers in the league from the blue line.
He also has not really slowed down offensively even as he gets into his mid-30s.
From a goals and points perspective, he is as good as any other defender in the league, including all of the players in the top five, and while he is still excellent defensively, the three players ahead of him just bring a little bit more as a total package.
The Predators have spent the past two years trading a lot of veterans and dumping salary, and there could be more in the coming years as they reach a point where a rebuild is necessary, but Josi will probably be the last of their core players to go to a different team. He is the face of the franchise at this point.
No. 3: Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
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The Boston Bruins have prided themselves on being a tough defensive team for the better part of the past 15 years, and they have always had an elite defenseman to help lead that blue line.
It used to be Zdeno Chara.
Now it is Charlie McAvoy taking that torch and running with it.
As soon as McAvoy made his NHL debut in 2017-18, you could tell he was destined for stardom, and he has rapidly emerged as one of the best defensive players in the world. The 25-year-old doesn’t really generate offense on the same level as some of the other top all-around defenders, but he is still outstanding in that regard and has emerged as a 50-point producer.
When you combine that with his defensive impact, you have one of the most well-rounded defenders in hockey.
Just how impactful is his defense?
Over the past three years, he ranks among the top 10 in goals against per 60 minutes and expected goals against per 60 minutes of five-on-five play.
No. 2: Adam Fox, New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers have some flaws defensively, but do not look toward Adam Fox when trying to diagnose them. He is the one consistent rock on that blue line and does everything as well as almost any other defender in the league.
He produces offense at an elite rate, reaching double-digit goals, 60 assists and 70 points in each of the past two years. He runs the power play, kills penalties and is an excellent defensive presence, ranking among the top 50 defenders leaguewide in expected goals against.
His defensive impact might not be as good as say, McAvoy, Slavin or Heiskanen’s, but it is still excellent compared to the rest of the league. That level of defensive play combined with his offensive impact makes him one of the NHL’s elite.
He has been a Norris Trophy contender nearly every season he has been in the league and should continue to be through his prime years.
There is just one other player who’ll be a consistent hurdle for him.
No. 1: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
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That player is Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar.
Makar is the type of player who you can already tell is going to be special. Because he already is special.
It is still very early in his career, but based on what he has accomplished in the NHL, it is not a reach to suggest we are watching a player who could be one of the best ever at the position.
He is that good, and he is that impactful.
As good as the Avalanche forwards are, it is the defense that really separates the team from the rest of the Stanley Cup contenders. They can all skate at a high level, they are all great in transition and they are all fantastic at driving offense. None of them is as good as Makar.
He has played four full seasons and is still averaging more than a point per game offensively (including playoffs), and over the past two years he has scored at a 26-goal pace per 82 games. He scores like a top-line forward, does it from the blue line and is also a fantastic defensive player.
He already has one Norris Trophy. He will win more. Probably multiple.