Top 10 (Fantasy Hockey) NHL Defensemen

Dobber Sports



NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Montreal Canadiens

Erik Karlsson remains at the top, but how do the best of the rest stack up? 


I have a few general rules when it comes to building a team in a fantasy hockey keeper league. One of the more important ones is to not plan beyond a two or three year window. You are not building a real NHL club, and too often we place an emphasis on age, upside, and potential over proven veterans with gas still left in the tank. So using my general rule, take a look at your team(s). Can you realistically say you will have a shot at winning the league at some point within the next two or three seasons? If not, time to scrap the rebuild and start adding proven NHL talent. Here are my past lists ranking the best defensemen in the NHL:



Keeping the above rule in mind, I have compiled a list of the top ten keeper league left wingers to own (assuming standard keeper league rules and scoring categories). Using the two or three season scope, I had to balance proven production with young players who are making a name for themselves in the NHL. Clarifying what "standard categories" means, here is the league format that I am basing my selections on:


  • 12 to 15 teams
  • Start 4 C, 4 LW, 4 RW, 6 D, 2 G (5 Bench)
  • G, A, +/-, PIM, PPP (power play points), GWG (game winning goals), Hits, SOG (shots on goal)

I put an emphasis on offensive categories.They are harder to find on draft day – it is much easier to scoop up a PIM/HITS type of player on the waiver wire than it is to get a player who fills the G/A/PPP categories nicely. Production from defensemen tends to fluctuate on a year-to-year basis more significantly than with forwards. Defensemen have a responsibility to defend first, whereas forwards have a responsibility to score.


Not only that, but defensemen depend on power play ice time for production more than forwards do. There are a number of talented offensive defensemen who may not be able to reach their offensive upside in their current situations because of the roles they play.


In Carolina, Justin Faulk is the primary shutdown defenseman (at the age of 20), which means that he has to focus a lot of his efforts on the penalty kill and at even strength against top opposing players. He may be as skilled offensively as Joe Corvo and Jamie McBain, but his relative worth to Carolina is higher in a defensive/two-way role. The same holds true for John Carlson in Washington and Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Phoenix.


If Ekman-Larsson was primarily a power play quarterback, he'd be a lock for 50+ points (at the very least). However, he is so good in his own zone that the Coyotes have no choice but to lean on him heavily in tough situations.


On to the list.


1. Erik Karlsson

  • Rank in 2012: 1
  • Rank in 2011: 5
  • Rank in 2010: 10

It turns out that Matt Cooke's skate blade is the only thing that can stop Erik Karlsson. The dynamic offensive defenseman is the total package – he won't get you hits or PIM, but he laps the competition when it comes to production from the back end. And he has a rock solid long-term partner in Marc Methot, too. Karlsson flourished alongside Filip Kuba last season, and Methot is a better defenseman than Kuba is.


Karlsson may be in tough to repeat his 2011-12 performance in the future, but don't rule it out. Ottawa is a team on the upswing, and Karlsson stands to benefit. I don't really have much else to write about him that you don't know already – he's the cream of the crop in fantasy hockey. And his defensive game gets overlooked. He’s solid in his own zone, especially for a player who takes so many chances offensively.



2. Kris Letang

  • Rank in 2012: 3
  • Rank in 2011: 6
  • Rank in 2010: Not Ranked

Letang may put up a fight for the number one spot on this list in the next few years, but he needs to show he can stay healthy first. His playing style (aggressive and physical) has gotten him in trouble with regards to injuries. You won't find a harder worker in the off-season, and pound-for-pound he may be the strongest player in hockey.


Letang also benefits from playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (an obvious fact, I know). He doesn't have any immediate competition for power play minutes on the Pittsburgh back end – Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot are both a ways away from being power play quarterbacks at the NHL level. Letang also fills up other categories better than Karlsson, although his PIM totals are trending down. After racking up 101 PIM in 2010-11, he had only 34 last season (in 31 less games, mind you). He is too good to be spending that much time in the penalty box. 


3. PK Subban


  • Rank in 2012: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2011: 9
  • Rank in 2010: Not Ranked

I am more bullish on Subban's upside than others, which is why this ranking may come as a bit of a surprise. Subban is a very well-rounded defenseman  – he is much better defensively than given credit for, and he is only starting to scratch the surface of his offensive upside.


