(Rankings are based solely on players' projected performances in 2011-12. Players are listed at their official position when the rankings were created.)
A big, talented, top-line center is a beautiful thing. An elite power forward on the wing is a must-have for a championship contender. And a franchise goalie can make or break a team.
But there's nothing quite like a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, a Chris-Pronger-in-his-prime type who can do it all in any zone at any time of game under any circumstances. There probably isn't a blue liner in the NHL today that matches up with Pronger at his best, circa 1999-2000, but Zdeno Chara(notes) and Shea Weber(notes) certainly come close. Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), of course, could play on the all-time all-world team, but he's never had Pronger's fear factor. And Duncan Keith(notes) also rates a mention; he's Pronger-esque in spirit, if not in body.
Meanwhile, the next generation of great defenders has already arrived, in the form of Drew Doughty(notes) and Keith Yandle(notes) and Tyler Myers(notes). St. Louis youngster Alex Pietrangelo(notes), drafted two spots behind Doughty at fourth overall in 2008, also merits a mention. And then there's Brent Burns(notes) in his new San Jose surroundings, and Erik Johnson(notes), still unpacking in Colorado, who might fully realize their vast potential after a change of scenery.
As for Pronger himself, the old guard hasn't gone away. Age, various injuries and a lot of tough playoff miles have taken their toll, but he's still one of the most respected players in the game — on the blue line and beyond.
Honorable mentions: Niklas Kronwall(notes), Detroit Red Wings; Tobias Enstrom(notes), Winnipeg Jets; Ryan Whitney(notes), Edmonton Oilers; Zbynek Michalek(notes), Pittsburgh Penguins; Lubomir Visnovsky(notes), Anaheim Ducks; Mark Giordano(notes), Calgary Flames; Kevin Bieksa(notes), Vancouver Canucks; Robyn Regehr(notes), Buffalo Sabres; Jay Bouwmeester(notes), Calgary Flames; P.K. Subban(notes), Montreal Canadiens.
22. Alex Edler, Vancouver Canucks: Strong skater delivers big-time bodychecks and slapshot blasts.
12. Andrei Markov(notes), Montreal Canadiens: A great defenseman who comes with an injury proviso. He can do everything but stay healthy, having missed 112 games over the past two seasons mostly due to knee injuries.
10. Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche: No. 1 overall pick in 2006 is highly motivated to show the Blues shouldn't have given up on him.
9. Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres: Boston has Chara, Buffalo has Myers.
8. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: After 11 goals and 43 points in his first full NHL campaign, get ready to hear a lot more about this 21-year-old.
7. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: Hit a few roadblocks in Minnesota over the years, but 17 goals last season speaks to new Shark's scary upside.
6. Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes: Maybe the best-kept secret in the league, but we're starting to clue in to this mobile defender's all-around game.
5. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: If Lidstrom ever slows down, Doughty is poised to take over as the game's next great blue liner.
4. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: At 41, he's still the gold standard for defensmen. Needs one more Norris Trophy to tie the immortal Bobby Orr with eight.
3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: Great wheels, great vision, great passer, and loves to play it physical despite usually giving up a few pounds.
2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: He's like a mini-Chara. Except he skates better and he's not mini.
1. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: Literally looms larger than anyone else in the league, and is the most intimidating presence in the game today — just ask any opposing forward.
Sam McCaig is the NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Canada
Photo credits: Getty Images