[Editor’s Note] RotoExperts is pleased to introduce Hector Ocasio, who brings many years of experience and knowledge to the table as our new Fantasy Hockey writer. We’re sure you’ll enjoy and benefit from Hector’s insight into the sport and the Fantasy game. He will publish a weekly column throughout the Fantasy Hockey season. T.M.
Defensemen are by definition the most difficult position to quantify in a Fantasy hockey landscape where premium offensive production is rewarded. This translates to a lack of depth at the position, and creates an imperative need to select from the top tier of defensive talent that produces at a high level. When building a roster on draft day, it is important not to lose sight of your defensive corps while focusing on forwards and goaltenders. You won’t be able to find significant contributors from the blue line if you wait until the later rounds to start selecting them, and you will find yourself at a disadvantage compared to owners who drafted defensemen early and often.
I’ve divided the list into four categories for easy reference: franchise players, top shelf blue-liners, solid upside picks, and role players. Franchise players are the five elite talents you must grab in the first three rounds, ideally along with a premium goalie and a dynamic forward. Top shelf blue-liners are the next 10 players, who will need to be drafted in rounds four through seven. The following 15 skaters, solid upside picks, will generally be available from rounds eight through twelve. Rounding out the Top 40 are 10 role players that will be available in the later rounds of your draft, some of them likely going undrafted. I would recommend selecting one player from each category for balanced roster creation. Be sure to check with the site where you play your Fantasy Hockey to see that the player qualifies for the position you want to draft and play him. Different sites use different qualifying criteria. For example, Dustin Byfuglien is listed as a defenseman on some sites even though the Jets have announced their intention to play him as a forward.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: The former Norris Trophy winner is coming off a superb season in which he finished among the top three defensemen in goals, assists, power-play points and shots on goal. Incredibly, these superlative numbers came in his first full campaign after a devastating torn Achilles injury suffered in February 2013. With an extra off-season of training and rest under his belt, Karlsson is a good bet to improve and flirt with 80 points. He’s one of two defensemen that you can make an argument for drafting in the first round and building your team around.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: The 1B to Karlsson’s 1A, Subban is another do-everything performer whose production will mirror that of an elite forward. Whereas Karlsson has the edge in goals and assists, Subban will give you a big boost in penalty minutes. The issue with Subban has been how much head coach Michel Therrien was willing to trust him, but if his team-leading 29.43 minutes of ice time in his first pre-season action is any indication, this could be the season in which the reins are finally loosened for Subban to display his complete arsenal of skills.
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: One of only two defensemen with dual eligibility this season, Byfuglien is slotted to play up front at even strength and man the point on the power play for the run and gun Jets. Big Buff’s mix of scoring and grit will give you multi-category coverage comparable to that of forwards David Backes and Wayne Simmonds. If you already picked up an elite goaltender in rounds one or two, you can confidently select him in round three to anchor your defense.
Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: I’m looking for Nashville to be one of the most improved teams in the NHL, and Shea Weber’s continued excellence will be a big reason. Weber will never have trouble in the goal department with his tremendous slap shot, and with the addition of winger James Neal, the most talented sniper he has ever played with outside of Team Canada, he could easily surpass last season’s career high in assists. In addition, a full season in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne should bring last year’s plus/minus of minus-2 closer to his plus-21 from 2011-12.
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: He won’t light the lamp as much as some of the other top-ranked defensemen, but his reliable play and precise passing will once again place him amongst the league leaders in plus/minus and assists. He is the ideal defensemen to anchor your squad if you go with a goal heavy forward such as Alex Ovechkin in the first two rounds.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: It seems like only a matter of time until Doughty finally dominates a full 82-game NHL season the way he seemingly does every postseason. Could this be the year? The Kings have largely been able to maintain the core of their two championship teams, and Doughty spent all of last season paired up with Jake Muzzin, which will continue. This familiarity should allow Doughty to take more chances up ice and eclipse the 50 point mark for the second time in his career.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: Along with Doughty, the Bruins captain is the only defenseman who will cover you across all scoring categories in your league. He won’t dominate a category the way Weber does in goals, or Keith does in assists, which is why he is outside the top-five can’t miss assets. If you choose to go with forwards and goaltenders with your first three picks, he is a must-have in round four to lead your defense. The growth of Boston’s young defenders Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton means the days of playing over 25 minutes a night are over, which should do wonders for his longevity.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: A Top 10 Fantasy defenseman by any metric, there are question marks regarding Letang’s value this pre-season due to uncertainty about his return from an injury and illness-plagued season. If he remains healthy, the amount of time on ice he spends with forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will translate to gaudy stats across multiple categories.
