Fantasy Hockey: Defenseman tiers cheat sheet

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Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar is one of the top defenseman options in 2021-22 fantasy hockey drafts. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Jon Litterine, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Defensemen tend to be overshadowed in fantasy drafts due to their lack of offensive production compared to the game's elite forwards, but there is a massive amount of value in having one of the top names listed below on your rosters.

Here's a preview of this year's defensemen, ranked by tier.

TIER 1 – THE ELITE

Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, Adam Fox, John Carlson, Dougie Hamilton, Quinn Hughes, Tyson Barrie, Roman Josi, Shea Theodore

The Skinny: Make these guys a high priority on draft day.

Makar is the most talented rearguard in the game, and he plays for arguably the deepest team in the league. He finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy a year ago as a 22-year-old. He could flirt with 75 points throughout a full 82-game season. Hedman's play was down a just a notch last season compared to what we're accustomed to, but the last time Hedman posted fewer than 45 points was the 2014-15 campaign. Fox led all NHL rearguards in assists (42) a season ago and finished second in points (47). That performance led to him winning his first Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2020-21. Carlson is Mr. Consistency, as he's posted no fewer than 44 points in each of the past five campaigns. Running a power play alongside Alex Ovechkin will lead to that type of production. Hamilton left Carolina for New Jersey this past summer on a new seven-year, $63 million contract. The 28-year-old blueliner has posted double-digit goals in each of the past seven seasons and he's a real threat to lead the league in goals among defensemen this season.

Hughes played in all 56 games for Vancouver last year, posting 41 points, including 19 with the man advantage. He also finished with an ugly minus-24 rating, which feels like a fluke. Barrie plays on a team with the best player in the game (Connor McDavid) and his trusted sidekick (Leon Draisaitl) and led all NHL rearguards in scoring (48 points in 56 games) in 2020-21. The Predators lack offensive punch as a team, which led to Josi finishing with 33 points in 48 games last year, his lowest total since the 2012-13 campaign. Expect a bounce-back effort from Nashville's captain in 2021-22. Theodore should probably be higher on this list as the top offensive rearguard on a loaded Vegas team, but Alex Pietrangelo is still around to steal minutes, which limits Theodore's upside.

TIER 2 – ROCK-SOLID OPTIONS

Kris Letang, Morgan Rielly, Jakob Chychrun, Torey Krug, John Klingberg, Seth Jones, Aaron Ekblad, Thomas Chabot, Zach Werenski, Jeff Petry, Alex Pietrangelo, Neal Pionk

The Skinny: Guys with a real chance to produce like No. 1 fantasy defenders.

Letang and Rielly are in similar situations, as they're both veteran power-play quarterbacks on teams loaded with offensive talent. Both blueliners, Letang in particular, are extremely consistent. Chychrun looks like one of the game's next great rearguards following a breakout season in which he led all defenders in goals with 18, but the Coyotes are a bad team and Shayne Gostisbehere may eat into Chychrun's power-play time after being acquired by the Coyotes from the Flyers via trade. Krug finished his first season in St. Louis with 32 points, 111 shots, and a plus-11 rating in 52 games. Expect similar production for a full campaign in 2021-22. Klingberg has posted at least 36 points in six of his first seven NHL seasons. He continues to produce despite the lingering presence of Miro Heiskanen. As a side note, Klingberg is also an in-season trade candidate.

Jones' stock cratered a season ago (28 points, minus-18 rating in 56 games), but the Blackhawks nonetheless decided to acquire him via trade and handed Jones an eight-year, $76 million contract extension. He will be running the show for a team that has Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and the now presumably healthy Jonathan Toews up front. Ekblad was making a case for the top tier before suffering a fractured leg in late March. He underwent surgery and he's expected to be ready for training camp. This might be your last chance to get the Panthers' top defender at any sort of draft discount. Chabot logs a ton of minutes, which can lead to serious fantasy production, but like Chychrun, his ceiling is somewhat capped since he'll likely be playing for one of the NHL's worst teams.

With Jones being traded, the Blue Jackets went all-in on Werenski to the tune of a new six-year, $57.5 million contract. It's a ton of money for a guy who has never posted more than 44 points in a single season, but Werenski shoots the puck a ton and he should log around 25 minutes of ice time per night. Petry's outlook was enhanced by the expected retirement of Shea Weber due to injury. Petry offers production across the board and he's legitimately improved each year since arriving in Montreal.

I mentioned Pietrangelo above. He still has a ton of value for the Golden Knights, but he figures to play second fiddle to Theodore on the power play and that's a big deal in the world of fantasy hockey. Pionk has been a revelation since arriving in Winnipeg two years ago. He has 77 points in 125 games over that span and should post well over 200 hits for a full-82 game campaign in 2021-22.

TIER 3 – THE NEXT BEST THING

Brent Burns, Devon Toews, Charlie McAvoy, Miro Heiskanen, Mikhail Sergachev, Darnell Nurse, Drew Doughty, Tony DeAngelo

The Skinny: Safe, early-to-mid round options.

Burns was the top option on this list for several years, but he will turn 37 next March and plays for a poor team. He's still a fine selection, just don't draft for past production. Toews joined Colorado from the Islanders a season ago and proceeded to post nine goals, 31 points, and a plus-29 rating in 53 games. He's a value pick in all formats. McAvoy is Boston's best defenseman by a mile, but the Bruins seem committed to giving both Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly power-play time, limiting his overall value. Heiskanen, as mentioned above, still has Klingberg to contend with. Sergachev is behind Hedman on the Lightning depth chart, but Hedman has been banged up lately and Sergachev has been excellent since arriving on the scene several years ago.

Nurse gets a bump for playing with McDavid and Draisaitl, but he's extremely talented in his own right. Doughty's fantasy value is directly tied to the heavy minutes he logs. The Rangers cut ties with DeAngelo last season, willingly making their team worse in the process. He was subsequently bought out by New York and joined the Hurricanes as a free agent this offseason. DeAngelo's the ultimate risk/reward pick.

TIER 4 – FILLING OUT YOUR ROSTER

Ryan Pulock, Ryan Ellis, Erik Karlsson, Matt Dumba, Rasmus Dahlin, Jared Spurgeon, Josh Morrissey, Samuel Girard

The Skinny: Players who could conceivably start for your team.

Pulock and Ellis are rebound candidates for different reasons. Pulock had bad puck luck last season while Ellis was injured and has since been traded to Philadelphia. Karlsson is a shell of his former self and plays for a poor team. Ryan Suter is gone, but Dumba and Spurgeon will split time, limiting the value of each. Morrissey has been dreadful since being handed a big-money contract, but the Jets are going to continue to run him out there with heavy minutes. Girard has Makar and Toews to deal with, leaving him with a stable fantasy floor and a questionable ceiling.

TIER 5 – THE YOUNG AND OLD

Shayne Gostisbehere, Keith Yandle, Filip Hronek, Ty Smith, Nick Leddy, Justin Faulk, Adam Boqvist. Nils Lundkvist

The Skinny: Youngsters and veterans with obstacles in front of them.

Gostisbehere and Yandle are offensive rearguards on new teams, but they both have potential. Hronek and Smith both play for bad teams, and Smith now has Dougie Hamilton to deal with. Leddy joins Hronek on a poor Red Wings team, leading to a significant increase in opportunity for the former Islander. Faulk is a steady contributor for St. Louis with limited upside. Boqvist will attempt to help replace some of Seth Jones' production in Columbus. Lundkvist, a rookie from Sweden, seems likely to play a sheltered role upon his arrival with the Rangers, but he has immediate top-six upside.