Who is the Best Defenceman in the NHL?

A panel of experts from the NHL Network compiled a list of the top-20 defencemen in the NHL right now, and not everyone came into agreement with it. But isn’t that the nature of player evaluation? With a continual divide between analytics and the “eye test”, will we ever come to a consensus? Everyone, whether they’re new school, old school or somewhere in between, has bias when making these lists. It could be based on recent performance, past success, potential, or even personal distaste. But here’s the key: it’s not an exact science. And you’ll get very upset and disappointed if you believe that it is.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Human Element

Coming up with lists of the best players are decided by humans, not robots. Therefore it always must be taken with a grain of salt. And when it comes to the “experts”, we all know there are certain dynamics that factor in. It’s not solely based on stats, as much as some people want it to be. Those in the analytics camp absolutely believe you can measure with numbers who is the best player. But what exactly is the criteria of the NHL Network panel? It’s likely  a combination of reliability, production, perceived perception, steadiness, intangibles and performance.

You can be certain that there is a bias based on how these guys have played throughout their careers. You could argue that Brent Seabrook isn’t among the 20 best d-men in the league right now. You can argue that his stock has fallen, that he’s not as good as he used to be, and others have passed him by. But a lot of people like the idea of having a guy like Seabrook on their team. You know you can count on him, he’s got the experience, he’s been there before. That is often enough in some people’s eyes when they put their personal rankings.

And that’s what it is, isn’t it? Personal preference. Stats people hate that, because it’s often based on feelings more than facts. But you if you understand that’s what this list is all about, you won’t get nearly as frustrated with it. Plus, it’s not one sole person’s list, it’s a compilation, and a consensus. I would like to see one fancy stats expert sit down and put together their list. It would be an interesting comparison. But when you have multiple people trying to come to an agreement, it will be far from perfect.

Who Really is the Best Defenceman?

Drew Doughty won the Norris Trophy this year, much to the chagrin of those who didn’t believe he deserved to. It felt like he won because he was due, and not because he truly is the best. His victory is likely the reason why he is the number one on the list. He definitely is one of the better defenders in the league, but at the very top? That’s up for debate. And therein lies the key. It’s a debate. How are we measuring superiority? And are we certain that every single expert picked Doughty? It could have been 60/40 and he won be default.

Could it also be possible that the NHL hopes to spark discussion? That it’s not a hard and fast list that can never be changed? Just as in All-Star game rosters, and International teams, there will be snubs on lists such as these. Not everyone can included. There isn’t going to be a three-way tie for number one. I understand that for some, relativity and subjectivity shouldn’t be a part of these evaluations, but they are, and always have been. Could there be a change coming in the future, where stats and analytics will be the sole form of ranking players? We could be heading there, though we aren’t there yet.

So who is the best d-man in the league? Is it Erik Karlsson because of all the goals he scores? Is it Victor Hedman because of his importance to the Lightning? What about Brent Burns and Kris Letang, whose teams were the last two standing, and of which they were an extremely important part? Letang was by far one of the most, if not the most, important defenceman for the Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Should he have been ranked higher than number six? He wasn’t a Norris finalist, he didn’t even make Canada’s World Cup roster. Letang had his tough moments, and he had his great moments. All payers do.

What’s Your Opinion?

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators, NHL
(Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports)

Personal opinions may be the worst way of evaluation, but they’re always part of the process. The Montreal Canadiens and Team Canada have both decided they are better off without P.K Subban, while some people feel he is the best defenceman in the league. How is that all decided? Well you’d have to ask the ones making the decisions, because there is much more than just stats factored in. Maybe some day these lists will be restricted to absolute fancy stats and nothing else. At the moment, however, that isn’t the case.

Who do you think is the best defenceman in the league, and what criteria do you use? Do you disagree with the names on the NHL’s list? Who would you have excluded or included? Have your say in the comment section below.

(For the full list from the NHL Network, click here.)