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Blue Line Buzz: Sharper Sabres

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci

Dan Pennucci has covered hockey for Rotowire since 2002 and is the author of Blue Line Buzz since 2011 as well as being the co-author of Morning Skate. He also is a contributor to Talking Red, a New Jersey Devils blog and podcast. He is an English teacher and formerly wrote for The Coast Star in Manasquan, New Jersey where he and his sports section won several New Jersey Press Association awards. Dan Pennucci is a supporter of the New Jersey Devils, Washington Nationals and Chelsea FC. He's attended sporting events in six countries.

Blue Line Buzz

Throughout the season, Blue Line Buzz will examine situations affecting defensemen in various fantasy hockey leagues. The initial edition the Buzz will examine a vexing defender for owners last season as well as an analysis of drafting strategy in rotisserie leagues that count secondary statistics such as plus-minus and penalty minutes, favoring deeper leagues. Each issue will also include general observations about the NHL and likely one Slap Shot reference.

The cable home of the National Hockey League, Versus, soon to bear the moniker NBC Sports, has seen its programming shift drastically over the years. Hearkening back to its roots as the Outdoor Life Network, we figure a few hockey-themed outdoor shows might be in order, just as a complement to their ever-expanding NHL coverage.

First, Boating With Buff. In honor of his summer arrest for boating under the influence in Minnesota, Winnipeg Jet Dustin Byfuglien brings a different teammate with him each week as they explore the lakes of Manitoba on a pontoon boat. In the first episode, Buff and Nik Antropov grab a few flasks of Canadian Mist and a six-pack of Steamwhistle, aim to catch and cook their dinner while outrunning the boat police.

Next, Sean Avery goes riding along with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in eastern British Columbia, looking to strike uncooperative arrestees in the face as penance for his summer's notorious headlines. Avery in a RCMP hat and yellow-striped trousers could be pure television gold, but I doubt he'll be sporting the lid in his latest Marc Jacobs' ad.

Now, we hit the blue line.

Positional Scarcity

Only our Winnipeg water guide, Byfuglien, cracked the 20-goal mark from the blue line last season, with four others breaking 15, (Lubomir Visnovsky, Brent Burns, Shea Weber and the immortal Nicklas Lidstrom) while just 16 additional defenders posted double-digit goals. That's a total of 21 defensemen out of the entire league with 10 or more goals. Once these high-priced picks are gone, where do you go? Assists are easier to come by, but the secondary statistics separate the rest of the field.

For rotisserie leagues that don't have a specific defenseman category, an approach of grabbing a proven high scorer (or two) early (think Byfuglien, Weber, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban) then waiting for moderate scorers with healthy plus-minus ratings and other peripherals such as penalty minutes or hits, is a preferred tactic. You can still find some reliable players after the high-priced names are gone, but oftentimes a stable of steady players that won't hurt your plus-minus with one or two studs are preferable to blue line prospects and reaches. Missing on a defensemen pick early hurts your roster more than missing on a forward, which brings us an excellent segue to Buffalo's Tyler Myers.

Sharper Sabre?

Heading into last season, Myers was high on most people's cheatsheets, and for good reason. The towering Texan earned Calder Trophy honors during the 2009-10 campaign with a 17-goal, 48-point stat line while adding a plus-13 rating. 48 points from a rookie defender during the post-lockout era is certainly going to catch the attention of many, but those that expected similar production last season from Myers, and drafted accordingly, were highly disappointed.

Myers finished the 2010-11 season with a 10-27-37 stat line and an even rating. Not horrible numbers, but definite regression. A closer examination of his stats reveals Myers was plagued by inconsistency. He had just nine assists and no goals in the season's final 20 games and suffered through a stretch during the dead of winter that featured 26 goalless contests. Sabres' fans will remember he had a minimal offensive impact in the playoffs before exploding in the final three games of their first-round loss to Philadelphia, where he registered six points.

Myers likely will slide in this year's drafts but Buffalo definitely made some improvements on the back end, and greedy owners waiting to pounce on what could be a steal will definitely have Myers's name in mind. One can argue that the loss of Henrik Tallinder affected Myers heading into last season, but the Sabres have added Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff.

Despite mortgaging part of the city of Buffalo to sign Ehrhoff (10 years, $40 million), the former Canuck and Shark has posted seasons of 42, 44 and 50 points in the last three campaigns and gives the Sabres another weapon on their power play. Regehr won't smash many offensive records, but his physical presence should free up Myers to take more chances offensively provided they play together. Myers was on most team's radar screens as the player to watch for on Buffalo's power play last year, but with Ehrhoff there now, we can expect Myers to have more chances. (Side note: Myers's shot totals are a little low for high-scoring blue liners though, as he's averaged just 1.4 shots per game in his two seasons). Both Myers and Ehrhoff should post 40 points, but Ehrhoff's proven he can do it before.

