East: Tortoises and Hares, Defensemen (2016)

by Eric Daoust on November 1, 2016

Looking at some of the fast starters and slow starters among Eastern Conference defensemen.

Early in the season everything is magnified and shortsighted conclusions are drawn which can prove costly in time. One reason for this is the anticipation for the start of the new campaign. Obviously fantasy hockey managers are extremely passionate and are excited to get back in the flow. Another reason is the small sample size of games to date – a streak or slump in January is less impactful on the season numbers to date than the same thing happening in October. As a result hasty decisions are made which in the end will prove to be incorrect once more games are played and most players fall back to more regular production.

For defensemen, these changes in production rate are even more apparent due to having lower point totals than forwards, especially for the hot-starters. A strong night or two is plenty to grossly inflate a blueliner’s numbers relative to expectations. Likewise, a few goose eggs combined with an absence of big nights can leave even a star defenseman close to zero points.

Today we will examine six hot-starters and six cold-starters on the blueline. The key is to determine whether or not the individual can continue at this rate and who should be the subject of trade talks – whether to buy or sell. Obviously there are many more who could make this and not everyone can be covered.

HOT STARTS

Rasmus Ristolainen – Buffalo

Injuries to key players up front has been a major factor in the Sabres averaging just 2.5 goals per game so far. That has not stopped Ristolainen from putting up seven points in his first eight games after nearly missing the start of the regular season while negotiating his new contract. This pace will be very difficult to maintain especially while Jack Eichel remains out. The biggest red flag for Ristolainen is six of his points were obtained on the power play. While the Sabres possess a very talented group, it will not be enough to maintain this level of success. However, this is not the right time to sell him. He is only a couple points above what would be considered an acceptable scoring range and it is unlikely someone is buying into Ristolainen being one of the league’s top defensemen this year. Even as he slows down he should maintain a high level of production and finish between 40 and 50 points.

Noah Hanifin – Carolina

Hanifin is off to a surprising start with six points, all assists, through eight games. As a 19-year-old there are reasons to think former fifth-overall pick could be on the verge of stardom. However, there are reasons to believe otherwise. Simply put, the Hurricanes lack the talent up front to produce a lot of goals over the long haul and without help it will be difficult to continue at this rate. The other issue is Hanifin’s utilization. He is averaging under 17 minutes in ice time which ranks fifth among Hurricanes’ defensemen. He is also playing on the second power-play unit. These factors severely limit his upside, at least for the time being. If someone in your league is buying the hype you can try to sell high but in a keeper league try to hold out until you can land a proven star in return.

Zach Werenski – Columbus

Werenski took advantage of an injury to Ryan Murray to establish himself on the top pair next to Seth Jones. The results have been outstanding – six points in seven games to date. He has averaged close to 22 minutes per game and has been a fixture on the top power-play unit while averaging an unsustainable 3.5 shots per game. The danger is the Blue Jackets have a number of defensemen not on the top pair capable of playing heavy minutes including Murray, David Savard and Jack Johnson. During a rough stretch Murray could find himself back on the top pair, leaving Werenski to rely more on the power play for points. In one-year leagues there might be a window to sell high but unless you are getting a proven upgrade in return you should ride out the hot streak. In keeper leagues hold unless you are packaging Werenski for a star.

Shea Weber – Montreal

Weber has been playing like he has something to prove, producing outstanding numbers across the board making him a top player in all formats. Hopefully you are not expecting this exact rate of production to continue. The evidence can be found looking at some metrics on his profile page courtesy of Frozen Pool:

Having said that, selling high is tricky unless you are in a points-only league which is not where Weber is at his best. In multi-category leagues he will likely remain near the top of the league even after his numbers come back down to earth. In keeper leagues things get worse because he is 31 years old and your opponents are less likely to want to put top assets on the table. In all likelihood Weber will be better for your team than in a trade.

Damon Severson – New Jersey

After being a total dud last year despite having a golden opportunity to shine, Severson appears to be ready to make it count the second time. He is up to six points in eight games with four coming on the power play while averaging just under 20 minutes per game. Look for the power-play production to take a dip in the coming weeks as this rate is very difficult to maintain over the long haul, especially on a team like the Devils that does not score much. Still, unless Severson falls back to his ineffective 2015-16 self he should be good for at least 30 points in this type of role. That makes him a good depth defenseman to own while things are going well.

