The NHL season doesn’t start for another two months — not until October 4 — but with rosters mostly set by now, we can rank the 31 teams by positional strength in terms of forwards, defencemen and goaltenders.
These rankings, based on projected depth charts from Dailyfaceoff.com for the upcoming season, are sure to spark debate during the dog days of summer. It is always a fun exercise but, at the end of the day, this is one person’s opinion and not everybody will agree.
Please note, these rankings are only for the 2017-18 campaign and not for the teams’ future potential at each position. Several prospects are listed as roster extras, but their impact in the present is all that matters.
This is the second of a three-part series, ranking the teams’ defencemen from worst to first.
31) New Jersey Devils
Andy Greene-Ben Lovejoy
John Moore-Damon Severson
Michael Kapla-Mirco Mueller
Steven Santini/Dalton Prout/Viktor Loov/Brian Strait/Josh Jacobs/Yaroslav Dyblenko
ANALYSIS: And it ain’t even close — this is the league’s worst defence, both in terms of top-end talent and depth. There is no real third pairing in New Jersey as of today and the options are mediocre to put it nicely. The Moore-Severson pairing is decent and has upside for this season, but Greene-Lovejoy has no business being a top pairing in the NHL. The Devils are going to continue to bleed goals against until Ray Shero is able to address the defence — and that might not happen until the 2018 draft, with the likes of Rasmus Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, Ryan Merkley, Adam Boqvist (younger brother of forward Jesper, New Jersey’s second-rounder this year), Bode Wilde, Ty Smith and Jared McIsaac projected as potential top-10 picks. Any of those seven would instantly become the Devils’ top defence prospect and future No. 1. There will also be some highly touted forwards available in a stacked 2018 draft class — Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina, Joseph Veleno and Brady Tkachuk — but New Jersey should shift its focus to the back end, since icing this defence group will likely result in another lottery pick.
30) Vegas Golden Knights
Brayden McNabb-Shea Theodore
Nate Schmidt-Colin Miller
Luca Sbisa-Jason Garrison
Deryk Engelland/Jon Merrill/Clayton Stoner/Brad Hunt/Griffin Reinhart/Jake Bischoff/Erik Brannstrom
ANALYSIS: Sure, these are sloppy seconds and leftover talent from other teams, but the expansion Golden Knights are still shaping up to be a better and deeper group on defence than the Devils. The top four is relatively young for Vegas and all have upside, especially Theodore. George McPhee will try to trade a few more blueliners before training camp or risk losing some of that depth on waivers prior to the season. Sbisa is apparently being shopped and Garrison could be too, but Engelland likely stays since he’s a Vegas resident and the team has been heavily promoting him ever since the expansion draft. Merrill and Reinhart would seem like keepers too, based on their age and potential. Stoner and Hunt won’t have much value and would probably clear waivers, Bischoff doesn’t require waivers and Brannstrom more than likely stays in Sweden for another season before becoming a key figure in Vegas’ future. Brannstrom is already reminding scouts of Erik Karlsson, so he and Theodore should be go-to guys for the Golden Knights in the years to come.
29) Detroit Red Wings
Dan DeKeyser-Mike Green
Trevor Daley-Nick Jensen
Xavier Ouellet-Niklas Kronwall
Jonathan Ericsson/Ryan Sproul/Robbie Russo/Dylan McIlrath/Libor Sulak/Joe Hicketts/Daniel Renouf/Brian Lashoff/Dennis Cholowski/Filip Hronek/Vili Saarijarvi
ANALYSIS: The Red Wings have better veterans than Vegas with Green, Daley and Kronwall. However, Kronwall is on his last legs and has become injury-prone in recent years, while Green will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and should become trade bait ahead of the deadline assuming Detroit isn’t in the playoff race. Daley should be sticking around after signing a three-year deal with Detroit this summer, and DeKeyser is a local boy on a long-term contract despite coming off his worst season to date. Jensen and Ouellet have decent upside — as do a handful of Detroit’s defence prospects — but Vegas will likely be leapfrogging the Red Wings in these rankings by season’s end. As of today, Detroit still gets the edge.
