The NHL’s Best non-Elite Defensemen in 2021

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(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

A list ranking the second-tier of defensemen playing in the NHL right now

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article ranking 2021’s ten best NHL Defensemen. 

In that article, I used a method that hasn’t been done before. I first isolated Defensemen who fit my (self-defined) criteria for a #1 defenseman, then created a standardized score based on seven categories:

  1. Time on Ice (“TOI”) (which I got from natural stat trick);
  2. TOI vs. Elite Competition (which I got from PuckIQ);
  3. Points;
  4. Individual Corsi For % vs. Team Corsi For % (which I got from natural stat trick) – which I’ll call “Corsi Differential”;
  5. Plus/Minus;
  6. Blocks (which I got from hockey-reference);
  7. Hits (also from hockey-reference).

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What I got was a list that mostly met the eye test. Of course, there were some surprises. I didn’t expect Alex Pietrangelo to fall to ninth, nor Ivan Provorov to rise to tenth, or Kris Letang to fourth.

I’m interested in seeing whether this method is truly valid, so I expanded it to several other NHL defensemen, which I will go over in this article.

I also didn’t put some names on my list of #1 D that probably belong there, which I’ll go over first. Then, I’m going to look at some D that didn’t get enough Power Play time, followed by the D that didn’t get enough Penalty Kill time.

To recap, I defined a #1 D as a player who generally:

  1. Plays the most minutes on the team;
  2. Plays the toughest minutes (in other words, against elite competition);
  3. Quarterbacks the Power Play and also logs significant time on the Penalty Kill;
  4. Contributes offensively, while also being defensively responsible.

What I’m calling a “non-elite D” either didn’t fit the criteria to qualify as a #1 D or was a #1 D but wasn’t in the top ten.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

Other Number One Defenseman – Morgan Rielly

Leafs fans would have surely noticed the omission of Morgan Rielly from my list. That was deliberate – I simply never assumed Morgan Rielly could be considered an elite #1 D.

But Rielly’s TOI was:

  • 19:52 Even Strength
  • 2:20 Power Play
  • 1:59 Penalty Kill
  • (Adjusted for a full season) He led his team in Even Strength minutes and TOI vs. Elite Comp.

Since he technically fit my criteria for a #1 D, I probably should have at least included him.

Although after plugging it in, I can see that it wouldn’t have changed the result:

  • TOI: 97%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 83%
  • Pts: 53%
  • Corsi Diff: 41%
  • (+/-): 54%
  • Blocks: 49%
  • Hits: 27%

Overall Score: 59%

Rielly spent enough TOI to be the #1 D in Toronto, but his numbers did not put him in the top ten. It is easy to look at Hits as a weakness, but keep in mind the category is only weighted as heavily as the other six. Roman Josi only scored 37 percent in hits, and Victor Hedman came in even lighter at 25 percent.

Where he actually suffered the most was Corsi Differential. The team was technically better overall when he wasn’t on the ice. And that’s certainly not what a #1 D should be.

Incidentally, Corsi Differential also hurt John Carlson, another player known for putting up the points. Like Carlson though, I would say that Morgan Rielly is more than just an offensive specialist (like a Tyson Barrie or a Torey Krug). But also like Carlson, that offensive production needs to be measured against Rielly’s defensive game.

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Other Number One Defenseman – Duncan Keith

A former Norris Winner with three cup rings, Duncan Keith has had an amazing career. In prior years, I have no doubt he’d land high in the top ten. But it should come as no surprise that last year wasn’t one of those years. He did, however, check the boxes – I’d say he is still a #1 D in this league.

  • TOI: 94%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 82%
  • Pts: 41%
  • Corsi Diff: 48%
  • (+/-): 44%
  • Blocks: 66%
  • Hits: 35%

Overall Score: 56%

Keith is still logging heavy and tough minutes for the Hawks, but the results aren’t as shiny. The category that hurt him the most was points. At 41 percent, 18 of the 19 players I tested scored higher than him. Only Jacob Trouba had fewer points.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Other Number One Defenseman – Ryan Suter

When Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were both in Nashville, they were one of, if not the best tandem in the league. That seems like ages ago, but both Defensemen can still bring it. But while Weber has had a bit of a resurgence in his career, Suter’s game is slightly declining.

  • TOI: 93%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 70%
  • Pts: 64%
  • Corsi Differential: 58%
  • (+/-): 31%
  • Blocks: 46%
  • Hits: 23%

Overall Score: 55%

I initially thought Suter was a #1 D, but his TOI vs. elite comp is so low that I don’t think he’s there anymore. I don’t recall him ever being much of a Power Play Quarterback either, but he spent an average of 2:54 per night on Minnesota’s PP last year. That’s more minutes on the PP than Burns, Werenski, or Heiskanen.

On the one hand, Suter had a strong Corsi Differential. His team was better when he was on the ice. On the other hand, Suter’s (+/-) really hurt him. So he’s an above-average player on a below-average team. It’s not easy to be an above-average player on an above-average team, which is why Dougie Hamilton is in the top ten and Suter is not.

But when you consider Suter’s Corsi Differential in light of his deployment against elite comp, that above-average performance is suddenly revealing. He should be an above-average player if he’s playing against below-average competition.

Like Morgan Rielly,  just 23 percent in Hits didn’t sink him, but without gaining much ground in other categories, it certainly didn’t help.

Bear in mind, though, that 55 percent isn’t exactly that far off from 65 percent. And if I am being realistic, this is the NHL we are talking about, where the margins should be narrow. What I am saying is that 55 percent doesn’t make Keith or Suter bad players – it actually suggests they are very good players. In 2021, they’re just not quite at the level a mere handful of their peers are.

Further criteria.

Some defensemen do everything for their team but quarterback the PP. In my opinion, in order to be considered a legit #1 D, those players must quarterback the Power Play.

I’m looking at some of those players next. But take their scores with a grain of salt. They are not being measured on the same criteria as legit #1 D.

In fact, after looking at the names, I suspect that the model I used biases defenders. That isn’t a bad thing – a defenseman’s most important job is to defend. But quarterbacking the Power Play is also a really important job. And it’s a job that comes with an extra 2:30 a night. So players with no PP duty can flourish in their other roles.

What I am saying is this. It might not be fair to compare the scores you see with the scores on my other list. But, it might be fair to compare these players against each other.

That or the methodology needs tuning.