Ranking each Canadian team’s defence corps ahead of the 2023-24 NHL season

Halford and Brough discuss Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet's comments on the team defending by committee, instead of consistent pairs, and how it will affect top defenceman and captain Quinn Hughes.

Defence wins championships.

Hockey is faster and more offence-driven than ever before, yet a consistent trait among recent Stanley Cup champions is they’ve all had strong, deep defence corps.

It has been 30 years since a Canadian NHL franchise has hoisted hockey’s most coveted team trophy, and if that streak is going to end this season, then the blue lines are going to have to pull their weight.

Whether it’s Edmonton’s dynamic duo or Toronto’s core four, the forward units North of the border boast some of the NHL’s top talent up front, but can the same be said for the back ends?

With the NHL’s 2023-24 regular season set to begin next week, here’s where each Canadian defence corps ranks.


Projected top six:
Noah Hanifin – Rasmus Andersson
Nikita Zadorov – MacKenzie Weegar
Jordan Oesterle – Chris Tanev
Extras: Oliver Kylington

This defensive unit is perhaps the deepest of all seven Canadian teams and remains a strength of the Flames. There are certainly long-term question marks around them with Weegar and Andersson the only two signed beyond this season, so depending on where the Flames sit in the standings, it’s possible trade rumours could become a regular talking point leading up to next March’s deadline.

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Andersson, Weegar and Hanifin all can supplement the offence with consistent production, Zadorov provides a physical edge and is coming off a 14-goal campaign, Oesterle was brought in from Detroit to contribute 15-18 minutes per night, and Tanev is a shot-blocking machine which is a collective strength of this group.

This unit will benefit from the goaltending getting back on track after a subpar 2022-23 season, but there is clearly added pressure on the defence because they’ll be playing behind an aging forward group that traded away its top scorer from a year ago, Tyler Toffoli, in the off-season.


Projected top six:
Thomas Chabot – Jakob Chychrun
Jake Sanderson – Artem Zub
Erik Brannstrom – Travis Hamonic

There is plenty to be optimistic about if you’re a Senators fan and the solid core of defencemen is high among the reasons. Adding Chychrun in a late-season trade to a group that already included Chabot and Sanderson raised the team’s ceiling for potential and subsequently the expectations for this year.

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Sanderson is entering the final year of his entry-level contract before his eight-year, $64.4-million extension kicks in ahead of the 2024-25 campaign. The fifth-overall pick from 2020 was named to the All-Rookie team one season ago and finished sixth in Calder voting as rookie of the year. He looks like the real deal but can he continue to improve along with the rest of his teammates? Chabot has never completed an NHL season with a positive plus/minus rating. Is this the season that changes?


Projected top six:
Mattias Ekholm – Evan Bouchard
Darnell Nurse – Cody Ceci
Brett Kulak – Vincent Desharnais
Extras: Philip Broberg

Edmonton has an elite forward group that isn’t as top-heavy as it has been in years past, a menacing thought for opposing defences. That means there’ll be added pressure on the Oilers defence to pull its own weight and not be a weak spot. The addition of Ekholm helped take the Oilers to another level last season and it should result in Edmonton having improved cohesion right from the season opener.

It looks like Bouchard will be tasked, or honoured, with the role of being the lone blueliner on Edmonton’s historically good top power-play unit. Bouchard averaged a point per game over his final 19 regular-season contests before adding 17 points in 12 playoff games, recording points in all but two of those post-season outings.

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There’s a nice blend of size, skill, speed and IQ within this group, while also a handful of liabilities. If depth pieces like Desharnais can reduce the number of off-nights this season, it’ll go a long way towards Edmonton elevating itself to a top-tier Cup contender.

“It’s okay to have a bad game. It happens to everybody. But you want the bad game to be behind you, and you want to be able to put five, six, seven, 10 games in a row where you’re playing well,” Desharnais recently told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector when asked about making improvements. “I know I won’t score 30 goals. I’ll know my job is just to be consistent day in and day out and do my job. That’s what they expect me to do. That’s what I’m going to do.”


Projected top six:
Quinn Hughes – Cole McWard
Carson Soucy – Filip Hronek
Ian Cole – Tyler Myers
Extras: Christian Wolanin

Hughes might be the best individual blueliner on any of these seven Canadian teams. The smooth-skating Hughes was recently named his team’s captain and should be in for another productive season. Hughes has increased his ice-time each year since entering the league and hopefully he won’t have to do too much heavy lifting for this Vancouver defence.

“I think I’m smoother. I can, like, accelerate with the puck and where I want to shoot it, and get to my point a little quicker,” Hughes recently told reporters when talking about off-season improvements he feels he has made. “It’s something I’ve worked on for two summers, but I’m starting to feel really comfortable with it now.

“This is probably the most confident I feel in my abilities on the blue line for sure. For me, it’s always just defending hard and doing what I need to do for the team, and then I think I’m going to get my looks this year for sure.”

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Finding Hughes a consistent partner will be huge. Undrafted Cole McWard has been skating beside Hughes in the pre-season.

Vancouver’s defence is a lot more well-rounded than it was last season. Hronek only suited up for four games before an injury ended his campaign and Soucy was a clear off-season target of the Canucks and management inked him to a three-year deal after his impressive playoff run with Seattle this past spring.


Projected top six:
Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Jake McCabe – John Klingberg
Mark Giordano – Timothy Liljegren
Extras: Conor Timmins

Toronto’s new general manager Brad Treliving had a busy summer and on the defensive side of things brought in John Klingberg to skate on the right side after Luke Schenn and Justin Holl left town. Klingberg is coming off a disappointing year split between Anaheim and Minnesota but has a nice chance to rebound earning a spot on the team’s No. 1 power-play unit in training camp. Rielly and Brodie are likely to be tasked with defending opposing team’s top lines, which should help Kilingberg adjust to his third team in the past 15 months.

Timmins was a positive addition last season but the 25-year-old is currently dealing with what Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe called a “significant lower-body injury” expected to keep him out week-to-week to begin the season. Does Liljegren finally enjoy a breakout year and will Giordano be the same player who struggled in the post-season?

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On paper, this group maybe doesn’t scream championship material but does shape up as a more than capable group.


Projected top six:
Josh Morrissey – Dylan DeMelo
Brenden Dillon – Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg – Nate Schmidt
Extras: Logan Stanley

The Jets begin this season with three returning pairs. On one hand that’s positive for chemistry, on the other hand, there were plenty of nights when the team was bailed out by the stellar play of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

Morrissey more than doubled his previous career high for points in a season when he posted 76 in 78 games, tied for second-most points by a defenceman behind Erik Karlsson. It’s realistic to expect some regression from Morrissey statistically, but this team can’t afford to have the unit as a whole regress.


Projected top six:
Michael Matheson – David Savard
Jordan Harris – Johnathan Kovacevic
Arber Xhekaj – Kaiden Guhle
Extras: Gustav Lindstrom, Logan Mailloux, Justin Barron

It’s not too surprising to see the Canadians ranked in this spot the way 2022-23 unfolded but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom in Montreal. Matheson and Savard are the types of veterans every team in the league wants, plus Guhle is looking to build off a solid 44-game rookie season.

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There have been plenty of positional battles to fill out the final few spots on the blue line during the pre-season, especially with Chris Wideman out long-term due to a back injury. There will be an abundance of youth along the left side behind Matheson with Harris and Xhekaj both yet to turn 24. If Montreal’s young blueliners can make some marked improvements then, you never know, the Habs could outperform some relatively low expectations.

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