Being a defenseman in the current NHL means being able to drive the offense as much as it means to stop the opposing team. Gone are the days where being a super-sized defender that’s as mobile as a cruise liner and can block out the sun. If a defenseman is built like that these days, chances are he’s not making it too far in the NHL or even making it there at all.
Nowadays a defenseman must be a smooth, quick skater with the ability to carry the puck up the ice and score goals and set up their teammates. Oh, and they have to play well in their own end, mind their gaps, and keep close tabs on the other team’s best players. No big deal, really. Just be amazing in all facets of the game.
The Norris Trophy race every year now is an instant debate over who deserves it more, and there are more than a few outstanding candidates. Sure, the MVP debates are great, but have you ever tried to get in the middle of a defenseman debate? Good luck.
Thankfully, we’re here to help settle a lot of those arguments for you by ranking the 10 best defensemen in the NHL right now. Of course, you’ll probably want to argue with us about those too, to which we say, bring it on.
10. Morgan Rielly - Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s hard to play hockey in Toronto, what with the pressure to win the Stanley Cup and the lack of playoff luck, but Morgan Rielly has succeeded despite having a huge spotlight always shined on the Maple Leafs' defense.
Toronto thrives on offense, and Rielly has helped drive that for most of his nine years in the league. Twice he’s scored double-figures in goals, 10 last season and 20 in 2018-2019. His 68 points last season was four points shy of his career-high set that same season. Playing with Auston Matthews makes life a little easier, sure, but as a puck carrier, Rielly has excelled. In each season, Rielly has never scored fewer than 27 points and he’s averaged 41.4 points per season. He’s been their top power play defenseman for a few seasons now and he’s getting more work on the penalty kill once again after doing it often from 2015-2017.
To have as much regular season success as the Maple Leafs have had you need to have a defenseman capable of driving play, carrying the puck, and setting up the forwards, and Rielly has owned that high-profile situation.
9. Devon Toews - Colorado Avalanche
This might sound foolish, but it’s tough being Cale Makar’s teammate. But in Devon Toews’ case, “difficult” means not getting a lot of attention while playing elite defense next to the best defenseman in the league.
Since landing in Colorado after a trade with the New York Islanders, Toews’ career has taken off. He set career-highs in goals (13), assists (44), and points (57) and he missed 16 games. And while plus-minus is a dubious statistic, his plus-52 was fourth-best in the NHL. He led Avalanche defensemen with a 57.1 percent CorsiFor and only trailed Makar in expected goals percentage.
Yes, Toews and Makar were defense partners for most of the season and the playoffs, but here’s the thing… the numbers didn’t change much when they played apart from each other. Their possession and expected goal numbers were fantastic together, but both numbers stayed well above 50 percent when away from each other at 5-on-5.
Whether it was at even strength or special teams, Toews played a role in all of them and was superb. At 28, he’s only been in the NHL for four seasons, and that the Islanders moved him to Colorado for a pair of second-round picks makes it seem like one of the more lopsided deals in recent history. If Toews keeps up play like this, it’ll be an all-time bad trade.