Now that we’ve got goaltenders out of the way, it’s on to the next set of players in our ranking festivities: the defensemen.
As a reminder, here’s the Method Behind the Madness - To determine the overall ranking, each member of the Rink staff was first asked to create their own top 10 list by position. We then took the average of those scores to determine our final ranking below. Any player not making the overall top 10 but who was ranked by at least one of our Rink writers earns Honorable Mention honors, where applicable.
Let’s take a closer look at the blueliners of the East:
Honorable Mention: Brandon Carlo (BOS), Jacob Trouba (NYR), Adam Pelech (NYI), Philippe Myers (PHI), Marcus Pettersson (PIT)
10. Brian Dumoulin (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 1-7-8, 21:03 ATOI, 56.7 ES SAT%
Although his 2019-20 season was cut short by an ankle injury suffered in early December, Dumoulin has developed into one of the Penguins’ more consistent defenders, spending the bulk of his time on the team’s top two pairs alongside Kris Letang (with a healthy dose of ice time next to upstart John Marino, as well). Dumoulin’s never going to be the guy who scores all the goals from the blueline - his career high in a season is five - but that’s not what the Penguins need from him, and he’s definitely the steady blueliner they do need.
9. Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF)
Last year’s stats: 6-27-33, 22:48 ATOI, 46.0 ES SAT%
Ristolainen has been something of a mixed bag for Buffalo over his seven-year career; the offense has been there, but the defensive side, not so much. 2019-20 was more of the same for the Sabres’ ice-time leader, as he had the lowest even-strength SAT% among all Buffalo blueliners but was also on pace to hit 40 points for the fifth-straight time before the pandemic pause (he finished with 33 points, one of just six Sabres to top 30 points last season).
8. Rasmus Dahlin (BUF)
Last year’s stats: 4-36-40, 19:18 ATOI, 50.6 ES SAT%
Where Ristolainen may be providing a more one-dimensional offensive approach to his defense, the younger Rasmus seems to be filling in the gaps with a more well-rounded presence on the Sabres’ blueline. Drafted back in 2018, the 20-year-old is already showing plenty of promise, putting up an impressive rookie campaign that saw him put up 44 points and come in third in the Calder Trophy voting. His sophomore follow-up was solid, if unspectacular - although he did inch closer to 60 points, and in a shortened season - but the tools are all there for him to become a bona fide star.
7. John Marino (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 6-20-26, 20:15 ATOI, 50.3 ES SAT%
Marino was a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre season for the Penguins, emerging as a potential heir apparent for when top blueliner Letang eventually hangs up his skates. In fact, he put together one of the best rookie campaigns in team history, becoming one of just seven rookie defensemen in Penguins’ history to record 20 assists and 26 points, and was fourth in scoring among all rookie blueliners. That performance earned him a new four-year deal recently - perhaps a little premature, given the fact that he’s only played in 56 NHL games, but if he can live up to the potential it’ll be a deal that almost makes everyone forget about Jim Rutherford giving Jack Johnson five years/$16.25M.
6. Adam Fox (NYR)
Last year’s stats: 8-34-42, 18:54 ATOI, 51.5 ES SAT%
Originally drafted by Calgary back in 2016, Fox went to Carolina as part of the Dougie Hamilton deal, and then was picked up by the Rangers for a couple of draft picks before making his NHL debut last season. Despite being an untested rookie and saddled with a number of partners of varying abilities, he more than exceeded expectations in his NHL debut - putting up an impressive 42 points in 70 games and leading his team in ES SAT%. The Rangers have needed a spark on their blueline for some time, particularly one who could stand up defensively as well as offensively - and in Fox, it looks like they’ve got one.
5. Dmitry Orlov (WSH)
Last year’s stats: 4-23-27, 22:10 ATOI, 53.4 ES SAT%
Orlov has sort of flown under the radar for the Caps over the course of his career, whether overshadowed by fellow homegrown blueliners like Carlson or Mike Green, or by fellow Russians like Alex Ovechkin. But Orlov has quietly developed into a solid defenseman for the Caps, combining the ability to drive the team’s transition to offense with a bone-crushing - and often surprising - physicality that has lifted more than one hulking NHLer off his skates. He’s not going to provide the flashy offensive highlights (although he has a wicked shot that he simply doesn’t use enough), but he has become a very reliable piece on the Caps’ back end.
4. Ivan Provorov (PHI)
Last year’s stats: 13-23-36, 24:51 ATOI, 51.7 ES SAT%
Provorov is one of those players for whom that basic stat line probably just isn’t telling the whole tale - at least when looking at this past season, which ended up being his best as a Flyer (after a somewhat up-and-down start to his career). Skating alongside veteran Matt Niskanen, Provorov put up 13 goals this season, one of just 10 NHL defensemen to hit that mark, all while skating big minutes against tough competition. The question for him remains whether this one year was a fluke or if it was just him coming into his own (and as the top blueliner for an emerging Flyers team, that’s not a question they take lightly). If it’s the latter, look out.
3. Charlie McAvoy (BOS)
Last year’s stats: 5-27-32, 23:10 ATOI, 51.5 ES SAT%
Selected by the Bruins in the first round of the 2016 draft, McAvoy has been developing into a very steady blueliner for Boston - but last season he took another step forward, joining the conversation as an elite defenseman and even coming in 10th in Norris Trophy voting. McAvoy is a quick skater with offensive instincts, and yet has the physicality and defensive presence to make him a threat at both ends of the ice - especially at five on five, where he drives the team’s offense. And at just 23, he’s only beginning to show his true potential.
2. Kris Letang (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 15-29-44, 25:44 ATOI, 52.0 ES SAT%
This list has a lot of youngsters on it, as the NHL has seen a growing group of young, promising defensemen emerge in recent years - but there’s still room for the “old guard”, so to speak, and Letang (along with our #1 pick) still has plenty of swagger to his game at 33 years old. That he was able to come out of the 2019-20 season looking as good as he did considering he was shackled to Jack Johnson for much of it just speaks to his talent - and the 15-goal, 44-point campaign he put together shows that he hasn’t slowed down when it comes to putting up big offensive numbers, as well.
1. John Carlson (WSH)
Last year’s stats: 15-60-75, 24:38 ATOI, 51.3 ES SAT%
Plenty have taken shots at his defensive ability - such is life for the uber-skilled offensive defenseman - but Carlson really is the backbone of the Caps’ defense and one of the best defensemen in the NHL (if not THE best... lookin’ at you and your ill-gotten Norris, Roman Josi). He’s gotten better practically every season, and was flirting with a 100-point season until the 2019-20 campaign got put on pause - something that hasn’t been done by a blueliner in two decades. Could he be a little better in his own zone? Sure. But when he’s on the ice, more likely than not the puck will be on his stick and not his opponent’s... so frankly who cares?