In years past, defensemen were like cough syrup for Fantasy owners: You knew you had to take them, but you didn’t really like it.
It was often the final part of your roster to fill out, and you did so begrudgingly because there just weren’t many good options. That’s changed dramatically in recent years, as the league’s emphasis on mobility and speed has forced teams to reconsider what skills really matter on defense. That has allowed a generation of skilled defensemen to really excel to the point that nowadays, anyone with a poor crop of Fantasy blueliners will find it very difficult to win.
Today’s NHL is littered with talent, perhaps to a greater degree than any other time in recent memory, so missing out on a given season’s year’s top defenseman isn’t a big deal so long as owners can fill out the rest of their blue line with above-average options. Drafters this fall have a wealth of options to choose from when they build their defense — there are many dependable and reliable veterans on the table, but you can also take chances on young players who might either soar into orbit or come crashing down to earth.
Keep in mind while reading this that these tiers are based on the CBS head-to-head points system, which places an emphasis on goal scoring and plus-minus. The order in which players are listed represents their rank within their tiers.
Tier 1: The Franchise
Erik Karlsson , Brent Burns
The first round of any Fantasy draft is reserved for the best of the best. There should be no reaching and no real surprises. In short, no drama. First-round picks in past years have usually primarily featured high-scoring forwards, but this year, there are two top-tier defensemen who are absolutely worth drafting straight away. Karlsson and Burns stand out from the rest thanks to their spectacular point totals and consistency. They’re about as safe as you can go in a draft, which is good because nothing can be more devastating to a Fantasy team than misfiring with that first pick.
This pair needs no introduction, but it’s important to recap what they accomplished in the 2015-16 season. Karlsson became the first defenseman since Nicklas Lidstrom to score 80 points since 2006 and the first defenseman since Paul Coffey to finish in the top five in scoring in 30 years — and he’s also one of just 10 players to have played a full schedule in each of the past three seasons. He’s the only one at the position who consistently produces the numbers you’d expect from a star forward.
Meanwhile, Burns finished with a career-high 75 points (a 15-point improvement over the previous season) and tied for second in the league with 30 power-play points, behind only superstar winger Patrick Kane . To demonstrate how important he was to the San Jose Sharks ‘ fourth-ranked offense, Burns led all defensemen with 353 shots on net, a mind-blowing 105 shots more than Karlsson, who finished second. Burns also registered 91 shots on the power play, second in the league and also well ahead of Karlsson’s 57, which ranked 10th.
Tier 2: The Big Shots
P.K. Subban , Kris Letang , Roman Josi , Dustin Byfuglien , Mark Giordano , Oliver Ekman-Larsson , John Klingberg , Shea Weber
Most observers agree that with a new team that’s (probably) more appreciative of his talents, a better defensive partner (sorry, Andrei Markov ) and a scary supporting cast (hey there, Josi), Subban is about to take the league by storm. Despite scoring just six goals last year, Subban has failed to reach double-digit goal totals just twice in six seasons, and he’s coming off a career-low 3.4 shooting percentage with an average shooting distance of 64.8 feet, basically the distance from the blue line to the goal line and easily the farthest among defensemen with 40 games played. With more talented players surrounding him now that he’s in Nashville, Subban may stop pressing on offense so much.
The player who may seem most out of place here is Klingberg, but given that the 24-year-old is coming off an impressive 58-point, plus-22 effort in just his second NHL season, he has arguably the highest ceiling of all the players in this tier, and perhaps even in this entire list. He plays on an explosive offensive team that has shored up its defense this summer, so this could be the year that Klingberg stands out from the rest and gets himself mentioned in the same breath as Karlsson. Among the top 15 in scoring among defensemen, Klingberg averaged the least ice time with just 22:41 per game, six minutes less than Karlsson.
