Ramblings: Why You Should Draft Defensemen Early (September 24)

by steve laidlaw on September 23, 2016
  • Hockey Rambling
  • Ramblings: Why You Should Draft Defensemen Early (September 24)

Draft Strategy: Why drafting defensemen early is in your best interests.

Hey gang! It’s been a while. I am happy to announce that I’ll be back for another year of rambling. Stick tap to Mike and Neil for holding down the fort. I’ll be easing in with the next few Saturday ramblings before taking over full time once the regular season begins. Buckle up because as always, I've got a lot to say!

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I have been getting after some mock drafts lately – enough so that I feel ready for all of my drafts, which are coming up quickly. My first draft goes on Sunday evening and then I’ll have two more done by the end of next weekend. All of my leagues will be some variation of standard head-to-head formats so that’s how I have designed my rankings and my draft strategizing.

Important note: I built my rankings around not giving a chicken cluck about plus/minus. I realize it accounts for 10 per cent of the scoring in standard leagues but it’s not a stat I find much consistency in and it is ultimately not something I care much about when considering player talent. I care more about scoring potential, power play time and shot production. If I stumble into a dominant squad in plus/minus it will be a happy mistake as I’ll gladly punt plus/minus for dominance elsewhere.

That brings up another important note: I don’t care much about injury history when building my rankings. In H2H formats, you need to have the strongest team come playoff time on a per-game basis. If a guy misses the whole month of December, it won’t matter as long as he’s healthy and productive come fantasy hockey playoffs. Injuries only cost you if they come during those fantasy playoffs or if they pile up enough to cost you a playoff spot.

If you are in a box pool, or a simple points league then injuries can be devastating and evading Band-Aid Boys becomes a high priority. In rotisserie leagues with games-played limits you may want to steer clear of Band-Aid Boys as well because it’s about maximizing your production across the full stretch of games allowed. You may find it tougher to do so with an elite player for 55 games and a waiver wire replacement filling in the remainder of the games allowed.

One last note: if you are unfamiliar, Yahoo! standard settings score goals, assists, plus/minus, power-play points, shots on goal, penalty in-minutes, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. The standard roster is two centermen, two left wingers, two right wingers, four defensemen, two goalies and four bench spots. The mock drafts they offer give you the option of drafting for 8-, 10-, 12-, or 14-team leagues. I mostly opted to draft in 12-team leagues as that’s the largest size of league I’ll be drafting in over the next week.

Many leagues are either getting deeper with teams or are expanding roster sizes to three starters per forward spot and sometimes as many as six defensemen. That will require you to rank more and more players and reach deeper for “sleeper” candidates.

In the standard 12-team setup most teams are going to fill all their starting slots while using the bench to draft a backup in goal and at each forward slot.

Some folks will opt to draft a fifth defenseman to rotate in on off-nights for their starters. They do so likely because they have two tent-poles in goal and “don’t need a backup” or because they feel with four defensemen slots there is opportunity for the bench defenseman to get into more games than at any other position because they rest only start two. I’m okay with this strategy but only if you draft the right defensemen. I also won’t be following this strategy myself.

I am more likely to field just three defensemen off the start than I am to draft five. The theory is that since there were only 26 defensemen to hit 40 points last season and that there are 48 defense slots to be filled in a standard league, I am likely to be using a defenseman who won’t hit 40 to fill my last slot. Hell, I am likely to be using a defenseman who won’t hit 40 to fill my third spot, let alone my fourth.

This simply doesn’t do it for me though. I don’t stand for 40-point wingers taking up roster space, so why would I do the same for my defense slots? Just because the talent at this position is scarce doesn’t mean you should set a lower standard. That means I am going after 50-point defensemen of which there were but 12 last season. There are a few more who could easily get there or offer enough peripheral value to be worth rostering on a nightly basis.

At the core of this sentiment is the notion that if a player isn’t producing something for my roster on a near nightly basis, I’d be better off streaming hot options off the waiver wire than keeping that player in the lineup from Game One to Game 82. There are maybe 25 defensemen who fit that criteria. That makes for a very short list. It also makes defensemen into an incredibly scarce resource that should be mined early in drafts.

