by Brian Metzer
If you are looking for the red headed step child in the world of fantasy hockey it is the defenseman. That little appreciated asset known more for blocking shots than taking them, at least in today's National Hockey League, is often ignored by many owners as they select their teams on draft day. It is actually becoming more and more common to limit the starting slots for defensemen to three or in some cases, eliminate them all together.
Blasphemy! Especially to a guy like me that butters his toast by pontificating on or about the fantasy exploits of defensemen on a weekly basis over at NHL.com.
It just doesn't compute! Yes, getting the biggest bang for your buck from your forwards is key, but you simply cannot win without having an effective fantasy blue line in today's multi-category leagues. Defensemen are scoring more than ever and getting production from your defense can make the difference between finishing in first and getting mocked by your friends throughout a long offseason.
You can check out my individual defenseman rankings over on NHL.com today. Here I can provide you with some statistics that show the importance of the fantasy defenseman.
My top-60 defensemen at the end of last season accounted for 454 goals and 1,575 assists as a group or 7.56 goals and 26.25 assists per player, which means that you should have been able to fill your four starting slots in a Yahoo! Standard league with players that were providing roughly 34 points each or 136 points on the year. Of that group, there were 17 defensemen who had scored 10 or more goals and 21 who had posted 30 or more assists. That production beats a number of mid-tier forwards that populated rosters throughout the season.
That group also provided 8,165 shots on goal and 2,295 PIMs or an average of 136.1 and 38.25 per man. It is also worth noting that defensemen in general accounted for 162 game-winning goals last season.
At end of the day, forwards and goaltending prove to be vital to fantasy success, but you simply cannot discount the importance of having a strong core of defensemen to flesh out what amounts to 1/3 of your starting lineup on a week-to-week basis. So with all of that in mind here are some pointers to consider when selecting defensemen in your upcoming drafts.
It is probably safe to say that the first defensemen in a 10-team standard league comes off the board during the second round, and that is when you should start to formulate your plan.
The Erik Karlssons, Zdeno Charas, and Kris Letangs of the world are likely to be the first d-men off of the board and to get any of those three in the second, third or fourth rounds would be great value. Each player, when healthy will get you 50-plus points and in the case of the defending Norris Trophy winner, probably more.
When drafting, it is a good idea to acquire at least one of the top-five defensemen during the first three rounds. You should also hope to have two defensemen selected by round seven. Grabbing a defensemen every three or four rounds helps keep your production evenly distributed throughout your lineup, which also makes it a little easier to overcome injuries that may pop up down the line.
Balance also gives you more flexibility. You will have more latitude to focus on selecting "the best available" talent later in your draft, rather than having to draft for need.
Now that I, like some wacked out hockey version of The Secret, have changed your view and defensemen now appear to be the rock stars of your line-up rather than the step children, let's take a look at some of the actual players you'll be encountering as you step into the octagon known as your fantasy draft.
Lead Guitar — since everyone knows that the best rock stars are the ones shredding like Eddie Van Halen or Dimebag Darrell Abbott of Pantera!
Erik Karlsson, Senators — as Dobber did with the centers, we aren't going to waste your time with minutia when it comes to certain guys like Karlsson. If I was Vince Vaughn I'd be calling him money and telling him to always double down on eleven. He may slightly regress this year, but he will still be a top three defenseman at the end of the year.
Kris Letang, Penguins — He plays with a couple of Art Ross and Hart Trophy winners named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He also has the benefit of playing with NHL.com's top rated LW, James Neal. He plays huge minutes, gets number one power play time and isn't afraid to play physical. He could lead the position in scoring if he stays healthy.
Shea Weber, Predators — Weber will collect a king's ransom for the next decade because of his ability to not only play great defense but to put the puck in the net. He is the rare defenseman that can push toward the 20-goal plateau on a yearly basis, while collecting enough assists to be at or near the top of the defensemen's scoring race. The guy once shot a puck through the net in the Olympics… that alone makes him a rock star in my book.
Front Man/Singer — everyone loves a guitar player, but you need that epic voice that belts out every lyric and is full of charisma. Picture Axl Rose in his prime or Robert Plant.
Michael Del Zotto, Rangers — Del Zotto has had quite the ride over the past few season, but he finally put it all together last year and looks like he could be one of the best and brightest young defensemen in the league. He notched .53 points per game last season and that number could grow with the acquisition of Rick Nash. He is also an amazing source for plus/minus registering a plus-20.