The rest of the players on this list are a threat to score 20 goals, something only four defensemen accomplished in the 2016-17 season. Goal scoring comes at a premium, but these guys also have proven track records of being among the very best in the league. They’re reliable and they score goals.
Tier 3: Shake & Bake
Tyson Barrie , Justin Faulk , John Carlson , Rasmus Ristolainen , Victor Hedman , Kevin Shattenkirk , Drew Doughty , Torey Krug , Keith Yandle , Duncan Keith , Dougie Hamilton , Shayne Gostisbehere , T.J. Brodie , Aaron Ekblad
Being able to score 20 goals as a defenseman requires a wicked shot, the timing ability that allows you get those shots through, and some good, old-fashioned luck. Though a few players in this tier can reach that mark, most will do the most damage as puck distributors, either by moving the puck up the ice efficiently using their mobility or by simply making good first passes. They’re vital cogs for teams that aren’t blessed with someone who can unload bombs from the point. As the saying goes, an assist is as good as a goal … except in Fantasy, where goals are a premium.
Barrie headlines the list as the de facto top defenseman on a very fast and talented Colorado Avalanche squad. Like Klingberg, he has the most potential to move up another tier. Patrick Roy unexpectedly resigned this summer, and it remains to be seen what kind of system the Avalanche will play under their new coach, but Barrie will undoubtedly play a big role on offense.
Perhaps the true diamond in this tier is Ristolainen, who at 21 years old is already the Buffalo Sabres ‘ undisputed No. 1 defenseman and is coming off a 41-point season in which he averaged more ice time than any other Buffalo blueliner by three full minutes. The Sabres may scale back his usage in light of their improving depth on the back end, but even so, the big Finn has “franchise” written all over him.
Carlson is another guy who should get a lot more attention after scoring 39 points in 56 games, which pro-rated would easily put him among the league’s top 20 in scoring among defensemen. Like Karlsson, Klingberg and Barrie, Carlson is blessed with a roster full of scoring talent, putting him in strong position to put up a lot of points. Where he stands out is his defensive play, but fortunately, he won’t always have to worry about preventing goals with a stacked blue line behind him.
Gostisbehere is coming off one of the most exciting rookie seasons by a defenseman in NHL history, but his sky-high 11.2 shooting percentage screams regression. Even so, he’s going to be a huge part of the action on Philly’s power play, so the points should still be there.
Ekblad’s elite offensive ability has yet to truly coalesce, but he’s shown an uncanny ability to score goals in his first two seasons and could very well finish in the high teens.
Tier 4: The Mr. Dependables
Alex Pietrangelo , Brent Seabrook , Ryan Suter , Brian Campbell , Ryan McDonagh , Jake Muzzin , Marc-Edouard Vlasic , Nick Leddy , Andrei Markov
There’s something to be said for consistency. Although there’s nothing particularly sexy about most of the players on this list, they’re veterans who have put up sustained production over the course of their careers. These guys are often the best two-way defensemen on their team, and because they’re so often relied upon in the defensive zone, they often make sacrifices on offense. Thus we have a group that probably won’t give you the edge to win your league, but you won’t lose because of them, either.
The one name that may stand out is Campbell, who rejoined the Chicago Blackhawks on a one-year deal and will be the quarterback on a power play that already ranked second last year. He’s coming off an excellent season with Florida with a career-high plus-31. While he most assuredly won’t reach that lofty height again given the number of bounces that went his way last year and the reduced role he’ll see in Chicago, but 30 assists seems like a very attainable goal, and that would put him the top 30 among defensemen.
Tier 5: The Young Grasshoppers
Colton Parayko , Seth Jones , Mattias Ekholm , Cam Fowler , Hampus Lindholm , Noah Hanifin , Ryan Ellis , Mathew Dumba, Alec Martinez , Jared Spurgeon , Jake Gardiner , Jacob Trouba , Adam Larsson , Justin Schultz
Rielly’s an incredible skater who’s rapidly developing but is trapped on a Leafs team that’s still collecting pieces for its rebuild. Vatanen doesn’t get the ice time he deserves because he’s stuck in a perpetual timeshare with Cam and Lindholm; he’s also still looking to play 80-plus games for the first time. Still, both could easily score 40-plus points if they can overcome the roadblocks ahead of them.
