It’s Week 27 of Blue Line Buzz, which means, yes, the regular season is coming to an end, with this coming Saturday marking the end of the campaign. It’s been an interesting season, to say the least, especially when it comes to defensemen. Erik Karlsson is poised to lead all blueliners in scoring for the third straight season, Brent Burns and Drew Doughty might be having their best seasons, and Shayne Gostisbehere and Colton Parayko have emerged as some of the league’s top young blood.
Since it’s the last edition before the playoff edition next week, awards need to be handed out. But let’s throw a quick few news hits in before we get underway.
- The Lightning will find it very tough to make their way back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Losing the dependable Anton Stralman (broken leg) really hurt, but with Steven Stamkos (blood clot) now out at least a month, their chances don’t look good. Despite shutting out Toronto recently, the Lightning allowed five goals against Florida and three against the Habs. They’ll live and die with Ben Bishop now.
- Joni Pitkanen didn’t get a proper sendoff, but after attempting to make a comeback following a foot injury, he will likely be forced to retire at 32 years old. The fourth overall pick in 2002 was one of the league’s best during his time with Philadelphia and Carolina. Meanwhile, Willie Mitchell (concussion) and Chris Phillips (back) may have played their final NHL seasons.
- Ethan Prow (Pittsburgh), Matthew Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara (Boston), Andy Welinski (Anaheim), Macoy Erkamps (Ottawa), Robin Norell (Chicago), Michael Downing (Florida) and Zach Werenski (Columbus) are the newest guys on the block, having signed their entry-level contracts over the past two weeks. Norell (SHL) and Erkamps (WHL) are the only two non-NCAA additions. Werenski headlines the college group, although Prow and Grzelcyk come highly regarded as well.
And now, without further ado, your 2016 Blue Line Buzz award winners!
Defenseman of the Year: Erik Karlsson, Senators
He has a five-point lead for the scoring lead among defensemen, and without Karlsson, who knows where the Sens would be right now? He has more assists and plays more minutes than any other defenseman in the league, and despite Ottawa’s minus-16 goal differential, Karlsson has managed to maintain an even rating. He should be the favorite to win the Norris Trophy this season.
Fantasy Defenseman of the Year: Brent Burns, Sharks
Only three blueliners this year have managed to score at least 20 goals heading into Monday, and while Burns is the leader with 27, what’s most astonishing is actually his shots total: 344. That’s second in the league only to Alex Ovechkin (378), and Burns is just three shots away from tying the league record for shots on goal by a defenseman during the cap era, Dustin Byfuglien’s 347 in 2011 with Atlanta. That’s incredible offensive output from a defenseman, especially for a guy isn’t considered to be in the same tier as Karlsson.
Real-Life Defenseman of the Year: Drew Doughty, Kings
It’s not quite the same as the Defenseman of the Year award and it shouldn’t be seen as a runner-up loser award, either. Any team will be happy with either Karlsson or Doughty in the lineup, but when it comes to making plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet, Doughty probably has made the biggest difference. The Kings are good enough without their top blueliner, but they’re excellent when he’s on the ice, and other than Duncan Keith, nobody expresses mobility and athleticism on defense as well as Doughty. The 26-year-old, it should be noted, has the best Corsi (via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, where all the advanced stats to follow come from) at 58.8 percent among defensemen with at least 500 minutes played. Karlsson’s offensive output has just been otherworldly this year, however, so if I had a Norris Trophy vote, I’d go Karlsson, Doughty, Burns, in that order.
Rookie of the Year: Shayne Gostisbehere, Flyers
With Artemi Panarin struggling after being separated from Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid’s season cut short by a broken collarbone, no one has done more with less than Gostisbehere, who was called up from the AHL a little more than a month into the season. He should be the favorite for the Calder Trophy and may very well have scored 20 goals if he appeared in more games. Ghost’s riding a sky-high shooting percentage of 11.3, which is unheard of for a defenseman, so expect some regression next year, but there’s no doubt the 22-year-old has been a spark for the Flyers this season and should be a mainstay for years to come. The Flyers’ blue line, it should be noted, may also feature Ivan Provorov (a unanimous WHL Conference All-Star), Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg next year, giving them one of the deepest young groups in the league. Honorable mention goes to the Blues’ Colton Parayko.
Best Pair: Roman Josi and Shea Weber, Predators
Josi and Weber are the only teammates to rank in the top 10 in scoring, and even though they’ve combined for a minus-11 rating, much of that can be attributed to subpar goaltending from a declining Pekka Rinne. The Preds’ de facto top pairing can shut down any forward line in the NHL, with Josi serving as a premier shot blocker (182, eighth in the league) and Weber doing his usual lumberjack impression. If you managed to get both of them this season (like yours truly), you reaped huge benefits.
Most Improved: Michael Stone, Coyotes
Sure, playing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson has its benefits, but the 25-year-old Stone has really come into his own, scoring a career-high 36 points so far this season while adding 161 shots on goal, 137 hits and 143 blocked shots, not to mention improving his plus-minus by 14 ticks. Given that the Coyotes should be even better next season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stone hit 40 points, providing the sort of scoring depth and dependability that the Kings have enjoyed from Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez.
