The Metropolitan Division's Top 10 Defensemen: 2017-18

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

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: Ivan Provorov (PHI), Jaccob Slavin (CAR), Olli Maatta (PIT), Justin Schultz (PIT)

10. Nick Leddy (NYI)
Last year's rank: 6

Since arriving in Long Island three years ago, Leddy has been one of the team’s top offensive weapons, and has led all Islanders defensemen in scoring for three straight seasons. Not only has he produced close to 0.5 points per game over that span, but he’s also seen that offense tick up - culminating in a career-high 11 goals and 46 points in 2016-17. As for the other side of the puck, well... he’s got a bit of work to do in that department, although his numbers improved after Doug Weight replaced Jack Capuano behind the bench midseason (and Leddy joined forces with veteran Johnny Boychuk).

9. Seth Jones (CBJ)
Last year's rank: N/A

The 2015-16 season seemed to be something of a transitional year for Jones, who found himself traded midseason from Nashville to Columbus. Well... it looks like he’s settled in, as he took his first full season with the Jackets and ran with it. Entrusted with a heavy workload and tough matchups, Jones had a breakout season last year, almost doubling his previous career high in goals (8) and establishing himself, along with teenage defensive partner Zach Werenski, as a top-two defenseman for Columbus.

8. Zach Werenski (CBJ)
Last year's rank: N/A

Oh hey, speaking of Werenski... turns out he’s pretty good, too. The 19-year-old blueliner had the great misfortune of breaking into the League at the same time as Toronto phenom Auston Matthews (and a slew of other youngsters) - but he still made enough of a name for himself to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season, and finished in the top 15 in points among all defensemen, all while having an impressive even-strength CF% of 54.1%. Sadly he saw his first trip to the postseason cut short after taking a puck to the face in Game 3 against the Penguins, but now that his face has (hopefully) healed, expect him to be a very good for a very long time.

7. Dmitry Orlov (WSH)
Last year's rank: N/A

Orlov took a huge step forward with the Caps this year, going from a player no one seemed to trust to half of one of the League’s best defensive duo. He set a new career high in points, scored his first power-play goal, and skated big minutes while continuing to throw the body around as always. With a new contract under his belt and a blueline that might not be as strong this season, Orlov will likely be counted on to continue his evolution and play a bigger role for the Caps.

(For more on Orlov’s 2016-17, check out his Rink Wrap here.)

6. Kevin Shattenkirk (NYR)
Last year's rank: N/A

Just as he was one of the top names available at the trade deadline, Shattenkirk headed into the summer as one of the top free agents available... which led to the most anti-climactic offseason signing ever, as Shattenkirk opted to join his childhood team in Manhattan. He set a new career high in points and assists, and while he didn’t have quite the same goal-scoring touch with the Caps that he had with St. Louis (and struggled a bit in the playoffs), Shattenkirk still finished the season with an impressive 56 points - behind only Norris Trophy finalists Brent Burns, Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson.

5. John Carlson (WSH)
Last year's rank: 2

Carlson’s 2016-17 season was something of an uneven one, with the Caps’ now-veteran blueliner struggling at times (and seeing his season cut short by injuries for the second-straight year). He finished the season with a sub-par 48.7 CF% at even strength, and a relCF% of -4.8 - second-lowest on the team behind only Karl Alzner. And yet with all of his struggles, he still finished the year with close to 40 points. Not bad for an “off” year.

(Want to read more about Carlson’s season? Right this way to his Rink Wrap.)

4. Justin Faulk (CAR)
Last year's rank: 5

It’s been said time and time again, but it bears repeating - if Faulk played in a so-called “traditional” hockey market, he’d be a huge star. As it is, he’s slowly gathering name recognition, checking in among the League’s top offensive blueliners and being named to the All-Star Game for each of the last three seasons. Injuries have kept him from a full 82-game slate the last two years - and a shot at topping his career-high 49 points - but his 17 goals tied Shea Weber and Erik Karlsson for the second-highest total among all defensemen last year.

3. Ryan McDonagh (NYR)
Last year's rank: 3

Aside from Henrik Lundqvist, there’s perhaps no one more important to the Rangers’ lineup than Ryan McDonagh. He once again led his team in ice time in all situations, taking on the tough competition night after night... all while paired with Dan Girardi, which should qualify him for sainthood. Last year he also set a new career high in assists, and came so close to tying his best point total, falling just one point short.

2. Matt Niskanen (WSH)
Last year's rank: 7

Two seasons ago, it was injuries to then-top pair John Carlson and Brooks Orpik that thrust Niskanen into a more prominent role on the Caps’ blueline. Last season what put him there was simply his play (and in particular, his performance alongside new defensive partner Dmitry Orlov). He led the Caps in even-strength CF%, narrowly edging out Orlov, and had his best offensive season since arriving in DC.