28) Colorado Avalanche
Nikita Zadorov-Erik Johnson
Mark Barberio-Tyson Barrie
Anton Lindholm-Chris Bigras
Andrei Mironov/David Warsofsky/Cale Makar/Duncan Siemens/Nicolas Meloche/Sergei Boikov/Jesse Graham
ANALYSIS: The top three of Johnson, Barrie and Zadorov are quality, but the bottom three of Barberio and two of those next nine names are likely going to be in over their head. Well, maybe not Barberio, who had a strong finish to last season with impressive underlying stats, but whoever comprises Colorado’s bottom pairing will be relatively new to the league and overmatched on most nights. Makar probably spends at least one season in college, but if he were to sign before training camp, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft would bolster the Avs’ back end in a sheltered role as a power-play specialist. Makar has a bright future, but it might not be wise to rush him to the NHL since he’s been playing tier-2 junior and is also undersized, which could make for an overwhelming jump. Of course, top-line centre Matt Duchene is still on the trade block and could be dealt for another proven top-four defender, which would bump Colorado up at least a spot or two in these rankings while dropping the Avs down the forward rankings.
27) Philadelphia Flyers
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Brandon Manning-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas
Robert Hagg/Sam Morin/T.J. Brennan/Philippe Myers/Will O’Neill/Mark Alt
ANALYSIS: The Flyers keep getting younger on the back end, which could go either way this season — good or bad. The rookie trio of Sanheim, Hagg and Morin are all likely to see NHL ice at some point and their performance might impact Philadelphia’s position in the standings. Gostisbehere should bounce back, at least offensively, and Provorov could enter the elite conversation or suffer a sophomore slump like Gostisbehere endured last season. Manning has made steady improvements and now seems reliable, while Gudas is more of a wild-card since he’s a wild thing at times. MacDonald may get an increased role again after returning from the minors last season. There are a lot of question marks with Philly’s defence, but also a lot of potential — for the present and certainly for the future. Yet, it was tough to justify ranking the Flyers any higher.
26) Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Gardiner-Nikita Zaitsev
Ron Hainsey-Morgan Rielly
Martin Marincin-Connor Carrick
Alexey Marchenko/Calle Rosen/Andreas Borgman/Travis Dermott/Timothy Liljegren/Andrew Nielsen/Justin Holl/Rinat Valiev/Vincent LoVerde
ANALYSIS: The Leafs’ defence is getting better by the year and could take another big step this season. Gardiner really stepped up his overall game last season and Rielly continued to round into elite form. Zaitsev made a smooth transition from Russia in earning a long-term extension with Toronto, while Carrick also displayed plenty of upside in a depth role. Hainsey is new to the fold but arrives from Pittsburgh as the elder statesman with a shiny new Stanley Cup ring. Marincin, Marchenko and a handful of prospects will battle for the final two spots in training camp. Toronto will be going with a relatively young group, besides Hainsey, but the returnees gained valuable experience from pushing Washington to the brink in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Mike Babcock will try to help them reach new levels in 2017-18.
25) Edmonton Oilers
Oscar Klefbom-Adam Larsson
Kris Russell-Matt Benning
Darnell Nurse-Eric Gryba
Andrej Sekera (IR)/Yohann Auvitu/Ryan Stanton/Mark Fayne/Dillon Simpson/Keegan Lowe/Ziyat Paigin/Ethan Bear/Caleb Jones
ANALYSIS: The Oilers’ defence made great strides last season, thanks to acquiring Larsson in a heavily criticized trade that worked out quite well in terms of addressing a need for Edmonton. The ridiculed signing of Russell was another win for Peter Chiarelli, and Benning exceeded all expectations as a rookie too. The fact Klefbom stayed healthy was huge, especially with Nurse suffering an injury setback. Sekera is sidelined until at least November but possibly February, so the Oilers will dearly miss his subtle reliability in their top four. That second pairing could be vulnerable until Sekera returns, unless Benning and Nurse can fill in admirably. The latter could be on the verge of breaking out this season, which would vault Edmonton up these rankings. The Oilers are still significantly higher today than they would have been prior to last season, when most had Edmonton bringing up the rear with New Jersey. The future looks promising too, with the possibility of Paigin, Bear and Jones debuting this season in the event of more injuries. Paigin is older than the other two and should be closer to making an impact if he sticks it out in North America.
