Ramblings: Taking Defensemen as Keepers, Kessel, Rask, Johnson

by Ian Gooding on August 14, 2016
  • Hockey Rambling
  • Ramblings: Taking Defensemen as Keepers, Kessel, Rask, Johnson

Taking defensemen as keepers, Kessel, Rask, Johnson

You could call this a fantasy hockey case study. One in which I need to determine which of my players that I want to keep on one of my keeper teams. So I’ll share with you what I know and what I’ve learned along the way for a few players that you might be considering keeping as well for your own teams.

For the past few years, I’ve played in a fantasy hockey writers league simply known as the Experts League. Although I am a one-time winner of this league (during the lockout-shortened season, but it’s a win nevertheless), I didn’t have good luck last season with my keepers. We are allowed four keepers, no more than one of which can be a goalie. My four keepers, who all suffered down years, were Tyler Johnson, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, and Tuukka Rask. So my hypothesis is that it’s unlikely that I’ll be keeping all four of these players.

To help me decide who I want to keep, I’ve started with the rankings from both NHL.com and ESPN, though NHL.com’s rankings are the most relevant to Yahoo leagues. My skater categories are G, A, +/-, PPP, SOG, HIT, and BLK. It’s a 12-team roto league.

I used the Dobber Hockey sortable spreadsheet from the Draft Guide along with previous season stats to rank each potential keeper from 1 to 5 in each of my scoring categories. I then totaled up a score for each player to determine their worth in each league. This took a bit of work on my part. But if you want to save yourself some time in that regard, you’ll really want to consider the Fantasy Hockey Geek product.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Drew Doughty

I managed to draft both Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who both helped my team considerably in numerous categories. I’ve lumped them together because I’ve decided on these two as my first two keepers. In my 10+ years of playing online fantasy hockey, it’s practically unheard of that my first two keepers would be defensemen. For more on the increased value of defensemen in fantasy leagues, see my Ramblings from two weeks ago.  

The fact that this league counts hits only enhances my decision to keep Doughty and Ekman-Larsson. The two defensemen had the two highest power-play point totals on my team last season, which might be more of an indictment of my lack of star power at forward, but top-tier defensemen will usually be in demand for their power-play points. Aside from OEL’s weak plus/minus (which could improve as the Coyotes mature), both defensemen are capable of filling up the stat sheet in just about every category. Just one more reason that top-tier defensemen are so valuable to roto teams. 

Below is the placing of each player among defensemen in each category last season (T=tied). Doughty is a D1 in five of seven categories, while OEL is a D1 in three of seven categories (and a top-5 option in those categories to boot).


























Phil Kessel

At this point I am choosing between Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Tyler Johnson, Derick Brassard, Justin Faulk, and David Backes. In spite of his virtual nonexistent contribution in hits and blocked shots, Kessel still has the scoring upside to be a keeper.

After taking a while to settle into Pittsburgh, Kessel seemed to be a different player after the new year. After January 1, Kessel scored at a 0.84 points/game pace (38 points in 45 games). Add to that the 22 points in 24 games that he scored on the Penguins’ “third line” with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, and you have a player that finally found his way in Pittsburgh. Of course, Kessel’s presence improves the fantasy stock of both Bonino and Hagelin, assuming that the three stay together.

For a player who appears to not put forth much effort at times, Kessel finds the time to take a ton of shots on goal. More of those shots on goal could find the back of the net if his shooting percentage improves from the 8-9 percent over the past two seasons back to the 12 percent during his best days as a Leaf. That increased conversion rate could improve Kessel’s goal total by almost ten goals, from around 25 goals to close to 35. Or you could split the difference on that shooting percentage increase and pencil Kessel in for 30.

Tuukka Rask

Is it still Tuukka time in keeper leagues? This is a 12-team league, so to me that depends on whether Tuukka Rask is still a top-12 goalie. Otherwise I could target a goalie in the first round, perhaps getting him back as my fifth pick (although usually I prefer to go with the best player available). If it’s a league that counts goalie wins only, Rask would be worth keeping (tied for 11th last season). Yet Rask was 25th in goals-against average and 27th in save percentage among qualified goalies. These are stats that I consider more important than wins because they are closer to the actual performance of the goalie.

ESPN has Rask as the 15th-ranked goalie (70th overall), while NHL.com has him as the 18th-ranked goalie (111th overall). His falling ranking is due to a win total that has declined over the past two seasons, while his goals-against average and save percentage have both gotten worse over the same span. Remember when he was one of the top-tier goalies in fantasy hockey? That was when the Bruins were a contender. With Zdeno Chara aging and a thin remainder for blueline depth, Rask isn’t the appealing option that he once was. But at least we know he’ll be the starter.

Comparing a goalie to a player is probably apples to oranges. But if I compare his ranking relative to both other goalies and players, I’m probably better off keeping another player and targeting a goalie early in my draft. Some of the goalies that stand to be available include Martin Jones, Jake Allen, Matt Murray, John Gibson, Roberto Luongo, and Marc-Andre Fleury. You could argue that all are at least equal to Rask.  

Justin Faulk

Since Justin Faulk missed nearly 20 games last season, it may not be fair to do a side-by-side comparison of him with Ekman-Larsson. So what about one between the two from 2014-15?


























What surprises me is how well Faulk ranks among my other keepers, but should we be that surprised? Take away the double-digit negative plus/minus and you might have a first-tier fantasy blueliner in the making. In fact, if your league doesn’t count plus/minus (recent debate about that by The Contrarian), then you need to move Faulk up your rankings. Better yet, the Canes have a promising young defense, which could mean that his plus/minus could gradually improve or at least be easier to stomach in 2016-17.

So what if Faulk played a full 82-game season last season (which I know is a lot to ask from anyone)? He would have been on pace for 47 points. Despite missing 18 games, he was tied for second in the NHL with 12 power-play goals – all scored before the new year. Don’t be surprised if he hits 50 points this coming season. Faulk is ranked just outside the top 100 by both ESPN and NHL.com.

Tyler Johnson

I was wrestling between keeping Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov last summer and ended up making the wrong choice on that one. So I’m thinking that there’s potential for a bounce-back here, even with Steven Stamkos back as competition for icetime up the middle. The 72 points from 2014-15 may turn out to be an anomaly, but 60 points is within reach. Keep in mind that he had some bad puck luck last season, with a shooting percentage of 8.4 percent as compared to the 13-14 percent range that he reached over his previous two seasons. 

Remember the success of the Triplets during the 2015 playoffs? Consider the line combinations for Johnson both from those playoffs and the 2015-16 season. Johnson missed 13 games last season, while Ondrej Palat missed 20 games. In spite of that, Johnson managed to score 21 points in 28 games over February and March, so his lack of success had much to do with a slow start that lasted half the season.

2014-15 regular season


2014-15 playoffs



2015-16 season




Linemates matter, and reuniting the triplets for some continuity could make a big difference for TJ. There’s potential here for fantasy comeback player of the year here if the three can reunite.


Really not that much in the news, so all I have in the current events department is this sick dangle by Vladimir Tarasenko. He must have the puck on a string here. No wonder this guy is my nephew’s favorite player… and that of a lot of other kids.

Enjoy your Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding.