Yesterday we kicked off our annual look at the best the Metropolitan Division has to offer with the top ten goaltenders. Today? It’s the guys directly in front of them: the defensemen.
Honorable Mention: Olli Maatta (PIT), Justin Faulk (CAR), Jaccob Slavin (CAR)
10. Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI)
Last year’s rank: NR
After a disappointing sophomore season, Gostisbehere bounced back in 2017-18 with his strongest campaign to date, putting up huge numbers - his 65 points were third-most among all blueliners, and his 33 power-play points led all defensemen. While providing a significant amount of offense for his team, he also became half of what would become the Flyers’ go-to defensive pairing with fellow youngster Provorov, skating a career-high average ice time of 21:27. The only blemish on an otherwise strong season was a rough run in the team’s first-round ousting at the hands of the Penguins - but in just his second playoff outing, it can serve as a learning experience for the young defenseman.
9. Ivan Provorov (PHI)
Last year’s rank: HM
If what Gostisbehere did was impressive, what his younger defensive partner did was perhaps even more so. Provorov put up 17 goals on the season, tying him for first in the League alongside Norris Trophy-winner Victor Hedman and Dougie Hamilton - 15 of which came at even strength, as did 36 of his 41 points overall. Not only did he provide a boost at even strength, but he also led the team in both overall ice time (at 24+ minutes a night) and shorthanded ice time. Despite the heavy workload and a bruising number of shot blocks, he also appeared in all 82 games. The scary part? He’s only 21.
8. Nick Leddy (NYI)
Last year’s rank: 10
Leddy has always been a pretty decent point-producing defenseman, and last season was more of the same, as he put up 42 points in 80 games. Where he struggled, however, was in the defensive end... which obviously isn’t ideal for a defenseman. After losing a couple of key pieces last summer, the entire Islanders’ blueline had a rough run in 2017-18, but Leddy’s season stood out as particularly disappointing. And while plus-minus is one of the most useless and least informative “individual” stats out there, it’s never a good sign to be dead last in any stat - and Leddy’s -42 was far and away the worst in the League. Is he capable of a bounceback year? Of course, and under a new head coach he’ll get that chance.
7. Dmitry Orlov (WSH)
Last year’s rank: 7
Orlov’s evolution from prospect to bona fide NHL defenseman hasn’t necessarily followed the smoothest course, but the journey has certainly been worth it, as he’s turned into one of the Caps best defensemen. Shortly after signing a six-year deal with the team, he put together a career season for himself, establishing new highs in goals (10) and ice time (23:08) while playing in all situations. Alongside partner Matt Niskanen, Orlov led all Caps’ defensmen in a number of even-strength statistics, including CA/60, SCA/60, SCF%, and GF/60. And oh yeah... at the end of it all he got to hoist the Stanley Cup.
6. Dougie Hamilton (CAR)
Last year’s rank: N/A
The trade that sent Hamilton from Calgary to Carolina was one of many head-scratching moves taking place this summer - but there’s no question that it instantly improved the Hurricanes’ blueline. He’s a dangerous weapon on the power play, and has been half of one of the League’s best offensive blueline duos for the past few years alongside former partner Mark Giordano. Over the last three seasons, he’s put up even-strength points at a rate of 1.18/game, which puts him among the League’s elite. On the defensive side is where things get a little bit murkier, as he’s much more gifted at the offensive elements and has a tendency to take bad penalties. Still, the ability to put up points and generate chances at a high rate will cancel out almost all bad things in today’s NHL, and Hamilton certainly has that ability in spades.
5. Matt Niskanen (WSH)
Last year’s rank: 2
An injury suffered five games into the season forced Niskanen to sit out a dozen more early on, and perhaps contributed to a bit of an up-and-down year - but it didn’t stop him from putting up goals at the second-highest rate of his career. More importantly, he continues to be one of the Caps’ most dependable blueliners year over year, putting up points at a decent clip but also shutting down the other team’s top guns - from Sidney Crosby, to Steven Stamkos, to the Golden Knights’ top trio en route to a Stanley Cup.
4. Zach Werenski (CBJ)
Last year’s rank: 8
It’s hard enough to stand out as a top-tier defenseman when fully healthy; Werenski managed to do so while battling a season-long injury, playing through shoulder injury that would eventually require offseason surgery. Prior to that, all he did was set a new career-high in goals (16) and skate over 22 minutes a night, drawing tougher defensive responsibilities in the process. This all served as a decent follow-up to one of the best rookie seasons for a defenseman in League history - and if he’s healthy this season, as he seems to be on track to be, watch out for what he’s got in store for his third year and beyond.
3. Kris Letang (PIT)
Last year’s rank: 1
Whether it’s his advancing age or the cumulative impact of so many injuries, there’s no question that Letang took a step back last season, plagued by inconsistency and defensive lapses. But he’s still Letang, and he’s still dangerous with the puck - which is why an off year (and an incredibly rough second-round performance in the playoffs) only pushes him back to third on this list. And after years of racking up massive minutes, it sounds like the Penguins are going to dial back his ice time - which could end up benefiting the 31-year-old blueliner, leaving him with more energy to do what he does best.
2. John Carlson (WSH)
Last year’s rank: 5
You know, if you’re going to put together a career season, there’s no better time to do so than right before becoming a free agent - and if you can get it to coincide with, and have it contribute to, your team’s run to the Cup? All the better. That’s exactly how it worked out for Carlson, who cut a swath of destruction through the League en route to a career-high 68 points (tops among all defensemen) and adding another 20 points - also a blueline best - in the playoffs. No defenseman had more power-play points in the postseason than Carlson’s 12, and he was easily one of the Caps’ best players during their postseason run. Can he keep it up after signing a huge eight-year deal to stay in DC? That’s the bar that’s been set.
1. Seth Jones (CBJ)
Last year’s rank: 9
It’s probably pretty likely that Jones would get more respect for his game if he played in a so-called “traditional” hockey market, and one could make the argument that not being a Norris finalist this season was one of the bigger awards snubs of the year. But those who play against him on a regular basis, and those who get to watch him, know that he’s quickly developed into one of the League’s elite defensemen, which is why he’s bounded to the top of our list for the first time. He and Werenski tied for the new franchise high in goals by a defenseman with 16, and his 57 points put him in the upper echelon of blueline offense. He was instrumental in the team’s late-season playoff push, including a run of three consecutive game-winning goals in March, and racked up over 24 minutes of ice time a night - a number that jumped to over 30 minutes in an overtime-laden first-round series against the Caps - and finished with an even-strength CF of 54.1%. And did we mention that he’s only 23?