The definitive ranking of the NHL’s top 23 defencemen over three seasons

Erik Karlsson says he's just happy to be back skating, says it's a weird, abnormal feeling, but he wouldn’t call it pain, and still doesn't know when he'll play.

Last year around this time, with the help of some smart people, I posted a series of articles ranking the top-20 NHL players at each position over the previous three seasons. We’re going to do the same thing this year, but change it up fairly significantly as well.

Like last year, the list will be limited to players who have participated in 2000-plus 5-on-5 minutes over the past three seasons in order to get an adequate sample size of play to draw from.

Like last year, this is a complicated task that requires outside input, and whenever I take on a project this large I like to rely a little on people smarter than myself. The framework of the rankings is built on the input I got last year from Dom Luszczyszyn, Steve Burtch, and Jonathan Willis, while this year I received additional input from Luszczyszyn again and Dominic Galamini, as well as the ideas of smart people like Manny Perry and Tyler Dellow.

Statistics for this project were collected from Sportlogiq, Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ, Hockey Reference, NHL.com, and Luszczyszyn’s Game Score database. Each statistic was individually weighted in categories, scored as a percentile from the highest score at the position in order to award a score to each player.

This year for all forward positions I adjusted the categories slightly, taking five points from transition play and adding it to offence, while adding a new category for difficulty of minutes played that is applied as a multiplier to all categories. As such, the highest theoretical score would now be 125 points instead of 100 if a player were to be the best in the NHL at every single statistic while playing the toughest minutes in every category in the difficulty matrix, but no one scores that high so practically we’ll keep the numbers out of 100 even after the adjustment. The categories for defencemen have not changed, even though the weightings of statistics within them have, so it’s 25 points for offence, 40 points for transition play, and 35 points for defence.

The breakdown of points available for defencemen is weighted heavily towards transition, as that’s the area they have the most impact, with 25 points for offence, 40 points for transition, and 35 points for defensive play.

Also new this year is weighting season scores by how recent they are, using the same breakdown as Galamini does with his HERO charts; 22.2 per cent for 2014-15, 33.3 per cent for 2015-16, and 44.5 per cent for 2016-17.

Here are the statistics used in each category:

For offence: 5-on-5 and power-play goals, primary assists, secondary assists, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, scoring chances generated for teammates, shot attempts, passes to the slot completed, penalties drawn, and on-ice goals for relative to teammates per 60 minutes, and offensive zone pass completion rate.

For transition play: 5-obn-5 outlet passes, stretch passes, controlled carries out of the defensive zone, neutral-zone passes, controlled entries into the offensive zone per 60 minutes, Corsi, and Corsi relative to teammates, and pass completion rates relative to teammates in the defensive and neutral zones.

For defence: 5-on-5 and short-handed loose-puck recoveries by zone, pass blocks, stick checks, body checks, penalties taken, and successful dump outs per 60 minutes, on-ice goals against relative to teammates, on-ice shot attempts against relative to teammates per 60 minutes, dump-out success rate relative to teammates, and turnover rates relative to teammates by zone.

For difficulty of minutes played: Puck IQ’s competition faced percentages, Game Score’s quality of competition, Game Score’s quality of teammates, PDO, offensive zone starts percentage, 5-on-5 time on ice, and overall time on ice.

With all that information out of the way, let’s get to the rankings. This year we’re adding a few extra, doing the top 23 at each position. For the defence position, 163 players qualified.

23. Jeff Petry
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 11.39/25 | Transition: 28.37/40 | Defence: 25.15/35
Total: 64.92/100

Playing behind Weber and Subban in Montreal has been great for Petry, as he soaks up slightly easier competition and dominates at both ends. While Petry’s defensive style does lead to him getting walked once in awhile, but you have to look at the forest for the trees, and his defensive impact is phenomenal.

