Our feature grading the positional depth of each NHL team continues this week, with a focus on the blueline.
If you missed our prior talent tiers, they are referenced below – please check them out.
Our approach to grading defencemen will be similar, but not identical to the way we evaluated forwards. We overweight top-four defenders – for most teams, three to four defencemen play nearly identical ice time across all situations – and underweight third-pairing defenders.
One other critical housekeeping note: third pairings are a frequent area of intra-season change, with coaches bringing up players from the AHL (due to injury, underperformance at the NHL level, or whatever the case may be), and to that end, most teams’ depth chart runs seven or eight players deep at the defensive position.
We score based on a core group of six defenders we expect to see regular NHL ice-time.
And little different format this time – addressing all 32 teams. To the tiers!
Tier 5, In Trouble: Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks
Arizona: For a group that is low on high-end talent, it perplexes me Arizona would consider trading a defender the calibre of Jakob Chychrun, especially on an exceptionally team-friendly and budget-conscious contract. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t seen movement yet – the Coyotes are asking for the moon, and for good reason.
Columbus: It’s Zach Werenski and not much else. For an organization that has generally made the right moves over and over, I can’t for the life of me understand the Erik Gudbranson contract. Gudbranson had a great year in Calgary playing with Nikita Zadorov but compare quality of teammate options in Calgary to that of Columbus and consider Gudbranson’s track record prior to last season’s outperformance at age 30. Not a bet I would make.
San Jose: I thought Erik Karlsson looked better last season, but again, the defender who redefined the position in the modern era has struggled to stay on the ice. And, hard as it is to believe, he’s now 32 years old. We have seen puck-movers age more gracefully than shutdown types but hope that Karlsson will ever return to peak form is fading.
Tier 4, Underperform: Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, Seattle Kraken, Vancouver Canucks
Anaheim: The John Klingberg signing is brilliant for where this Ducks organization is right now. At worst case, last year’s ugly campaign – Dallas was outscored by 25 goals with Klingberg on the ice, a big red-flag number – was a sign of things to come, and Klingberg’s one-year deal mitigates a lot of the risk. But if he returns to form, he’s a quality two-way player who improves this team in the short term and becomes a valuable trade asset at the deadline.
Buffalo: A group with a lot of upside. Rasmus Dahlin had a big bounce-back season in year four. Owen Power is on deck for year one duty. I’d like to see the Sabres move up a tier by season end.
Chicago: The Seth Jones contract has officially started, so there’s that.
Detroit: Another group with plenty of upside, like Buffalo. Mo Seider was well deserving of last year’s Calder Trophy in a tough environment. It will be fascinating to see what Seider’s puck movement and awareness can do on a team with more attacking threats up top.
Montreal: Moving off the older Jeff Petry and into a cost-controlled Mike Matheson – a robust second-pairing player – is the type of move that quietly helps a rebuild along.
Ottawa: I was promised this team would upgrade the blueline! On a serious note: I’m concerned the Senators, who otherwise have the look of a playoff-calibre team, are risking sinking those chances by dressing this unit as advertised. They are betting big on prospect Jake Sanderson to deliver, but the team is also trying to navigate some contract issues – namely players like Erik Brannstrom and Lassi Thomson trying to work into full-time spots against entrenched players like Nikita Zaitsev, Nick Holden, and Travis Hamonic. And I’m being generous calling Zaitsev a non-top four player; the Senators frequently use him as one, to their own demise.
Philadelphia: We haven’t heard much about Ryan Ellis’ health, but new head coach John Tortorella’s off-season update was dispiriting to say the least.
Seattle: The Kraken’s forward group is coming along nicely, and their grades reflected accordingly. The blueline in Seattle is grim, and they were a consideration for Tier 5 status.
Vancouver: Another team very in the running for Tier 5 status, but Quinn Hughes – the mighty Quinn Hughes – kept them from the deepest parts of these rankings. I think there’s unanimous agreement this is the weak part of the Canucks roster, and consider this: the Canucks outscored their opponents by nine goals with Hughes (commonly with Luke Schenn) on the ice last season. Just think about what happened elsewhere. This group is a yikes, and not just defensively. Their inability to move the puck hampers their forwards, as fellow writer Thomas Drance rightly pointed out.
Tier 3, Solid: Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets
Dallas: It’s an unremarkable group outside of Miro Heiskanen, but a quality one. Speaking of Heiskanen, it feels like he’s been in the league for years now, and yet he just turned 23. Dallas locking him up to a long-term deal was a big organizational win.
Edmonton: Sometimes it’s the secondary deals that can make or break your roster, and I thought it was critical for Edmonton to re-sign Brett Kulak (and if not re-sign Kulak, find an equitable replacement; easier said than done!). Coming over from Montreal, Kulak was great in his Oilers stint. Not only did the Oilers get 58 per cent of the expected goals (+6 actual goals) with him on the ice, but I also thought his balance brought quality to partner Tyson Barrie’s game.
Florida: A group I considered for Tier 4, but Aaron Ekblad just holds up the top pairing in Florida so well.
Los Angeles: The Kings remind me a lot of where Dallas is right now. Drew Doughty isn’t the same player he once was, but the quiet emergence of Matt Roy, Mikey Anderson, and Sean Durzi has allowed the Kings to play with a little more balance on the backend, and it’s helped in aggregate.
