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NHL Draft Prep: Navigating the Blue Line

George Kurtz

George Kurtz

George Kurtz writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

During the first 3-4 rounds of any hockey draft I participate in, I’m generally concerned about drafting as many high-scoring forwards as I can get. I tend to concentrate more on wings than centers as they seem to go off the board quickly. The problem for me is when to draft a defenseman. I don’t want to start the run too early, but don’t want to miss the bus either. Usually I treat blueliners like I would quarterbacks in football -- if I’m not able to grab one of the top four or five, I’m waiting until later on in the draft.

In this column, we’ll go over five categories of defensemen. “Blue Chips” are players who you’re going to have to grab early, as they won’t be around long. “Second Best” are guys I’d hope to draft maybe a round or two after the top players go off the board. “On the Rise” are players that don’t have the name value of the top defensemen but will give you good bang for your buck. “Decliners” once were really good, but even though you know their name, I wouldn’t draft until much later, if at all. And “Newcomers” are first- or second-year players or someone who has come out of nowhere to have a career season.

Blue Chips

Mike Green, Capitals -- Was there ever any doubt here? With 68 goals and 137 assists over the past three seasons, Green is nothing more than a forward who plays defense. He is the one defenseman I would reach to acquire. Playing with Alexander Ovechkin allows him to sneak down the far side as teams focus so much energy on stopping AO that they forget about everyone else on the ice.

Duncan Keith, Blackhawks -- Keith set career highs in goals (14), assists (55), and points (69) last season and has finally realized his potential. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Hawks are loaded with offensive talent and won’t have any problems lighting the lamp this season as well. The only complaint about his game would be that he only had three power-play goals last season. Fantasy owners would like to see a few more of those.

Drew Doughty, Kings -- What a difference a year makes. In 2008, Doughty had six goals, 21 assists, and was a minus-17. Last season he put up 16 goals, 43 assists, and was a plus-20. Doughty just missed winning the Norris Trophy, losing to Keith. These aren’t the laughingstock Kings of 10 years ago, and Doughty deserves some of the credit for bringing credibility back to L.A. hockey.

Shea Weber, Predators -- Weber didn’t have the same kind of numbers he had in the 2008-09 season, but still, no one is going to complain about 16 goals and 27 assists from the blue line. Weber is also consistent, scoring at least 16 goals in three of the past four seasons. The only season he didn’t accomplish this feat was in 2007, when he was injured.

Dan Boyle, Sharks -- What were the Lightning thinking when they traded Boyle away a few seasons back? Defensemen who can score 15-plus goals and add another 40-plus assists are worth their weight in gold. Boyle could even take on added responsibility in San Jose with the retirement of Rob Blake.

Second Best

Chris Pronger, Flyers -- Pronger is the type of player every general manager wants on his team -- a physical presence who plays the game with an edge and is not afraid to say what needs to be said to spark his squad. It doesn’t hurt that he can pump in a few goals, either. I was tempted to add Pronger to the “Blue Chip” category, but he will be 36 years old this season and is coming off knee surgery, so it seems likely that he belongs on this list instead.

Brian Rafalski, Red Wings -- Whenever Nicklas Lidstrom retires, Rafalski will be the main man in Detroit, but it’s not like he’s suffering any by playing second fiddle. With the Wings, he has averaged close to 10 goals and 40 assists over the past three seasons, numbers anyone would love to have from a blueliner.

Mark Streit, Islanders -- If Streit played with Chicago or Pittsburgh -- teams with an abundance of offensive talent -- he could very well find himself in the “Blue Chip” category. Still, he has been everything the Islanders could’ve hoped for since signing as a free agent after the 2007-08 season, one of the few moves made by general manager Garth Snow that no one can complain about.

Zdeno Chara, Bruins -- Don’t let last season’s drop in goals fool you, as Chara is still a player you want on your fantasy team. Sure, his tally total went from 19 in 2008-09 down to seven, but remember he was dealing with a hand injury that nagged him all season. He still set a career high with 242 shots on goal.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings -- Lidstrom has decided not to retire and will play another season for Detroit. Even at 40 years of age, Lidstrom is still a top-notch offensive defenseman. He started slow last season, but so did most of the Wings due to injuries. Lidstrom picked up his play as the season went along and looked like his Hall of Fame self when the games mattered most.

On The Rise

Christian Ehrhoff, Canucks -- The Northwest air must feel good to Ehrhoff as he set career highs in goals, points, and plus/minus in his first season for Vancouver. Ehrhoff had shown glimpses of his potential with San Jose, but finally put it all into place with the Canucks with a 14-30-44 campaign.

