For the past few years, I think there has been a consensus in the NHL that Victor Hedman has been the best defenseman in the league. Not anymore.
As the NHL prepares for the 2022-23 season, there is no other player who has catapulted up the rankings of the NHL’s elite quite like Cale Makar. If there was any doubt as to who the better defenseman is, look no further than the Stanley Cup Final, where Makar and the Avalanche ended Hedman and the Lightning’s bid for a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Oh, and Makar took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP just as the cherry on top.
While Makar and Hedman lead the pack, there is a plethora of other top-tier defensemen in the league, including a group of young, mobile blue liners such as Makar who are overtaking the league.
The Sporting News ranks the top 20 defensemen in the league heading into the 2022-23 season.
1. Cale Makar, Avalanche
There’s not much that needs to be argued when it comes to Makar and the top spot on this list. At just 23 years old, the Avalanche defenseman is a Stanley Cup champion, a Conn Smythe winner, a Norris recipient and Calder winner. He is one the best skaters in the NHL, which allows him to be an elite player in all three zones of the ice. It’s going to be a treat watching the entirety of Makar’s career.
2. Victor Hedman, Lightning
Hedman was long considered the top defenseman in the league, but Makar’s season last year moved him past the Swede. Still, the Lightning blue liner is one of the best in the business, owning a Norris Trophy win and being one of the three finalists for six consecutive seasons. His size makes him a pain to play against, especially along the wall, and he has excellent passing. Hedman is coming off a career year with new best marks in goals (20), assists (65) and points (85).
3. Roman Josi, Predators
Josi has been a point-producing machine on the Predators’ blue line for quite some time. He led all defensemen last season with 96 points, just narrowly missing the 100-point mark, which has not been reached by a defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1992. Over the past three seasons, no blue liner has as many points as Josi. Some felt Josi was robbed of a second Norris Trophy last year, but don’t be surprised to see him back in the conversation come springtime.
4. Charlie McAvoy, Bruins
I’m a big believer that McAvoy is the most underrated defenseman in the league. There aren’t many players who can excel in breaking the puck out of the zone and dominate in the transition game like McAvoy. Because of his responsibilities in his own zone, we don’t see McAvoy put up the crazy offensive numbers like others on this list, although he is coming off a 56-point season in Boston. The 24-year-old is only going to get better.
5. Adam Fox, Rangers
Another young defenseman who has taken the league by storm is Fox. At 24 years old, he already has a Norris Trophy after winning the honor in 2021. He’s only been in the league for three years, but you won’t find many defensemen who can skate or move the puck like Fox. He registered 74 points in 78 games last season, improving on his award-winning campaign the year before. For a Rangers team filled with young talent, Fox pops out the most in the group.
6. Kris Letang, Penguins
He may be 35 years old, but Letang still has a lot left in the tank. The elite Pittsburgh defenseman is coming off a career year with 58 assists and 68 points. When healthy, he’s a perennial 50-point scorer and has hit double digits in goals three out of the past four seasons with the exception being the shortened year in 2020-21. Letang plays in all situations for the Penguins and hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down.
7. John Carlson, Capitals
Carlson is no stranger to being discussed among the best of the defensemen in the NHL. His 71 points in 2021-22 marked the third time in the past four years that he finished with at least 70; the lone year he didn’t was the 56-game season in 2020-21. The 32-year-old has been a steady presence on Washington’s blue line for 13 seasons and has not displayed any regression in his game.
8. Aaron Ekblad, Panthers
It’s taken Ekblad a bit to become the top-tier defenseman he was projected to be when he was selected with the first overall pick in 2014, but he’s finally here. The past two seasons have been huge for Ekblad, coming most recently off 57 points in 61 games last year. Injuries have unfortunately stopped the 26-year-old from playing a full season since 2018-19, but when he’s healthy he’s been the backbone on defense for Florida.
9. Miro Heiskanen, Stars
Another highly underrated defenseman is Heiskanen. It’s hard to stand out when you’re on a Dallas team that isn’t exactly known for entertaining hockey, but Heiskanen is one of the few exceptions. The 23-year-old is a smooth skater and handler of the puck, but he’s been forced to play on the right side with the Stars when he’s naturally a left defense. His numbers don’t pop off — his career-high in points is 36 — but the Finn is due for a breakout season at some point soon.
