Who You Gonna Call?
Tim Erixon's move from Columbus to Chicago for Jeremy Morin early Sunday morning marked the NHL's seventh consecutive trade involving a defenseman, making rearguards the centerpiece in 11 of 13 total trades this season. If it hasn't become apparent, teams are hurting for defensemen and nearly every team has had a key defenseman go down with an injury.
It's been a pretty hectic year already, especially for Anaheim having key veteran defensemen go down at various times from blocking shots and Philadelphia having to settle for late additions like Michael Del Zotto. Case in point, during the entire 2013-14 season, 303 defensemen played in the league. Not even midway through the 2014-15 season, 259 defensemen have already played a game. The Ducks have already used 13 different defensemen this year, enough for a full intra-squad game. It's no wonder, then, how the Western Conference-leading Ducks have allowed 83 goals (seventh in the conference) despite having Frederik Andersen in net.
This isn't exactly a rare occurrence, since roughly 300 defensemen suit up in an NHL game per year, but the 2014-15 season could be an outlier. During the late spring, when the NCAA and the CHL winds up their season, a whole slew of rookie defensemen will also get their first taste of the pros.
If the Islanders need to shore up their blue line, Notre Dame's Robbie Russo will be wrapping up his senior season while Minnesota standout Mike Rielly will likely forego his senior season to join the Blue Jackets at the end of the year. Defensemen currently in the CHL, such as Tampa Bay's Anthony DeAngelo and Anaheim's Shea Theodore, will certainly join their respective NHL teams at the end of the year. That group also includes Joey Hicketts (Detroit), Madison Bowey (Washington), Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin (Philadelphia) and Chris Bigras (Colorado), just to name a few.
Other than a few big names, such as P.K. Subban or Erik Karlsson, it's really tough to predict who will finish in the top five in scoring among defensemen with rosters in flux. Even Karlsson, who is perhaps the most skilled offensive defenseman in the league, sits ninth in scoring, and if Dave Cameron insists on playing within a more structured defensive system, he will have a hard time beating Mark Giordano for the scoring lead. If you had Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie, John Carlson and Aaron Ekblad among your projected top 15 defensemen in scoring, you're either lying or practicing some sort of black magic.
In my experience, a lot of fantasy players place a big emphasis on nabbing a big-name defenseman, especially when the majority of first-line forwards have been taken. I think that's a big mistake. For example, in the 2013-14 season, only eight defensemen finished with more than 50 points, compared to 84 forwards who accomplished the same feat. Defensemen like Subban, Karlsson, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty have traditionally been picks made in the first five rounds, but for a similar point production you can easily replace any of them with either a Scott Hartnell, Jiri Hudler or Mike Ribeiro, players that are often overlooked and taken in the later rounds or plucked off the waiver wire. Use your early picks on forwards with consistent track records, or even goalies, to make sure you're not caught without an elite netminder.
The most perplexing player year-in and year-out who gets taken way too high is Doughty. He's an excellent defenseman, a Norris Trophy candidate every year, but with the way the Kings play in such a structured system and with a strong preference to score by committee, Doughty's offensive production is limited on the stats sheet. He's in the same tier as Karlsson in terms of bringing the puck up the ice, but he's playing on a team with a style that sacrifices offense for defensively sound play. Doughty has 17 points in 30 games this year, a good total, but I'm also quite certain that teammate Jeff Carter (19 points in 30 games) will finish ahead of Doughty in scoring, and in most drafts Carter was taken at least five rounds later.
Sure, you'll need to fill out your defense positions, but it shouldn't be a pressing priority, unless you really, really want a Subban or Karlsson or Weber, and fantasy teams rarely win on the backs of one player. Let your opponents take Doughty and Keith in the second, third and fourth rounds while you snap up an elite goalie like Carey Price or Corey Crawford, or potential 70-point players like Logan Couture. This year, I rolled the dice with Jakub Voracek and Vladimir Tarasenko in rounds four and 12, and got a potential steal with James Wisniewski in round 15. You should certainly have a No. 1 defenseman to anchor your corps, but don't feel like you need four all-star defensemen to win your league.
Only in leagues that count peripherals, such as blocked shots or hits, categories that are far more predictable based on the type of player and the team he plays on, will drafting defensemen in the earlier rounds make sense, but it's still tough to predict which ones will pan out. It may even drastically change the way certain defensemen are valued.
