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: Trevor Daley
10. Johnny Boychuk
Last year's rank: 4
Since being acquired by the Islanders two seasons ago, Boychuk has been one of the top blueliners for New York, eating up big minutes and helping bolster their power play with his booming shot. The 2015-16 season, however, was one that Boychuk would probably rather forget, as his numbers dropped off significantly from where they'd been the previous season. He suffered a shoulder injury in early January that kept him out of the lineup for over a month, and he found himself spending less time with Nick Leddy and more with Calvin de Haan, both contributing factors to his struggles but likely not the entire reason. (Of course, if he relied on Leddy that much to be a top-four defenseman, perhaps he isn't one.)
Some strong seasons from other Division colleagues, some new blood in the Metro and a generally "off" year for Boychuk all led to his fall from the top half of this list...but he's still got value and the potential to bounce back (or at least Isles fans hope he does), and has proven to be a strong weapon for the Isles in the past, and so he makes the cut again this year.
9. Travis Hamonic
Last year's rank: 8
This was a strange season for Hamonic, played amid the leaked news that he had requested a trade for family reasons (a request which he later rescinded, good news for team and player alike). Despite the season-long "controversy", Hamonic was a valuable piece of the Isles' blueline, leading the team in average ice time at just under 24 minutes a night and trailing only Calvin de Haan among NYI defensemen in five-on-five CF% with 50.67%. His offense dropped a bit from the 2014-15 season, when he picked up a career-high 28 assists en route to a 33-point season, but it was still one of his better offensive campaigns overall.
8. Shayne Gostisbehere
Last year's rank: N/A
The relative ease with which Gostisbehere adapted to the NHL game may not have been all that surprising, but it was nonetheless impressive, resulting in Calder Trophy finalist honors (finishing second to Chicago's Artemi Panarin). Called up to the big club in November, he developed a reputation as an overtime specialist with six points (four of them goals, tied for second-most in the League) in the extra frame and putting up 46 points overall for one of the best seasons in terms of production by a rookie blueliner in NHL history.
If he has a weakness, it's the same one facing most young offensive-minded defenseman - in other words, the defensive zone, where he gave up a ton of high-danger scoring chances (albeit saddled at times with Andrew MacDonald as a partner) and was prone to mental errors. One imagines that this will improve with age and experience, but that, plus a small sample size from which to draw, will keep him lower on this list for now. The talent is there, though, that much is clear.
So the question for Gostisbehere is this: can his outstanding debut be repeated?
7. Seth Jones
Last year's rank: N/A
Jones started the season as part of one of the stronger defensive corps in the League, and finished it as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets' blueline, which is... also an NHL defense. His arrival in Columbus immediately strengthened the Jackets' defense, however, and he quickly became the #1 guy, relied upon to play big minutes (over 24 minutes a night, up from just under 20 with the Preds) with the expectation of producing at both ends of the ice. His 20 points in 41 games with Columbus were just a handful behind what their top-scoring defensemen produced all season, and he led all CBJ blueliners with an impressive even-strength CF% of 52.7%.
Like Gostisbehere, Jones has a ton of potential to get even better over time (which is good, since he signed a long-term deal earlier this summer); unlike Gostisbehere, he's had a few seasons to prove what he's already capable of doing, and it's pretty darn good.
6. Nick Leddy
Last year's rank: 6
Like most of the Islanders, Leddy had a good-not-great 2015-16, punctuated by a slow start offensively in which he went the first three months of the season without scoring a goal (a year after establishing a new career high with 10). He went on a tear at the end of the season, though, scoring four goals and 25 points in the final 38 games of the year to set new career highs in assists and points. That tapered off a bit once the playoffs rolled around, but he was still relied upon - along with defensive partner Travis Hamonic - to carry the lion's share of the work for the Islanders, particularly in the first-round series against the Panthers in which he topped 25 minutes in all but one of the six games. At just 24 years of age, he's become perhaps the most reliable and consistent of the Islanders' defensemen.