Here are my tiered rankings for defensemen in standard leagues (I have highlighted certain rankings that stand out one way or the other):

Tier One

Yahoo Rank (ADP)

ESPN Rank (ADP)

Erik Karlsson

2 (16.5)

1 (10.7)

Brent Burns

1 (13.5)

2 (15.4)

Kris Letang

5 (38.3)

6 (42.0)

 

Karlsson and Burns are clear #1 and #2 among defensemen. Letang fits in well as a consolation option as he produces similar numbers on a per-game basis. He just misses tons of time.

As far as draft strategy goes, unless I am nailing one of Alexander Ovechkin, Jamie Benn or Sidney Crosby, I am not taking a forward with my first pick. In most mocks I’ve been able to land one of Karlsson or Burns in the early second round so that makes my first pick likely a goalie selection.

I’ve taken Karlsson as high as third overall in drafts in the past, which has worked out well for me, but with Burns and Letang closing the gap, I don’t need to draft Karlsson so early. I can take an elite goalie in round one and then hope to snag one of my Top Tier defensemen in round two.

I have experimented a bunch with a “punt goaltending” strategy but have found I have no stomach for such uncertainty in goal. I want one of my Top Tier goalies (Carey Price, Ben Bishop or Braden Holtby) early in the draft so I can coast past all the middle tier goalie options, all of whom scare me. I need a tent pole early on. I might be able to settle for Cory Schneider as my #1 but I haven’t had a mock draft where I have done so.

In my best mock drafts, I’ve been able to nail Price as the first goalie off the board and then snag one of Karlsson or Burns in the mid-to-late second round. When neither have been available, Letang has been there as a consolation prize and then I’ve doubled down with one of my Tier Two options in the third round.

Tier Two

Yahoo Rank (ADP)

ESPN Rank (ADP)

Dustin Byfuglien

4 (36.7)

3 (29.6)

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

7 (45.0)

4 (36.5)

PK Subban

3 (22.4)

5 (37.4)

Justin Faulk

19 (82.6)

28 (129.7)

Shea Weber

11 (57.9)

9 (49.2)

Mark Giordano

14 (70.8)

10 (51.0)

 

Subban is a big time riser on Yahoo! to the point I doubt I’ll have him on any teams. I have serious doubts about his production with all the depth in Nashville. Subban was fifth in overall ice time last season and skated a ton of time on the power play. He’ll see less in Nashville, especially on the power play as the Predators divide time between their two PP units evenly. Subban could be more productive in fewer minutes but I have less confidence in him than had he stayed with the Habs.

To be clear, I still project Subban to clear 50 points but I could hear arguments for him reaching 60+ were he still #1 in Montreal. He’s 1B in Nashville.

Byfuglien and OEL are the guys I am looking for in round three or four if I don’t get two top tier options. They have upside to score near the top tier and have excellent peripherals as well. The young talent on Winnipeg and Arizona boosts the upside of proven defensemen. High floor and high ceiling.

Faulk and Giordano both look really intriguing starting in round six but I’ll also take Weber there if he slips.

Tier Three

Yahoo Rank (ADP)

ESPN Rank (ADP)

Kevin Shattenkirk

21 (94.6)

14 (81.0)

Roman Josi

10 (57.3)

8 (44.5)

Shayne Gostisbehere

8 (53.0)

12 (58.4)

Keith Yandle

18 (79.4)

22 (113.8)

John Klingberg

12 (59.4)

11 (56.6)

Tyson Barrie

20 (91.3)

25 (117.6)

Drew Doughty

6 (43.6)

7 (42.1)

 

This tier is mostly about pure puck movers so there some inherent risk. Grab the wrong guy in this tier and you get a 45-point defenseman who doesn’t put up many PIM and comes short of 200 SOG. Still a valuable guy but he doesn’t quite fit the criterion of being productive on a nightly basis. These guys are mostly safe, however, and all boast serious offensive upside.

Because there is added risk, I advocate for one of Shattenkirk, Yandle or Barrie who are going much later. These guys also are coming off poor showings in plus/minus, which has driven their ADP down. We don’t care about that in these rankings, however.

Doughty is going far too high for my rankings/projections. Extremely unlikely I have him in any of my one-year leagues.

