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Blue Line Buzz: D-Men of the Week

Jason Chen

West Coast bias.

Denver, Harvard, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth — these are your four No. 1 seeds for the annual Frozen Four, slated to begin on March 24. As is the case every season, this is the time when NHL teams start signing free agents. NCAA players can sign at any time, but will forgo their eligibility if they do, which means most players will wait until their team is eliminated before signing.

The crop this year isn’t particularly strong, but there are certainly some intriguing names to consider. Some of them will step in right away as teams continue to evaluate their signees, as was the case with the Sabres and Casey Nelson, but keep in mind that we’re looking at mostly second-pairing defensemen and guys who may need some AHL seasoning. Without further ado…

Dan Brickley, Minnesota-Mankato – Regarded as the top free agent defenseman of his class, Brickley is an undrafted 6-foot-3, left-shot defenseman who averaged a point per game and finished second on the team in scoring with 31 points. You’d have to think the Sabres have the inside track here, as Brickley was invited to Buffalo’s training camp and was also the aforementioned Nelson’s defensive partner.

Neal Pionk, Minnesota-Duluth – Also undrafted, Pionk finished third in team scoring with 32 points in 38 games, and although a little undersized at 5-foot-11, is reportedly to have as many as 20 teams gunning after him. Yes, that includes Vegas.

Matias Cleland, New Hampshire – He just finished his senior season as team captain, and has already latched on to ECHL Wheeling, a minor-league affiliate of the Penguins, but is considered a free agent and can sign with any NHL team. Over his final two seasons at UNH, Cleland scored 64 points in 77 games.

Will Butcher, Denver – Currently the captain of the Pioneers and an Avalanche draft pick, Butcher was a World Junior standout and a Hobey Baker nominee. The Avs are expected to sign the senior after the tournament concludes, and he might be the only one on this list who can step in right away and make a difference.

Jeff Taylor, Union – His rights are owned by the Penguins, having been selected in the seventh round in 2014, but he’s free to sign with any team 30 days after the conclusion of his season. The Pens’ stockpile of defensemen has been whittled down the past few years (Joe Morrow, Scott Harrington, Simon Despres, Philip Samuelsson have moved on) and they may be looking to replenish.

Jake Bischoff, Minnesota – A seventh-round pick by the Islanders, Bischoff’s offense exploded in his senior season with 32 points in 37 games. His father, Grant, was a former Gophers captain. The Islanders will very likely lose a defenseman via the expansion draft, which could open up a spot.

Adam Fox, Harvard – Drafted by the Flames in the third round this past summer, Fox is unlikely to be a one-and-done prospect, but he’s been sensational for the Crimson in his freshman season, scoring 36 points in 32 games. He’s got that rare right-hand shot and won gold with Team USA at the World Juniors.

Congratulations are in order for Colorado’s Anton Lindholm, who made his NHL debut Wednesday against Detroit, skating 14:22 and finishing with a plus-1 rating. The sample size is small, but the undersized Swede has been serviceable, showing off his excellent mobility even though his offense leaves something to be desired. Drafted in the fifth round in 2014, Lindholm began the season with AHL San Antonio and scored 12 points in 59 games on a team that isn’t very good. The 22-year-old’s future in the NHL isn’t exactly promising, and a shortage of blueliners necessitated his call-up, but on a team struggling to find replacement-level players, Lindholm isn’t a bad solution. His fantasy value is virtually nil, but perhaps with a little more experience in North America, he may be able to carve out a role on the third pairing.

Studs of the Week:

Alex Pietrangelo, Blues
– The Blues have won seven of their past eight games and Petro has been a huge reason why they’ve climbed back into a (more) secure playoff position, scoring a goal and six assists during that span. He’s played under 25 minutes in the past two games, both of which were wins, but prior to that averaged over 27 minutes per game, including 28:55 on back-to-back nights. His goal against Arizona on Saturday was his first in nine games as well.

Darnell Nurse, Oilers – He’s exactly what the high-scoring Oilers need: a big, physical defenseman who can clean things up in his own end and also pitch in on offense every so often. He’s scored a goal and two assists during the Oilers’ three-game winning streak, and has thrown a hit or blocked a shot in every single game since returning from an ankle injury. He was also a league-best plus-7 among defensemen this past week, and the team is clearly still very vested in his development, skating 21:16 in a 7-1 blowout win against Dallas.

Johnny Oduya, Blackhawks – He sat out the second half of a back-to-back Sunday against the Avs to take a small breather, but he’s certainly earned it with a goal and an assist in his past four games and a league-best 17 blocked shots this past week. With a playoff berth clinched and a seven-point lead on second-place Minnesota, the immediate plan is for the Hawks to rest some of their players in back-to-backs in the hopes of a long playoff drive. Oduya will be a fixture with Niklas Hjalmarsson once the second season starts.