24) Boston Bruins
Zdeno Chara-Brandon Carlo
Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Charlie McAvoy-Kevan Miller
Paul Postma/Matt Grzelcyk/Rob O’Gara/Jakub Zboril/Tommy Cross
ANALYSIS: The Bruins aren’t necessarily better than the Oilers or even the Leafs on defence, especially with Chara being past his prime now. He’s the only star-calibre blueliner in Boston, but McAvoy’s debut performance in this year’s playoffs opened a lot of eyes to his potential. Carlo was more of a surprise in making the cut out of training camp and logging top-pairing minutes for much of last season. Krug is the offensive catalyst on Boston’s back end, though McAvoy might steal some of his power-play time as a rookie this season. McQuaid and Miller are physical stay-at-home types that provide balance for the Bruins, who will once again have a few prospects pushing for playing time this fall. It’s a solid, yet unspectacular group as a whole.
23) Chicago Blackhawks
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Michal Kempny-Connor Murphy
Gustav Forsling-Michal Rozsival
Jan Rutta/Erik Gustafsson/Ville Pokka/Viktor Svedberg/Jordan Oesterle/Luc Snuggerud
ANALYSIS: The Blackhawks’ top pairing needs no introduction, though Seabrook seems to be slipping from elite status. Keith is still one of the league’s best defenders, but Chicago doesn’t have much depth beyond those two anymore. Brian Campbell retired and Stan Bowman strangely swapped key No. 3, Niklas Hjalmarsson, for Murphy in an off-season trade. Nothing against Murphy, who has nice upside as a No. 3 for the future, but he’s a downgrade from Hjalmarsson in the present. Trevor van Riemsdyk was also lost to expansion Vegas (then flipped to Carolina), so suddenly there are three open spots on Chicago’s blue line that will be claimed come training camp. There have been reports of Cody Franson attending Chicago’s camp on a tryout if no team signs him in the meantime, so he could possibly become Murphy’s partner. In that case, Chicago would rank at least a couple spots higher here but, as of now, those vacancies will likely be filled by sophomores Kempny and Forsling and either Rozsival, a depth veteran, or another prospect type. If Keith or Seabrook were to get hurt, that could be a death blow for the Blackhawks this season.
22) Dallas Stars
Marc Methot-John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis-Stephen Johns
Esa Lindell-Julius Honka
Jamie Oleksiak/Patrik Nemeth/Greg Pateryn/Miro Heiskanen/Dillon Heatherington/Ludwig Bystrom/Niklas Hansson/Gavin Bayreuther/John Nyberg/Andrew Bodnarchuk
ANALYSIS: Lots of potential here in Dallas, but it is still just potential for now — especially in regards to Lindell and Honka. Klingberg is a budding star who took a step back last season but should rebound with Methot covering for him the way he did for Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Hamhuis should be better in his second season with Dallas too, helped by Ken Hitchcock’s improved defensive structure. Johns is blossoming into a shutdown beast, while the aforementioned Lindell and Honka boast impressive upside. Oleksiak could make the cut over Honka out of camp, and this year’s third overall pick Heiskanen might crack the opening-night roster too. The Stars could have a top-10 defence within a couple years, but potential doesn’t always pan out and this season should be telling.
21) Buffalo Sabres
Marco Scandella-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Victor Antipin-Nathan Beaulieu
Josh Gorges/Taylor Fedun/Matt Tennyson/Justin Falk/Casey Nelson/Brendan Guhle
ANALYSIS: This might be overrating Buffalo — arguably a bottom-three defence last season — but Jason Botterill worked quick to bolster his back end by acquiring Scandella and Beaulieu in trades, signing Antipin from the KHL and, perhaps most importantly, hiring Phil Housley as head coach. Housley’s influence on Ristolainen should turn him into a full-blown star, if not a superstar. McCabe is underrated with good upside too, and although Bogosian may never live up to his draft hype, he’d be above average in a second-pairing role if he could stay healthy. Scandella and Beaulieu haven’t been world-beaters in their careers to date either, but Buffalo could be a great fit for both — especially with Housley as a mentor. Who knows what to expect from Antipin, but he probably won’t be as good for Buffalo as Zaitsev was for Toronto as a rookie. If Antipin struggles, Gorges is still serviceable and Fedun or Tennyson could be more to Housley’s liking as puck-movers. Guhle will probably play some NHL games this season even if he doesn’t start with the Sabres.