Keith Yandle, Arizona Coyotes: The decision to leave the point-scoring machine off of the American Olympic roster had many scratching their heads and possibly cost us a medal. Don’t make the same mistake as Team U.S.A.’s GM David Poile and leave him off your roster if he is still available in the sixth round or later. Look for Yandle to get his goal total back into the double-digits, and once again top 50 points.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes: One of the best hockey talents not known by the casual fan, the young Swedish defender is going to be counted on for offense on a Coyotes team without much firepower upfront. Whether you choose Yandle or Ekman-Larsson at this stage in the draft is largely dependent on whether your roster is in need of goals or assists. O.E.L.’s 15 goals and potential for continued growth give him the edge in that category.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: A lot of analysts are down on Burns’ potential for the upcoming season since the decision to move him off of center Joe Thornton’s line and back to defense was announced. A goal, an assist and ten shots on goal in his first two preseason games–while still re-adjusting to the position–is enough for me to recommend him as a solid draft selection. Keep in mind he topped 15 goals and 25 assists twice in his tenure as a defenseman with an inferior Minnesota Wild squad.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning: Taken between star forwards John Tavares and Matt Duchene in the 2009 entry draft, Hedman took significant steps towards realizing his potential last season. He more than doubled his previous career high in points, which is even more remarkable since he did it without center Steven Stamkos for the majority of the year. He’s not too far from cracking the top tier of fantasy defensemen.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: Drafted four spots after Doughty in the loaded 2008 entry draft, ‘Petro’ has shown a similar propensity to take over a game from the blue line as his Canadian Olympic teammate. His average auxiliary stats make him a tough sell as your number one defenseman, but he is a great second option if you can pick up one of the players listed above him in an earlier round.
Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues: Some consideration could be given to taking Shattenkirk above his teammate Pietrangelo, especially since you can likely acquire him two-three rounds later. Their stats are remarkably similar across the board, with the American Olympian seeing more time on the Blues’ top power play unit which will give him an edge in goals, power-play points and shots on goal.
Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild: One of the best examples of a great hockey player whose value isn’t accurately captured via Fantasy stats. It’s too bad average time on ice isn’t a more widely adopted category, as that would elevate him higher within this tier of defensemen. He will give you reliable week to week production, but without the upside of finishing in the top ten in any category.
Solid Upside Picks
Torey Krug, Boston Bruins: He would be higher on this list if he wasn’t already missing a large portion of training camp due to the Bruins’ ongoing salary cap woes. Thankfully, for the Bruins, and those interested in drafting Krug, the sophomore blue-liner just signed a one-year deal at below market value to remain with the club.
Nicklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings: The Swedish defenseman has done an admirable job in the last two years of filling the void left by the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom. If forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg can stay healthier than they did during last year’s transition to the Eastern Conference, Kronwall has the potential to set a new career high in points, a total he was only two shy of last season.
Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers: Likely to become the first defenseman to be named captain of the New York Rangers since Brian Leetch, McDonagh will be facing additional pressure to perform at a high level this season. The former Wisconsin Badger has the competitive edge and constitution to live up to or exceed expectations, and I look for him to improve on last season’s career highs in goals, assists and shots on goal.
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames: The undrafted veteran entered the conversation of elite Fantasy defensemen last season, but is he poised to stay there long term? Despite lacking in premium offensive talent, the Flames compete level was a constant last season, and as captain of the club Giordano deserves much of the credit. Although leadership isn’t a quantifiable Fantasy category, 47 points in 64 games last year is, and with his elite work ethic I expect to see a similar output this season.
Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs: While the Leafs’ new President of Operations Brendan Shanahan is likely to have a positive impact on the culture in Toronto, his background as former NHL director of player discipline has the potential to dull the edge Phaneuf plays with. If his elite peripherals in hits and penalty minutes decline under the new regime, can he make up for it by re-capturing the scoring touch displayed during his years in Calgary? He’s a safe bet as your third defenseman, and an interesting gamble if you want to select him earlier.
James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets: Finishing only behind Karlsson and Yandle in power-play points last season, Wisniewski has proven to be a force on the man advantage. Playing in front of a healthy former Vezina Award winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for a full season should see his even plus/minus rating from last year improve significantly, which will help round out his multi-category production.
Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals: A lot of unknown variables make Niskanen a somewhat risky pick for the upcoming season. His league leading plus/minus ranking amongst defensemen last season will take a big hit in the move from Pittsburgh to Washington, where no defensemen finished above a plus-7. How quickly he can gel with superstar forwards Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will play a major role in determining his long term value.
Jason Garrison, Tampa Bay Lightning: A change of location should do wonders for Garrison’s value this season. The fact that he was able to put up 33 points in the mess that was John Tortorella era Canuck hockey should bode well for his time in the sunshine state. He is only two seasons removed from putting up 16 goals and no stranger to the power play, where Stamkos will be lurking in the low slot.
Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks: Duncan Keith’s defensive partner brings a similar level of production across all categories as his two-time Norris Trophy winning teammate. His consistent production, and only nine games missed over the last eight seasons make him a tremendous value pick once the top two tiers of defensemen have been selected.
