Welcome back to The Journey, where we follow hockey prospects and their paths to the NHL, providing fantasy predictions and analysis along the way. This week, we'll take a look at three young defenceman from the 2018 draft who are on the verge of establishing themselves as emerging stars on the back end.
One has been traded, another signed to a three-year contract, and the last has seen a major obstacle to playing time removed via trade. All three are intriguing in fantasy because they offer excellent scoring upside at a modest price tag. We are far enough out now from the 2018 draft that the hype on these guys has largely died down and fantasy managers, spoiled by instant blue line stars like Cale Makar and Moritz Seider, are generally feeling impatient with their development. Now is the time to buy low if you can afford to wait another couple seasons.
Smith's fantasy value got a much-needed boost with his trade to the Penguins for John Merino. Once one of the most hyped defensive prospects in the game, Smith seemingly got lost in New Jersey's shuffle of offensively inclined defencemen over the past two years while producing 43 points in his first 114 NHL games.
A 31-point pace is actually decent for a young player but I think that fantasy managers expected more—given his astounding 201 points in 172 WHL games—and also worried about his role in the Devils organization longer term: with Dougie Hamilton being the clear number one, Damon Severson sucking up power play time, and studs Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec on the way, it was not clear where Smith would fit moving forward.
Those two factors have largely obscured the fact that Smith has actually performed quite well in his first two NHL seasons. He jumped directly from junior to the NHL in his Draft+3 year, which is not easy to do, and has managed to hold his own playing fairly big minutes, especially for a smaller, offensively minded defenceman. There was a noticeable dip, however, in both ice time and play driving in 2021-22 versus his rookie campaign. He averaged about two and a half fewer minutes and was less effective with the puck despite receiving similar sheltered deployment both years.