Forwards have it easy. They can be one-dimensional, they can be undersized or rough skating. Just produce points, and they will be towards the top of the draft lists.
Defenders can be too small at not 5’8” but “just” six foot. The footwork that would be marked as average for a forward is below average for a defenseman.
Defenders don’t get many luxuries to be one-dimensional. Even branded offensive-only defenders must win enough one-on-one battles, be good on breakouts, and have high effort level on defense. They don’t get to float around the neutral zone. Defensemen are held to higher standards.
A result of many factors, most notably their evolving role in the game. In today’s NHL, defenders must affect goals at both ends of the ice. Being a 200-foot hockey player is the bare minimum for defenders.
A force behind higher success rates with forwards is simple: It’s easier to successfully draft forwards by points. Some teams and fans are trending towards doing the same with defenders but I would caution against that.
As much as I’m a proponent of “position-less hockey,” there is value in the defender position. And there begins the uncertainties projecting defensemen. Most will disagree in what composes a good defenseman.
I haven’t seen similar schisms on how forwards should go about scoring.
There’s the “old” school of thought that covets prevent style defensemen who are usually big, physical and focused more on the opposition than the puck.
There is the “new” school of thought that preaches offense is the best defense. These defensemen are usually thoroughbred skaters, puck raggers, and though they are good with one-on-one battles, they tend to struggle in their own zone. But hockey is not a duality and there are more nuanced approaches than the polarized ones.
This list shoots for a nuanced approach. Height, body checks, and point production are not the crux of evaluation. I look for defenders with their game built around natural intelligence, quick puck movement, and don’t use rushing the puck like a crutch or anchor.
See how easy the forwards have it. Click here to check out the Forward Rankings.
Defenders should be aggressive and competitive without getting constantly turned. This means tight gaps, stick on pucks, consistent engagement in the defensive zone but solid net-front positioning. The quicker they can force a 50/50 puck battle, the more likely they can gain possession and break out.
Point production is a plus, but third assists are good too. Facilitating the offense as a defender requires having offensive abilities.
That also means knowing to defer often to the scorers on the ice. Forwards will always have the best puck skills and I want defenders who get pucks to the forwards.
Importance should be placed on defenders who excel in the defensive zone and transition play. Look for defenders who can get the puck back, and when they do, get the puck up the ice to the forwards.
I like defenders who remain in the play when on the attack but rotate in and out of the cycle rather than jumping and staying up.
Being an elite skater is a plus, especially when logging big minutes. But defenders skating skills differ from forwards. Top gears are less important than edge work, pivoting, agility.
It’s better to be efficient and mobile than an elite speedster and clunky. Defenders like Ville Heinola and Victor Soderstrom may get dinged for not having a 6th gear, or not being 6’2’’ or taller, but they fit my described mold like a glove.
Alright, enough waxing poetic — time to begin the rankings for defensemen!
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