20) Vancouver Canucks
Alex Edler-Chris Tanev
Michael Del Zotto-Erik Gudbranson
Ben Hutton-Troy Stecher
Patrick Wiercioch/Alex Biega/Jordan Subban/Olli Juolevi/Andrey Pedan/Philip Holm/Evan McEneny/Guillaume Brisebois
ANALYSIS: Some will say this is overrating Vancouver too, but the Canucks have a solid group top to bottom — if healthy, which is the key here. Edler-Tanev is a legit top pairing, not the biggest names but both very effective. The second pairing could very well define Vancouver’s season, with Gudbranson returning from an injury-plagued campaign and Del Zotto signing as a free agent following a few inconsistent years with Philadelphia. Both were first-round picks and should be in their prime now, but their career paths haven’t been a straight line by any means. If Del Zotto and Gudbranson work well together and stay healthy, the Canucks could be a lot better than most are anticipating. Hutton and Stecher are better than most third pairings when you look around the league, both with potential for more offensive production this season. New coach Travis Green will likely play an up-tempo style, so those two could thrive under his systems. Wiercioch is looking forward to playing for his hometown team, but will likely start in the press box — barring injuries to others in training camp. Subban and Juolevi will push to crack the roster as prospects too, but Vancouver’s depth will probably delay their debuts.
19) Arizona Coyotes
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Alex Goligoski-Jakob Chychrun
Kevin Connauton-Luke Schenn
Adam Clendening/Kyle Wood/Andrew Campbell
ANALYSIS: The Coyotes will have one of the league’s top first pairings after acquiring Hjalmarsson as the perfect complement for Ekman-Larsson. Those two should work wonders together, like Batman and Robin. Goligoski still has game, entering his second season in Arizona, and Chychrun appeared primed for a breakout before recently hurting his knee during off-season training and undergoing surgery that could sideline him into the regular season. If so, Schenn would have to step into a top-four role, with Clendening or Wood drawing into the lineup. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but it would be a setback for Chychrun right when it looked like his career would take off as a sophomore. Arizona will be icing a decent group either way, but the sooner Chychrun returns, the better the Coyotes should be.
18) Carolina Hurricanes
Noah Hanifin-Justin Faulk
Jaccob Slavin-Brett Pesce
Klas Dahlbeck-Trevor van Riemsdyk
Brenden Kichton/Roland McKeown/Haydn Fleury/Jake Bean/Trevor Carrick
ANALYSIS: Carolina’s defence is admittedly underrated as a whole, but this ranking seems appropriate all things considered. Slavin and Pesce may not be household names around the league and some might have been surprised by their contract extensions this summer, but those two are as integral to the Hurricanes’ success as the higher-profile names on Carolina’s top pairing. There is a lot of excitement surrounding Hanifin’s breakout potential this season, and Faulk has the ability to finish top 10 in defence scoring with more than 50 points. Van Riemsdyk brings some valuable playoff experience from Chicago, and Carolina has several prospects in the mix to round out its defence. Dahlbeck is the default option, but all five of those extras will get long looks in training camp. The Hurricanes also have lots of cap space if Ron Francis wanted to sign another veteran.
17) New York Islanders
Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk
Calvin de Haan-Dennis Seidenberg
Adam Pelech-Thomas Hickey
Ryan Pulock/Scott Mayfield/Seth Helgeson/Devon Toews/Sebastian Aho/Mitch Vande Sompel/Parker Wotherspoon/David Quenneville
ANALYSIS: Somewhat similar to Vancouver, the Islanders are lacking that “big-name” blueliner, but they remain deep on defence even without Travis Hamonic (traded to Calgary). Leddy-Boychuk is a lot like Edler-Tanev, but a better version — at least based on last season. De Haan had his best season to date but only signed a one-year extension, which takes him to unrestricted free agency next summer and might make him trade bait at the deadline if the Islanders aren’t in a playoff position. By then, Pulock should be ready for prime-time if he doesn’t beat out Pelech for a spot in training camp. Seidenberg showed he’s still a solid vet, while Hickey struggled at times and will have to work his way back up the depth chart as another pending UFA. This could be a transitional season for the Islanders’ defence corps, depending what direction Garth Snow wants to go. The Islanders could have more prospects prepared to step in next season (2018-19), but the current group should hold their own again.
16) Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman-Jake Dotchin
Anton Stralman-Dan Girardi
Braydon Coburn-Andrej Sustr
Mikhail Sergachev/Slater Koekkoek/Jamie McBain/Mat Bodie/Ben Thomas/Cal Foote/Erik Cernak/Libor Hajek/Matthew Spencer/Dominik Masin
ANALYSIS: Hedman and Stralman have been broken up to balance Tampa’s defence, but their supporting cast is average at best. Dotchin has worked well with Hedman but would be a fringe NHLer on most teams. Girardi got bought out by the Rangers this offseason and there’s no guarantee he’ll be any better for the Lightning when reunited with Stralman in a shutdown role. Coburn is a steady veteran and would form a towering pairing with Sustr, but Sergachev and Koekkoek could both be in the opening-night lineup if they outshine Dotchin and Sustr during training camp. McBain and Bodie add more depth, while Foote and the other prospects are probably at least another year away. Once Sergachev and Foote become regulars, Tampa Bay will rank in the top 10.
15) Washington Capitals
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Taylor Chorney/Aaron Ness/Lucas Johansen/Connor Hobbs/Jonas Siegenthaler/Tyler Lewington
ANALYSIS: The Capitals lost several key skaters this offseason, including top-four defenders Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk. Brian MacLellan didn’t sign any replacements and will instead depend on Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden’s ability to develop a couple rookies into regulars this season. Djoos, Bowey, Johansen and Hobbs would be true rookies, while Chorney and Ness have a bit more experience but haven’t been able to stick in past seasons. The good news for the Capitals is their top three — Carlson, Niskanen and Orlov — are proven studs and several of those prospects are highly touted with top-four upside over the next few seasons. Orpik is still hard to play against too, so Washington might not take as big of a step back as some expect.
14) New York Rangers
Ryan McDonagh-Kevin Shattenkirk
Marc Staal-Nick Holden
Brady Skjei-Brendan Smith
Steven Kampfer/Anthony DeAngelo/Alexei Bereglazov/Ryan Graves/Neal Pionk/John Gilmour/Vince Pedrie/Sean Day/Sergey Zborovskiy
ANALYSIS: Shattenkirk’s new team, the Rangers really improved their defence from this time last year — when it would have ranked in the bottom 10. Shattenkirk was the prized free agent, but extending Smith and acquiring DeAngelo were nice moves by Jeff Gorton as well. The top pairing of McDonagh and Shattenkirk should do a lot of damage and be dynamic offensively — perhaps combining to be one of the league’s highest-scoring partnerships. The third pairing is above average too, considering Skjei’s surprising rookie season and Smith helping to solidify the Rangers’ back end after arriving from Detroit at the trade deadline. That second pairing holds the Rangers back a bit in these rankings, just because Staal has been declining and Holden seemed to overachieve last season. If Holden’s production drops off and he continues to be a defensive liability at times, the Rangers will need to adjust their depth chart and perhaps work in some of those more promising prospects like DeAngelo, Bereglazov, Graves and Pionk.
13) Montreal Canadiens
Karl Alzner-Shea Weber
Jordie Benn-Jeff Petry
Brandon Davidson-David Schlemko
Mark Streit/Joe Morrow/Zach Redmond/Jakub Jerabek/Matt Taormina/Noah Juulsen/Brett Lernout
ANALYSIS: Weber is the star here and his presence boosts the Canadiens up these rankings, but Marc Bergevin’s overhaul of Montreal’s blue line looks pretty good on paper right now even without Andrei Markov (who went home to Russia). Shockingly, only Petry was a member of the Canadiens prior to last season, with the rest of the depth chart being newcomers — including the first five extras. That’s 10 new defencemen in a calendar year. Talk about Bergevin putting his stamp on the roster. Alzner was the key free-agent signing this summer, with Schlemko acquired on the cheap from Vegas following the expansion draft, while Benn and Davidson came to Montreal in trades just prior to this year’s deadline. Streit, Morrow, Redmond and Taormina were depth signings, while Jerabek is crossing the pond with a bit of fanfare as the puck-mover that Montreal is missing. It’s a deep and much different group — led by Weber, Petry and Alzner — but the Canadiens still don’t rank among the league’s best.