Petry is an aggressive player without the puck, attacking puck carriers early to attempt to gain possession. That aggression can lead to him being beat, but his on-ice results are stellar, especially on the penalty kill where his mobility helps counteract the numbers disadvantage. Once he’s gained the puck, he’s a strong transition player that prefers to make short passes out of the zone, but struggles a little with success rates. Luckily his excellent skating allows him to move the puck out of danger with control when he has to.

22. Ryan Suter
Difficulty Matrix: 1.19/1.25
Offence: 13.54/25 | Transition: 29.18/40 | Defence: 22.26/35
Total: 64.98/100

There’s an effortlessness about Suter’s game that reminds me a little bit of Chris Pronger, specifically how he glides around the ice without ever looking like he’s expending much energy. Maybe he isn’t, since he’s able to play so much and maintain such a high level of play while taking on the second-toughest minutes of any defenceman the last three years.

Suter is a solid puck handler and playmaker, but his biggest strength is his transition game, not just because of his skating. Suter is a precise passer in the defensive and neutral zones. Defensively his skating allows him to be in great position at nearly all times, and as you might expect, his turnover rate in the defensive zone is very low.

21. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Difficulty Matrix: 1.19/1.25
Offence: 15.70/25 | Transition: 25.94/40 | Defence: 23.44/35
Total: 65.08/100

Accounting for everything, no defenceman in the NHL has a tougher job than Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He doesn’t get much help in Arizona, and faces top competition every night. That may change this season as the Coyotes added some quality to their defensive group, but for the last three years Ekman-Larsson was sort of on an island.

He’s a stellar all-around, balanced defenceman who is good at pretty much everything, with specific standout strengths like a deceptive shot from the point and strong positioning. If he has a weakness, it’s completing passes in the defensive zone, but that could be an issue with so much pressure being applied to him.

20. Colton Parayko
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 15.74/25 | Transition: 27.02/40 | Defence: 22.59/35
Total: 65.35/100

The reason the Blues likely felt comfortable trading Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko has been incredible from the moment he entered the NHL, bringing a nice balance of play with and without the puck that gives St. Louis the ability to ice two first pairings on defence.

Parayko is a strong even-strength playmaker and play driver who creates a lot of offence for his team. He had a bit of a rough season transitionally last year, which may just come with the territory of a sophomore year playing tougher minutes. If he can adjust to a tougher job this season, his results should be even stronger.

19. Jaccob Slavin
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 13.42/25 | Transition: 25.88/40 | Defence: 26.19/35
Total: 65.50/100

Slavin doesn’t generate a lot of points, but he still creates a fair amount of offence for his teammates, which is more indicative of a good offensive defenceman than just points, in my opinion. Although offence isn’t where Slavin truly shines, he’s a machine without the puck.

One of the NHL’s most effective defencemen at stripping the puck from opponents with stick checks and pass blocks, Slavin is also a strong puck retriever in the defensive zone, and one of the safest players in the league when moving the puck out of the defensive zone as well. There aren’t a ton of players who drive play through defensive dominance, but he’s one.

18. Jared Spurgeon
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 14.22/25 | Transition: 28.97/40 | Defence: 22.48/35
Total: 65.68/100

Undersized and underrated – maybe those things are related? – Spurgeon is known more as a strong offensive player, but he measures even better defensively and in transition. A large percentage of his offensive impact does come from his ability to move the puck up the ice and create opportunities for his teammates to play in the offensive zone.

Spurgeon isn’t the strongest in puck battles, so he contributes most on defence by being a support player to receive passes and exit the zone cleanly, and he boasts an extremely low turnover rate in every zone, leading to fewer high-danger chances against.

17. Kris Letang
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 15.76/25 | Transition: 27.06/40 | Defence: 23.49/35
Total: 66.31/100

Another player who’s known more for offence than anything else, Letang may have been one-dimensional at one time, but he’s a very rounded player as he enters his 30s. Injuries may have robbed us of almost half of Letang’s career since 2011, but the time that he has been healthy, he’s made the most of.

Letang is an incredible puck battler in his own zone, and since he’s the Penguins’ best puck-moving defenceman, he’s often the key to their transition game overall. Though the Penguins won the Stanley Cup without him, it’s not a coincidence that they were outshot consistently as they did it.

