2021-22 NHL Position Rankings: Top 10 defensemen entering new season

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2021-22 NHL Position Rankings: Top 10 defensemen originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's very, very difficult to win the Stanley Cup without a stud No. 1 defenseman leading the blue line.

In fact, if you look at the last 10 champions, all of them (except maybe the Washington Capitals in 2017-18) had an elite defenseman making a profound impact in all three zones. Guys like Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, Kris Letang, Alex Pietrangelo and Victor Hedman.

Of all the positions to rank, this one might be the hardest. Different people value different skills higher than others in regards to defensemen. Some teams prefer to build around a shutdown guy to excel in tough situations, while others prefer a defenseman who plays a more uptempo game and drives scoring at a higher rate. It's obviously ideal to have a player who does both, but they are rare.

Here's a look at the top 10 defensemen in the league entering the 2021-22 season.

Our previous 2021-22 positional rankings: Top 10 centers, Top 10 left wingers, Top 10 right wingers

10) Alex Pietrangelo, Golden Knights

2020-21 Stats: 7 G, 16 A in 41 GP

The Golden Knights star's scoring was a bit down during his first season in Vegas, but he's still an awesome two-way defenseman who plays against tough competition and in all situations. 

9) Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes

2020-21 Stats: 3 G, 12 A in 52 GP

There aren't many better defensive defensemen than Slavin, who has been rock-solid on the Hurricanes blue line for several years now. His role in Carolina will be even more important going forward after Dougie Hamilton left to join the Devils in free agency.

8) Shea Theodore, Golden Knights

2020-21 Stats: 8 G, 34 A in 53 GP

Theodore is an elite offensive defenseman at 5-on-5 and the power play. Over the last three seasons, he ranks fifth in scoring chances, 11th in goals, 12th in points and sixth in high-danger shot attempts among defensemen. Theodore also doesn't take many penalties. With a salary cap hit of $5.2 million for the next four years, his contract is one of the most team-friendly deals in the league. 

7) Dougie Hamilton, Devils

2020-21 Stats: 10 G, 32 A in 55 GP

Hamilton is one of the league's premier offensive defensemen. His 42 goals over the last three years are the most of any defenseman. His 356 scoring chances are the second-most among blueliners during that span. Hamilton's power-play ability and smooth skating also help make him a fantastic offensive force. The Devils signed Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million in the offseason, which was good value for a New Jersey team that really needed his scoring talents.

6) Miro Heiskanen, Stars

2020-21 Stats: 8 G, 19 A in 55 GP

The Stars signed Heiskanen to an eight-year, $67.6 million extension in the summer and it was well-deserved. The 22-year-old star had a breakout 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs helping lead the Stars to the Cup Final with 26 points in 27 games. Few players are better in leading the transition up ice than the smooth-skating Heiskanen. The sky is the limit for the No. 3 overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft. 

5) Adam Fox, Rangers

2020-21 Stats: 5 G, 42 A in 55 GP

Fox was fantastic last season and won the Norris Trophy as a result, becoming the first Rangers player to claim the award since Brian Leetch in 1996-97. He ranked second in scoring and tied for second in power-play points among defensemen. He also played tough minutes against quality competition and more than held his own defensively. The 23-year-old Fox has a bright future ahead of him as a pillar of the Rangers' blue line.

4) Charlie McAvoy, Bruins

2020-21 Stats: 5 G, 25 A in 51 GP

The best Bruins teams have been built around an elite two-way defenseman, and McAvoy is that next guy. McAvoy is a gifted offensive playmaker, whether it's running the power play, jumpstarting the transition up ice, create scoring chances, maintaining/winning puck possession, etc. He's also a top-tier defensive player who's well positioned and uses his excellent skating ability to maneuver out of trouble in the d-zone. McAvoy is entering the final year of his contract and will be an RFA next summer. The Bruins need to ensure he is re-signed to a long-term extension before that point.

3) Roman Josi, Predators

2020-21 Stats: 8 G, 25 A in 48 GP

The 2019-20 Norris Trophy winner is one of the most dependable defensemen in all three zones. He's always so well-positioned and rarely makes mistakes. In addition to his quality scoring output -- his 85 points at 5-on-5 are the second-most among defenseman over the last three seasons -- Josi also plays fantastic defense against opponents' top forwards. He's the type of defenseman you can put on the ice in all situations.

2) Victor Hedman, Lightning

2020-21 Stats: 9 G, 36 A in 54 GP

Hedman has been one of the league's top defensemen, particularly from an offensive standpoint, for many years. The 2017-18 Norris Trophy winner also has played a crucial part on the Lightning's back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning teams. Hedman had a bit of a down year in 2020-21 -- he wasn't 100 percent healthy -- but there's still very few defensemen you'd take over him entering the new season.

1) Cale Makar, Avalanche

2020-21 Stats: 8 G, 36 A in 44 GP

Makar could've won the Norris Trophy last season after scoring at point-per-game rate and playing solid defense. The Avalanche accounted for 60.82 percent of all shot attempts when Makar was on the ice during 5-on-5 action, which was the highest number of any defenseman in the league. Makar has only played two seasons at the NHL level but already is an elite player. The Avs were wise to sign him to a massive six-year, $54 million extension over the offseason.