Like Letang, his playing style gets him into trouble at times, but not in terms of injuries. Subban and Letang are both aggressive and instinctual defensemen, and this leads to overplaying and the odd positional error. But Subban is such a good skater that he can often close gaps that other defensemen wouldn't be able to. He has only made my top 10 lists once, and that is due in large part to the role Montreal has had him play in previous seasons (primarily focused on the defensive side of the puck). Now that he has figured out how to excel in his own zone, the offensive reins have been loosened. From what I wrote last year:


2011-12 was a forgettable year for everyone in Montreal outside of a select few – Subban wasn't one of them. He has the natural talent to be a game –changer, just needs to mature and learn to pick his spots better.

And he is doing just that in 2013. 


4. Shea Weber

  • Rank in 2012: 5
  • Rank in 2011: 7
  • Rank in 2010: 5

It took Weber a few weeks to get going in 2013 – he had to shake off some lockout-induced rust, and he had to adjust to life without Ryan Suter as his defensive partner as well. Weber is having a fantastic month of March, dominating both offensively and defensively, just as we have come to expect from him. Weber is as consistent as they come, and consistency is an underrated attribute, especially among NHL defensemen.


5. Dustin Byfuglien

  • Rank in 2012: 2
  • Rank in 2011: 4
  • Rank in 2010: Considered a RW

Big Buf is one of the most dynamic players in hockey. He is almost impossible to stop in the open ice, he loves to skate with the puck on his stick, and his cardio level is tremendous (which may come as a bit of a surprise considering his, um, fluctuating appearance). He takes long shifts, he plays a lot in all situations, and he still finds a way to be a difference-maker on a consistent basis for the Jets. He isn't a top 10 defenseman in terms of defensive ability, but he is made huge strides with his play away from the puck. His fantasy value comes from two things, mostly – his ability to generate a ton of shots on goal, and his vision and creativity on the power play.


The Jets have a bunch of young talent on the way in the next few years (Evander Kane's continued development, as well as Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, to name two), and Byfuglien's production is going to benefit from playing with talented teammates.


6. Zdeno Chara Chara

  • Rank in 2012: 8
  • Rank in 2011: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2010: Honourable Mention

The 36-year-old Chara finds himself at sixth on this list – the highest he has placed. There are a few reasons for that:


  • I ranked him too low in the previous three years
  • I wasn't considering hits as a category in the first two years

Chara is extremely fit and smart with how he plays – he doesn't put himself in vulnerable positions at all. And because of that, he will be able to play and produce like an elite defenseman well into his 40's. His offensive numbers are pretty consistent, and the Bruins are going to be a very good team for a long time.


7. Ryan Suter

  • Rank in 2012: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2011: Not Ranked
  • Rank in 2010: Honourable Mention

Suter won't fill peripheral categories (PIM and hits, primarily) like some of the other defensemen on this list, but he is taking advantage of his increased ice time and role with the Minnesota Wild. What he is doing in 2013 is very, very impressive. Suter entered the season with immense expectations, and he wasn't joining a Cup contender. Even with Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild had a number of roster holes on their team (especially on the back end). Suter struggled through the opening few weeks of the season, but he has been arguably the top defenseman in the league since that point. One reason for his turnaround in performance has been the play of his partner, 19-year-old rookie Jonas Brodin.


Much like Suter, Brodin plays a calm, skilled, and reliable game. Suter is going to see a lot of ice time for the next few years, and the Wild are a team on the rise. They boast the best prospect pool this side of Florida, and those rookies (Brodin and Charlie Coyle) are starting to make their mark at the NHL level.


8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson

  • Rank in 2012: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2011: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2010: Not Ranked

Ekman-Larsson cracks the top 10 for the first time, and I'd expect him to keep moving up in the coming seasons. He is a talented defenseman with the puck (to say the very least), but he is arguably just as good without it. His impressive defensive ability hurts his offensive upside a bit, as the Coyotes use him as primarily a shutdown defenseman.


