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September 30, 2011
NHL Preview
NHL's Top 10 Projected Defensemen

by Kent Wilson and ESPN Insider

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With Nicklas Lidstrom entering his final season in the NHL (perhaps), the quest to identify the next dominant defensive force will soon begin in earnest. While it may a long time before another player as consistently elite as Lidstrom appears on the blue line, there's no question that NHL GMs still see immense value in a rearguard who can play at both ends of the ice. Over the last year, Dustin Byfuglien, Christian Ehrhoff and Shea Weber have garnered extended, high-priced contracts thanks to this perception.

These names -- and others -- appear in the following list of the projected top-10 defenders in terms of Hockey Prospectus' player value metric, goals versus threshold (GVT), as predicted by our VUKOTA projection system. (For more information on GVT and VUKOTA, click here.)

1. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: 15.5 GVT

When the Atlanta Thrashers converted Byfuglien back to defense after he spent several seasons as a forward for the Chicago Blackhawks, it seemed like an odd choice. Byfuglien justified that decision, however, by becoming one of the highest-scoring rearguards in the league. His 20 goals and 347 shots on goal were both league highs among defensemen, and his 53 points were the most he's managed in the NHL. Byfuglien and partner Tobias Enstrom are the club's first choice to play on the man advantage, and they aren't burdened with shutdown duties. This is why VUKOTA projects Byfuglien to have the highest expected offensive GVT (11.1) of any defender this coming season.

2. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: 12.3 GVT

After a contentious arbitration that saw him win a one-year, $7.5 million contract, Weber will certainly be on the hot seat to produce this year. Fortunately for him and the Predators, VUKOTA expects Weber to be the second-best defender in the league in terms of GVT for 2011-12. In contrast to Byfuglien, Weber is Nashville's first option for playing against other teams' best players. He and partner Ryan Suter have been facing the tough minutes for several years now, which makes Weber's ascension up the NHL ranks even more impressive.

3. Duncan Keith, Blackhawks: 12.0 GVT

The former Norris winner had a bit of a "down" season by his standards, scoring 45 points with a mediocre minus-1 rating. Keith nevertheless led the entire NHL in ice-time last season, averaging almost 27 minutes per game and remains the No. 1 defender for the Hawks. Part of his downturn included low on-ice save and shooting percentages at even strength last year. If those regress to the mean, his plus-minus and output should bounce back up.

4. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings (RFA): 12.0 GVT

Doughty is poised to be one of the highest GVT defenders in the league. The 21-year-old's output fell to just 40 points after a 59-point breakout in 2009-10. The reduction was due in large part to his power-play scoring rate falling from 4.31 points/60 minutes to just 2.57 points/60. If his scoring on the man advantage can rebound, Doughty's offensive GVT should climb back up closer to 2009-10 levels.

5. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: 11.6 GVT

The Pittsburgh Penguin defender only garnered 144 votes for the Norris Trophy, but it's arguable that he deserved a bit more recognition given his point total (50), plus-minus (plus-15) and the fact he played against other team's best players night in and night out. Letang's emergence as a top-notch defender may have been less impressive on a Penguins team featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but injuries to the club's two key centers meant Letang wasn't aided by the presence of elite forwards. Should Crosby and Malkin remain healthy this season, Letang could obviously improve on his career bests from last season.

6. Lubomir Visnovsky, Anaheim Ducks: 11.5 GVT

No defender scored more points than Visnovsky's 68 last year. The 34-year-old did the seemingly impossible by managing a career high in points, assists (50) and plus-minus (plus-18) despite playing some of the toughest minutes available for the Ducks. Given their dearth of other options, Visnovsky and partner Toni Lydman were thrust into a top-pairing, shut-down role for Anaheim and the duo thrived against all odds. Part of Visnovsky's outburst is no doubt due to playing behind league MVP and 50-goal scorer Corey Perry at even strength and on the power play. He also enjoyed a career-high shooting percentage (11.8), which is unlikely to be sustainable. Even if his production drops somewhat, Visnovsky should remain one of the highest producers in the NHL.

7. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: 11.5 GVT

The first real surprise served up by VUKOTA is the Blues youngster Pietrangelo. A near point-per-game defender in junior hockey, the former fourth overall pick's emergence is arguably one of the reasons St. Louis was willing to trade Erik Johnson to Colorado last season. Our projections expect Pietrangelo to avoid the sophomore jinx and improve on his impressive rookie performance that saw him garner 11 goals and 43 points.

8. Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks: 10.8 GVT

Although he turned 35 in July, Boyle is still a mainstay on the Sharks' blue line and a vital cog in their potent power play. Boyle averaged a team-high 26:14 per game for San Jose last year, including a team-high 4:17 with the man advantage. The addition of Brent Burns may give Boyle the sort of high-quality partner that can help sustain or even improve his production going forward. His expected GVT would actually be higher if VUKOTA didn't project just 62 games played for the shifty veteran.

9. Mike Green, Washington Capitals: 10.8 GVT

The only defender to manage back-to-back 70-plus point seasons in recent memory battled significant injury issues last year, limiting him to just 49 games. VUKOTA expects a slight uptick for Green in that department, but still less than a full season (65 games). Green remains one of the most offensively potent defensemen in the league and it doesn't hurt to play on a team with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin either. If he can stay relatively healthy, expect Green to climb back up the scoring charts.

10. Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo Sabres: 10.6 GVT

Although he won't be skating behind the Sedin twins again this season, VUKOTA nevertheless projects Ehrhoff to finish top-10 in terms of GVT by the end of the year. The Sabres' $40 million man will be spared hard, shutdown duties due to the presence of Robyn Regehr and Tyler Myers on the roster. He will, however, be Buffalo's No. 1 choice on the power play, where he will play with Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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