Eastern Edge – Ranking the Top Defensemen in the Eastern Conference

by Eric Daoust on August 2, 2016
  • Eastern Edge
  • Eastern Edge – Ranking the Top Defensemen in the Eastern Conference
Erik Karlsson - USA TODAY Sports Images

 

After covering the top fantasy goalies for the 2016-17 campaign last week, this week the Eastern Edge shifts to defensemen. This will focus on one-year leagues in a points-only format. Multi-category leagues will be ignored for rankings purposes because of the increasing availability of categories. More than other positions, your scoring setup will have a tremendous impact on player value for defensemen.

 

As we will see in this list, it is nearly impossible to rank among the best scorers without playing a significant role on the power play. This can also be used to identify potential newcomers to the scene as top offensive defensemen, such as Seth Jones who missed the cut but nonetheless possesses a lot of potential.

 

Honorable mention – Torey Krug (Boston)

Over the past three years, Krug has been extremely reliable as a producer in the 40-point range. Last year, his average ice time increased to 21:37, which enabled him to set a career-high in both points (44) and shots on goal (244). The increased role makes Krug a safer option as he is no longer trying to hit 40 points while playing a sheltered role.

However, there are some concerns moving forward. The Bruins were unexpectedly good on offense last year led by Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand overachieving. The team’s power play was also far better than expected which raises the possibility of a setback in goal production. Krug had 19 of his 44 points with the man advantage, so depending how the team’s ability to maintain its momentum, there is a possibility he could fall short of 40 points.

 

Honorable mention – Nick Leddy (New York Islanders)

Last year, Leddy hit the 40-point mark for the first time in his career with an increased role on the power play leading to a personal-best 19 points. With fellow highly-paid blueliner Johnny Boychuk settling into more of a defensive role, Leddy should remain on the team’s top power-play unit moving forward.

Keeping Leddy out of the top 10 is simply not having the same upside as Aaron Ekblad. However, he could easily out-produce some of the guys ranked higher, especially if the Islanders get better support from their young secondary scorers.

 

Honorable mention – Andrei Markov (Montreal)

While Markov’s value typically takes a hit due to his history with knee problems, he has been extremely reliable of late having missed just two games over the past four years. Still, some of the concern is still warranted, as he is now 37 years old and has constantly played top-pairing minutes.

One factor adding risk to Markov is the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. Although Weber’s goal-scoring ability should help the power play, it is unclear how well he will mesh with Markov. Such a big change could knock a few points off his total.

 

Honorable mention – Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers)

With the departure of Keith Yandle, McDonagh is now the Rangers’ top offensive defenseman. Back in 2013-14, he had 43 points when he was the team’s offensive focal point from the back end. There is a strong possibility he will return to this production level as his role changes once again. Look for his offensive zone starts (42 percent last year vs 48 percent in 2013-14) and ice time on the power play (1:55 last year vs 2:52 in 2013-14) to increase.

 

10) Aaron Ekblad (Florida)

Ekblad did not take a step forward in his second year, at least in terms of his production. However, the changes made by the Panthers this summer should help him immensely, in particular the signing of Keith Yandle, an elite puck-mover. Yandle’s playmaking skills should fit perfectly with Ekblad’s which will provide the biggest boost on the power play. With Ekblad's long-term contract already signed, look for his overall ice time to also see an increase going from just under 22 minutes last year to within the range of other top defensemen throughout the league.

 

9) Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo)

Ristolainen took a huge step forward last year and became the Sabres’ undisputed top defenseman. He rewarded fantasy owners with 41 points, including 21 on the power play, along with an average of 25:17 in total ice time. The Sabres are an improving club with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, both top draft picks with immense potential, having just completed their rookie campaign. The team also signed Kyle Okposo, who has twice eclipsed 60 points. The improving cast up front will give Ristolainen more opportunities to pick up points in all situations.