Alex Goligoski, Dallas Stars: There is a feeling I get with the Dallas Stars that last year was just a start and the best is yet to come. In addition to their core of young forwards, the former Penguins defender has the potential to push his offensive output to a whole new level this season. With a propensity to play a lot of minutes and take a lot of shots, there will be plenty of chances to capitalize off of scoring opportunities created by forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens: Subban gets all the attention, but he’s not the only Montreal defensemen worth taking a look at on draft day. Markov won’t cover you across as many categories as the former Norris Trophy winner, but his production in goals and assists, both on and off the power play won’t be too far off the pace Subban sets.
Mike Green, Washington Capitals: The only active defenseman to eclipse 30 goals in a season, Green has certainly seen his star fade in the last few seasons. Could the addition of Coach Barry Trotz help return Green to the top tier of fantasy defensemen? If Trotz’s past work with Weber and Suter are any indication, the reward will be well worth the risk of a mid-round draft pick.
Christian Ehrhoff, Pittsburgh Penguins: What a difference a change in scenery can make. After some highly productive seasons in San Jose and Vancouver, Ehrhoff was relegated to Fantasy obscurity the past three seasons in Buffalo. Now a member of the perennial Stanley Cup contender Penguins, Ehrhoff has a great opportunity to remind us how effective he can be when surrounded by elite talent.
Dan Boyle, New York Rangers: From Scott Gomez to Brad Richards there is a long history of free agent acquisitions faltering under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Boyle is coming into a situation where he can perhaps buck the trend. By joining a deep defensive corps already comprised of McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal, Boyle won’t be counted on to be the main producer in New York, just another piece of the puzzle. This is a role that should suit his skill set and enable him to once again approach the 50 point plateau.
Mark Streit, Philadelphia Flyers: With Kimmo Timonen most likely out for the season, the burden of offensive production from the back line will fall largely on Streit’s shoulders. He has proven capable in the past, amassing 45 or more points in four of his eight full NHL seasons. He has always been exceptional on the power play, and the front line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds is likely the most talented trio he has had the opportunity to play with on the man advantage.
Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche: Was last season’s breakout a fluke or the beginning of a trend? This is a question you can ask not only about Tyson Barrie, but the Avalanche as a team. If you’re still buying into the longevity of the magic head coach Patrick Roy is producing in Colorado, which I am, continued growth in the 45-50 point range, with a strong plus/minus is within the realm of reason.
Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers: The experienced veteran is the perfect candidate to mentor this year’s number one draft pick defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but is he the perfect fit for your Fantasy roster? If consistent production in the 35-45 point range is what you’re looking for, then yes. However, if you are willing to take a gamble on a player with upside there will be a lot of more appealing options available.
Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks: Once you get this deep in the defensive pool it’s all about the upside, and Fowler has that in spades. A former first round draft pick, and a representative of the United States in Sochi, the young Fowler is already amassing quite a resume. Leading a potent Ducks power play along with forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry could see Fowler enter the conversation of Top 20 Fantasy defensemen by season’s end.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals: The Capitals are one of only two teams, along with the Lightning, to feature three defensemen on this list. What these two teams have in common are dynamic power plays featuring top flight offensive talent. Carlson’s 22 points on the power play last season were not only tops within his club, but also put him in elite company league wide.
Andrej Sekera, Carolina Hurricanes: The move from Buffalo to Carolina prior to last season did wonders for Sekera and his Fantasy value, as he set a new career high in points with 44. While most drafts will see his defensive partner Justin Faulk selected first, Sekera outperformed him in nearly every category last season and should be considered a reliable fourth defenseman for your roster.
Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings: Poised to be a breakout performer last season, Voynov was perhaps weighed down by the pressures and inevitable disappointment of representing Russia at the Sochi Olympics. With lower expectations comes greater value, as he is still young, full of potential, on a loaded Kings team, and can be selected in the later rounds of the draft as a fourth or spare defensemen.
Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers: After turning a lot of heads with 27 points during his lockout shortened rookie campaign, Schultz barely eclipsed those numbers in his first full NHL season last year. However, the upside is still huge and a full season playing in front of goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth should substantially trim down on last year’s atrocious minus-22 rating.
Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche: The former number one overall draft pick’s improved play was a big factor in Colorado’s remarkable run to a Central Division title last season. With a big shot from the blue line, and a surplus of talented forwards to feed up front, Johnson is a good bet to improve on his 39 points from last season.
Radko Gudas, Tampa Bay Lightning: The third year pro put up a meager 22 points last year, but led all defensemen with a whopping 152 penalty minutes and came in second with 273 hits. Being able to dominate two categories makes Gudas a great target in leagues that count hits as your fourth defenseman, especially with the potential for more offensive production with an improved Lightning team.
Lubomir Visnovsky, New York Islanders: Major comeback potential for the 38-year-old, who missed the first 58 games of last season due to a concussion. A full season on the Islanders’ number one power play along with the dynamic Tavares and right wing Kyle Okposo is enough incentive to take a gamble in the latter rounds of your draft.