Kris Letang, Penguins -- I put Letang on this list not because of what he has done in the past, but because of what he may be able to do in the future. Sergei Gonchar is no longer a Penguin, so someone needs to step up and take control of what may be the best power play in the league. Letang will certainly get his chance to be that player.

Alex Goligoski, Penguins -- If Letang can’t grab Gonchar’s role as power play quarterback, then perhaps Goligoski will take the reins. Goligoski is coming off a solid season with eight goals and 29 assists, and even though only two of those goals came on the power play, he could get his chance at the point with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby working down low.

Zach Bogosian, Thrashers -- Atlanta may not have much going its way offensively, but the Thrashers do have a pair of good defensemen in Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom that can wrinkle the twine. Bogosian has scored 19 goals over the past two seasons and though his assist total during that time period (23) leaves much to be desired, the helpers could get a boost if the team can find a way to get more productive up front.

Tobias Enstrom, Thrashers -- Enstrom may be the anti-Bogosian as he will score about half as many goals but will pick up a two to three times more assists. It might come down to what you value more between these two Thrashers -- goals or points.

On The Decline

Dion Phaneuf, Maple Leafs -- This may go without saying after Phaneuf wore out his welcome in Calgary and was dealt to the Maple Leafs last season. He’s on a rebuilding team now with only one true offensive threat (Phil Kessel). His numbers have been declining for three straight seasons. Although he would still make a solid D3 for your fantasy team, his days as a No. 1 guy are over.

Andrei Markov, Canadiens -- Markov has been bitten by the voodoo bug over the past 10 months. First he suffered a torn tendon in his leg when he was cut by the skate of teammate Carey Price. Then he tore his ACL in May. While he has started skating again, he is unlikely to play until November at the earliest, and will probably not be at full capacity until January.

Sheldon Souray, Oilers -- Souray missed most of last season with a concussion and hand injury. The Oilers tried to trade him before the deadline but no one wanted to take on his salary. Souray then blasted the organization over how the team is run, forcing the Oilers to place him on waivers to try and rid themselves of the distraction. There were no takers. Souray doesn’t want to play in Edmonton, and the Oilers don’t want him, but for now both sides have no choice but to co-exist. The Oilers may try and put Souray on re-entry waivers, where the claiming team would only be responsible for half his salary. Or, they could even send Souray to Springfield, where his salary wouldn’t count against the cap and he wouldn’t be a distraction to the team. It should be an interesting camp for Souray and the Oilers brass.

Ryan Whitney, Oilers -- Whitney is having trouble finding a team, as Edmonton will be his third organization in the past 12 months. Whitney just hasn’t been the same player since suffering a foot injury and undergoing surgery before the 2008-09 season. His goal totals have plummeted (just nine over the past two seasons combined) and now he is on a team with a dearth of offensive talent.

Brent Burns, Wild -- Burns has been nowhere near the player he was since his career year in 2007-08, when he scored 15 goals and added 28 assists in 82 games. The following two seasons have seen Burns deal with a multitude of injuries and only score 11 goals and 36 assists in 106 games.

Newcomers

Tyler Myers, Sabres -- Last season’s first-round pick was nothing short of fantastic for Buffalo, as he tabulated 11 goals and 48 points for the Sabres. Those of you who believe in building a team from goaltender on out have to be thrilled. With Ryan Miller in net and Myers manning the blue line, the Sabres are setting themselves up as a team to be reckoned with for years to come in the Northeast division.

Victor Hedman, Lightning -- While Hedman’s rookie year wasn’t the success that Myers’ was, it wasn’t anything to be ignored either. Hedman is unlikely to be a D1 or D2 this season, and certainly has more value in dynasty leagues rather than re-draft leagues, but he does have tons of upside and may be worth a late pick in any draft.

Michael Del Zotto, Rangers -- Del Zotto’s rookie season was also a success, as nine goals and 28 assists may be more than the Rangers and his fantasy owners were expecting. However, his minus-20 rating probably wasn’t. I wouldn’t let that plus/minus figure stop me from drafting Del Zotto, however, as another year’s experience is sure to help him out defensively.

Anton Babchuk, Hurricanes -- Babchuk is the kind of player I tend to stay away from in my drafts -- the type of player who has been playing for a few years and then all of a sudden has a career season. I don’t like to bank high draft picks on this type of player, but can’t ignore the fact that he scored more goals (16) last season than in his previous four NHL seasons combined.

Erik Johnson, Blues -- After missing the 2008 season due to a knee injury, Johnson came back with a vengeance last season to post 10 goals and 29 points. Could this be the start of the promising career the Blues projected when they drafted Johnson?

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