Otherwise, these up-and-comers represent a very crowded tier that has enormous upside, but also some downside due to potential regression. Parayko’s the banner carrier for that — his out-of-nowhere emergence was impressive, but it’s still unclear whether he has the upside to be better than the 33 points he put up as a rookie last year.
Ekholm, Ellis, Fowler, Lindholm and Trouba are also among league’s most heralded young defensemen, but they each have veteran players ahead of them on the depth chart. Ekholm and Ellis in particular will never be the Nashville Predators ‘ top pair, though both are excellent at moving the puck. Fowler and Lindholm have to share responsibilities, while Trouba — whose name has been in the rumor mill of late — will see his stock get a big boost should he leave Winnipeg, emerging from the shadows cast by Byfuglien and Tyler Myers .
Jones, Larsson and Schultz are relatively known commodities, but all three enter their first full seasons with their new clubs. If last year was any indication, Jones and Schultz are in line for big improvements, especially Schultz, who seemed much more comfortable in Pittsburgh playing a smaller role with more experienced teammates. Expectations will be high for Larsson because of what it cost the Edmonton Oilers to get him; despite seemingly being drafted eons ago, he’s just 23 years old and coming off his best NHL season to date even though he scored only 18 points.
Tier 6: The Supporting Cast
Zdeno Chara, Mike Green , Alexander Edler , Travis Hamonic , Anton Stralman , Dion Phaneuf , Matt Niskanen , Tyler Myers, Danny DeKeyser , Ryan Murray , Olli Maatta , Zach Bogosian , Erik Johnson , David Savard , Jason Demers , Jack Johnson , Jaccob Slavin , Marco Scandella , Ben Hutton , Brandon Davidson , Andrej Sekera , Darnell Nurse
This is a mixed group age-wise, but the most you can really hope for from any of these guys is about 35 points, and the downside is much less.
At 39, Chara is coming off a 37-point season, and while clearly Father Time hasn’t bothered him as much as everyone thinks, it’s far more likely that the big Slovak’s point totals will dip this season. There has been no apparent successor to Chara yet in Boston, which means he’ll play a big role once again. Don’t let your expectations get too high for a player of his age, though, as Chara’s offense has clearly declined, as evidenced by his single power-play goal last year.
Green, who will turn 31 in October, had a very disappointing showing in his first year with Detroit, seeing a 10-point drop in production and really failing to move the needle on offense on a blue line in need of some production, though he did still produce 20 power-play points. There’s still a chance for Green to make a comeback as one of the league’s better offensive defenseman, but with his declining mobility and a heavy slap shot missing from his arsenal, his stock has been trending down in the aftermath of the series of injuries he suffered at the beginning of the decade.
In formats that count hits and PIM, there’s room on Fantasy rosters for the much-maligned Phaneuf, who seemed to play much better after shedding the burden of being the team captain and veteran leader of the rebuilding Leafs. At 31, wear and tear might have caught up to Phaneuf, but he still possesses a very strong slap shot that still has value, and he may be in a situation where less is more, as opposing teams will be focused much more on shutting down Erik Karlsson than on defending Phaneuf on the second pairing.
The rest of the group is littered with veteran defensemen who have trouble putting up even 30 points some years, but nevertheless play huge roles for their respective teams with their strong two-way game. If you’re on the ice, there’s always a chance you can score. This very much applies to DeKeyser and the two Johnsons, all of whom are still highly regarded talents and theoretically in their prime years.
