Eastern Edge: The Age of the Defenseman

by Eric Daoust on March 29, 2016

Morgan Rielly and a few others may soon be among the next generation of elite offensive defensemen.

Defensemen play a large role in the outcome of fantasy leagues. This is most obvious in multi-category leagues where shot-blockers and physical blueliners thrive. But even in points-only there are defenders that put up as many points as high-quality forwards. Elite-level defensemen are difficult to identify prior to their ascent to the top but with just 20 reaching the 40-point mark this year there is an appeal in identifying the next ones to reach this level while possessing the upside to one day become elite.

Today we will look at the development of four former high draft picks and what is to come in their respective futures. For additional information on the importance of defensemen in today’s NHL and for coverage on Shea Theodore, Colton Parayko, Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis check out yesterday’s edition of Wild West.

Aaron Ekblad – Florida

It goes without saying Ekblad has been a bit of a disappointment offensively in his sophomore campaign. The biggest change from last year has been his defense partner. Last year, Ekblad was deployed almost exclusively alongside veteran Brian Campbell – both at even strength and on the power play. This year, Ekblad has been paired mostly with Dmitry Kulikov at even strength and has mostly been the sole defenseman on his power-play unit. This change cannot be understated as Campbell, a strong skater with great puck-moving ability, no doubt made Ekblad’s life easier as a rookie. Kulikov is not nearly as talented with the puck leaving the 20-year-old blueliner to provide offense with less support.

Another difference in Ekblad’s second year has been his ratio of offensive-zone starts. Last year he was deployed constantly in scoring situations with nearly 61 percent of his starts coming in the offensive zone. This year with his partner Kulikov historically being used in a more defensive role Ekblad’s offensize-zone starts are down to under 56 percent.

Moving forward, Ekblad has a nice cast of young players around him coming into their own. The Panthers could finish the year with as many as six players scoring 50 or more points. Four of them are of age 24 or younger, giving the team a nice core to build around for the future. The talent up front will surely help Ekblad maximize his output in the years to come, especially if Barkov or Huberdeau can take the next step and put up immense point totals over a full year.

Keep an eye on Campbell this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He is clearly overpaid right now with a cap hit of over $7 million. Should he leave, it will free up a nice chunk of cash to pursue another quality puck-moving defenseman. If the Panthers were to land a high-end player like Keith Yandle he would no doubt get priority over Ekblad in offensive situations. It could actually end up helping the young defender but when line-shuffling becomes necessary it will be Ekblad getting the short end of the stick.

Noah Hanifin – Carolina

At this point it is pretty apparent Hanifin is not having the same impact as an 18-year-old as Ekblad did a year ago. Even on a team like the Hurricanes lacking household names on the blueline he has gotten third-pairing minutes as a rookie while lining up with a multitude of defense partners. With that said he is logging considerable time on the power play which has produced about one third of his output.

In recent weeks it looks Hanifin has taken a step forward as he has five points in his last 12 contests while averaging over 19 minutes per game. This could be a sign of things to come in year two especially if his recent trend of ice time continues over the long haul. It is worth noting his 19 points in 73 games despite limited opportunities is already closing in on fantasy-relevance. An enhanced role could put him on the map next year.

One area of concern with the Hurricanes is the supporting cast around Hanifin. After dealing captain Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg at the trade deadline, the team is very thin up front and lacks overall firepower. Of course, they will add players this summer in free agency but getting the right pieces together to produce a quality team is easier said than done. Furthermore, the Hurricanes already have their leader on defense in Justin Faulk who will be the top priority to receive heavy minutes overall and on the power play. Those waiting for Hanifin to produce big numbers and justify his draft position will likely have to be patient.

Seth Jones – Columbus

After a slow start to the year in Nashville, Jones quickly corrected course after being dealt to Columbus. He has been cold of late with just two points in his last nine games but his 28 points are a career-high. Moving forward Jones has a great opportunity to succeed with the Blue Jackets as evidenced by his average ice time of 24:30 since the trade as well as an increase in his role on the power play.

Despite his successes in Columbus so far, fantasy owners should not expect too much too soon from Jones. His 17 points in 34 games for his new club only represent a small sample and expectations are already sky-high. Maintaining this pace over a full 82-game schedule is a different matter.

Of course, there are concerns with the environment as the Blue Jackets are 22nd in goals this year and gave up their top offensive player to acquire Jones. As of today only Cam Atkinson is on pace to reach 50 points this year. With a lack of goal-scoring it will be difficult for Jones to maximize his output for the foreseeable future. It would not be a surprise for Jones to hit 40 next year but projecting him for more would lead to reaching for him at the draft table which is asking for trouble.

Morgan Rielly – Toronto

Despite a lack of power-play minutes for most of the year and a mess of a team around him (including Matt Hunwick as his most frequent defense partner) Rielly has set a career-high with 33 points this year. Obviously his role expanded following the departure of Dion Phaneuf as Rielly has averaged almost three minutes on the man-advantage and 24:40 overall since the trade. He has just 10 points in 25 games during that span but the added responsibility bodes well long-term.

While the outlook is promising for Rielly, like Hanifin and Jones a poor environment will make it difficult for Rielly to take big steps forward for the time being. Even with a fully-healthy roster the Leafs are very thin and are likely a few years away from putting up a ton of goals. However, if Rielly can continue to play such an important role for the Leafs it would not be unreasonable to expect him to finish in the 40-45-point range next year.

Of course, there is the possibility of the Leafs making a splash this summer to acquire Steven Stamkos or some other significant outside help which would greatly change the dynamic of the team and also boost the short-term value of players like Rielly.

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