12) St. Louis Blues
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Nate Prosser/Petteri Lindbohm/Chris Butler/Jordan Schmaltz/Jake Walman/Vince Dunn/Thomas Vannelli
ANALYSIS: No more Shattenkirk here either, but the Blues didn’t seem to miss him too much with Parayko’s emergence at both ends of the ice. Pietrangelo thrived with the captaincy in scoring a career-high 14 goals and is still in the heart of his prime. Bouwmeester is getting longer in the tooth — turning 34 in September — but his effortless skating should keep him relevant for at least a couple more seasons. Edmundson is developing nicely and seems like the perfect partner for Parayko at this stage of their careers. The third pairing is a bit up in the air, with Gunnarsson and Bortuzzo the incumbents but a lot of young legs nipping at their heels. Lindbohm, Schmaltz, Walman and Dunn — in no particular order — could see NHL time this season, sooner or later.
11) Los Angeles Kings
Derek Forbort-Drew Doughty
Jake Muzzin-Alec Martinez
Kevin Gravel-Christian Folin
Paul LaDue/Oscar Fantenberg/Kale Clague/Jacob Moverare/Chaz Reddekopp/Zac Leslie/Kurtis MacDermid
ANALYSIS: Doughty is a perennial Norris candidate and anchors this group in L.A., logging big minutes in every situation for the Kings. He’s the only reason they are ranked this high. Well, that might be a bit harsh since L.A.’s top four is quite solid. Martinez keeps improving offensively and Muzzin should rebound after a down year last season. Forbort finally became a full-time NHLer after three seasons in the minors — improving enough to make Brayden McNabb expendable (to Vegas in the expansion draft) — and Forbort is now a breakout candidate for this season. It will be an open competition for L.A.’s third pairing, but it will feature two relatively inexperienced options regardless of the names. Gravel and Folin are the frontrunners, but LaDue, Fantenberg and even Clague will be given consideration by GM Rob Blake and the revamped coaching staff.
10) Ottawa Senators
Fredrik Claesson-Erik Karlsson
Dion Phaneuf-Cody Ceci
Johnny Oduya-Chris Wideman
Thomas Chabot/Mark Borowiecki/Andreas Englund/Ben Harpur/Erik Burgdoerfer/Patrick Sieloff
ANALYSIS: Speaking of perennial Norris candidates, Karlsson carried the Senators to the Eastern Conference final and into the top 10 in these rankings. Ottawa could be even higher here, but it’ll be interesting to see how Karlsson is affected by the loss of Methot. Claesson really rose to the occasion in the playoffs and might now get the first look as Karlsson’s new partner, but he’s no Methot. Phaneuf-Ceci is a quality second pairing, especially if the latter takes another step in his development this season. Chabot was named MVP of this year’s world-junior tournament and will absolutely be a factor at training camp. He could end up alongside Karlsson instead of Claesson, and Chabot could also bump Oduya to the press box if everybody is healthy heading into the season. Wideman and Borowiecki will probably round out the defence, with Wideman likely being a regular since he’s right-handed. Guy Boucher coaches a tight defensive system, which also helps Ottawa’s ranking.
9) Pittsburgh Penguins
Olli Maatta-Kris Letang
Ian Cole-Justin Schultz
Brian Dumoulin-Matt Hunwick
Chad Ruhwedel/Derrick Pouliot/Frank Corrado/Kevin Czuczman/Chris Summers/Zach Trotman/Jarred Tinordi/Ethan Prow/Lukas Bengtsson/Jeff Taylor
ANALYSIS: This group managed to win a second straight Stanley Cup without their leader in Letang, who should be ready for training camp after recovering from a neck surgery that caused him to miss the entire playoffs. When healthy, Letang is still a top-10 offensive defenceman in the league. Schultz is entering that territory too after finishing tied for seventh in defence scoring with 51 points last season. Maatta and Dumoulin do their best work in the defensive zone, but they still have upside at both ends. Cole and Hunwick are solid veterans who will try to hold off younger roster contenders like Pouliot and Corrado. Some might not be as high on the Penguins’ defence, but those championships are hard to argue with and this year’s run really spoke to Pittsburgh’s unheralded depth.
