Ranking defensemen can be tough, as we see in the Norris trophy voting every year. Some appreciate the skill, flair and high-octane style of play that the Metropolitan Division is loaded with. Others are more in-tune with responsible, steady and solid play in their own end. In this ranking, we’ll try to thread the needle of recognizing both as we look at what should be the top defenders in the division this season.
Honorable mentions: John Marino (NJD), Ryan Graves (PIT), Ivan Provorov (CBJ), Rasmus Sandin (WSH), Damon Severson (CBJ)
15. Travis Sanheim, Philadelphia Flyers. Somewhat of a sympathy vote to have all teams in the division represented, but Sanheim stands up for the fringes of getting some recognition. He played 81 games last year at 21 minutes per and was only a -5 for the Flyers, which has got to be worth something. Now with Ivan Provorov gone, Sanheim’s importance only grows as the all-around leader of his team’s defense and best all-around defender that Philadelphia has to offer.
14. Jacob Trouba, New York Rangers. As the old saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. So applies to Trouba as one of the few remaining players in the NHL who hit —and hit hard — right up to (and sometimes past) the point of legality. Beyond that heat magnet of a topic, he’s capable at scoring goals and his point production has fallen off from past years but the Rangers’ captain can still move the puck well and has to be considered a force on the ice, whether opposing fans respect it or not.
13. Noah Dobson, New York Islanders. Dobson cracked the 50-point plateau last season, so I felt obliged to include him on the list. Not too many defensemen can get to that level of production (especially on the Islanders). He still is young and has room to grow his game even more.
12. Dmitry Orlov, Carolina Hurricanes. Orlov shifts from one division team to another and stays on the countdown. His style is already to fire a lot of pucks at the net with a really good point shot and Carolina is a team that loves their defenders to pitch into the offense in that way. Should be setup as a quality match for player and team style.
11. Brett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes. Pesce has been as solid as the day is long for a while now, though some of the stats have dinged him in recent years for effectiveness. He’s overlooked but a key component in what makes Carolina so good year after year.
10. Jonas Siegenthaler, New Jersey Devils. I think Siegenthaler is one of the most under-rated defenders and players in the league. He quietly puts up tremendous defensive and transition impacts and is the picture perfect steady support partner who will always be positionally sound for a top line defender to have the latitude to freelance and take chances. Other players will get more attention and make the highlights but teams are made with reliable and strong options like Siegenthaler.
9. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets. Limited to only 13 games last season due to injury, Columbus will certainly be hoping that Werenski can return to form and get back on track as one of the better defenders in the league. Now with some adds to his group via young players and a couple of trades, Werenski should have some of the help he’s lacked for quality players since Seth Jones departed.
8. Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes. The first season in Carolina was a great one for Burns. He personifies the Orlov note above, quality shooters from the blueline are going to thrive with the Hurrcanes. Recording 18 goals and 61 points was enough to be third in scoring on what ended up being the top team in the division. At 38 years old, Burns is getting long in the tooth but proving to be effective late into his career.
7. John Carlson, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ season took a complete nose dive last season immediately after Carlson suffered a nasty and scary injury when he got cracked in the skull/ear with a puck. Though probably past his prime as an all-around player, Carlson is a monster on the power play and racking up the points.
6. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins. Now at age-35 and after going through an extremely difficult season, Letang will have to fight to show he’s holding off father time. Erik Karlsson is in the picture now, which might alter Letang’s usage. His defensive metrics have totally cratered in the last 3-5 years, which is usually the beginning of the end for remaining as a true top defenseman. Sooner than later the Pens can’t keep leaning on Letang for 23-25 minutes per game.
5. Adam Pelech, New York Islanders. Pelech has remained at an extremely high level of play, even though the advanced stats have soured big time on his long-time partner in Ryan Pulock over the past couple of years. If Pulock is in decline, even more pressure will be on Pelech to carry more of the load and be the rock of the Islanders’ top pair defensively. Luckily for them, he’s been up to the task as one of the elite all-around defenders in the game.
4. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. It’s difficult to judge defensemen since their styles can be so drastically different. Slavin isn’t top-five as an offensive defensemen, but he’s definitely the best actual defender on the list. Possibly by a wide margin. There are some subtleties to his game that take careful watch to appreciate, easily summer up by knowing his defensive impact is one of the tops in the entire league.
3. Erik Karlsson, Pittsburgh Penguins. He won the Norris last season, so maybe this is a little low. A common theme in Pittsburgh is quality defensemen struggling in their first year with the Pens, and Karlsson can’t afford not to hit the ground running. With his vision, passing, skating and daring ability to pull off plays that others can’t even dream of making, Karlsson is a unique talent.
2. Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils. Hamilton put on a master class of a last season in New Jersey, producing 22 goals and 74 points while controlling the puck and being a big part in the Devils’ resurgence. He’s one of the prototypes for the ideal modern day defenders with size, incredible skating ability, unreal handling of the puck and the ability to score from anywhere on the ice.
1. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. For the second year in a row in 2022-23 Fox put up double-digit goals and 60+ assists. He also played 24+ minutes per game in significant roles for all types of game situations. Fox was runner up for the Norris trophy last season, and has been a top-five finisher in each of the last three seasons. All of these tremendous accomplishments makes the scary part being Fox is still only 25-years old. He has elite vision, playmaking, skating, you name it — Fox is arguably the top blueliner in the sport (this side of the mountains from Cale Makar, at least).