5. Matt Niskanen
Last year's rank: 7
With teammates John Carlson and Brooks Orpik both on the sidelines with injuries for much of the regular season (and into the playoffs), Niskanen was called upon to step up and fill multiple roles, taking the lead on a suddenly young and inexperienced blueline. He wasn't just equal to the task; he in many ways exceeded expectations, establishing himself as the go-to guy for the team in all situations despite a bit of a downturn in overall offensive production.
He racked up huge minutes in both the regular and postseason, which included team-leading ice time at even strength and on the penalty kill (and trailing only Carlson in power-play time); that extra extra-man time helped him set new career highs in power-play assists and points (again trailing only Carlson in that department). But it was in the playoffs where he really stepped up, one of only three Caps' blueliners to appear in all 12 games and a huge reason why the top lines for both the Flyers and Penguins were kept quiet through those series.
4. Ryan McDonagh
Last year's rank: 3
McDonagh has long been not only one of the best defenders in the Division, but one of the best in the League; his body of work far outshines what was, by his standards, a lackluster 2015-16 season, and keeps him in the top half of our list. For that matter, the fact that he was able to do even as well as he did last year despite being attached at the hip to one Dan Girardi (who, you might notice, is not on this list) is pretty impressive. He still managed to put up nine goals and 34 points on the year, both of which were his second-highest career totals, and had an even-strength CF% over 53% when freed from Girardi (dipping down to 42.5% with him, yikes). Even with his anchor of a defensive partner, McDonagh remains a consistently good defenseman in a consistently bad situation.
3. Justin Faulk
Last year's rank: 5
As is often the case, it's easy to overlook players on small-market teams or teams in the bottom-third of the standings - and where Faulk is concerned, both have often been true. But make no mistake about it, Faulk is worth paying attention to. He started the season off by making history, becoming the first player to ever score his first 12 goals of the season on the power play; he accomplished the feat by mid-December (although oddly enough that would be where the power-play goals stopped for the year).
His 37 points led all Carolina defensemen and ranked fifth in team scoring, and his 16 goals put him into the top-10 among NHL defensemen (tied with Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang) - all while having his season shortened by a lower-body injury that kept him out for over a month. The good news for 'Canes fans is that Faulk is still only 24 years old, the elder statesman of a crop of young, talented defensemen coming up through the Carolina system - and he's only going to get better.
2. John Carlson
Last year's rank: 2
The 2015-16 season was an up-and-down one for Carlson, a season that (like many others on the list) didn't necessarily move the needle forward but certainly didn't detract from what he's accomplished in his seven seasons as an NHLer.
Carlson's strength this year, as always, was in his offense. He picked up 39 points, good enough for top-30 among all NHL blueliners... but did that in just 56 games played, a points-per-game pace of .70 that not only established a new career high (narrowly edging out his previous high of .67, set in 2014-15) but was also the 11th-highest scoring rate by a defenseman in the League. That his season was shortened by injury, for the first time in his career, probably kept him from continuing to increase his point totals each year as he'd done the previous two seasons. He stepped it up in the playoffs, however, with 12 points in 12 games - tied for the team lead with Alex Ovechkin and fifth among all NHL defensemen despite playing in one to two fewer rounds than anyone ahead of him. Just more of the same from the Caps' dynamic blueliner.
1. Kris Letang
Last year's rank: 1
Of course, when it comes to dynamic blueliners they don't get much more dynamic than Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. Much like his team, the tide turned for Letang after Mike Johnston was removed as coach and replaced by Mike Sullivan, and Letang in particular began putting up points at a furious clip. By the end of the season, he was eighth in goals among all defensemen, third in points, and second in assists - career highs, all. He kept it rolling into the playoffs, putting up 15 points in 23 games (while averaging an insane 28:53 a night) and had a hand in every game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final.
Letang continues to have some ups and downs despite a sparkling overall career. That he's been unable to stay consistently healthy over the course of his career has kept him from accomplishing more than he already has, although he's bounced back over the last two seasons, his 71 games this year the most in which he's played since 2010-11. That he has a tendency to tiptoe along the line between clean and dirty (or just leap right over it) hasn't exactly endeared him to opponents. Still, when he's healthy and not running around, he's pretty special to watch - and a huge reason why the Penguins got to hold yet another parade this summer.