Best defenseman for 2021-22 season debated by NHL.com writers

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Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, who is entering his third NHL season, won the Norris Trophy last season, voted as the best defenseman in the NHL. Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, who also is entering his third season, won the Calder Trophy in 2019-20, voted as NHL rookie of the year. Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks finished tied for 10th among NHL defensemen in scoring with 41 points (three goals, 38 assists) in 56 games last season after leading all rookies in scoring in 2019-20 with 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) in 68 games.

There also are veterans like Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning who are among the elite at the position.

Who will be the best defensemen this season? We asked eight NHL.com writers for their thoughts.

Here are their answers (listed alphabetically):

 

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Out of sight, out of mind, it seems. My colleagues will make some excellent cases for players like Fox and Makar, who have taken the League by storm the past two seasons. There is even some love for Hedman. But Ekblad, at 25 years old, sits between the new and the old guards. He was having a dominant season prior to breaking his leg in a game against the Dallas Stars on March 28. Ekblad scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 35 games and his average of 0.63 points per game was the best of his seven-season NHL career. He also was a workhorse, averaging 25:05 of ice time per game, a personal best since entering the NHL and sixth-highest among NHL defensemen in 2020-21. His puck-possession numbers also were the best of his career, with the Panthers having 54.6 percent of the shot attempts while he was on ice during 5-on-5 play. Ekblad is just reaching his prime and the ceiling with a much-improved Panthers team could be much higher. — Shawn P. Roarke, Senior Director of Editorial

 

Adam Fox, New York Rangers

Fox made tremendous strides last season, rounding out his game in the defensive zone as he maintained his offensive abilities. He was second in scoring among defensemen with 47 points (five goals, 42 assists), one fewer than Tyson Barrie of the Edmonton Oilers, while averaging 24:42 of ice time per game. I don’t think he’s hit his ceiling; Fox is 23 years old and two seasons into his NHL career. I understand the love for Makar, but I’m sticking with Fox. — Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

Video: PIT@NYR: Fox scores SHG in 3rd period

 

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

I’m a big fan of Makar, but Hedman has plenty left in the tank after winning the Norris Trophy in 2017-18, the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2020 and helping the Lightning win the Stanley Cup each of the past two seasons. The 30-year-old is second in scoring among NHL defensemen since the 2019-20 season with 100 points (20 goals, 80 assists), behind John Carlson of the Washington Capitals (119 points). But his impact goes beyond the score sheet. Hedman uses his combination of skill, poise and size (6-foot-6, 241 pounds) to control the pace of games at both ends of the ice. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

The young guns are coming, including Makar, Fox and Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars, but the best defenseman for this season still is Hedman. His 45 points (nine goals, 36 assists) in 54 games last season are impressive considering right wing Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season with a hip injury. Like Mike alluded to, the younger defensemen on the list still are learning to master the two-way aspects of the game, something Hedman has been among the best at for nearly the past decade. His consistency, offensive production and physicality make him the deserving choice for this season. — Rob Reese, fantasy editor

 

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

Heiskanen doesn’t get enough credit for being a model of consistency since entering the NHL in 2018-19. The 22-year-old has scored 95 points (28 goals, 67 points) in 205 regular-season games. He skates as well as any defenseman in the NHL and rarely makes mistakes. He comes up big when the Stars need him most. In 27 Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2019-20, Heiskanen scored 26 points (six goals, 20 assists), the most by a defenseman in the 21st century and fourth-most all-time behind Hall of Famers and Norris Trophy winners Paul Coffey (37 points, 1985), Brian Leetch (34 points, 1994) and Al MacInnis (31 points, 1989). The addition of veteran defenseman Ryan Suter in free agency could help Heiskanen push his game to another level this season. — Mike G. Morreale, staff writer

Video: DAL@CHI: Heiskanen scores PPG in 2nd period 

 

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

The 22-year-old plays like a veteran and has since he made his debut with the Avalanche during the 2019 playoffs. Makar scored 44 points (eight goals, 36 assists) in 44 games last season, tied for fourth on the Avalanche with forward Andre Burakovsky (19 goals, 25 assists in 53 games). He averaged 24:19 of ice time per game, second on the team behind defenseman Devon Toews (24:46). Makar was a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season and I think he’ll be among the finalists, and perhaps the winner, this season. — Tracey Myers, staff writer

The truth is, Makar might have been the best defenseman in the NHL last season. He averaged 1.00 points per game, more than any defenseman who played at least 10 games last season; Fox, who won the Norris in the vote by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, was tied for third at 0.85. The vote was close: Fox received 743 points and 40 first-place votes. Makar was the runner-up with 655 points and 31 first-place votes. Had Makar not been limited to 44 games and performed at the same level, he likely would have won the Norris hands down. If he stays healthy this season, he’ll win it. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

Selecting Makar in this debate is all about trajectory. In two NHL seasons and three playoffs (Makar made his NHL debut for the Avalanche in the 2018-19 postseason), his direction points only one way: up. He increased his average ice time per game by more than three minutes last season, from 21:01 in 2019-20. His points production went from 0.88 per game to 1.00 per game. In the past two playoffs he’s been a point-per-game producer, with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 25 games, all while being the focus of opponents. In addition to being a Norris finalist last season, Makar was voted to the NHL First All-Star Team and it’s easy to see where he is headed. — Tim Campbell, staff writer

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