If you missed Friday’s instalment, check out Part 1, covering the #1 defencemen from the league’s first eight decades. We begin today in 1998. Scoring is down. International NHL talent is here to stay. Dominance at the position for long stretches will soon fade faster than Mats Sundin’s hairline.
🔥 1998, 2006-09: Nicklas Lidstrom
After two decades of Potvin, Bourque, and Coffey controlling the blueline, a new type of hero emerges. He’s the picture of poise. He’s European. He’s the prototype of positionally sound, mistake-free, puck-moving excellence that remains the gold standard today.
Lidstrom is The Big Cheese for five years in High Noon. Reputationally, he’s in the conversation for best in the game for the better part of two decades. His stellar body of work from 1995-96 (age 25) to 2011-12 (age 41):
- Top six in Norris voting every year, including seven wins.
- Four Stanley Cups — he’s both the first European to win the Conn Smythe Trophy and to captain a Cup winner.
- Top 10 in Byng voting as most gentlemanly player 15 times. Total control of the game.
🔥 1999-2000, 2003: Al MacInnis
You could mistake Nova Scotia’s howitzer-blasting son as a late bloomer, his first torch grab coming after his age-35 season. Think again. MacInnis first earned Norris votes at 23, and by age 25 was only the fourth defenceman ever to win playoff MVP. A first-ballot HHOF inductee, his High Noon card reveals how incredibly long he was a world-class player. Few will recall that MacInnis’ last game came just months after being named Norris runner-up at age 39, the result of a dangerous eye injury.
🔥 2001-02: Chris Pronger
When you imagine a dream acquisition for your favourite team, Pronger should come to mind. Offensive. Defensive. Nasty as hell. Power play. Penalty kill. 30 minutes a night. Yep, we can find a spot for you, Mr. Pronger. His only flaw as a player was his Conan O’Brien hair cut. (Don’t tell him I said that, please).
Pronger carried four different franchises to greater heights, starring in St. Louis through his 20s, then reaching a Cup final with each of Edmonton, Anaheim (his one ring), and Philadelphia in his 30s. For good measure, he slipped in the first and only league MVP by a blueliner since Orr. He snatched The Torch for two years, part of a five-year run where the Blues had the NHL’s #1 defenceman.
2004: Sergei Gonchar
By PPS, Gonchar is the most qualified defenceman outside the Hall’s plaque room. Check these impressive Gonchar feats, calibrated for the stingy offensive era of his prime:
- Scored at an adjusted 20-goal pace five straight years
- Scored at an adjusted 30-goal(!) pace on two occasions
- Played at an adjusted 60-point pace for nine consecutive years
Gonchar’s glow is lost due to a series of circumstances beyond his control. I’ll be doing my best to lobby for his inclusion in the HHOF’s underrepresented blueline union.
🔥 2010-12: Mike Green
Perhaps the first big surprise on the list! In perfect contrast, the man that would follow the understated Gonchar and Lidstrom was a pulse-pounding sniper with a mohawk.
The Caps of the late 2000s were iconic. A tinted-visored Alex Ovechkin fired lasers from everywhere and leapt into the glass. Bruce Boudreau was behind the bench. The blaring goal horn and red lights flashed throughout the Verizon Center. The deadly duo of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin were a constant threat. An electrifying scene, my friends.
It was Green, however, that moved the puck up the ice with ease and quarterbacked the power play. His 2008-09? 31 goals in 68 games! That’s an adjusted 40-goal pace. This is the best mark by a defenceman in NHL history. Better than Orr. Better than Coffey. Better than anyone else, ever. Green would follow it up with 76 points in 75 games, a second consecutive Norris runner-up season. Injuries and inconsistency would slow him down, but he’ll always have his three years atop the hockey world in High Noon.
🔥 2013-16: Kris Letang
Letang is Adjusted Hockey’s patron saint of understated brilliance. He’s the exact type of player where missed games and scoring environment mask his all-world performance. The High Noon system labels Letang as the #1 defenceman in the league for four years! Below is his 82-game adjusted pace, by season.
