Wild West: Age of the Defenseman (2016)

by Doran Libin on March 28, 2016

Taking a close look at Shea Theodore, Colton Parayko, Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis…

 

It has been more than 40 years since Bobby Orr and Brad Park both finished in the top 10 in the NHL in scoring. There is a very good chance it could happen again this year as Erik Karlsson sits fourth in the league in scoring and Brent Burns sits a point out of tenth. As scoring has gone down across the league defensemen are becoming more of a factor offensively. While the league’s leading scorer finished with less than 90 points last year there were still 11 defensemen who finished with more than 50 points, including three with more than 60 points. As the league’s top forwards have suffered a mighty fall from their peak in the eighties, the leading defensemen have only fallen off by 20%. Whether it is analytics and it’s focus on the puck moving defenseman or a reliance on the power play for offense more than ever there is less of a gap between top forwards and top defensemen than there has been in ages. It is not just Erik Karlsson either as Brent Burns nears 30 nears goals, Kris Letang is hovering just under a point per game and John Klingberg was near the top of the league through much of the first half of the season. This means that defensemen are as relevant in fantasy as they have been in a long time even in leagues without position requirements. The top 15 scoring defensemen is largely just a list of the defensemen already considered to be the best in the game or on the cusp of being recognized as such. It is the defensemen at the next tier who are more interesting both in their potential to add value to a team. Thus this week will focus defensemen in that tier or defensemen who have the potential to get there or make a larger jump.

 

 

Shea Theodore, Anaheim

 

Theodore has shuttled a lot between San Diego and Anaheim this year as the deep Ducks’ defense has been often injured more than anything else. The more he played in Anaheim the more responsibility and ice time he was given more responsibility and was seldom especially sheltered. In January, when he saw most of his action in the NHL, Theodore averaged almost three minutes of power play time as well as a minute of penalty killing each game. During that time he saw 19 minutes per game including 15 minutes per game at even strength, It would be difficult to expect that given a healthy Ducks’ defense corps as in his limited December action he only averaged 15 minutes per game. Even in December though he saw a minute and a half per game of power play time which bodes well for him seeing power play time when he makes the Ducks full time. That should happen sooner than later as the Ducks will likely move one their top three young of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. The best case scenario for Theodore would be if Vatanen got moved as it would open up some significant power play time for Theodore. In the usage he received this season he placed amongst the top 50 in points per 60 amongst defensemen. He has always been a dynamic presence on the backend since his days with the Seattle Thunderbirds and would be an immediate threat to get 30 points given regular power play minutes.

 

 

Colton Parayko, St Louis

 

Parayko started the season very well as he got a ton of power play time as Shattenkirk was injured. When that opportunity disappeared so did much of Parayko’s production. While Shattenkirk was out Parayko averaged upwards of three shots per game but has just over two shots per game over the season as a whole. His overall shot total still puts amongst the top 25 defensemen in shots, but his early shot rate would have him in the top five. Parayko brings a different element than any other Blues defensemen, as Shattenkirk only has ten more shots than Parayko on the season despite get the bulk of the Blues’ power play time. Parayko brings a bomb from the point and his very prepared to use it when given the chance. With the Blues being a team with an internal budget there was lots of talk of a potential Shattenkirk trade before the trade deadline and there is still talk that the Blues do not bring Shattenkirk back for next season. The removal of either Shattenkirk or Pietrangelo from the Blues lineup is a huge boon for Parayko as he moves from being the number four defenseman on a healthy Blues’ defense corps to being used basically as number two after any major injury to the corps. Parayko is not just his booming shot though as he has shown the ability to push the play and be directly involved in the offense. There is evidence of this in the fact that 22 of his 30 points are of the primary variety including nine of his 14 assists. As soon as there is a regular opening on the Blues top power play unit for Parayko he immediately becomes a 50 point threat.

 

 

Ryan Ellis, Nashville

 

Ryan Ellis was originally looked upon as an offense-only defenseman coming out of junior. There were many significant questions about his ability to play defense in the NHL. There should be no doubt his ability to succeed in the NHL as a two-way defenseman after his last two years in Nashville where he and Mattias Ekholm, a wild west favourite, have combined to form one of the best second pairings in the NHL. Ellis has shown some nice progression throughout his career and while he has long been a name bandied about in fantasy hockey since his appearances in the world juniors he is starting to show he has some actual fantasy value. This year he is averaging more than 20 minutes per game including more than two minutes per game on the power play. This season sees Ellis receive nearly a two minute per game boost in ice time. The increase in ice time has not yet resulted in a significant increase in production. He is averaging nearly half a point per game for the second straight year in concert with nearly two shots per game. Part of the issue for Ellis in increasing his rate of production is that he is being relied on more for his two-way play and not just for his offense, It his noticeable that a good chunk of his increased ice time has come on the penalty kill, especially since the Seth Jones trade. That points to the lack of increase in his overall production. Therefore it is important to look at his even strength production rate, which rivals that of Torey Krug, Jake Muzzin and Olli Maatta. The biggest issue for Ellis is that he is firmly trapped behind Shea Weber and Roman Josi, meaning that for as long as that is the case it will be nearly impossible for him to get much more than 40 points. Any coming expansion draft could be a huge factor for Ellis as getting the opportunity to anchor a defense, or more importantly a power play could see him become a Tyson Barrie type defenseman.

 

 

Cam Fowler, Anaheim

 

Fowler has been as impressive as any Duck defenseman this season as he more than held his own during the worst of the Ducks’ injuries to their backend. Fowler’s November and February perfectly show his potential to routinely threaten 50 points in a season. In each of those months he scored at better than a half point per game pace. In November he had eight points in 15 games, a 46 point pace, and in February he had eight points in 14 games, a 48 point pace. Both those months featured an uptick in Fowler’s shot rate as has his five points in nine games this March. After a few years of barely taking over a shot per game Fowler is taking more than a shot and a half per game this season, which is a welcome return to the shot rate of his rookie and sophomore seasons. One of the factors that may be holding Fowler back is that he is relied on more than any other Duck defenseman to play a defensive role at even strength. He has by far the lowest relative zone start rate of any Duck defenseman, even his most common partner, Kevin Bieksa, starts significantly more of his shifts in the offensive zone. It would do a lot for Fowler’s production if another Duck defenseman were to step up defensively as currently his usage is along the lines defense-first defensemen like Zbynek Michalek and Erik Gudbranson. Fowler is certainly capable of being a 50 point defenseman but his usage would need to change for that to occur.