Tier Four

Yahoo Rank (ADP)

ESPN Rank (ADP)

Torey Krug

16 (77.3)

18 (100.3)

Rasmus Ristolainen

22 (99.2)

30 (143.7)

Aaron Ekblad

17 (78.2)

19 (104.0)

Victor Hedman

15 (72.3)

17 (91.7)

John Carlson

9 (56.2)

20 (111.4)

Dion Phaneuf

44 (156.3)

44 (189.1)

Duncan Keith

13 (62.3)

13 (67.3)

Dougie Hamilton

26 (106.9)

34 (147.6)

 

Assuming I get cocky or there is a real juicy run of forwards and I happen to miss out on the third tier of options there is always the fourth tier.

Phaneuf is in here purely as a final round flyer because he offers an incredible floor with his PIM production. I’m fine grabbing Phaneuf to pad my PIM totals while still offering 30 points and about 140 SOG. That makes him useful on the majority of nights.

The rest of the group is just riskier than the third tier options.

You've Gone Too Far

Yahoo Rank (ADP)

ESPN Rank (ADP)

Andrei Markov

54 (162.3)

16 (90.8)

Ryan Suter

25 (104.4)

15 (88.8)

Jake Muzzin

23 (103.7)

26 (131.4)

Nick Leddy

42 (149.1)

54 (200.2)

Sami Vatanen

28 (115.2)

23 (114.9)

Ryan McDonagh

30 (122.2)

31 (144.5)

Alex Pietrangelo

27 (115.0)

24 (116.7)

Brent Seabrook

24 (103.6)

26 (121.9)

Seth Jones

33 (126.5)

38 (166.7)

Marc-Edouard Vlasic

29 (116.7)

35 (151.4)

Anton Stralman

36 (135.9)

33 (146.9)

Morgan Rielly

49 (156.9)

47 (193.7)

Zdeno Chara

43 (151.7)

27 (127.5)

Alex Edler

81 (164.4)

64 (215.1)

 

In plenty of mock drafts I have elected to go with only three defensemen and use the fourth spot as a rover. I have taken Markov with my last pick in those drafts to prove a point that he is heavily undervalued.

My defense strategy dictates that if you have to dip into this tier, there’s a good chance you’ll be dropping this guy for a hot option later, so don’t bother using a high pick on any of these guys. Make it your last pick if you must dip into this group.

I should also mention that this group is but a selection of intriguing defensemen. There are plenty of others who could be considered. Colton Parayko, for instance, likely jumps up to Tier Three if Shattenkirk is ever traded. He’d then become the Blues’ lone defenseman on the top PP unit. A cushy gig to say the least.

The latest rumours indicate Shattenkirk to New York for Rick Nash is still in play, which would help to suppress McDonagh’s fantasy value for another year.

I would also encourage you to build your own rankings. I’m sure plenty of you would consider Seabrook or Pietrangelo worth owning on a nightly basis, especially if you aren’t punting on plus/minus. Or maybe you think Matt Dumba beats out Suter as point man for the Bruce Boudreau led Wild and thus breaks the 50-point barrier. There is room to shift the rankings around to your content.

What I don’t encourage is taking lower upside, weak peripheral options like Stralman or McDonagh or Suter and assuming they are “really good” defensemen because they have a good shot at 40-45 points. Demand more of your defensemen.

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By the way, here are the results of my favourite mock draft thus far:

1.10 – Carey Price

2.15 – Erik Karlsson

3.34 – Blake Wheeler

4.39 – Filip Forsberg

5.58 – Mark Giordano

6.63 – Jakub Voracek

7.82 – Jason Spezza

8.87 – Justin Faulk

9.106 – Tyler Johnson

10.111 – Brendan Gallagher

11.130 – Marc-Andre Fleury

12.135 – Mike Hoffman

13.154 – Patrik Laine

14.159 – Connor Hellebuyck

15.178 – Vincent Trocheck

16.183 – Andrei Markov

I think this is proof you can draft defensemen early and often and still come out with a great looking roster.

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Now for a little Q&A…

Phil Kessel has a shot at 70 points but looking at how he is being used I don’t feel comfortable making that projection. I have him down for 30 goals and 65 points. With the right bounces he could get to 70 but I wouldn’t draft him assuming that he will.

Ristolainen should improve. He turns just 22 years old and already has his first 40-point season under his belt. He has solidified his spot as the #1 defenseman in Buffalo and should continue to grow alongside their young core.