Tier 7: The Yesterday People
Johnny Boychuk , Alex Goligoski , Niklas Hjalmarsson , Justin Braun , Dan Hamhuis , Francois Beauchemin , Paul Martin , Niklas Kronwall , Dennis Wideman , Tobias Enstrom, Jay Bouwmeester , Kris Russell , Thomas Hickey , David Schlemko
Many of these players just don’t have it anymore; some of them never did. Whether because of skill or simply personality, the players in this tier are very solid defensemen whose Fantasy value is far lower than in real life. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting more playing time, but their track records suggest that’ll just mean more of the same two-way hockey, not necessarily more offense. While some of these players have the ability score more than 30 points, offense isn’t exactly their forte — or, like Wideman and Boychuk, their offensive contributions petered out sometime in the past year. Some may not even see power-play time at all.
Tier 8: The Forgotten
Cody Ceci , Oscar Klefbom , Brian Dumoulin , Jake McCabe , Nathan Beaulieu , Ryan Murphy , Dmitry Orlov , Michael Del Zotto , Damon Severson , Brayden McNabb , Trevor Daley , John Moore , Nikita Zadorov , Calvin de Haan
With an influx of young talent every year, prospects who don’t live up the billing within their first few years are often cast aside or forgotten altogether. Look no further than Severson, who scored 17 points in his rookie season, but improved by just four points the following year despite playing 21 more games. With Larsson gone, Severson will be tasked to do a whole lot more, giving him an opportunity to shine.
Murphy, the 12th overall pick in 2011, has split the last two seasons between the NHL and AHL; he’s now on the verge of becoming a full-time regular, and it’s worth remembering that he was one of the most stellar offensive defensemen in the OHL. Orlov’s coming off an eight-goal year thanks to his wicked wrist shot; he and Ceci (who scored 10 goals last year)represent a couple of high-upside plays for late in drafts. Similarly, Zadorov and de Haan are former first-round picks still looking to make good; there’s some upside left there.
In his second year with the Los Angeles Kings , McNabb he saw his ice time jump three full minutes to 18:49 per game, including plenty of time on the penalty kill. Though his point total dropped by 10 from the previous season, he’s also finished with a plus-11 rating in both years. It’s clear that the Kings’ confidence in McNabb has grown, and perhaps a little ice time on the power play could push him to new heights; keep in mind that he won the hardest-shot competition in the AHL not too long ago.
Tier 9: Youngbloods
Ivan Provorov, Derrick Pouliot , Shea Theodore , Xavier Ouellet , Nikita Tryamkin , Stephen Johns , Esa Lindell , Julius Honka , Anthony DeAngelo
Most young defensemen don’t deserve Fantasy spots due to limited roles and the difficult nature of their position. However, once in a while, players come along who exceed all expectations and produce from Day 1.
Provorov is the headliner of this group. The seventh overall pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015, he’s coming off a 73-point, plus-64 season with WHL Brandon and was named the Eastern Conference’s top defenseman in a league known for producing excellent blueliners. With Gostisbehere drawing all the attention in Philly, Provorovis under the radar, but he has all the tools to become the second consecutive Flyers rookie blueliner to take the NHL by storm.
Pouliot, the eighth overall pick in 2012, appeared in 22 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and was used sparingly in the playoffs, but with 47 points in 68 AHL games, the talent he possesses is painfully obvious. The same goes for Theodore, a 2013 first-round pick who scored 37 points in 50 games in the AHL as well as eight points in 19 games for the Anaheim Ducks . However, both players face uphill battles in training camp, and even if they’re assigned to the AHL to begin the season, they’ll return to the NHL sooner than later.
Two wild cards who could break camp with their teams are Ouellet — a puck mover who’s been trying to crack Detroit’s lineup the past two seasons — and Vancouver’s Tryamkin, a 6-foot-7 tower who needs to improve his conditioning and decision-making. Both have outside shots at cracking their rosters, though their roles would likely be very limited to start out.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Fantasy Hockey Draft Prep: Defenseman Tiers