10. Devon Toews, Avalanche
Some people like to claim that Toews’ status as an elite defenseman is all due to playing alongside Makar. While that certainly helps, if you don’t think Toews brings a ton to the table on his own, you are sorely mistaken. He’s been a high-end, two-way defenseman since he entered into the league with the Islanders. While his offensive numbers take a bit of a dip playing with Makar, he still put up 56 points last season.
11. Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes
I mentioned McAvoy and Heiskanen as underrated. But in terms of players who are under-appreciated, Slavin takes the cake. He’s one of the strongest two-way defenders in the game, and could make a legitimate argument for being the best defensive defenseman. He contributes offensively on occasion — he had 38 assists last season — but Slavin’s best work is in his own zone. His lack of penalties plays a large factor into his success, and also resulted in a Lady Byng Trophy win in 2021.
12. Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs
While there is plenty of star power up front in Toronto, the stud on the back end is Rielly. His 58 assists set a new career-best for the 28-year-old, finishing the year with 68 points in 82 games. Rielly is a premier puck-mover who has certainly improved from being a pure offensive defenseman to having more of an all-around game.
13. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
Hughes’ 2021-22 season went under the radar. The Canucks defenseman recorded 60 assists and 68 points in 76 games in his third full season with Vancouver. The oldest Hughes brother was deadly on the power play as well, with 31 assists on the man advantage. Hughes is no longer just a mobile offensive defenseman. He has rounded out his play and been able to overcome his smaller stature (5-10, 180) to still be effective in his own zone.
14. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
After a few seasons in which Doughty fell off, he had a career resurgence last year, recording 31 points in 39 games before a wrist injury ended his season. The Kings defenseman is successful when he’s contributing on offense, so when those numbers haven’t been there, it’s been ugly, considering his weaknesses in the defensive zone. If Doughty can stay healthy and produce like he did last year, he is a great option on the blue line for Los Angeles.
15. Zach Werenski, Blue Jackets
In his first season without Seth Jones, Werenski took over as the Blue Jackets’ clear-cut No. 1 defenseman, a role for which he is greatly suited. He is well-rounded with a strong offensive upside. He’s scored at least 10 goals every year in the league, with the exception being the shortened 2020-21 year, when he had seven in 35 games. He’s another young defenseman who hasn’t hit his prime yet.
16. Shea Theodore, Golden Knights
Theodore has been a consistent point producer for the Golden Knights since he got to Vegas five years ago with their inaugural team. His 52 points in 2021-22 are his best so far during his time in the league, and he’s put together four straight seasons of at least 35 points. On a Golden Knights team filled with talent, it feels like Theodore is overlooked at times.
17. Rasmus Dahlin, Sabres
Dahlin has not exactly exploded onto the scene as expected when the Swede was taken first overall in 2018. However, he has improved over the years, recently recording a career-high 53 points for the Sabres. Dahlin is an all-offense kind of player, so you’re giving up a bit on the defensive side for him to excel. He’s only 22 years old. As the Sabres improve, so will Dahlin.
18. Alex Pietrangelo, Golden Knights
There aren’t many defensemen who have eaten up minutes over the course of their careers like Pietrangelo. The Golden Knights defenseman averaged 24:39 last season, marking the 11th straight season he has averaged more than 24 minutes per game. His 164 blocked shots last year also tied a career-high. Pietrangelo is extremely reliable on the blue line and the kind of leader a team needs to be a serious Cup contender.
19. Moritz Seider, Red Wings
Seider transitioned quite smoothly to the NHL level in his rookie season, winning the Calder Trophy after his 50-point campaign. He’s already the Red Wings’ No. 1 defenseman after he showed he can eat up top minutes. The German does not shy away from the physical game and has excellent puck-handling skills. I’m a huge Seider fan and I do think we’re looking at an eventual Norris Trophy winner, but I think it’s a little early to be calling him a top-10 defenseman in the league.
20. Brent Burns, Hurricanes
Long gone are the days of Burns being a top-three defensemen in the NHL. At 37 years old, Burns is on the decline, but he’s still a great offensive option on the blue line. He had 54 points last year with the Sharks and was traded to the Hurricanes this summer. Burns will be on a better team and it’s likely he’ll be paired with Slavin, giving him more opportunity to contribute on offense.