8) Winnipeg Jets
Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov-Dustin Byfuglien
Tobias Enstrom-Tyler Myers
Ben Chiarot/Julian Melchiori/Nelson Nogier/Tucker Poolman/Sami Niku/Jan Kostalek/Logan Stanley/Cameron Schilling
ANALYSIS: There will likely be some objection to this ranking too, but Winnipeg’s defence is impressive on paper heading into this season. Six deep and balanced, with a top-10 scorer in Byfuglien, who finished just ahead of Schultz in sixth with 52 points last season. Byfuglien is an intimidating opponent, but all three of these pairings will be tough to penetrate providing the Jets stay healthy. Trouba and Morrissey developed chemistry last season and should be Winnipeg’s top pairing for years to come, possibly a decade or more. Kulikov was a bust in Buffalo last season, but he was always above average in Florida, so there is reason to think he’ll bounce back if paired with Byfuglien. Myers and Enstrom have both battled injuries in recent years, but both are expected to be healthy for training camp and could be among the league’s best third pairings. If the injury bug stays away, the Jets should be a playoff team thanks in large part to their defence.
7) Columbus Blue Jackets
Zach Werenski-Seth Jones
Jack Johnson-David Savard
Markus Nutivaara-Ryan Murray
Gabriel Carlsson/Scott Harrington/Dean Kukan/Andre Benoit/Cameron Gaunce/John Ramage
ANALYSIS: Columbus would have been in the bottom 10 of these rankings a couple years ago, but the acquisition of Jones and the emergence of Werenski has given the Blue Jackets a bona fide top pairing for the next decade. They are both studs and will be for the foreseeable future, providing Werenski doesn’t take a step back as a sophomore. The Blue Jackets are at least five deep, with Johnson, Savard and Murray all capable top-four options. The latter has been injury-prone and hasn’t lived up to expectations as a top draft pick for Columbus, but Murray is still effective whenever he’s in the lineup. Johnson and Savard are the veteran pairing here, but they are young veterans with lots of gas left in the tank. There is a belief, by those close to the Blue Jackets, that Nutivaara is underrated and could make a name for himself this season, but Carlsson, Harrington and Kukan will be challenging for that sixth spot. It’s a young but deep group that should continue to develop for Columbus this season, cementing the Blue Jackets in the top 10 for these rankings.
6) Florida Panthers
Michael Matheson-Aaron Ekblad
Keith Yandle-Jason Demers
Mark Pysyk-Alex Petrovic
Ian McCoshen/MacKenzie Weegar/Linus Hultstrom/Reece Scarlett
ANALYSIS: A lot like Winnipeg, Florida is six deep and well-rounded on defence. Led by Ekblad, who should rebound and take his game to a whole new level under Bob Boughner, the Panthers are in great shape on the back end. Yandle still has star qualities, especially offensively, and Demers is a reliable partner for him on the second pairing. Matheson keeps getting better and should prove deserving of that top-pairing spot on his own merit this season. He doesn’t need Ekblad to carry him around the ice, but the two should be able to feed off each other going forward. Pysyk-Petrovic is right up there among the league’s best third pairings — nothing fancy from those two, but they are super sound and somewhat mean as well. Boughner should have a positive influence on this defence as a whole and ensure the Panthers are worthy of this ranking. Depth beyond the top six is a little worrisome if injuries occur, but McCoshen and Weegar will be eager to step in when called upon.
5) Minnesota Wild
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Matt Dumba
Kyle Quincey-Ryan Murphy
Gustav Olofsson/Mike Reilly/Alex Grant/Zach Palmquist
ANALYSIS: The Wild’s top four is widely regarded as a top-five group in the league, and there is decent depth behind them. Suter is still a star and hasn’t been slowing down into his 30s. Spurgeon is one of the league’s underrated talents, also one of the NHL’s smaller defencemen but he’s got big game. Brodin and Dumba are now in their prime years and should be peaking over the next few campaigns, with the potential to reach another level this season. Quincey is a dependable vet who should do fine in a third-pairing role alongside any of Murphy, Olofsson or Reilly — all of whom are still finding their way in the league as puck-movers with offensive upside. Despite trading Scandella to Buffalo, Minnesota remains deep on defence and will have plenty of healthy competition for roles on the bottom pairing as this season progresses.