16. John Klingberg
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 19.36/25 | Transition: 27.30/40 | Defence: 19.71/35
Total: 66.36/100

Klingberg took a slight step back in his third season in Dallas, but remained very strong overall, and especially offensively. In the neutral and offensive zones, Klingberg is dynamic, and efficient, breaking opponents down with precise passing and dangerous pinches that create a lot of goals.

In the defensive zone though, Klingberg is prone to dangerous turnovers and he misses passes that can put his teammates on their heels. He makes up for it with his aggressive style, but it can likely be frustrating for his coach to watch someone so talented mess up so often.

15. Justin Faulk
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 14.35/25 | Transition: 27.63/40 | Defence: 23.44/35
Total: 66.42/100

Despite a booming shot and scoring lots of goals, it’s the rest of Faulk’s game that’s really been moving the needle in recent years. He’s still prone to the odd horrible turnover, but he’s clearly worked hard to round out his game and become better defensively.

He’s been more aggressive in breaking up passing plays, which has led to some impressive success on the penalty kill, making him the current leader in the Hurricanes’ incredible defensive unit.

14. Seth Jones
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 11.22/25 | Transition: 30 45/40 | Defence: 25.41/35
Total: 67.09/100

When Seth Jones mentioned in an interview this off-season that his goal is to win a Norris one day, I raised my eyebrow a bit because I didn’t think he was in that tier of players. He’s not quite there, but he’s much closer than I thought he was. Jones isn’t a big offensive guy, but he’s amazing without the puck, one of the league’s stronger puck battlers.

He’s also extremely strong in transition, using his reach and skating to move the puck up the ice well, though his bigger strength is hitting players in stride with passes coming out of the defensive zone. He’s a very accurate passer who rarely turns the puck over in the defensive zone.

13. Torey Krug
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 16.03/25 | Transition: 31.06/40 | Defence: 20.03/35
Total: 67.12/100

He plays very sheltered minutes for a top-four defenceman, but Torey Krug takes full advantage of it. Krug is a power-play dynamo who plays stronger defence than people give him credit for, probably because he only comes up to Zdeno Chara’s knees.

While he’s great offensively, Krug’s biggest asset is his ability to bring the puck up the ice, something the Bruins defence has struggled to do without him in recent years. His play at and between the blue lines is exemplary, as very few defencemen dump the puck out less often, or complete as many clean zone exits.

12. Roman Josi
Difficulty Matrix: 1.15/1.25
Offence: 18.96/25 | Transition: 29.97/40 | Defence: 18.27/35
Total: 67.20/100

Josi is a unique specimen, as he’s genuinely amazing offensively and in transition, and those attributes make up for the fact that without the puck he’s quite bad. Only one defenceman rated among the top 60 over the last three years scored lower defensively (Nick Leddy) than Josi, yet because he’s so excellent with the puck, he remains an elite defenceman.

Josi is arguably the best pure puck rushing defenceman in the game, and one of the few who takes the risk of getting shots from in close to the net, trusting in his speed to get back into plays that fail. Josi’s weakness without the puck is pretty easy to ignore when he’s putting goals in either himself or by setting up teammates, and running the Predators transition game.

11. Alex Pietrangelo
Difficulty Matrix: 1.18/1.25
Offence: 15.44/25 | Transition: 28.83/40 | Defence: 23.37/35
Total: 67.64/100

Pietrangelo narrowly missed out on the top 20 last year, and some additional contextual stats pushed him up to where many believe he should be, right in top-10 range. Pietrangelo plays the fifth-toughest minutes of any defenceman in the league, and he responds with a balanced game centred on his ability to move the puck up the ice.

His favourite move is to skate the puck out of the defensive zone and hit a forward in stride with a pass in the neutral zone, and he’s very good at it, boasting low turnover rates in every zone. If Pietrangelo has one weakness, it’s the penalty kill. He’s very bad at it, but plays there a ton. It’s a confusing choice.