 

8) Justin Faulk (Carolina)

If not for missing 18 games, Faulk would have been able to challenge his career-high 49 points set in 2014-15. It is amazing he is able to produce at such a high level given the total lack of scoring ability up front in Carolina. This lack of offensive punch is always a concern when evaluating Faulk, as there are not many goals to go around.

Of course, a guy like Elias Lindholm could bounce back or newcomers such as Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravanen could break out. But in all likelihood, Faulk’s recent production is the best we can expect. The silver lining is Faulk’s role as the team’s top defenseman is unchallenged for the foreseeable future even with the team’s pipeline rich in talent on defense.

 

7) Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay)

With a great supporting cast in Tampa Bay, a 55-point season under his belt and some untapped potential, Hedman is always intriguing on draft day. Unfortunately, he has never been put in a position to maximize his output, with his ice time and opportunities on the power play not on par with other elite defensemen on a yearly basis. Plus, he is always a risk for injury with an average of 12 games missed per campaign over the last five years. As a wildcard it might be best to draft him a bit later but due to his name value this probably means he will be picked by one of your rivals.

 

6) Shea Weber (Montreal)

The recently acquired Weber is going to be relied on heavily to make an impact in Montreal this year. In particular, his ability to get shots through and score goals (three-time, 20-goal scorer) should help on the power play. However, the Canadiens as a group are far from great putting pucks in the net so it will be difficult to match the 51 points he posted in his final year with the Predators.

Working in Weber’s favor is his ice time where he constantly ranks among the league leaders. He has also proven to be fairly durable over the years, having missed four games of fewer in each of the past five years.

 

5) Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia)

Gostisbehere surprised many by posting 51 points in 64 games as a rookie in the NHL. The potential was always there but achieving this level out of the gate was unexpected. Doing it again over a full 82-game schedule is a different story, especially when the element of surprise is gone.

One area of concern is his goal-scoring. As a rookie he scored on 11.2 percent of his shots, an extremely high rate for a defenseman. Look for this to drop back to a normal level which will in turn cut into his goal total. He should be able to eclipse 50 points this year but it might not be at the level many are hoping for, especially in keeper leagues.

 

4) Keith Yandle (Florida)

In New York, Yandle was a terrible fit and his average ice time dipped under the 20-minute mark. Amazingly, he was still able to amass 47 points, which is in the range of his totals in his final years in Arizona. Now with the Panthers and on a lucrative long-term deal, he should see his utilization back where it should be. While he should be a staple on the top power-play unit, the Panthers also signed Jason Demers who could cut into some of Yandle’s minutes at even strength. He should be back over 50 points this year, but don't expect him to challenge his career-high of 59 points. It is also worth noting Yandle’s durability is a major asset considering he has not missed a game since 2008-09.

 

3) John Carlson (Washington)

If not for a midseason injury, Carlson may have beat his career-high 55 points, as he finished on pace for 57. The setback was the first time since becoming a full-time NHLer that he has missed a game, so like Yandle, Carlson’s durability is a big plus. He is logging top-pairing minutes and is often on the top power-play unit, although he has also shown he can produce at a high level when he does not get such an opportunity. Of course, the Capitals are a strong team with tons of scoring punch to help keep Carlson’s production high.

 

2) Kris Letang (Pittsburgh)

As of right now, Letang is the only defenseman in the East with enough upside to challenge Karlsson for the scoring title among defensemen in a given year. Last year was not Letang’s first time finishing in the point-per-game range – in fact, he had 38 points in 35 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

The problem for Letang is staying healthy. Last year’s 71 appearances was his highest since 2011, and he has suited up for more than 74 games just once in his career. This lack of reliability makes him a major risk every year. But his production despite so much time on the sidelines maintains his star status.

 

1) Erik Karlsson (Ottawa)

Karlsson has consistently been the top offensive defenseman in the game. Last year, he took it to a new level with 82 points, beating his previous high of 78. While he is expected to once again lead all blueliners in points, a repeat performance is unlikely. The Sens have been a high-scoring team for the past few years but will look to try to cut down on goals against now that they brought new coach Guy Boucher into the fold. 

 

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