Take, for example, Bob Hartley's Flames, Michel Therrien's Habs and Todd McLellan's Sharks, three coaches who are clearly preaching blocking shots. In their past years coaching in the NHL, excluding shortened seasons and mid-season coaching changes, Hartley's teams have finished second (2013-14), third (2006-07), 11th (2005-06), sixth (2003-04) and second (2001-02) in blocked shots. Therrien's track record is similar with his teams finishing first (2013-14), fifth (2007-08), 10th (2006-07) and fifth (2001-02). McLellan's Sharks have ranked third (2013-14), second (2012-13) and fifth (2011-12), after languishing near the bottom half of the league when he first took over the reins. And this year? The Flames, Habs and Sharks rank first, third and fifth, respectively, in blocked shots. Marc Bergevin has been very aggressive in this regard, trading for and signing shot blockers like Mike Weaver and Bryan Allen to support his defense.
Obviously a lot of this has to do with team personnel, but it's certainly a trend that keeps bearing in mind. It gives defensemen like Calgary's Kris Russell, who has a career-high of 29 points, more value in fantasy because of his league-leading 89 blocked shots. Even guys like Dennis Wideman, who were drafted solely for their power play production, are providing some value added by blocking more shots per game than before. An all-round player like the Habs' Alexei Emelin (54 blocked shots, 85 hits) may provide more value than an aging Sergei Gonchar, even if Emelin gets a fraction of the points. The Sharks' Justin Braun, who has 12 points in 32 games this year after scoring 17 in 82 last year, may be worth considering with his proven track record for physical play and shot blocking.
That being said, here are some underappreciated, all-round defensemen who deliver in peripheral categories and be easily taken off the waiver wire.
Kris Russell, Calgary - I touched on him earlier, and while he's yet to score a goal this season, he's pitched in on the power play and leads the league in blocked shots. Only two other players have blocked at least 80 shots, Brooks Orpik and Michael Stone, but neither provide much of anything else. You don't want one-trick ponies.
Roman Josi, Nashville - Playing with Shea Weber has its perks, and getting some points and time on the power play is one of them. But the vastly underrated Josi is also blocking a lot of shots, 75 to be exact, which helps him stand out from all the other defensemen who have scored at least 15 points, like Cam Fowler, who is more talented but doesn't provide the same amount of fantasy value.
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg - He should be scoring a lot more but owners can afford to keep him around with his 65 blocked shots. Paul Maurice preaches a tighter defensive system than his predecessor Claude Noel, and that includes a healthy dose of eating rubber.
Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver - He doesn't score much and he's turned into a more rugged, stay-at-home type defenseman, but he collects the penalty minutes and is Vancouver's best shot blocker along with Chris Tanev, who will be another worthwhile defenseman when he takes more chances on offense.
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg - Averaging over 26 minutes a game with Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian sidelined with injuries, Big Buff has points in six of his past seven games, including a four-game goal streak from Nov. 28 to Dec. 7. Paul Maurice is using him on defense for now, Byfuglien's preferred position, and it'll be interesting to see what happens going forward.
John Carlson, Washington - He scored 76 points in 59 games with the OHL's London Knights but hasn't been the same game-breaking player on offense in the NHL, often deferring such duties to Mike Green. But it looks like the U.S. Olympian is in the midst of a breakout year with 22 points in 29 games, including points in seven of his past eight games. He's flourishing under Barry Trotz.
Tyson Barrie, Colorado - After a three-game point streak that saw the Kelowna Rockets alum net a goal and four assists, Barrie has now gone four games without a point and a minus-6 rating. The Avs have been up-and-down all season and given the team's offensive talent this drought shouldn't last too long. Just bench Barrie until the Avs face a favorable opponent or until he picks it up again.
John Klingberg, Dallas - After a hot start to his NHL career, Klingberg has also gone four games without a point and just one assist in his past seven games. Lindy Ruff hasn't really been consistent with Klingberg's ice time though, playing him 26 minutes on Nov. 28 and just 13 minutes on Dec. 6. Ruff claims he's protecting Klingberg and feels the coaching staff may have given him too much responsibility, leading to reckless individual play, but the Stars' defensive woes shouldn't be pinned solely on Klingberg. He's still worth a stash if you have the room.