You could look at a couple things as signs for regression: Ristolainen closed the season with just six points over the final 22 games and the return of Cody Franson could nip some of Ristolainen’s opportunities. I am flipping this the other way though. The bad finish is likely a sign of being overworked, which is something Dan Bylsma has alluded to, so the return of Franson should help alleviate that.

I really like the fit for Kyle Okposo in Buffalo. Whether he skates with Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel, Okposo will help the Sabres at 5-on-5 and on the power play. Add in some internal growth for the Sabres as a young team and I think things become easier for Ristolainen in general. He could produce more in less minutes.

For leagues with hits and faceoffs, I would draft for both. These are highly abundant stats that are fairly easy to project. Key on players with wing eligibility who can win you lots of faceoffs. O’Reilly is a great example. I can’t recommend the Fantasy Hockey Geek tools enough either. They’ll breakdown player value for you in a very simple way.

As for predictability in shorthanded goals, the simple answer is no. The sample size for scoring opportunities while shorthanded is so small that we don’t see much consistency from year to year with shorthanded production. The odd elite players who play a ton on the penalty kill do show some repeat production but not enough to nail it down to “Player X should score five SHG and two SHA.” I generally feel that shorthanded points make for a weak fantasy statistic because of their scarcity. It’s okay in rotisserie formats but junk in head-to-head unless you like things to be decided at random.

Tom Collins took a look at the top shorthanded producers a couple of years ago. It’s a little dated but I think it’s telling that the top shorthanded producer was Marian Hossa with 17 points over five seasons, which is barely over three SHP per season.

Feels like we are comparing apples to oranges here. Eberle has scored at a 63-point pace for his entire career and already has a 76-point season under his belt. He’s a proven scorer with immense potential. Of course he could mesh with McDavid and put up big numbers.

I really want to project both Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon to clear 70 points. When these two play together it is something to behold. They are so fast and skilled that they can gain the offensive zone whenever they want. They are irresistible at the opposition’s blueline. The new Avalanche coach must play these two together frequently and also get their power play figured out for me to have faith in either one busting loose. I will say that if one of these two breaks 70 they may both break 70.

My projections have Duchene at 61 points and MacKinnon at 60.

I would also like to point out a dirty little secret: MacKinnon’s shooting percentage is only 8.7%, which is low for an elite player. He’ll need to make up for that with high volume shooting, elite playmaking and/or a spike in shooting percentage. At his career average, MacKinnon will only hit 30 goals if he can rack up 345 SOG. Seems unlikely.

That means MacKinnon’s easiest path to 70 points is to start creeping into the 45-50 assist range, which he has yet to show flashes of. MacKinnon’s assist could creep up and his shooting percentage could as well if the Avalanche can boast an elite power play but that might be asking a lot.

So like I said, my projection for MacKinnon is 60 points.

Nick Bjugstad will be better than last year but he’s been passed by Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck. Even on a deep Florida team Bjugstad will be in tough to produce consistently. I like him for solid SOG and hit totals though.

Multi-category breakout candidates, in no particular order:

Patrik Laine

Matt Dumba

Colton Parayko

Chris Kreider

Anders Lee

Nazem Kadri

Sam Bennett

JT Miller

Nino Niederreiter

Strong save percentage. Not enough goal support. More Jimmy Howard than anyone but Howard’s family would like to see. .500 record over 50 starts.

Hellebuyck is easily the most talented goalie in Winnipeg but he’ll have to go to camp and outright win the job because both Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson have NHL contracts. I really want to state that it’s outright tanking if Hellebuyck isn’t the starter on opening night but if he shits the bed in training camp you could easily see Pavelec return as the starter.

Ultimately, Pavelec is at best a league-average goalie and at worst a self-destruct button. Hellebuyck is the only Jet goalie worth drafting because his upside is that of a top-five goalie. You can also get Hellebuyck extremely late in drafts so it’s worth taking a flyer to see what happens. If he doesn’t break camp on the team you can easily shift to an alternate option.

Here’s a good place to start.

There have been studies in the past that have shown that the previous season’s standings do a better job than the prognosticators at projecting the following season’s standings so I’ll go with the status quo and say Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

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Thanks for reading! Best of luck in your drafts. Let's chat again next week.

Steve Laidlaw is the Managing Editor of DobberHockey. Follow him on Twitter @SteveLaidlaw.