The NHL’s Best non-Elite Defensemen in 2021

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Offensive Defensemen – Quinn Hughes

Expectations in 2020 were probably higher for Quinn Hughes‘ younger brother Jack, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. Quinn himself was drafted seventh in 2018, and for a 19-year-old defenseman, he clearly stole the show.

  • TOI: 87%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 75%
  • Pts: 72%
  • Corsi Diff: 106%
  • (+/-): 23%
  • Blocks: 23%
  • Hits: 3%

Overall Score: 56%

First of all, it’s fairly rare to see 20-year-olds playing a full season in the NHL on defense. Typically, young defenders are 22 before they get a full season. But it’s simply unheard of for 20-year-old defensemen to score 53 points (64 adjusted over a full season). What Hughes did was incredible. In just his first year, he has established himself as an elite offensive defenseman.

There are two scores which look like typos but aren’t. First of all, Vancouver’s Corsi was far better when Hughes was on the ice – an impressive feat. On the other hand, he managed just seven hits last year. Seven.

But Quinn Hughes is only 21. He is a far cry from the 6-foot-5 230 pounds Eric Lindros was when he was 21. But like most humans (Lindros was not), Hughes will surely improve the physical side of his game in the coming years. What remains to be seen is whether that maturity will enable him to transition from being a purely offensive talent into a legit #1 D and one of the league’s best.

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Offensive Defensemen – Cale Makar

2020’s Calder winner, Cale Makar, had a breakout year that was no less incredible than Quinn Hughes’. And at just 22, he also has plenty of room to improve his already impressive game.

  • TOI: 84%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 76%
  • Pts: 81%
  • Corsi Diff: 57%
  • (+/-): 65%
  • Blocks: 28%
  • Hits: 26%

Overall Score: 59%

I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw 2021 Hughes post similar numbers to 2020 Makar. After all, Makar is one year older than him.

Like Hughes, Makar got relatively easy minutes, which ultimately hurts his overall score. That’s obviously offset by how much better his points were. And also, like Hughes, the physical game is missing, although not to the same extent.

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Offensive Defensemen – Shea Theodore

Shea Theodore is a few years older than Hughes and Makar, but I think that it’s debatable whether his game is any farther along.

  • TOI: 93%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 57%
  • Pts: 60%
  • Corsi Diff: 99%
  • (+/-): 65%
  • Blocks: 33%
  • Hits: 9%

Overall Score: 60%

A few numbers jump out at me with Theodore. His Corsi Differential was extremely high on a team that already has an extremely high Corsi Differential. In fact, that number is 58.50 percent – that’s a truly phenomenal shot share.

On the other hand, Theodore got hardly any time against elite comp. Even Hughes and Makar are head and shoulders above him. Clearly, whenever possible, Theodore gets the easiest assignments in Vegas.

And like Hughes and Makar, his game isn’t very physical. And physicality is an important part of playing defense. How do you expect to defend when you can’t win a battle on the boards or in front of the net?

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Offensive Defensemen – Thomas Chabot

Thomas Chabot was head and shoulders above anyone in the league for minutes played. His TOI and TOI vs. elite comp were also far beyond any of his teammates. Clearly, he has become the cornerstone of the Ottawa Senators’ blue-line in the wake of Erik Karlsson’s departure. And at the young age of 23 to boot. So I was a little surprised to learn that Chabot spent no time on the PK.

  • TOI:110%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 94%
  • Pts: 51%
  • Corsi Diff: 78%
  • (+/-): 8%
  • Blocks: 41%
  • Hits: 37%

Overall Score: 60%

Chabot was a TOI monster for the Senators last year. No Defenseman had a tougher assignment than he did at even strength. Chabot also spent 3:15 a night on the PP.

To give a 23-year-old defenseman all that ice time, it shouldn’t be overly surprising to see his Plus/Minus take a hit. What is surprising, though, is that despite a tough assignment, the Senators were a significantly better team when Chabot was on the ice.

On the other hand, for a player with so many minutes, Chabot didn’t block very many shots or make very many hits. He is only 23 though, so I expect to see improvement in 2021 from an already impressive young player.

(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images) /

Offensive Defensemen – Neal Pionk

The Winnipeg Jets’ Blue Line has a new name: Neal Pionk.

Even though his time on the PK was a little light at 0:53 per night,  Neal Pionk had an impressive debut with the Jets. He took on a heavier than expected role with Dustin Byfuglien’s abrupt retirement and definitely rose to the challenge.

  • TOI: 96%
  • TOI vs. elite comp: 93%
  • Pts: 58%
  • Corsi Diff: 81%
  • (+/-): 62%
  • Blocks: 39%
  • Hits: 78%

Overall Score: 72%

Here’s an offensive defenseman who really did it all last year. It’s crazy to think he was undrafted. That’s a story in and of itself. As we’ve seen time and time again on this list, when players are given higher TOI and TOI vs. elite comp, their (+/-) tends to falter. Not so for Pionk, and his Corsi Differential was much higher than his team’s average.

Pionk’s a couple of years older than Charlie McAvoy, but he’s thrust into a similar role, leading a blue line in the process of transition. I am surprised Pionk didn’t get more attention from Norris voters. Surely Jets fans knew he was one of the brightest surprises last season.


I looked at these players to help assess whether the methodology I used in making my top ten list was valid. I don’t think we could possibly say that Darnell Nurse and Jaccob Slavin are better than Victor Hedman, even though their scores were similar. So I think that at best, the methodology could only work if comparing similar players.

I also noticed that offensive defensemen scored lower. Taken alongside the fact the defensive defensemen scored higher, I wonder if the methodology was skewed in favor of defenders. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though – a defenseman’s first priority always remains on defense. I do, however, feel like there’s a way to score all defensemen; I just need to find it.

Next. Ranking the top-10 best NHL defensemen in 2021. dark

I thought it was interesting the offensive and defensive defensemen were (for the most part) younger than the #1 D. I wonder whether some of the names we are looking at in this article are the #1 D of tomorrow. I guess we’ll see.

Thanks for reading!