The smooth skating Penguin is famously known as one of hockey’s most fitness-focused stars. Yet his injury history is long and serious. In his age-24 to age-29 seasons alone, Letang suffered three concussions, a broken toe, foot, and hand, an elbow infection, a herniated disc that required surgery, and at least a half-dozen lesser injuries keeping him out of the lineup. He also suffered a stroke at 26, and recently a second stroke at 35. All told, these major setbacks and a lockout limited Letang to 329 games from 2011-12 to 2016-17. Despite the missed time, Letang played at a sizzling Adjusted Pace of 18/59/76 during the stretch — second only to Erik Karlsson in points per game.
Kris Letang belongs in the HHOF one day. As he approaches 1,000 games played, it will be one of the most well-deserved silver stick presentations in hockey history for one of its most underappreciated warriors.
🔥 2017-19: Brent Burns
Rightfully, few celebrate the free-flying Burns as a defensive specialist. He was, without question, a game-breaking offensive force at his best. The durable, bearded blueliner had seasons of 75, 76, 67 and 83 points in a four-year stretch. He outscored his peers by 21 goals and 41 points during this run. His Norris finishes? 3rd, 1st, 8th, 2nd. A late bloomer, he’s persevered to play 19 seasons, with another two to go on his contract. Give that man his torch — and a place in the HHOF one day!
For those curious…. we’re through 2019 and no sign of Erik Karlsson?!
It’s no secret this project LOVES Karlsson. In fact, one of the earliest High Noon cards was featured in this Daily Faceoff celebration of the shifty Swede. Yet, High Noon never slots him at #1. Rest assured, Karlsson was #2 five times and #3 twice more, a magnificent seven-year run. The defensive impacts of point shares clip his wings just enough to hold him back from top spot at any one point. I’m as curious as anyone to see how far his recent renaissance launches his ranking back from the dead.
🔥 2020: Victor Hedman
Impressively, Hedman already cracks the all-time, All-Swede first defence pairing.
While he carries The Torch for a single year, Hedman has been a Norris finalist and year-end all star each of the last six seasons. He’s ninth in Norris shares in NHL history. An all-time great walking among us, folks.
🔥 2021: Dougie Hamilton
Well, well, well, look who we have here! The mild-mannered Hamilton has long been a lightning rod for both compliments and criticism. By age 28, he’d suited up for his fourth franchise. Imagine headlines and rumours haunted you because you went to a museum in your mid-20s? Hamilton’s disinterest in blindly aligning to hockey’s monochrome, archaic culture should never have been a story. Throughout it all, he’s quietly and efficiently produced.
A one-time analytics heartthrob, he nabs The Torch using a methodology that doesn’t even use advanced stats. Dougie simply snipes. In a five-year period, the mountain of a man averaged 17 goals per 82 games, landing Norris votes every season. He hits #1 in High Noon for his three-season Hurricanes stint, where he led all NHL D-men in goals while being a key cog on a top-tier defensive team.
🔥 2022: Cale Makar
Makar’s spot here leaves little room for debate. He’s electric. He skates like the wind. He’s a physical marvel in the evolution of defencemen. In his first three regular seasons (and four playoffs), Makar’s achievements through age 23:
- Calder Trophy, Norris Trophy runner-up, Norris Trophy win
- Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, seven playoff rounds won
- 240 points in 233 games (regular season and playoffs combined)
- As for the groomsmen but never the grooms, here’s the defencemen with the most #2 finishes, their mitts just missing out on The Torch’s elusive grip:
- Keep an eye out for the last positional instalment of The Torch series, where the title of #1 goaltender is celebrated across NHL history.
* All statistics and PPS scores are through the 2021-22 season.
Eras, Adjusted Pace data, High Noon, PPS System, High Noon & PPS Player Cards from Adjusted Hockey;
All other data from Hockey-Reference.com