10. Dustin Byfuglien
Difficulty Matrix: 1.18/1.25
Offence: 16.83/25 | Transition: 24.20/40 | Defence: 26.86/35
Total: 67.88/100

Playing the fourth-toughest minutes in the NHL among defencemen, Byfuglien is another beneficiary of the added contextual stats and new weightings. Byfuglien has a bit of trouble when it comes to transition because of his slow acceleration leading him to get caught a little when he tries to carry the puck, not to mention he has a high neutral-zone turnover rate, but in the offensive and defensive zones he’s still very strong.

Defensively, Byfuglien can sometimes get lost chasing the puck carrier, perhaps a leftover hitch in his game from when coaches kept trying to make him a forward, but he’s very good managing the puck in dangerous areas, and while he loses the puck a fair amount in the neutral zone, he defends the neutral zone very well, recovering more loose pucks there than almost any other defenceman.

9. Cam Fowler
Difficulty Matrix: 1.14/1.25
Offence: 13.37/25 | Transition: 29.66/40 | Defence: 24.95/35
Total: 67.99/100

This one might be a little controversial since Fowler has a lot of doubters, but one thing to keep in mind when you look at his on-ice stats is that he’s played with a lot of bad partners who have been anchors for him. Individually, Fowler does everything you want a complete player to do.

He’s very high event, recording tons of puck touches, while boasting some of the lowest turnover rates relative to his teammates in the entire NHL in all three zones, really high pass-success rates, makes great decisions at both blue lines, and rushes the puck well. He could be far more aggressive defending the neutral zone, but every player has weaknesses.

8. T.J. Brodie
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 11.56/25 | Transition: 29.90/40 | Defence: 26.68/35
Total: 68.13/100

Brodie had a rough season last year after being split from his longtime partner in Giordano. Individually though, his play didn’t really drop off outside of the offensive zone. He still registered stellar defensive numbers, especially on the penalty kill, recovering a ton of loose pucks in the defensive zone, and managing some of the lowest turnover rates in the NHL in dangerous areas.

Brodie is also a stellar transition player, boasting some of the best zone-exit and entry-numbers in the NHL among defencemen. His Corsi took a hit last year, but his inputs that create those shot attempt differentials didn’t, so expect him to rebound in 2017-18 with either Hamonic or Giordano.

7. Brent Burns
Difficulty Matrix: 1.12/1.25
Offence: 22.13/25 | Transition: 22.87/40 | Defence: 23.93/35
Total: 68.93/100

The reigning Norris Trophy winner sticks in the same spot as last season, which isn’t to say that the voters got it wrong last year since this is a three-year sample, but … Burns does play pretty soft minutes for a top-end defenceman, with Marc-Edouard Vlasic soaking up the toughest jobs to let Burns run wild offensively. It’s a strategy that works amazingly well for the Sharks, but may make Burns look slightly better than his seventh-spot ranking.

Burns is the most dominant offensive defenceman in the game today, he scores goals like a high-end forward, and shoots like a gatling gun, and he’s actually really strong without the puck too, using his speed and strength to win puck battles all over the ice. Where he shows some weakness is in transition, where he turns the puck over quite a bit, and has among the lowest pass-success rates in the defensive and neutral zones in the NHL. In a lot of ways, Burns’ style is chaos at both ends, and most of the time he and his team thrive on that chaos.

6. Duncan Keith
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 14.23/25 | Transition: 31.92/40 | Defence: 26.03/35
Total: 72.18/100

Added statistics that emphasize passing and turnover numbers are a huge plus for Duncan Keith’s ranking, as he jumps up seven spots. Keith is the safest defenceman in the NHL in the defensive zone, boasting the lowest turnover rate relative to his teammates, while being heavily involved in zone exits. Keith can rush the puck, but his passing is so pinpoint accurate that he prefers not to, which probably saves him some energy over the course of a season.

Defensively Keith is one of the better players in terms of gap control in the league, and while his goal totals seem to be dropping, he remains one of the best playmaking defencemen in the NHL.

