Earlier this week, 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: Ryan Pulock, Shayne Gostisbehere, Brian Dumoulin, Travis Sanheim, Dmitry Orlov, Ivan Provorov
10. Jake Gardiner (CAR)
Last year’s rank: N/A
The Hurricanes have made a concerted effort in recent years to upgrade their defense, and they took yet another step to do just that earlier this summer when they signed Gardiner to a four-year deal. On a stacked Carolina blueline, he won’t be tasked with being The Guy every night, and his abilities with the extra man should help elevate a power play that was in the League’s bottom third last year.
9. Brett Pesce (CAR)
Last year’s rank: Not Ranked
Heading into his fifth full season in the NHL, Pesce is coming off of something of a breakout season that saw him set new career highs in goals, assists and points. The recent departure of Justin Faulk opens up some opportunity for Pesce to step up and continue to expand his offensive game - something he’ll have ample opportunity to do skating alongside new teammate Gardiner.
8. Jaccob Slavin (CAR)
Last year’s rank: Honorable Mention
Rounding out the trio of Hurricanes is Slavin, who has established himself as a consistent point producer and a pretty decent defenseman in his own end. Having earned more ice time in his fourth season, Slavin finished the season with a CF% at even strength well over 50% (not surprising, considering that most of the ‘Canes were on the right side of 50) and became more of a factor on the power play with five goals.
7. Zach Werenski (CBJ)
Last year’s rank: 4
Werenski spent most of the 2018-19 season trying to regain his form after offseason shoulder surgery, and it showed, as he struggled to keep up early on and saw his ice time drop by midseason. One could argue (and some have) that Werenski has benefited from favorable usage, something which certainly couldn’t hurt as he was negotiating his new deal this offseason... but in a “down” year he still managed to put up 11 goals and 44 points, good enough for top-25 among all defensemen. So he must be doing something right.
6. Dougie Hamilton (CAR)
Last year’s rank: 6
When the ‘Canes flipped Noah Hanifin to Calgary for Hamilton a summer ago, it raised more than a few eyebrows. One season removed, it’s pretty clear that the initial thinking on the trade was correct: Carolina won in a landslide. He started out a bit slow, but eventually turned into a steadying presence on the blueline for the ‘Canes and was a crucial part of their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final this past spring.
5. Jacob Trouba (NYR)
Last year’s rank: N/A
Trouba’s trade from the Jets to the Rangers was easily the biggest splash made on the blueline for a Metro team this summer... for about four days (more on that in a minute). Splashiness aside, though, Trouba instantly upgrades a Rangers’ defense that has been long overdue for one. The 25-year-old blueliner is coming off of a breakout season that saw him put up 50 points - almost twice his previous career high - and his acquisition pushes the fast-forward button on the “rebuild” the Rangers are allegedly going through.
4. P.K. Subban (NJD)
Last year’s rank: N/A
So about that splash the Rangers made... well, the Devils have been in the business of topping all of the Rangers’ splashes this summer and this was no different, as they swung a trade to acquire Subban from Nashville. Subban actually didn’t have such a great 2018-19 season, his last with the Preds, likely in part because of an injury that caused him to miss 19 games. His body of work as a whole, however, would suggest that this was merely an outlier and on a rejuvenated Devils team he’s in a great position for a bounceback year.
3. Kris Letang (PIT)
Last year’s rank: 3
Injuries have long been the story for Letang. When he’s healthy, he’s among the League’s best; when he’s not, it shows. Last season, despite playing in 79 games, it never seemed like he was completely healthy - but he bounced back and then some (again, despite missing 17 games with injuries) during the 2018-19 regular season and finished with an impressive 16 goals and 56 points in just 65 games. Of course, his postseason performance left something to be desired, but when your team gets swept in the first round... well, no one is safe from criticism. A four-game blip aside, he’s still one of the top blueliners in the Metro.
2. Seth Jones (CBJ)
Last year’s rank: 1
In as tight a race as it is for the top spot in this ranking, often it’s the recent performances that break ties - and unfortunately for Jones, the honor of a second-consecutive top ranking slipped out of his fingers after a bit of a down 2018-19. That’s not to say that he was bad, of course; like most of the people on this list, even an off year for him is an excellent year for others. He still led the Columbus blueline in points (fifth among all Jackets) and second on the team with 37 assists. He was also hugely important to the Jackets’ playoff run - and first-ever playoff series win - with nine points in ten games.
1. John Carlson (WSH)
Last year’s rank: 2
Carlson’s career year in 2017-18 culminated in the best possible way a career year could finish: with a Stanley Cup. So what did Carlson do as an encore? Oh, just upped the ante on that career year, setting a new career high in points with 70 - good enough for fourth-best among all defensemen. And while the ending to this season wasn’t quite the fairy tale the year before had been, Carlson firmly established himself as a top NHL defenseman, even earning his first-ever spot in the All-Star Game (and winning the hardest shot competition to boot). Now the question is, what does Carlson do as an encore to his encore? We’re all eager to find out.