NHL’s Top 5 Defenses – Midseason Update

Defense wins championships. It’s a saying as old as hockey itself, but there is truth to this wisdom. A stout defense can both limit the opponent’s scoring chances while placing additional pressure on them in the offensive zone. When a defense is playing near perfection, it also helps ease some of the burdens on both the goaltender and forwards, which can turn the tide of a game or a playoff series.

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It’s not easy to build an elite defense, of course. It can take years of drafting and developing defensemen before they eventually reach their full potential. Even then a team will still need to dip into free agency and the trade market to get enough talent to build a core of players capable of winning the Stanley Cup.

Related: The Best NHL Defensemen Ever

For the best defensive units in the NHL, it took years to assemble this talented core. However, these teams are now reaping the rewards of their hard work. There’s a reason many of these franchises are considered Stanley Cup contenders in 2024: their defenses are simply outstanding.

5) New York Rangers

Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba

Erik Gustafsson – Braden Schneider


When it came down to the fifth place on this list, I had two teams for one spot: the L.A. Kings and the New York Rangers. While I think the Kings are one of the best defensive corps in the NHL, I ultimately chose the Rangers after consulting with my fellow THW writers thanks to their incredible top-end talent and depth.

Adam Fox is a Norris contender every season for good reason. When he is playing his best, he is a force on the ice. Ryan Lindgren is a perfect shut-down partner who gives Fox space to work. New York’s second pair is arguably just as impactful, however, as K’Andre Miller is quickly developing into one of the league’s best all-around defensemen while Jacob Trouba is an absolute thorn in the side of every opponent he faces. To put it simply, you will have bruises after facing these players.

Even the Rangers’ third pair is great, as Erik Gustafsson is a fantastic offensive defenseman making under $1 million this season and Branden Schneider is another young star developing on the blue line.

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Adam Fox of the New York Rangers. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, while this unit may not be perfect, it’s pretty darn close. I’d put their stars up against anyone in the league, and their depth is more than strong enough to carry the Rangers through another deep postseason run. So far, New York has been one of the best teams in the league, and I expect this to continue as long as this unit keeps playing strong hockey.

4) Carolina Hurricanes

Jaccob Slavin – Brent Burns

Brady Skjei – Brett Pesce

Dmitri Orlov – Jalen Chatfield

Anthony DeAngelo

ANALYSIS: In recent years, I’ve learned to never bet against the Carolina Hurricanes. However, the 2023-24 NHL season hasn’t gone as I expected for the franchise. Despite featuring, arguably, the best defensive roster on paper, the franchise has struggled to keep the puck out of their own net due in large part to inconsistent goaltending.

I’m not going to take too much away from this core, however, as they are finding their way after that slow start. While they don’t feature a dominant offensive defenseman this season (their top scorer is Brady Skjei at 24 points), they have a balanced and experienced lineup that I’d put amongst the best in the league. Jaccob Slavin is still elite, Brett Burns is a great offensive piece who could go off in the second half of the season, Dmitir Orlov has plenty to showcase, and they have so much blue-line depth that few can keep up in that department.

Jaccob Slavin Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin of the Carolina Hurricanes. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the Hurricanes start to find even average goaltending, they will be a true Stanley Cup threat, as this defensive corps is good enough to survive the rigors of a long postseason run. Like I said, bet against them at your own peril, especially if they decide to target a big name at the 2024 Trade Deadline.

3) Vancouver Canucks

Quinn Hughes – Fillip Hronek

Nikita Zadorov – Tyler Myers

Ian Cole – Noah Juulsen


The biggest surprise of the 2023-24 NHL season so far has been the Vancouver Canucks. While everyone knew there was a lot of talent on this roster, many questioned (myself included) if they would ever be able to put it all together on the ice. Well, the much-maligned Canucks have done so through the first half of the season, with some of the turnaround going to their offensive-gifted defensive corps.

This group is led by Quinn Hughes, who is one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. As of January 7th, he leads all defensemen in scoring and the league in plus/minus at +28, which isn’t a great statistic but still shows that he is scoring a lot while not giving up as much defensively as he once did. If this play continues he may be taking home the 2024 Norris Trophy. Next to him, Phillip Hronek is experiencing a bit of a breakout, as he has been in the top ten for scoring and is looking every bit worth what they gave up for him at the 2023 Trade Deadline.

Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks
Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Behind these two stud defensemen, this core features an improved Tyler Myers, the newly added Nikita Zadorov, and a solid third pairing of Ian Cole and Noah Juulsen. On their own none of these players are remarkable, but they have worked together perfectly this season, and have helped to elevate their stars.

If scoring was the only thing that mattered for defensemen, I would likely have the Canucks in first on this list. However, this unit still developing in their own zone, so I’m only able to put them in at #3. If they continue to find chemistry and take that next step as a group, there’s potential for this to be the best unit in the sport.

2) Vegas Golden Knights

Nicolas Hague – Alex Pietrangelo

Brayden McNabb – Zach Whitecloud

Alec Martinez – Brayden Pachal

IR: Shea Theodore

ANALYSIS: En route to claiming the 2023 Stanley Cup, the Golden Knights showcased one of the most dominant defensive cores we’ve seen in recent memory. From top to bottom, this unit featured few holes, and their strong play is a big reason why they claimed the Cup despite rotating through three unproven goaltenders.

Led by Alex Pietrangelo, the Golden Knights’ defense has so much talent in their top four alone that it stands amongst the best in the league. Shea Theodore is a rising star who could be their best player in the coming years, Alex Martinez hasn’t lost a step despite his age, Brayden McNabb is a franchise face that any team would want on their roster, and Zach Whitecloud has found a perfect spot with Vegas.

Alex Pietrangelo Vegas Golden Knights
Alex Pietrangelo of the Vegas Golden Knights. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As long as they can stay healthy, this should be a dominant defensive corps that you can argue could be even higher on this list than they currently are.

1) Colorado Avalanche

Devon Toews – Cale Makar

Bowen Byram – Josh Manson

Samuel Girard – Jack Johnson


There really isn’t much that needs to be said about the Colorado Avalanche’s defensive greatness. Cale Makar is a generational player who is redefining what a modern defenseman can be and Devon Toews is that perfect partner to let him be his best. Bowen Byram has an incredibly high ceiling both offensively and defensively as long as he can stay healthy while Josh Manson rounds out this unit with needed grit. For most teams, Samuel Girard would be a sure-fire top-four player, but he’s starting on the third line alongside Jack Johnson, giving Colorado unbeatable depth.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche 2022 Conn Smythe
Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche accepts the 2022 Conn Smythe Trophy (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Say what you will, but this is a special defensive corps that may soon be discussed as one of the all-time greats and not just for the top spot of a yearly positional ranking series.

The NHL Features Many Great Defenses

Whenever you create a ranked list like this, there will always be teams that are left off that just barely missed the cut. In terms of defense, a few teams to keep an eye on are the L.A. Kings, Dallas Stars, and the Boston Bruins as these franchises feature elite defensemen who could be in the Norris discussion by the end of the season along with incredible depth.

Plus, in the coming months, there will be those unexpected teams that get that final piece in place on their blue line which pushes them from being a good unit to a great one. When that happens, they could make the case to earn a spot on this list and force one of the former top teams off it.