As the 2014 Winter Olympics are (hopefully not literally) dangerously close, I will soon travel to Stamford, CT to come to grips with Shaun White’s corporatized hair, acknowledge that others have already covered every Grace Gold pun imaginable and maybe even cover some high-level hockey.
Because of that, I’ll be handing the Hockey Dose torch to someone else for approximately a month, although certain details - how many Doses shall there be during the Olympics? - is currently unclear. I may or may not also observe the Dose from afar, sort of like a creeper keeping up with an ex.
(Do yourself a favor and click the “ignore” button in your Facebook feeds in that regard. It’s for the best.)
Anyway, with two days left before I let someone else prescribe the Doses, I thought I’d look back at some of the storylines that are developing/have developed by splitting things off into a section per day: one for forwards, one for defensemen and then one for goalies. Today’s edition will focus on blueliners; you can enjoy the forward-thinking piece here and expect the netminder nuttiness on Wednesday.
This backward focus means you’d be wiser than ever to absorb Rotoworld’s suite of hockey columns by writers who are more likely to nourish your hockey mind with advice and less likely to pollute it with bad puns.
In the case of this column, I decided to focus on three blueliners I found most fascinating: Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien.
KARLSSON GOES FROM OTHERWORLDLY TO MERELY DOMINANT
When Erik Karlsson won the 2012 Norris Trophy, I rolled my eyes a bit, as we really should probably acknowledge reality and make one award for offensive defensemen (the Norris) and one for all-world, ride-them-to-near-death-with-30-minute-workload guys (The Larry Robinson? The Denis Potvin? The Bobby Orr mainly because there just needs to be a trophy named after him? Maybe the Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Chelios to be weird and current about it?).
Tragically enough, Karlsson’s astounding impact on his team’s games became clearer in 2012-13, to the point where I felt retroactively OK* with the nod, until that forensic study-inspiring Achilles injury put his career (or at least his intergalactic trajectory) in question.
Really, though, the stupendous Swede remains an elite fantasy option … it just seems like the gap isn’t so huge any longer. His .94 point-per-game average is both sublime and largely in line with his work since making his Norris leap in 2011-12; it's a micro-stride behind that mark (.96 for 78 points in 81 games) but actually is ahead of the .82 average he had when he really knocked my socks off in 2012-13.
In those 17 games in 2012-13, Karlsson averaged an astounding 4.65 shots per game. To give you a sense of how truly ridiculous it is for a blueliner to do that, consider this: he averaged slightly more than shooting machine Alex Ovechkin (4.58 per game) did last season. (Ovi is now at a ludicrous but not-career-high 5.54 this season, but still.) Karlsson's 3.1 SOG per game average this season is just fine, and it's barely off the mark from his Norris year (3.22), but man ... it's tough not to read too much into a small but scintillating sample size and wonder how much better he'd be, which is saying something.
Sure, his -14 average shows that all isn't perfect, but he's largely generating at the level he did before. Like RGIII, the skeptics among us will do sad math in our heads wondering if we're still only seeing 85-90 percent of their potential.
It's not to be difficult, either, really; it's because it is so rare to see such genius and sometimes it's sad to see them merely be among the best (rather than towering over all, as Karlsson did by winning the defensive scoring title by a ridiculous 25 points in 2011-12).
KEITH CATAPULTS TO THE TOP
I’m not exactly sure what, precisely, inspires Duncan Keith to go from a nice fantasy blueliner to an absolute scoring machine every now and then … but if you can figure it out, you should bottle that one up for the appropriate draft.
Keith generally falls in the 40+ point range in a full season with moderate PIMs, weak SOG and nice plus/minus numbers making him an above-average guy. Yet in two seasons (2009-10 and this current one) he becomes a Norris candidate and one of - if not the - top fantasy blueliners.
Looking at his numbers, it's clear that he's shooting much more (134 in 53 contests in 2013-14 vs. 91 in 47 games in 2012-13), although he's not finding the net a whole lot, with a meager 2.2 percent shooting efficiency. It's all about racking up those assists, which isn't shocking since he's in Chicago, but he's not doing it this way every season. He already has more assists (43) than he had points in 2012-13 and 2011-12, and his 45 in 2010-11 barely edge his current run. He could very well enter the 2014 Winter Olympics with assist totals in 2009-10 (69) and this season that rank ahead of his total points in any previous seasons. Again, his third highest point total is 45, as he already is having the second best scoring season of his career.
It would be a little easier to be excited about this situation if it weren't for an icky incident in 2012-13, yet it's still fun to watch him on the ice, especially when he’s at the top of his game.
BUFFY BECOMES A FORWARD, AGAIN
For a while there, Dustin Byfuglien’s F/D eligibility seemed like a lie. Credit fantasy leagues (or at least give them bonus fun points) by keeping that open, as he was moved there - more or less, as he can certainly rove - beginning with Jan. 11’s game.
Let’s look at his game log:
Jan. 11: one assist, -1, two SOG (17:31 TOI)
Jan. 13: two assists, +1, six SOG (20:11 TOI)
Jan. 16: one goal, -1, five SOG (19:55 TOI)
Jan. 18: zero points, +1, two SOG (22:04 TOI)
Jan. 21: zero points, even, three SOG (17:53 TOI)
Jan. 23: zero points, -1, zero SOG (18:47 TOI)
Jan. 25: one goal, one assist, two SOG (18:49 TOI)
Jan. 27: zero points, +1, three SOG (19:30 TOI)
Overall, I'd say that fantasy owners might be bummed that Byfuglien has been removed from his more dynamic perch as a blueliner to a more limited one as a forward (although at least this increases his chances of being dual-eligible next season and beyond). Interestingly, he hasn't generated any PIM in his short time as a forward despite having 54 overall this season and is obviously getting less ice time; maybe playing a less challenging role means it’s easier to avoid penalties (which is a bummer, oddly, for fantasy owners).
Still, the Winnipeg Jets have little incentive to change course; they've won six of seven games and have generally looked like a dangerous team with Paul Maurice behind the bench. They might just take lesser rewards if it seemingly means lower risks from Byfuglien.
Discussing these three high-profile cases doesn’t tell every story, of course. There are guys who are hanging in there among the elite like P.K. Subban (whether you like him or not) while the Penguins are enjoying a shockingly successful season from Matt Niskanen and a letdown from Kris Letang.
Still, I hope you enjoyed a look at those three defensemen, who should be interesting and enjoyable to follow as the season goes along.
* - Still, it’s asinine that Zdeno Chara only has one Norris Trophy and Shea Weber remains without a piece of that hardware. I’d bash such a thing more if it weren’t so common; it all feels less offensive when you consider absurdities such as the fact that NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson only has one coach of the year award.