1. Kris Letang (PIT)
Last year's rank: 1

Despite yet another injury-shortened season - seriously, this guy cannot catch a break - Letang still somehow managed to score as many points in 41 games as most guys had all year. Aside from his offensive prowess, Letang has been tasked with managing big minutes on an increasingly young and injury-riddled Penguins blueline; he racked up over 25 minutes a night on average last year, seventh-highest in the League, including a whopping 3:40 on the power play alone. That his absence didn’t doom the Penguins this past spring is almost impossible to comprehend. He’s just too good and too important to that team... if he can stay healthy.


Carlson is still way too high for an offensive specialist who consistently gets beaten in possession. Shattenkirk and Dima should both be ahead of him, at the very least.

I haven’t spent any time looking, but I’m going to bet on Shattenkirk being overrated.

Also, Niskanen is totally underrated by the rest of the league. Definitely correctly rated here.

Looking at Shattenkirk in 5v5 situations makes me believe he is extremely overpaid, but then I look at his prowess on the PP and understand he is only marginally overpaid.

Hard to argue with Letang being at the top, but he is if he’s healthy, which is a huge if, since he’s missed significant time due to various (and terrifying) injuries and illnesses over the past few seasons. While I don’t know if Niskanen is number 2 on the list, it’s hard to see anyone else in the division being there. I can see Seth Jones this time either next year or in 2019 being at the top of the list. He looks like the real deal.

I think his own teammate Werensky is going to be fighting for that spot with him. They are both scary good.

Going by GAR

I did not put Letang because of how few games he’s played (but half a season of him falls just a tad below Gostisbehere).

Using GAR/GP Here’s the rankings:

  1. Letang: 0.168
  2. McDonagh: 0.160
  3. Carlson: 0.151
  4. Niskanen: 0.132
  5. Shattenkirk: 0.114
  6. Slavin: 0.104 (he was a big miss from the top 10, IMO)
  7. Werenski: 0.101
  8. Gostisbehere: 0.092
  9. Leddy: 0.089 (God have mercy of the poor Islanders)
  10. Orlov: 0.087
  11. Schultz: 0.078
  12. Jones: 0.068
  13. Provorov: 0.066
  14. Faulk: 0.051
  15. Pesce: 0.050

I find it a little difficult to believe that the Caps had 4 of the top 10 defensemen in our division.

I might have to cut Carlson. Yeah he had good raw numbers but his possession was abysmal for a "top dman." Schultz and Slavin should of made the list.

GAR accounts for possession and to be fair, his abysmal possession was mostly Alzner’s doing.

Except Carlson’s possession numbers have been consistently awful throughout his career, especially on the shot suppression side of the ledger.

He’s always played with Alzner or Orpik, none of which really help in the possession department (even peak Alzner in 2014-15 was right around 52% while playing with Niskanen in a second pair role and we know very well that Niskanen isn’t the problem).

Carlson’s no Niskanen as far as play driving goes (in fact that’s apparent from the GAR chart looking at the EVD and EVO categories), but he brings the PP prowess that Niskanen has yet to show in Washington and takes close to no pnealties, which is very valuable when you consider that every penalty taken is 0.17 goals.

It’s fine to say Carlson is a valuable player despite his poor possession because of what else he brings to the table—in fact, it’s correct. However, how valuable he is considered to be has to be limited by the fact that all data points to him being a terrible possession player nevertheless.

I totally agree. Of course you have to consider a player’s strengths and weaknesses in order to put him in the best position to succeed. A pair of 2 Carlsons won’t cut it (because only one of the two would be able to add the PPO component to his overall value, while the other couldn’t despite having the skills and would make Carlson 2 a worse player for that team).

OTOH there are very few player who do it all, so let’s at least appreciate a player who can be that good, because there are others who can’t even in the best situations.

As a Ranger fan, I personally would've had Mac as 2, Niskanen as 3

But I don’t really watch the Caps enough to split hairs on that call. Niskanen’s HERO numbers look better, but his most frequent linemate (Per Dobber Hockey) was Dmitry Orlov, who I think we can all agree is better than Dan Girardi, McDonagh’s most common linemate. This discrepancy may account for the gap between their respective performances. Regardless, both are Top 3 Dmen in the division

McDonagh gets docked a point because he was once traded for a guy who lost a fight to… get this.. Tom Poti!

Haha, fair enough

I’m very curious to see how McDonagh will do this season. Shattenkirk isn’t amazing defensively, so Ryan will still have to do the heavylifting, but literally everything is better than Girardi.

Actually, Shattenkirk seems to have very good defensive metrics

3.7 FF% rel last season, including +5.6% rel with the Caps. 3rd best FA among D with 1100 mins. Plus, there’s this

Keep in mind that he was playing on the second/third pair (Parayko was being used as 2RD in St. Louis as the season went on).

If you look at his EVD in the GAR components chart he wasn’t as good as the Fenwick stats make him look like. So, I wouldn’t be super confident on Shattenkirk keeping that up against Top Competition.