New York Rangers: Entering his fourth season, I’m curious to see if Adam Fox can crack the venerable top tier of defenders in this league. If you are starting a franchise tomorrow, you wouldn’t take Fox over Cale Makar. But what about Charlie McAvoy, Roman Josi or Victor Hedman – the next cut of elite defenders? I think he’s very much in the mix, and the Norris voting reflected it last year.
New Jersey: I’m betting we see a lot more John Marino – brought over after a three-year stint with Pittsburgh – than consensus expectations this year. Three years in a row, Pittsburgh outshot and outscored opponents with Marino on the ice, and this is a guy who played predominantly with the weaker parts of Pittsburgh’s top-heavy lineup.
Tampa Bay: One of the more confusing depth charts you’ll find, at least after Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak. Not included on the group of six for now: Haydn Fleury and Zach Bogosian, who both figure to see some time this year. I expect a heavy rotation on that bottom pair.
Vegas: No player has added more wins to the Vegas Golden Knights ledger than Shea Theodore, who is a standout on an otherwise mediocre defensive group. You watch Vegas games and it’s clear how much different the pace of play is when Theodore’s pairing is pushing the puck versus the other two groups. If only Bill Foley could clone him.
Winnipeg: A quality group, and another one where I expect some roster competition on the third pairing. Dylan Samberg is penciled in, but 24-year-old Logan Stanley has a lot more experience – something we know new head coach Rick Bowness values from his prior stops.
Washington: Maybe the quietest statistic out there: the Capitals outscored opponents 71-41 (+30) with Nick Jensen on the ice last season, a staggering number and one only topped by six skaters around the league: Colorado’s Makar and Devon Toews, Minnesota’s Alex Goligoski and Jared Spurgeon, Calgary's Oliver Kylington, and Carolina’s Tony DeAngelo. Great company, and I expect to see him back with Dmitry Orlov again this year.
Tier 2, Outperform: Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs
Before getting into this tier, I want to mention I had a whale of a time differentiating two teams (Carolina and Minnesota; the top end of Tier 2) from Nashville (the low end of tier 1). I’d be curious how you guys grade out these three groups (The public gives the edge to Carolina.)
Boston: I’m being very generous including McAvoy here, who is recovering from a significant left shoulder injury and will miss time. But he’s also a top-five defenceman in the game, and moreover, the rest of the Bruins blueline is balanced and capable. I’m also intrigued by what Hampus Lindholm does in his first full season, because he looked great in very limited duty with the Bruins after the trade.
Carolina: The Hurricanes were strongly considered for Tier 1 status. It will be fascinating to see how Brent Burns, older and still as frenetic as ever, fits into this up-tempo lineup. It would seem he was primed for it, and this system last year did wonders for a similar (albeit younger) player in Tony DeAngelo.
Minnesota: Another strong consideration for Tier 1 status. The Wild have one of the deepest defensive groups in the league, and some of last year’s numbers were absurd. I mentioned Alex Goligoski’s season earlier – did you know the Wild were 40 goals, 40 GOALS, better than their competition last year with him deployed? Five of Minnesota’s six regulars were goal-positive a season ago, and the only one underwater was Matt Dumba (-1 EV).
New York Islanders: The strength of this team, no doubt about it. The least surprising move in history was Lou Lamoriello acquiring Alexander Romanov, who will likely see some top-four duty this season. Romanov is a very physical player, but he also brings higher-end skating ability, and I think there’s hope he can open up more scoring opportunities for a forward group that generally finds them hard to come by.
Pittsburgh: This group was on the fringes of Tier 3, but much like the Matheson trade was a win-later type of move for Montreal, the acquisition of the ever-reliable Petry makes sense today for the Penguins.
St. Louis: Where is the weakness? The only thing prohibiting this group from Tier 1 status is the absence of a star here.
Toronto: Kyle Dubas doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done with the defensive group, turning it from a laughingstock in years past to a reliable group. (If you hate Toronto, you’ll want to come back around for the goalie tiers.) They have three deep and capable pairings, and this roster doesn’t even include restricted free agent Rasmus Sandin, who will need a new deal before the season starts. Sandin and Timothy Liljegren both would seem to feature in this lineup full-time next year, so I’d keep an eye on Justin Holl, who may be the odd man out.
Tier 1, Elite: Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators
Calgary: If you are looking for the deepest blueline in the league, it’s here. It helps they have the perfect fit for head coach in Darryl Sutter, who excels in forcing opponents to play significant minutes in their own zone – the best type of ‘defence’ that exists in the modern era of hockey. Only thing to watch here of concern is Chris Tanev, who is recovering from labrum surgery. Juuso Valimaki is the likely replacement candidate.
Colorado: Nicklas Lidstrom. Erik Karlsson. Cale Makar. That is my summary.
Nashville: I give the slightest edge to Nashville over that of Carolina and Minnesota because of Roman Josi. He is that good. But I’m interested in what’s behind the Josi pairing. Recently acquired Ryan McDonagh has a lot of miles on him, and it certainly did not sound like McDonagh was ready to vacate his Tampa Bay residence for that of Nashville. But McDonagh still has game left, certainly so in a more limited role, and Tampa Bay’s cap distress could end up being a boon for an already high-end Predators blueline. With so much talent in this group, the Predators can ease McDonagh’s minutes –something the Lightning couldn’t accomplish – and perhaps get an even more productive player in the process.
Data via CapFriendly, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Hockey Reference, HockeyDB