I have little doubt that he would put up 50-60 points if he was given the green light offensively, but that isn't his role in Phoenix. Perhaps that changes if and when the team moves Keith Yandle for a forward (with a number of impressive young defensemen about to hit the NHL, the Coyotes may want to make a move from a position of strength). Even if nothing changes, Ekman-Larsson is one of the best defensemen in the world (and one of the best defensemen to own in fantasy hockey).


To get an idea of Ekman-Larsson's importance to Phoenix, he leads the team in both power play ice time (3:51 per game) and shorthanded ice time (3:12 per game). Yandle, on the other hand, plays 3:26 on the power play each game, but he sees almost no time on the penalty kill (an average of only three seconds per game).


9. Dion Phaneuf

  • Rank in 2012: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2011: Honourable Mention
  • Rank in 2010: Not Ranked

It sounds absurd, but it is true – the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is underrated in the hockey world. Why, exactly, does Phaneuf not get the credit he deserves? I'm not entirely sure.


Perhaps his attitude has rubbed people the wrong way in the past. Perhaps people still think he is the risky defenseman during his first few years in Toronto. But this isn't the Dion of old. Phaneuf logs tough minutes for Toronto, and he still finds a way to contribute offensively on a consistent basis. He leads the Leafs in power play ice time per game (3:31), and he trails only forward Jay McClement in shorthanded minutes per night (2:56 for Phaneuf, and 3:32 for McClement). Phaneuf's fantasy value is boosted by his physical side, as well. He likes to hit a lot, and he gets involved in the physical stuff on a regular basis as well. Phaneuf


And he shoots the puck a ton. His offensive numbers would improve back to the Calgary levels if he was given more of an offensively-focused role, but that isn't how Toronto wants to best utilize his skill set.


10. Alex Edler

  • Rank in 2012: 7
  • Rank in 2011: 10
  • Rank in 2010: Not Ranked

Edler is a solid two-way defenseman, but because of Vancouver's defensive makeup, he gets to focus more on the offensive side of things than some of his peers. Dan Hamhuis typically does the heavy lifting for Vancouver's back end, and he is usually joined in that role by Kevin Bieksa (although in 2013 it has been Jason Garrison primarily).


Edler has a bomb of a shot, he is a great skater, and he sees the ice well. He doesn't have much competition on the Vancouver back end for power play ice time – Garrison has a great shot, but he doesn't move the puck as well as Edler does. And the Canucks don't have any young defensemen close to NHL action – Kevin Connauton's development has stalled in the AHL, and Frankie Corrado is probably a year or two away from making the full-time jump to the NHL.


Honourable Mentions:

Alex Pietrangelo – Pietrangelo was a tough omission, but he doesn't contribute in enough areas outside of points to warrant a top 10 placement on this list. Remember, my focus is on fantasy hockey, which includes a number of categories (I listed them at the beginning of the list).

Drew Doughty – Doughty has seen his role change significantly over the past few years. He came into the league as an offensive dynamo, but he has quietly transitioned into a rock-solid shutdown defenseman. The Kings have leaned on Doughty a lot in 2013, especially with Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene both out for the season. His numbers have subsequently taken a hit, though.

Kevin Shattenkirk – One of the most talented offensive defensemen in the game.

Dan Boyle – See above. Boyle is getting up there in age, but he can still run a powerplay like few defensemen can.

Justin Faulk – Faulk receives the Ekman-Larsson treatment in Carolina. His offensive talents are overshadowed by his ability to log tough minutes against top opposing players.

Keith Yandle – Has Yandle peaked already? Probably not, but his offensive game has stalled a bit over the past few years in the desert. Will he be trade bait for the Coyotes? If he isn't now, I'd expect he will soon. Phoenix has a number of talented young defensemen, and not much in the way of young forwards. Trading from a position of strength to shore up a weakness makes a lot of sense.

Duncan Keith – Keith is a top 10 defenseman in the league. He can control games with his skating and hockey sense, but he will be in tough to repeat his 69-point regular season (and 17 point postseason) of 2009-10. This list is far from comprehensive. Here are a few more names to consider: Slava Voynov, Dougie Hamilton, Brian Campbell, Tobias Enstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Mark Streit.

Previous Top 10 Lists for 2013:


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