Most Versatile: Dustin Byfuglien, Jets
In leagues where he has right wing eligibility, Buff’s been well worth his weight in gold because it allows for a lot of roster flexibility and there’s no inherent negative in playing him at a forward position because he produces forward-type numbers. He’s the only defenseman in the league with at least 200 shots on goal, 200 hits and 100 blocked shots – an exclusive club that only one other player (Muzzin, who’s eight shots shy) has a chance to join this year.
Most Underrated: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes
He’s almost guaranteed to score 20 goals every year, something very few defensemen can do – and without an elite forward group facilitating things. OEL is Dave Tippett’s go-to guy and certainly the one who should serve as captain once Shane Doan retires. He doesn’t get headlines because he plays in the desert and hasn’t been given the role he deserves on the Swedish national team, but there are 29 other teams in the league that would love to have him. The 24-year-old is poised to lead his team in points for the second straight season.
Most Overrated: Keith Yandle, Rangers
Despite being touted as a premier offensive defenseman, Yandle is more like Brian Campbell – he skates well and moves the puck with ease, but at the end of the day shouldn’t be considered elite. Even though Alain Vigneault deploys Yandle in the offensive zone 45.3 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the league, Yandle hasn’t been particularly effective at even strength and barely cracks the top 20 with 45 points. Yandle’s PDO of 102, a measure of puck luck with the norm at 100, also suggests he’s been getting good bounces. With such favorable matchups and fortune, Yandle should be producing a lot more, but he just doesn’t provide that much value for a guy who’s ranked near the top of the list among defensemen every year.
Most Disappointing: Mike Green, Red Wings
For the second time in three seasons, Green will fail to hit the double-digit mark in goals despite appearing in at least 70 games, a far cry from those days in Washington when he scored 18, 31 and 19 goals over a similar three-year stretch. The Wings desperately needed a right-handed defenseman who could move the puck and Green seemed like an ideal fit, but it's not working out. He never seemed to quite fit in Detroit, and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t move on to a new team via offseason trade. Dishonorable mentions goes to Christian Ehrhoff and Marek Zidlicky.
Biggest Goon: Radko Gudas, Flyers
Bobby Farnham. Shane Doan. Daniel Catenacci. Mika Zibanejad. Lucas Lessio. Kyle Turris. Viktor Stalberg. Despite not being particularly big at six feet and 204 pounds, Gudas has claimed more than a few victims with questionable, blind-side hits. How he’s managed to avoid multiple suspensions already is beyond anyone, but there’s no denying that he’s brought a bit of danger and nastiness back to the Flyers’ blue line, something that has been missing since Chris Pronger retired. Truth be told, even though he makes some pretty dumb decisions on the ice, Gudas has been a bit of a revelation, scoring 11 points over his past 31 games despite notching just three assists during the first four months of the season. A dishonorable mention goes to Alex Petrovic, who was immediately disqualified from contention after going three rounds against Evander Kane and losing all of them. You just gotta know when to stop, dude.
Just Can’t Catch a Break: Jack Johnson, Blue Jackets
After an encouraging turnaround with 40 points in 79 games last season – his highest total since leaving the Kings – this season opened with Johnson embroiled in a bankruptcy case involving his parents and ultimately was cut short after just 60 games due to shoulder surgery. Not only that, his spot at the top of the depth chart has been relinquished to Seth Jones, and Johnson may get moved even further down the list next year if Ryan Murray and/or Werenski take steps forward in their respective development.
Best Puck Luck: Brian Campbell, Panthers
There are plenty of people who believe the 36-year-old is headed for one more payday this summer, and that may very well be the case. After all, the guy hasn’t missed a game in five seasons and has 31 points with a plus-27 rating this year. But buyers beware: According to advanced metrics, Campbell’s been the recipient of good luck, and there’s a strong argument that these Panthers have made Campbell look better, not the other way around. When Campbell’s PDO dips below the threshold at 100, he’s gone a combined minus-33 over his previous four seasons in Florida. Another thing: Campbell has been on the ice 64.6 percent of the time the Panthers have scored, nearly 10 percent higher than Aaron Ekblad and more than 10 percent higher than his 53 percent mark last year.
Worst Puck Luck: Alexei Emelin, Canadiens
His PDO of 97.1 is the worst mark among defensemen who have played at least 1000 minutes, followed by Justin Faulk, Hampus Lindholm and Morgan Rielly. All four players have seen their numbers either dip or stagnate this season, if through no fault of their own. Emelin’s numbers are particularly ugly: zero goals in 69 games and a minus-10 rating. Assuming Carey Price is healthy next season, Emelin’s in line for a big turnaround. His ceiling might still be just 20 points, but it’s a big step up for him.
Best ‘Who’s That Guy?’ Award: Nick Holden, Avalanche
On a team that simply can’t defend, Holden has been a bright spot, and with a cap hit of just $1.65 million through 2017-18, he’s a bargain. Considering that Vancouver’s Chris Tanev has drawn a lot of (long-overdue) praise for his work, Holden’s raw numbers actually look a lot better:
Tanev: 17 points, minus-5, 40 shots, 18 hits, 162 blocks
Holden: 21 points, plus-3, 94 shots, 214 hits, 115 blocks
After plying his trade in the AHL for four seasons, Holden’s an example of a late bloomer who doesn’t do anything flashy, but makes all the right little plays to get in a coach’s good graces. His size doesn’t hurt, but he’s really improved after a down year in 2014-15. Neither player contributes much outside the very deepest of leagues, but at a position that often gets a lot of flak and not a lot of love, Holden’s an unsung hero.