Very fair

But considering he’ll be playing with either McDonagh or Skjei (probably Mac), I think he’ll be fine. Also, if I remember correctly, he was 2nd in CA among D with 1,100+ mins

Stats aside, I would be very worried about skating Shattudueces with anyone but the most nimble and agile of partners. The dude gets walked easily. Just get ready for some hair tearing do-se-dos!

Does this list take into account career numbers or just last years. Because I find it hard to understand how shayne gostiberre isn’t on this list even as an honorable mention while Carlson is number 5 when gostisberre scored more points, had better possession numbers, and had a better n zone score which is the most repeatable stat for how players generate shots, all with a lower individual and lower team shooting percentage while on a much, much worse team. Especially if you take into account his rookie season where he scored 17 goals 46 points in 64 games, and drove possession reasonably. I’m not saying ghost is better or worse than Carlson I just find it odd there’s no mention of him anywhere in this article when he’s clearly one of the most dynamic offensive d men in the metro and also drives play.

Except he looks just better than trash when actually playing D is concerned. If you are going to be on a best-of list then you better not look like trash. So… no Gostisbehere on the list is understandable.

Except he looks just better than trash when actually playing D is concerned

Can you really say much different for Carlson?

ok, i can accept the other guys on the list ahead of him being better, but this "Ghost’s defensive game is trash" is just wrong. Ghost is solid, if not spectacular in his own end defensively, has a great exit pass and quick puck retrieval. He’s not terrific at net front battles, so he makes up for that by beating guys to puck races or by pairing with a guy who is, while he retrieves pucks in the corner and chips them out to a forward, something he’s pretty good at doing quickly. Likewise, most of Ghosts best defense comes in the neutral zone anyway, where he is really good at intercepting and breaking up rushes before they even reach the Flyers zone. I know this isnt saying much given the Flyers collection of defenders last year, but after Provorov, he’s probably the best Flyer at zone exits and zone entry breakups, a key skill for defenders, right?

Also, he actually took a step forward in possession numbers, improving both his corsi and fenwick last year, improving off his rookie season at both even strength and all situations, finishing positive in both. He was the 4th Flyer in ev corsi% last year with significant ice time, and top defender. Additionally, he was the 7th Flyer in ev fenwick%, and 2nd among Flyers defenders. Some of that is probably because Provy was saddled with AMac the entire season, but Ghost is also really good at moving the puck up the ice and into the other teams zone.

Ghost makes up for a few defensive issues with his puck moving ability and offensive skills. He may not be a shut down guy, but he’s not a liability on defense either. He more than makes up for a few lost own zone puck battles by beating people to the puck and avoiding them all together, and getting the puck out of the zone quickly, and with his neutral zone and attacking zone play.

The plus minus was bad last year, I’ll give you that, but the goal tending was terrible last season, and the whole team struggled to score goals outside of the powerplay. When all your teams goals are scored on the PP, your plus/minus is going to luck bad, I’m sure all of you here are familiar with what that looks like. On top of that, he shot at a ridiculous 3.5% shooting percentage. A lot of this was fueled by a bad coaching system which encouraged a larger quantity, but lower quality, of shots from outside dangerous scoring areas.

This is a good list you guys have put together, and I could make some arguments for Provorov being on it, but I think some of that would be splitting hairs, for the most part I think you guys got it right. Ghost probably does not deserve to be ahead of most of the guys on this list as things are now, but he’s a solid defender who had a slump year, and with better goal tending and luck I believe he’ll bounce back to close to his rookie year numbers, though probably not above them.

Would have been nice to see him as an honorable mention, but I’m sure there are other guys on other teams you could say the same about.

Except that Gostisberre was one of only twelve NHL defensemen(Doughty, Pietrangelo, leddy, hanafin, lindholm, provorov, schmidt, deangelo, barrie, josi, matheson) (minimum of 50 puck touches) to generate over 50% controlled exits out of the defensive zone, and managed to create an exit percentage of 78% making Ghost one of the best defensemen in the entire NHL at generating breakouts so the narrative that he is "trash" in the defensive zone is a trash narrative with little to no statistical evidence backing it up. Its true he is not good at suppressing shots, but since he generates more shots than he allows it doesn’t really matter. The same cannot be said for carlson who despite excellent counting statistics doesn’t drive play and in fact drags his teammates down in terms of playdriving to a tune of -4.8 corsi rel, and the "blame it on the partner" strategy cannot be valid, because as bad as alzner is at driving play andrew macdonald and michael del zotto are no better. Gostisberre has more sheltered usage as well, but there is no evidence that suggests he wouldn’t succeed with more defensive zone starts considering his breakout prowess and it seems more like an unjustified coaches decision. Its fairly easy to make the argument that ghost is as good defensively as carlson or that his plus play driving outweighs his defensive deficits. It all depends on how you weigh certain stats, but if you value playdriving and counting statistics as the most important factors then Ghost has simply been better than carlson over the last 2 seasons.

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