1. Chicago Blackhawks
The strength of this defense is its skating and ability to lead Chicago's transition game. From Duncan Keith to Nick Leddy, the Blackhawks' defense is loaded with strong skaters. The addition of Johnny Oduya slotted everybody into place by solidifying their second pair, and the Blackhawks have been winning ever since.
The return of Michal Rozsival keeps the group's depth in place, although Leddy is going to have to recover from a less-than-stellar performance in the playoffs. "If Leddy is your No. 6, that's pretty good," an NHL scout said. "I don't think there will be any residual effect [from his postseason struggles] but it was certainly noticeable that his minutes were trimmed."
2. Boston Bruins
You could have a defense with Zdeno Chara and five AHL defensemen and it might be in the league's Top 10. Chara is that dominant. Even with the loss of Andrew Ference, this group retains its mix of experience and physical edge. The pair of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg is among the league's best. Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid bring even more toughness after Chara.
The Bruins will rely on youth more this season, with an opportunity created for Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski. It's extra pressure on the younger players, but Krug especially showed he could handle the pressure during the playoffs last season. "There's definitely a mental side of the game where you have to have the right frame of mind and understand how to take opportunity and go with it," Krug said when we chatted on Tuesday. "That's kind of like what my career is all about."
3. New York Rangers
A healthy Marc Staal lifts this defense from good to great with the top four of Ryan McDonagh, Staal, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto. This is a top four that matches up with any in the league. We'll grant that the Rangers' D thins out at the bottom, but the addition of the strong-skating John Moore at the trade deadline helped address that. Moore is still just 22 years old and developing his skills at the NHL level.
The linchpin to this defense is Staal, and his ability to recover completely from his eye injury may be the key to the Rangers' season. He's part of Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp next week, and it sounds like his summer recovery has been strong. "[Staal]'s a major, major piece to that group," said the scout. "They're really solid. [Anton] Stralman was solid for them. Del Zotto was playing hurt for them in the playoffs. Girardi, McDonagh... those guys are high-end."