P.K. Subban, Canadiens — Who better to slot in under this category than the charismatic Subban? Though he has had his issues with maturity over the years I think he is in store for a pretty nice season. Hopefully he'll have the benefit of a healthy Andrei Markov throughout the season, which will shift some pressure off of him and he can settle in and play his game — Cheshire grin and tongue wagging of course. Karlsson exploded in his third full NHL season, Subban could be in store for the same thing.
Tobias Enstrom, Jets — Enstrom put up 33 points last season. Very respectable numbers, but even more so when you consider that he did it in just 62 games. His .53 points per game would have extrapolated to 43 points over a full season and would have positioned him just outside the top ten defensive scorers. The Jets should be a bit better this year and he could be primed for a big point total. He'll be on my teams this season — aside from the dynasty league in which I inexplicably traded for a package that included a number one draft pick that turned into Zemgus Girgensons.
Rhythm Guitar — They aren't often playing lead, if at all, but they bang out their riffs with a cigarette hanging out of the side of their mouth. Picture AC/DC's Malcolm Young or Ronnie Wood of the Stones.
Niklas Kronwall, Red Wings — Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement has opened up a ton of minutes not only 5-on-5, but on the power play. Ian White, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith will all be jockeying for them, but I just have a feeling that your friendly neighborhood Manster, Nik Kronwall will fill the void. He had his moments last season and finished with 15 goals. He isn't afraid to shoot the puck, will provide penalty minutes and should get a chance to do some QBing on the power play this season. It might not be full time, but I think he will be a very effective fantasy player. The others I mentioned could provide production as well, especially Smith.
Mike Green, Capitals — This guy should be a lead guitar caliber player; unfortunately he has really slipped over the past couple of years. Blame it on whatever you like — injury, laziness, nonchalance—but the numbers don't lie. I have a feeling that getting him back under a coach who isn't afraid to push the offense in Adam Oates will help get him back on track, especially on the power play. Green once put up .68, 1.07 and 1.01 points per game in consecutive seasons and he is always a threat to do it again. Once some of the bigger names are gone, take a chance.
Dan Girardi, Rangers — Though I already mentioned Michael Del Zotto, Girardi is the guy who will probably be available later in your draft and could still provide a nice bump for your plus/minus while still chipping in 30 to 35 points. He also plays in all situations and could help out in other categories such as blocked shots, TOI and special teams points.
Slava Voynov, Kings — Though everyone will be looking at Drew Doughty to be the main point producer on the Kings' blue line Voynov could be the guy who comes out of nowhere to make a fantasy impact this season. He didn't make a ton of offensive noise in the playoffs, as the Kings had really tightened things up, but he did notch 20 points in just 54 regular season games.
Nikita Nikitin, Blue Jackets — Nikitin is just one of a handful of great options on the Blue Jackets' blue line, but he is my favorite. While your cohorts are grabbing James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson and possibly Ryan Murray, you should consider snatching Nikitin and his .53 points per game. Though I have heard folks say that he could be this year's Grant Clitsome (someone who finished strong, but failed to live up to expectations the following season), I don't buy it. He'll be on my teams!
Last but not least, the Drummer — Can't complete that rhythm section without a good guy on the skins. Picture Slayer's Dave Lombardo or John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.
Jared Spurgeon, Wild — Many folks will be looking at the newly acquired Ryan Suter or Tom Gilbert as the main fantasy weapons on the Wild's blue line, but you could do a lot worse than Spurgeon. He made gains in games played, assists, points and shots on goal last season and could make a bigger leap this year in his third full season. Having the other two guys, as well as Zach Parise, Dany Heatley and a healthy Mikko Koivu in the fold can only enhance his value. He is someone that I will be targeting as a sleeper this year.
Jake Gardiner, Maple Leafs — Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles might be the sexier names on the Maple Leafs' blue line, but Gardiner could be primed for a big season. He got a big opportunity last season and ran with it posting 30 points in 73 games. If he starts shooting the puck a bit more and gets some additional power play time he could be a 40 point man this season.
Travis Hamonic, Islanders — Hamonic tantalized fantasy owners with 26 points in 2 games as a rookie two years ago only to regress to 24 points in 73 games last season. He did notch 9 points over his final 14 games of the season and looks like he could be a valuable contributor, especially in deeper leagues, this season. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has good puck skills so don't be afraid to take a chance!
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