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Blue Line Buzz: Getting in the Zone

Jason Chen

Consistently fires muffins. Blue Line Buzz on Mondays, Daily Puck and DFS on Sundays.

So, I was browsing some advanced stats and figured I should look at which defensemen are leading the league in offensive-zone starts. It’s an interesting number because it hints at how teams are deploying their defensemen, and which blueliners could see a boost in point production because they get to benefit from starting the play in a much better position to score.

(Spoiler alert!)

The defenseman ranked first in percentage of starts in the offensive zone is Sami Vatanen, which doesn’t surprise me because with the Ducks’ depth on defense, it figures that Bruce Boudreau would start asking certain guys to specialize. The second was Keith Yandle, which also wasn’t surprising because the Rangers have a deep defensive corps as well, many of whom defend a lot better than Yandle, but don’t have the same type of dynamic ability on offense.

What was surprising, however, was the frequency. Vatanen is starting in the offensive zone 54.7 percent of the time, and Yandle 54.9 percent (min. 50 minutes played), according to stats by HockeyAnalysis.com. That’s really high.

Consider:

In the 2014-15 season, David Rundblad and Matt Dumba had the highest percentages (min. 500 minutes played) with 45.1 percent and 43.1 percent, respectively, which was understandable because two good teams were trying to protect their rookies by putting them in a position to succeed. Power-play specialists Brian Campbell and Dan Boyle were next, both a shade under 41 percent.

In 2013-14, Michal Rozsival was highest at 44 percent as the ‘Hawks attempted to hide their weakest link on defense, with offensive talents Torey Krug and Dennis Wideman in the top five.

In 2012-13, rookie Patrick Wiercioch led with 40.8 percent, followed by Keith Yandle at 40.4 percent.

So not only are Vatanan and Yandle starting in the offensive zone the majority of the time they’re on the ice, they’re doing it at much, much higher clip than we’ve seen in years past. Of course, it’s still very early, but it’s a notable trend nonetheless. What does this tells us?

In New York, it’s clear. The Rangers don’t need Yandle starting in the defensive zone because Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh can handle those duties. Alain Vigneault is notorious for his zone starts (ask the Sedins), and with a pretty deep roster, he feels he can get more value out of Yandle on offense this way. This makes Yandle an even sexier option because strong defensive play isn’t rewarded in fantasy (unless you count blocked shots).

In Anaheim, Bruce Boudreau either thinks Vatanen is his Yandle or a huge pylon in his own end. Given the Ducks’ struggles and Vatanen’s decline in ice time, it’s more likely the latter. After averaging more than 21 minutes last season, Vatanen is averaging just 18 so far this season. Despite a breakout playoff campaign, it seems as though Vatanen has already taken a step back and may not be a reliable fantasy option.

Last week’s top five performers:

Erik Karlsson, OTT – For my money, he’s the most exciting and talented defenseman in the league, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to bad games. He had a poor showing against Pittsburgh, but also had a four-assist game the night before and finished as one of the week’s top point-getters.

Torey Krug, BOS – He’s even more indispensable to Boston with Dougie Hamilton gone, especially on the power play. The Michigan State alum (nice win!) had five points in three games, four of them coming with the man advantage. It’s ironic that the Bruins, once known for their stout defense, have allowed the second-most goals in the Eastern Conference. I wouldn’t be surprised if Krug, who sits second in scoring among defensemen, stays in the top 10 all year.

Zdeno Chara, BOS – The Slovak giant had points in two straight games, both of them wins, following his season debut. There’s no doubt that he’s still a big part of the Bruins defense and still commands the respect of the league’s best forwards. After a 20-point season, many (including myself) pegged him to further regress, but he’s been resurgent so far. He’s still available in a lot of leagues.

Roman Josi, NSH – He’s totaled five points during a three-game point streak as the Preds continue to position themselves at the top of a tough Central Division. Peter Laviolette said he’d like to limit Josi’s minutes as well as Shea Weber’s this season in preparation for a long playoff run, and he’s stayed true to his word, but with Ryan Ellis (lower body) hurt, he’s going to have to lean on his first pairing even more. Josi played 22 minutes two straight games, but saw that ice time climb to 26 minutes against the Islanders and 29 minutes against Ottawa. That’s good for fantasy owners, but maybe not so good for the Preds long-term.

Dustin Byfuglien, WPG – Last week it was Jason Garrison, this time it’s Big Buff. Points in three straight games until it was snapped against St. Louis, but mostly this:



Top five trending up:

Jeff Petry, MTL – The Habs signed Petry to a $33 million contract that raised some eyebrows, but right-handed defensemen who can skate come at a premium. He had a slow start, but picked up two assists in his past three games and should be able to set career-highs across the board. Petry can be a good power-play option; it’s just too bad he’s stuck behind P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.