Erik Karlsson, Senators – Those back-to-back losses to Montreal really hurt and the Sens are now mired in a four-game losing streak, but Karlsson has done his part with a goal and two assists in his past three games. He was the only defenseman to average more than 30 minutes per game this past week, including 33:17 against Montreal with six shots on goal in the first game. He played “just” 27:43 in the second game and blocked five shots but finished with a minus-3 rating. No athlete will accept fatigue as an excuse, but maybe Guy Boucher may want to ease up on him a little bit.

John Carlson, Capitals – He’s scored two goals and two assists over his past four games in what has been a pretty uneven month for the Caps, losing four straight and then winning two of their past three. He’s got 36 points in 65 games this season, which is a pretty big dip in production from the past two years, but it might also be because the Caps like to spread their wealth around on the blue line with Brooks Orpik, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner all pitching in at least 13 points each. Carlson is not quite an elite fantasy option until he gets the spotlight to himself, but a good defenseman on a good team certainly carries some fantasy value.

Duds of the Week:

Anton Stralman, Lightning
– After two straight seasons of at least nine goals and 30 points, Stralman has just 15 points in 62 games this season with a minus-3 rating in his past three. He continues to be an integral part of the Lightning defense, and advanced stats don’t really explain why his production has declined. Either way, with the Lightning suddenly back in the playoff race, they’ll need him to be at his sharpest, which hasn’t been the case over the past two games.

T.J. Brodie, Flames – Can he crack 40 points for the third straight season? With 10 games remaining, Brodie is stuck at 29 points, registering just one assist this past week. Like Stralman, Brodie has struggled on the stat sheet this season and will likely finish with a minus rating for the second time in six years.

Dan Hamhuis, Stars – He hasn’t been the steady hand the Stars thought they were getting when they signed him, and finished the week with a league-worst minus-6 rating. He provides some added value with hits and blocked shots, but otherwise has been a non-factor in fantasy over the past five seasons. At this point, he’s not even worthy of a streaming start.

Brayden McNabb, Kings – Granted, his role with the Kings was always going to be limited, but he’s sat out four of his past five as a healthy scratch after playing 81 games last year. His production this year is roughly in line with last year’s, but clearly the Kings want to give the ice time to more promising players in Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue.

Anthony DeAngelo, Coyotes - He probably didn’t mean to hurt him, but DeAngelo lasted less than two minutes into the game against the Blues before getting tossed for boarding Zach Sanford. A highly skilled offensive defenseman who is still developing, he’s not making things any easier by taking himself out of the game. Discipline has been a constant worry for DeAngelo early in his career, and with the Coyotes well out of the playoff race, he should try and take advantage of the extra ice time that will be given to him.

Recommended Pickup:

Paul LaDue, Kings
– Paul La who? A sixth-round pick from 2012, LaDue flew under almost everyone’s radar but is now widely recognized as one of the league’s more intriguing prospects on the blue line. After starring for three years at North Dakota, which also featured Vancouver’s Troy Stecher, Anaheim’s third-round pick Keaton Thompson and Ottawa’s fourth-rounder Christian Wolanin, LaDue needed just a half-season in the AHL before making the jump. He’s notched five assists in 14 games with the Kings, and is only slightly behind Alec Martinez in power-play ice time per game. If Drew Doughty, who caught a nasty elbow from Matthew Tkachuk on Sunday, misses any time, LaDue will likely be the biggest benefactor on the power play. It’ll be tough for both the Kings and fantasy owners to rely on LaDue, but he’s certainly got some promise.

The Big Board:
^ = stock rising
˅ = stock dropping
* = league leader

1Brent Burns, SJS27*432236281*6212024:54:00 
2Erik Karlsson, OTT1451*62219861194*26:48:00 
3Victor Hedman, TBL14451471427511524:12:00 
4Dustin Byfuglien, WPG1235110322317411527:26* 
5Dougie Hamilton, CGY11361054198648819:33 
6Duncan Keith, CHI ^6431914165229425:41:00 
7Justin Schultz, PIT12353230134569519:55 
8Shea Weber, MTL1625173616713215125:14:00 
9Rasmus Ristolainen, BUF˅538-82917318415427:01:00 
10Zach Werenski, CBJ ^11352214177367921:00 
11Torey Krug, BOS640-1133185476721:56 
12Roman Josi, NSH1132-2181824910725:12:00 
13Kevin Shattenkirk, WSH1135-1247133787619:51 
14Ryan McDonagh, NYR53319351357515324:24:00 
15Drew Doughty, LAK8314401571219627:17:00 
16John Klingberg, DAL11310321123710223:28 
17Mark Giordano, CGY ^122223521327016623:46 
18Ryan Suter, MIN˅82833*30144688427:07:00 
19Alex Pietrangelo, STL ^1028-3221503614425:08:00 
20Cam Fowler, ANA11233201622712224:49:00