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.
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
This top-five is a breakout from the recently published Ranking NHL Teams By Defencemen article. If you would like to see THW’s full ranking covering all 32 NHL teams by defense, please click here to give that article a read.
5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman – Cal Foote
Mikhail Sergachev- Erik Cernak
Ian Cole – Zach Bogosian
ANALYSIS: The salary cap will eventually catch up to every team, and the Tampa Bay Lightning felt its’ wrath when they traded Ryan McDonagh in order to clear enough space to re-sign new players. However, this is still an elite unit and will remain so as long as they have Victor Hedman leading the charge.
Behind him, there is still a ton of talent, with young players like Mikhail Sergachev and Cal Foote being asked to take on bigger roles with the franchise. Plus, when you add in Ian Cole as a shot-blocking grinder along with Zack Bogosian for toughness, you see a complete unit that still should dominate the league. They may not be ranked first overall heading into 2022-23, but this doesn’t mean that they won’t be a top unit when it is all said and done.
4) Vegas Golden Knights
Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague – Zach Whitecloud
ANALYSIS: You can rightfully look at the Vegas Golden Knights and call them a mismanaged franchise with how they handle their players, but the one area they get consistently right is on defense. This unit is returning almost every player from 2021-22, and that is a good thing as they were an elite group then and remain so now.
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.
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.
3) Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin – Brent Burns
Brady Skjei – Brett Pesce
Ethan Bear – Dylan Coghlan
ANALYSIS: In recent years, I’ve learned to never bet against the Carolina Hurricanes. Whenever they make a move that I question, it ends up working brilliantly, especially on defense. This offseason they acquired Brent Burns to fill a need for an offensive defenseman, and if he can find his game alongside Jaccob Slavin, this could become one of the most potent pairings in the league.
Along with them, you feature a deep defensive pool with players like Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce, Ethan Bear, and Dylan Coughlan who are underappreciated across the league. This is a unit that will score a lot of points, frustrate opponents while locking them down, and help keep the Hurricanes a contender for the foreseeable future.
2) Nashville Predators
Roman Josi – Dante Fabbro
Ryan McDonagh – Mattias Ekholm
Jeremy Lauzon – Alexander Carrier
ANALYSIS: When you think of the Nashville Predators, you likely think of defense. This team has been defined by their star defensemen since its inception, and they have continued this trend with perennial Norris-Trophy candidate Roman Josi. However, this unit is more than one star, and with the acquisition of McDonagh, they look more like an All-Star team than a single defensive collection.
To put it simply, the Predators have everything. Elite point production, elite zone coverage, elite shot blocking, elite penalty killers. Just, there are almost no holes, top to bottom.
1) Colorado Avalanche
Devon Toews – Cale Makar
Samuel Girard – Josh Manson
Bowen Byram – Erik Johnson
ANALYSIS: So, the Colorado Avalanche had one of the best defensive units in the NHL heading into the 2021-22 season, added Josh Manson at the 2022 Trade Deadline, got better, lost Devon Toews to an injury during the postseason, saw Cale Makar develop into the best defenseman in the world, won the Stanley Cup, and managed to bring back the majority of this unit.
Makar is a generational player, Toews is a perfect partner for him when healthy, Samuel Girard and Manson help round out this top-four with skill and grit, veteran Erik Johnson is still able to put together great series even if he isn’t the player he once was, and Bowen Byram has an incredibly high ceiling as long as he can stay healthy.
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 New York Islanders, New York Rangers, 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.
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.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.