Ryan McDonagh – New York Rangers

When Keith Yandle left town this summer the stars lined up for McDonagh to return to the 40-point level. So far things are looking up as he has eight points in nine games. Making things even more promising is his utilization which is very similar to his 43-point campaign in 2013-14. His average ice time is up to 24:36 and he is logging close to four minutes per outing on the power play. Furthermore, his offensive-zone start percentage is over 49 percent, his highest mark since 2011. Obviously there is room for a decline in the coming weeks as his five-on-five shooting percentage is over 11 percent but his chances of reaching 40 by season’s end are quite high. If the Rangers can manage to stay at the top of the league in goal-scoring there is even a chance McDonagh could challenge for 50, although that would be considered more of a bonus than a likely scenario.

COLD STARTS

Torey Krug – Boston

Following offseason shoulder surgery it is not a huge surprise to see Krug have a tough start to the year. But having zero points to date was an unlikely scenario and the lack of output has cut into his ice time a bit in recent games. Thankfully, the Bruins lack alternatives that offer Krug’s puck-moving ability on the back end. Zdeno Chara is in decline while Colin Miller has yet to prove he can be a full-time productive NHLer. Therefore, Krug will continue to log heavy minutes while getting plenty of opportunities in offensive situations. He is definitely a buy-low option in all leagues because it is only a matter of time before he starts putting up points.

Aaron Ekblad – Florida

The Panthers have been a work in progress this year after getting hit by the injury bug up front. Not surprisingly, their offense ranks in the middle of the pack. Ekblad, like last year, is off to a slow start but soon or later he will get going. He is getting more ice time than ever in all situations and he is averaging three shots per game. Not to mention Yandle, his defense partner, is one of the best puck-moving defenseman and a perfect guy to set up Ekblad’s big shot from the point. As an added bonus he has improved substantially in hits and blocks which gives him extra value in multi-category leagues. Buy low in all formats.

Keith Yandle – Florida

Like Ekblad, Yandle is also slow out of the gate with just two points to date. Looking at his long history putting up points will quickly restore your faith in him. After all, despite averaging just 20 minutes per game last year with the Rangers he still put up 47 points. Another factor to consider – he has not missed a game since before the 2009-10 campaign. This level of reliability cannot be ignored. Looking at this season’s numbers he is getting over three shots per game which is comparable with his last two years with the Coyotes. Again, buy low in all formats although Yandle is not nearly as valuable in multi-category leagues.

Cody Ceci – Ottawa

Ceci has been an intriguing prospect to track. He has a lot of upside at both ends of the ice and poolies have invested in him in keeper leagues. This year seemed to be a great opportunity for him to take another step forward. Unfortunately that has not materialized to date as he has just a single point. Although he is logging close to 23 minutes per game he has not been a factor on the power play and has continued to be deployed heavily on the penalty kill. Even if his role shifts towards the offensive side his upside is still limited because the Senators have the best offensive defenseman in the league in Erik Karlsson at the top of the depth chart. What to do with him depends on the type of league. If you need him to reach his offensive potential then wait for him to pick up some points and then use his youth to try to sell him for good value. If you are in a multi-category league where his modest points along with good shots and blocks are an asset then just hold on tight and wait for things to get better.

Dion Phaneuf – Ottawa

This year Phaneuf has logged heavy minutes overall but has played a secondary role on special teams. In this role his offensive upside is limited to what we have seen from him in recent years although he remains a multi-category beast. Phaneuf has started the year cold but unlike Ceci his utilization is more encouraging. Not only is his five-on-five shooting percentage incredibly low, he also has a proven track record putting up points. Over the last three years prior to this one he has produced at a 31-point pace. This is a real possibility this year especially if he can keep his spot on the second power-play unit. There is a real opportunity to buy low, specifically in leagues that play to his strengths. Plus, his age (31) plays in your favor if you are looking to acquire him at a discount rate in a keeper league.

John Carlson – Washington

After being extremely potent offensively the past two years Carlson is off to a slow start. It is not for a lack of trying as he is averaging more than three shots per game while logging a ton of ice time in all situations. One issue has been the Capitals’ power play which ranks just 18th in efficiency this year. Not surprisingly Carlson has yet to cash in on the man advantage after combining for 30 over the last two years. Look for things to turn around soon for Carlson as he has a good history and a great environment in Washington. Once he gets going look for some of the momentum to rub off on Dmitry Orlov, his new defense partner. Both could be considered buy-low options at this time.

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