4) San Jose Sharks
Paul Martin-Brent Burns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun
Brenden Dillon-Dylan DeMelo
Tim Heed/Joakim Ryan/Julius Bergman/Radim Simek/Nick DeSimone/Cavan Fitzgerald
ANALYSIS: The Sharks’ top four are well established and very effective as pairings, with Burns and Vlasic the standouts while Martin and Braun are complementary pieces. Burns and Vlasic are both in the elite category, which lifts San Jose into the top five in these rankings. Not many teams have two elites, but the Sharks are somewhat mediocre besides those two. Martin and Braun are in fortunate situations and aren’t necessarily above average when compared to their top-four peers around the league. Dillon is decent, but San Jose may miss Schlemko to an extent since he was one of their top defence performers in the playoffs before being exposed to Vegas (and flipped to Montreal). However, the loss of Schlemko opens the door for a new regular. DeMelo has the most experience of the candidates to fill that vacancy, but Heed, Ryan, Bergman and Simek should all get opportunities to steal that spot in training camp. Heed might be the best bet there, since he’s already 26 years old and his offensive instincts could pair well with Dillon’s defensive awareness and physicality. Burns may not score as much as last season or win another Norris, but the Sharks are still going to have a top-five defence group.
3) Anaheim Ducks
Hampus Lindholm-Josh Manson
Cam Fowler-Brandon Montour
Kevin Bieksa-Sami Vatanen
Korbinian Holzer/Steve Oleksy/Jacob Larsson/Jaycob Megna/Andy Welinski
ANALYSIS: The debate between San Jose and Anaheim in terms of who has the better defence will rage on this season, but the Ducks are younger and have more upside for the year(s) to come. Lindholm and Fowler may not be on the level of Burns and Vlasic just yet, but Manson and Montour are much better partners than Martin and Braun. Anaheim’s top four ranks among the top-three teams in the league, and the Ducks can still deploy Vatanen in a third-pairing, power-play specialist role once he recovers from shoulder surgery. Lindholm also had his shoulder operated on this offseason and he may not be ready for the season opener either, so Anaheim might have some initial challenges. That could mean more minutes for the declining Bieksa or the mediocre Holzer, which could hurt the Ducks in the short-term but, once healthy again, this group will be among the league’s best. Larsson might play ahead of Holzer and/or Bieksa out of training camp if he impresses as much as last year, which would give Randy Carlyle another option to get through the hard times.
2) Calgary Flames
Mark Giordano-Dougie Hamilton
T.J. Brodie-Travis Hamonic
Brett Kulak-Michael Stone
Matt Bartkowski/Rasmus Andersson/Tyler Wotherspoon/Josh Healey/Oliver Kylington/Juuso Valimaki
ANALYSIS: Calgary’s defence didn’t necessarily need to be upgraded this offseason, but that didn’t stop Brad Treliving from trading futures for Hamonic to give the Flames an even more formidable top four while also re-signing Stone to anchor the bottom pairing. The current top four is awesome and the future top four of Andersson, Valimaki, Kylington and NCAA puck-mover Adam Fox has the potential to be just as special. Defence will be the least of Calgary’s concerns for the next decade. Andersson could end up outplaying Kulak, Bartkowski and Wotherspoon in training camp to become Stone’s partner, even though they are both right-handed. The present is all about that top four, though, with Giordano, Hamilton, Brodie and Hamonic the envy of most GMs around the league. Well played Treliving, well played.
1) Nashville Predators
Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm-P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin-Yannick Weber
Matt Irwin/Anthony Bitetto/Petter Granberg/Alexandre Carrier/Trevor Murphy/Joonas Lyytinen/Jack Dougherty/Samuel Girard/Frederic Allard
ANALYSIS: As top fours go, Nashville’s is still by far the best. Josi and Subban are in the upper echelon of elite, with Ellis nearing that level and Ekholm not far off either. Emelin was a strange acquisition for the third pairing, even though Vegas retained some of his salary. That led many to believe that David Poile was planning to trade Ellis or more likely Ekholm for an upgrade at forward — presumably targeting Matt Duchene — but nothing has happened to date and Poile has insisted he’s not breaking up his top four. Time will tell on that front, but if Poile keeps his word, the Predators will keep the top spot in these rankings for at least another year. Emelin’s partner could be a revolving door between Weber, Irwin and Bitetto, though prospects like Carrier and Lyytinen might get a look at some point too. Regardless, the top four will take this team on their shoulders again and perhaps make it back to the Cup final in 2018. They say defence wins championships and Nashville is the team to beat right now at that position.