Those sleeping on Myers due to their frustration from owning him last season should not. Much responsibility was placed on Myers during his second year; however, the added presence of two solid veterans will allow him to play with more confidence.

Ducks, Albatrosses and Other Flyers

While Myers's rookie season is something fantasy owners covet, youngster Cam Fowler had himself an impressive debut in Anaheim, with 10 goals and 40 points, and, if you throw out his abysmal minus-25 rating, things look much better. What's scary is that Fowler will turn 20 in December and is on a team that boasts one of the most dangerous lines in the league with Ryan Getzlaf flanked by Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, meaning it's scary to see Fowler getting better. The presence of those three on Anaheim's power play alone is enough to consider eating Fowler's minus rating in favor of the points he'll register. Not to mention last year's leading scorer from the blue line, Lubomir Visnovsky.

There's obvious upside with Cam Fowler, but adding a steadier player with a stronger plus-minus, such as an Andrej Meszaros of Philadelphia, to balance out the negatives of a budding talent could be highly beneficial to your roster. Meszaros's numbers were nothing gaudy last season, with eight goals and 32 points, but his plus-30 rating is a welcomed sight for rosters with stat lines like Fowler's and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson (13-32-45 and minus-30). Goals and points from the blue line cost a premium, no question, but knowing how to complement the high-priced talent is key in rotisserie leagues.

Players such as Meszaros are available at a much cheaper cost than a budding star like Fowler, simply because they don't have the upside. Dallas' Alex Goligoski, Nashville's Ryan Suter, Philly's Matt Carle and Washington's John Carlson were several blue liners that posted plus-20 ratings or better to go along with 35 or more points.

A Tale of Two Skaters

Tobias Enstrom and James Wisnewski are also intriguing players when factoring in plus-minus ratings. Both defenders posted identical 10-41-51 stat lines with the former clocking in at minus-10 on Atlanta (now Winnipeg) and Wisnewski with a minus-14 between the Islanders and Montreal. Enstrom and the Thrashers bring their offensively adept blue line to Manitoba along with Byfuglien and the ever-vexing Zach Bogosian (one of these years he'll find his stride), and you can likely expect similar numbers from Enstrom, plus-minus included. Enstrom will go early, and for good reason, as 28 of his 51 points came on the man-advantage, but he will not be a friend to your plus-minus. What will be a friend for Enstrom owners is the presence of Byfuglien, as he and Enstrom can be considered two of the Jets' top offensive weapons.

Wisnewski cashed in on a strong stint with the Canadiens in the form of a six-year, $33 million contract with Columbus. Desperate to bolster their blue line, Columbus feels Wisnewski is the man to guide their squad's power play (7-22-29 on the man-advantage last year). The Sport Coats' power play features the immensely talented Rick Nash and newly acquired Jeff Carter, still longing for the Philadelphia nightlife, no doubt. Wisnewski's an interesting pick and could possibly be the poster child for the axiom of not paying for the previous year's stats. Conversely, he proved he could produce on the Islanders and had an impressive 30 points with a plus-4 during 43 games with the Habs. You can again expect Wisnewski's plus-minus numbers to struggle on the Blue Jackets with a 51-point campaign again being a reach. Hopefully you'll pay less for Wisnewski than Columbus did and let another owner gamble. Keep in mind his supporting cast and know that Carter and Nash both can disappear for stretches.

Go To Box, Feel Shame

Penalty minutes are to be viewed with the same lens as plus-minus. Sure, Zdeno Chara, Byfuglien and the Habs' P.K. Subban reward their owners with healthy time in the penalty box, but those types of players are few and far between. You could get lucky with your defender's team having a Pittsburgh-Islanders type brawl one night, (the Pens' Kris Letang finished with 101 PIMs, but 42 of those were from three games) but it's unadvisable to rely on that strategy. PIMs can be grabbed cheaply, very cheaply. Boston's Adam McQuiad had just 15 points on the season, but factoring in his plus-30 rating and 96 penalty minutes can be a boost to your squad. Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa, in 66 games last year, managed a second-best plus-32 among NHL defenders and 73 penalty minutes. Bieksa, re-signed by the Canucks, should bounce back with Ehrhoff now in Buffalo, as he and Alex Edler will helm the point in Vancouver.

If your league starts more than the requisite four or five defenders, don't be consumed by using points as the only metric for evaluating talent later in drafts. Consider those secondary categories to differentiate between players with similar stat lines, as those numbers often can decide your roto league. Goals and power-play production from the back end are highly valuable, but only a handful will be steady in those two categories. Looking beyond the typical goals, assists and power play production can be a definite boost for your roster.

You can follow Dan on Twitter at: @DVNucci42

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