5. Mark Giordano
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 15.21/25 | Transition: 30.89/40 | Defence: 27.13/35
Total: 73.23/100

The way Giordano plays is like a prototypical old-school defenceman that Don Cherry loves; he hits hard, sticks up for his teammates, moves the puck well, and he can score at big moments. Giordano is the heart of the Flames defence, leading rushes as one of the NHL’s most successful passers, and a puck-battle machine.

Giordano, like many players on this list, doesn’t turn the puck over often especially in the defensive zone, which leads to very few scoring chances against when he’s on the ice. There’s a reason why everyone that plays with Giordano takes a step forward analytically.

4. Victor Hedman
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 19.59/25 | Transition: 27.53/40 | Defence: 26.36/35
Total: 73.48/100

The first defenceman on the list above the 75th percentile in all three areas, Victor Hedman is a near perfect specimen for the modern NHL. A giant who moves like a waterbug, who can dangle at one end and crush players into the boards at the other, Hedman has developed into the best even-strength playmaker in the NHL from the back end.

Defensively he’s a puck-retrieval machine in all three zones, and no defenceman removes possession from opponents as often as he does. He does have some issues with turnovers, where he’s closer to league average than the elite, but he recovers so well that I doubt the Lightning worry about it much.

3. Drew Doughty
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 12.51/25 | Transition: 36.16/40 | Defence: 26.35/35
Total: 75.02/100

No one in the NHL can move the puck up the ice as well as Drew Doughty can. Not only is he a brilliant skater, who can stickhandle around anyone, he happens to be the safest passer in the league, giving him more options to be successful than anyone else.

Defensively Doughty is once again all about precision, boasting some of the lowest turnover rates in the NHL regardless of position, and relying on his positioning to close off lanes instead of being aggressive on puck carriers. Once in the offensive zone, Doughty doesn’t have a huge impact at even strength, but on the power play he’s extremely dangerous.

2. P.K. Subban
Difficulty Matrix: 1.16/1.25
Offence: 17.66/25 | Transition: 32.54/40 | Defence: 27.69/35
Total: 77.89/100

Despite a couple of injury riddled years in a row, P.K. Subban remains among the cream of the crop, with a balanced game that’s built around a high level of involvement, and precision with the puck on his stick. Despite all of his few mistakes being magnified in the media, and sometimes by coaches, Subban boasts the second-lowest defensive-zone turnover rate relative to teammates in the league, and is comparable in the neutral and offensive zones.

His pass-success rates are right there with Doughty, Keith, and Giordano as well, though he attempts more difficult passes on average than all of them, which can lead to bigger rewards. Subban also boasts the highest dump-out success rate in the league, which makes him a phenomenal penalty killer and allows him to get out of desperate situations with ease, but he relies far too much on dump outs the last couple years, when he has the skill to skate and pass the puck out more often. Another weakness in his game is that he simply takes too many penalties, though he draws his share too.

1. Erik Karlsson
Difficulty Matrix: 1.17/1.25
Offence: 19.54/25 | Transition: 32.93/40 | Defence: 30.93/35
Total: 83.40/100

Each of the last two seasons you can make cogent arguments for why the players who won the Norris Trophy won it, but for Karlsson to have been shut out both years looks extremely suspect in retrospect. Hidden by the general weirdness that is the Ottawa Senators, and defence partner that fell down the proverbial elevator shaft a couple years ago, Karlsson has had the biggest positive defensive impact of any defenceman the last three seasons. I know, you might think he’s not great defensively, you’re wrong though.

Karlsson has exceedingly low turnover rates relative to his teammates, something obfuscated by the fact that Ottawa’s system leads to lots of turnovers, and no defenceman has won more puck battles over the last three seasons. He’s not quite at Hedman’s level when it comes to removing the puck from opponents, but he’s a close second. You already know how great he is with the puck through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone, so the only thing left to say is: Please let that foot heal nicely, for the good of hockey.