Ranking the top-10 best NHL defensemen in 2021

Dallas Stars Defenceman Miro Heiskanen (4). (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dallas Stars Defenceman Miro Heiskanen (4). (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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Miro Heiskanen (4)
Dallas Stars Defenceman Miro Heiskanen (4). (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

A list ranking the best number one defensemen playing in the NHL right now

The Norris Trophy is awarded each year to what we would presumably call the NHL‘s best defenseman, by members of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association.

Members cast their votes, ranking the top 5 defensemen currently in the league. The player with the best overall results wins. Incidentally, the Hart Trophy (for the most valuable player) is also decided this way. You can see the voting results of the Norris and Hart here.

The top 10 Norris finalists in 2020 were:

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  1. Roman Josi (2020’s winner)
  2. John Carlson
  3. Victor Hedman
  4. Alex Pietrangelo
  5. Jaccob Slavin
  6. Shea Theodore
  7. Dougie Hamilton
  8. Zach Werenski
  9. Cale Makar
  10. Charlie McAvoy

All great defensemen, to be sure. But there are other players that I feel deserve to be on this list. In fact, as you can see from the votes, most PHWA members can’t agree between themselves who would be in their top 5, let alone their top 10.

That being said, a defenseman’s performance is notoriously hard to rate. Offensive contribution is easy enough to quantify with goals and assists. But determining goals prevented is always a hypothetical exercise. And we just don’t have enough time to analyze everything a player does, in every situation, to evaluate their overall performance.

Looking at the 2020 Norris finalists, what stands out to me the most is that several names on there wouldn’t be considered “legit #1 Defensemen”.

I’ve heard the term routinely thrown around by hockey people, but I wasn’t able to find an actual definition anywhere. Every team needs one. But not every team has one (although there are one or two NHL teams that arguably have two).

To me, a legit #1 D generally needs to:

  1. Play the most minutes;
  2. Play the toughest minutes;
  3. Play in all situations (including 1st unit Power Play);
  4. Produce offensively
  5. While also being defensively responsible.

That should usually make those players, by definition, the clear number one on the depth chart.

Now, this means that Jaccob Slavin, Shea Theodore, Cale Makar, and Charlie McAvoy are not legit #1 D, by definition. None of them play in all situations.  It would also rule out Thomas Chabot. Despite the fact he was head and shoulders above everyone else in Time on Ice (“TOI”) in 2020, he averaged just 14 seconds a night on the Penalty Kill (I got my TOI statistics here).

And if I’m ranking the 10 best Defensemen currently in the league, they all have to be legit #1 Ds. The essential criteria I used was this:

  1. Time on Ice (per natural stat trick);
  2. Time on Ice against Elite Competition (per PuckIQ);
  3. Points;
  4. Their Corsi For percent vs. their team’s Corsi For percent (per natural stat trick);
  5. Plus / Minus;
  6. Blocks (per hockey-reference)
  7. Hits (per hockey-reference)

I then selected 19 players who fit the legit #1 D criteria and gave them a percentage score in each category, based on how far they were off the top player. Then I added the seven scores up and divided them by seven. I adjusted each number for full seasons so as not to bias any players that missed games.

I then looked at intangibles, such as age, missed games, and statistical outliers.

Accordingly, I present my own list of the top 10 best defensemen currently in the NHL.