Last week we kicked off our annual look at the best the Metropolitan Division has to offer with the top ten goaltenders. This week? It's the guys directly in front of them: the defensemen.
Honorable mention: Karl Alzner (WSH), Mark Streit (PHI)
After a couple of injury-shortened seasons, Staal returned to the Rangers for an almost-full season (his 80 games the most in which he's appeared in five years) and put together a pretty solid year for himself. Not exactly known for his offense, he still managed to score 20 points - his highest point total since 2010-11. Granted, he wasn't as strong on the other side of the puck last season as he's been in the past, and was on for more goals-against than any Ranger not named Dan Girardi, but he continues to be a core part of a steady if not overly flashy Rangers blueline.
9. Keith Yandle, New York Rangers
Last year's rank: N/A
Speaking of that Rangers' defense, Yandle was the big trade deadline acquisition that every team in need of a blueline upgrade was eyeing... so of course he ended up in New York. Once in the Big Apple, he continued to put up points the way he's done throughout his career (albeit not quite at the same rate as he'd done as a Coyote, with his points-per-game dropping slightly from .65 to .52) and finished the season among the League's top-ten defensemen in scoring with 52 points. He proved to be even more valuable to New York in the playoffs, and finished the Rangers' 19-game playoff run with a career-high 11 points, the most among Ranger defensemen and fourth overall on the team.
8. Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders
Last year's rank: Not ranked
After a summer of (relatively) flashy blueline upgrades for the Islanders, it might have been easy to forget about Hamonic heading into the 2014-15 season. While the focus was on guys like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, however, the homegrown Hamonic put together a career year for himself with 33 points (third on the Islanders behind Leddy and Boychuk) and became the go-to guy on defense in the process. A hit by Rob Scuderi in mid-April kept him out of the first-round playoff matchup with the Caps... and it's worth noting that a healthy Hamonic in that series might have changed an outcome seemingly so impacted by the overall health of the Isles' blueline.
7. Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals
Last year's rank: 6
When the Caps brought in Niskanen (and Brooks Orpik) last summer, the intent was to bolster a defensive corps that had previously been littered with not-quite-ready prospects and minor leaguers - and Niskanen delivered, providing a steady partner for Karl Alzner as the team's second defensive pair, putting up consistent possession numbers and filling in on the power play when needed. His offense predictably fell off from the breakout totals he'd posted a year earlier, but perhaps not as much as expected, and his very respectable 31 points marked just the third time in his career that he'd cracked the 30-point mark. His struggles in the playoffs notwithstanding, Niskanen's first season in DC was, overall, a very successful one.
6. Nick Leddy, New York Islanders
Last year's rank: 10
One of the Islanders' two big acquisitions on the blueline last summer, Leddy's first season in Long Island was also his best so far, hitting double digits in goals for the first time in his career and tying his previous high in points (in four fewer games). Paired up with Boychuk on most nights, Leddy regularly faced tough competition and was very effective against them despite getting generally less favorable zone starts than he had while in Chicago. After a solid postseason that often saw him going up against the Caps' top line, expect Leddy to play a bigger role in the coming years - especially with that new seven-year deal in hand.
5. Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes
Last year's rank: Honorable Mention
Given the array of defensive talent among some of the other Division teams, it would be easy to overlook someone like Justin Faulk; it would also be wrong to do so, because he's very quietly becoming one of the Metro's better young blueliners. His 49-point season marked a career high and put him solidly into the League's top 20 in scoring by a defenseman, edging out some notable powerhouses like Shea Weber, Mike Green and Duncan Keith in the process. That he was saddled with a -19 on the season is indicative of the kind of year it was for the Hurricanes overall, and his possession numbers took a hit, as well... but at just 22, it's increasingly clear that the best is still ahead for Faulk.
4. Johnny Boychuk, New York Islanders
Last year's rank: Not ranked
In his five-plus seasons with Boston, Boychuk proved to be a dependable if not overly flashy piece of the Bruins' blueline... although perhaps some of that is due to being in the extremely large shadow of one Zdeno Chara. Nevertheless, he played a huge role in turning around the fortunes of the Islanders. His 35 points - a career high - ranked second only to fellow newcomer Leddy among Isles' defensemen, and his first real taste of consistent power-play time combined with a lethal shot resulted in 15 of those points being scored with the extra man. Once the postseason rolled around, he proved to be a big pain in the rear for the Caps (and had a pretty epic seven-game battle with Alex Ovechkin in particular) despite seeing his offense fall off a bit - and like Leddy, was able to parlay a strong inaugural campaign with the Islanders into a shiny new seven-year contract extension.
3. Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers
Last year's rank: 1
McDonagh has been one of the best (if not THE best) defensemen the Metropolitan has to offer in recent years, and that really hasn't changed this time around... but he's taken a slight dip in the rankings this year after a season that was, for him, not as good as we're used to seeing. He's still a workhorse, logging over 23 minutes on average in both the regular season and playoffs, and continues to provide consistent offense. 33 points was certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it was a dip from the numbers he'd posted the previous year and his nine postseason points account for just under half his total from the 2014 run (albeit in six fewer games). All that said, McDonagh is still among the elite in the Division and the League; with a strong showing in 2015-16, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him back on top this time next year.
2. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
Last year's rank: 4
One of many Caps to take a big step forward under new head coach Barry Trotz, Carlson put himself into the conversation as one of the NHL's best with a breakout season. Already a pretty prolific scorer, Carlson demolished his previous career highs in goals, assists and points, finishing in the top five among NHL defensemen in scoring and in the top two in even-strength offense. He led Caps' defensemen in just about every offensive category, established himself as the go-to guy on the League's most potent power play, and put up strong possession numbers despite facing off against the opponent's top lines night in and night out. Add in the fact that he spent most of that time alongside Brooks Orpik... and it's all that much more impressive.
1. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
Last year's rank: 2
After missing large chunks of the past three seasons with injury and illness, Letang returned to carrying a semi-normal workload this year, with "just" 13 games missed - and showed what he was capable of doing when he's healthy. Letang's 54 points were the fifth-most among NHL defensemen, impressive in and of itself; more so when noting that he appeared in at least 11 fewer games than anyone ahead of him on that list. He set new career highs pretty much across the board while carrying the load for a Penguins' blueline that was decimated by injuries throughout the season. That he ended up sitting out their brief playoff run not only offers a partial explanation of why it was so brief in the first place, but also brings up what is the biggest question surrounding Letang going forward: can he stay healthy?