Andrej Sekera, EDM – He’s overpaid and overrated, but the Oilers still need their big investment to pay some dividends. With an assist on Lauri Korpikoski’s overtime goal against Vancouver, Sekera has points in two straight games, both of them wins. However, fantasy owners should still be cautioned against owning any Oilers defenseman.

Nick Holden, COL – Holden played 20:37 in Sunday’s loss to the Kings, the second straight game he’s topped the 20-minute mark. The Avs’ defense is very thin, featuring just one solid pairing with Erik Johnson and Francois Beauchemin, plus the (currently suspended) power-play quarterback, Tyson Barrie. Someone has to collect the rest of the minutes, and it’s been Holden so far. The 28-year-old is in his prime and may post a career season, but it still may not be enough to get on the fantasy radar.

Alex Pietrangelo, STL – He was an elite fantasy player until Kevin Shattenkirk showed up, but with Shattenkirk (lower body) out for a little longer, Pietrangelo’s stock gets a little boost. Since playing just 23:08 in the season opener, he’s skated at least 26 minutes in every game, including 28 against Calgary and Winnipeg.

Colton Parayko, STL – He played for AHL Chicago down the stretch last year, but NCAA defensemen just seem to have a much easier time adjusting to the pros. (Also see Hutton, Ben.) The former Alaska Nanooks captain scored two goals against Calgary and is really gaining Ken Hitchcock’s trust. He’s got a pretty good bomb from the point, which means he has power-play potential.

Top five trending down:

Mike Green, DET – Maybe Green wasn’t the right guy. The Marek Zidlicky experiment didn’t work, and although I must admit I thought Green and the Wings would be a good match, it’s been an awful three-game stretch. The Wings have allowed nine goals over their past three games, and Green hasn’t registered a point since the season opener.

Dougie Hamilton, CGY – It hasn’t been a good start for the Flames, losers of four of their last five. Calgary may have the deepest group on defense, but figuring out the pecking order seems to be a bit of a problem. Mark Giordano is the clear No. 1, but who is No. 2? Hamilton? Wideman? And what happens with T.J. Brodie returns? He has just eight shots in five games.

Tyson Barrie, COL – Barrie is serving a three-game suspension after a dangerous hit on Simon Despres, but more importantly, he’s not off to a good start despite the Avs’ offense scoring a lot of goals. Because he’s not playing on the top pairing, nearly all of Barrie’s damage will come on the power play, where he’s still splitting time with Beauchemin.

Duncan Keith, CHI – He’ll turn it around soon enough, but the Chicago star has now gone four games without a point and limited to just one shot in four of his past six games. The Blackhawks have had an uneven start to their season so far, but no panic needed for a team that has won three Cups over the past six years.

Dan Boyle, NYR – After getting sat as a healthy scratch against Winnipeg, Boyle was on the ice for all three goals against in a 3-0 loss to Montreal the following game, then played just 17:15 in Sunday’s loss to New Jersey. The 39-year-old’s best days are behind him, and he’s become an unreliable source of points. Yandle is the primary power-play option in Manhattan.

This week’s top five picks:

P.K. Subban, MTL – The Habs have got a tough match against St. Louis, but get to play Buffalo and Toronto. The latter two games are back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, but they’re prime opportunities to score with the Sabres and Leafs offering up shaky goaltending.

Keith Yandle, NYR – The Rangers get four games this week, with three of them at home. Yandle has yet to score a goal this season, but he’s firmly entrenched as the Rangers’ top power-play quarterback. Games against San Jose and Arizona should be tough, but at some point, Martin Jones and Mike Smith will have to come back down to Earth.

John Carlson, WSH – He’s got points in two straight games, and although players on long road trips across the continent generally aren’t recommended, Carlson faces Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, none of which should be considered favorites against the Caps.

Rasmus Ristolainen, BUF – Call this a hunch. The Sabres will face Carey Price and Cory Schneider this week, which lowers their odds of scoring, but Ristolainen is logging all the minutes and he’s the real deal. He plays in all situations, and if any Sabres defenseman is collecting points, it’s him.

Erik Johnson, COL – The Avs are playing only two games this week and Johnson has been held without a point in three straight games, but matchups against the hapless Hurricanes and bungling Blue Jackets are difficult to pass up. Whatever their flaws, the Avs certainly can score, while neither of those opponents are good at defending, which makes them ripe for the picking.