The ESPN Player Rater exercise that I went through with goaltenders in last Friday's Forecaster proved to be valuable enough to continue the theme.
Here, I will present defensemen tiered by the Player Rater so far this season. Remember, the Player Rater is unforgiving and unbiased; it ranks players solely based on the statistics they have generated this season and nothing else. There are no considerations for injury and no considerations for potential or expected performance.
Fantasy managers should use this tiering as a wake-up call for players in an unexpected location. Has your No. 1 fantasy defenseman been performing like a No. 4? Maybe it's time to consider that as a new reality. What about that free agent who is currently a No. 2 fantasy defenseman? Maybe it's time to pick him up.
Keep in mind that small sample sizes are at play here, and the fact is these values are quite tight in some cases. This is just to clearly show us all how the defensemen have been stacking up so far this season.
Tier 1: Elite options
Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Drew Doughty, Mike Green, Dustin Byfuglien, Shayne Gostisbehere and Victor Hedman give us our first grouping, though you could make an argument to have Pietrangelo in a tier all by himself at the top. The St. Louis Blues' unquestioned No. 1 defenseman has been that good. Ever since Shattenkirk left via trade last season, Pietrangelo has been on fire. There is no reason to bet against Pietrangelo finishing at the top of this list. Green is a huge surprise to see here, but he's earning his keep through some power-play production that just wasn't there last season. While he may not be Tier 1 by the end of the season, it's clear he is fantasy relevant this year. This is also a bounce-back campaign for Gostisbehere, as he already has 38 percent of his production from all of last season in just 13 games. The more pressing matter for this tier is who is absent from it, including Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Kris Letang.
Tier 2: Still No. 1 fantasy defensemen
John Klingberg, P.K. Subban, Jake Muzzin, Aaron Ekblad and John Carlson make up a second grouping of value on the Player Rater. I'm cutting off the grouping here for an even 12 No. 1 fantasy defensemen in a 12-team league, but know that Tier 2 and Tier 3 are all one good or bad game away from being equal in value. That said, there is no one here who is a complete shock, and yes, that goes for Muzzin, as well. Remember that he was a fantasy force two seasons ago before a down season in 2016-17. While it's great to see Ekblad this high, note that his highest scoring category on the Player Rater is his penalty minutes, so he is a candidate to drop a couple tiers.
Tier 3: Into the No. 2 fantasy defensemen
Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Tyson Barrie, Morgan Rielly, Roman Josi and Mikhail Sergachev offer up the first group that all squarely wear the label of No. 2 fantasy defenseman (in 12-team leagues). Again, the value is tight knit in this realm. Sergachev, who is No. 18 overall, and Subban, who is in the above tier and No. 9 overall, are separated by fewer points on the Player Rater than Pietrangelo (No. 1) and Green (No. 4). With the small sample size so far, one great game by Sergachev and one particularly poor outing by Subban could see them switch places here. Qualifiers aside, the encouraging names to see here for fantasy owners so far are Jones, Barrie, Rielly and Sergachev. Sergachev was a true dark-horse sleeper heading into the season and Barrie is a great bounce-back story, while Jones and Rielly are sneaking in as post-hype sleepers.
Tier 4: Moving up quickly
Kris Letang, Ryan McDonagh, Shea Weber, Nick Leddy and Erik Karlsson are the next grouping and don't quite fill out our roster to two defensemen each for a 12-team league (Karlsson is ranked 23rd). But there's enough of a gap after Karlsson to cut off the tiering. Letang, Weber and Karlsson are out of place here, as they are No. 1 fantasy defensemen without question. Letang is being held back by a brutal minus-15. If he had an even plus/minus - not positive, just even - he'd be the fourth overall defenseman behind Doughty. Weber is also being hampered by a minus rating and his team's slow start to the season, but he's coming around. And Karlsson, of course, missed the first couple weeks of the season with an ankle injury, but he has been just fine since returning.
Tier 5: Some surprises
Will Butcher, Josh Manson, T.J. Brodie, Colin Miller, Keith Yandle and Brent Burns push us into the realm of No. 3 fantasy defensemen (Burns is ranked 29th). The surprises here are in both good and bad connotations. Butcher, Miller and Brodie are all surprises in a good way, and all three are candidates to keep up the pace. Shea Theodore didn't do enough with recent opportunities to give the Vegas Golden Knights a reason not to trust Miller as their power-play quarterback, Butcher is the puck-moving defenseman that the New Jersey Devils have craved for years and Brodie has been stealing the spotlight on the Calgary Flames power play. Burns is an unfortunate surprise, but as discussed in our rest-of-the-season rankings earlier this week, but he'll come around soon. All the supporting stats are there.
Tier 6: Rounding out the No. 3s
Radko Gudas, Jason Demers, Brandon Montour, Erik Johnson, Ryan Suter, Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara fill out our list of No. 3 fantasy defensemen for a 12-team league (Chara is ranked 36th) and offer us a few names that I don't expect to see as fantasy relevant by the end of the season. I'm cutting off the tier at Chara for appearances only, as Tier 6 and Tier 7 are all arguably a wash for fantasy value. We are down to the defensemen who aren't hurting your fantasy team, but they're not really helping it either. However, these players are in good position for one short hot streak to push them up multiple tiers. Suter and Keith have enough of a track record where you should feel good about them even though they are starting slow. Johnson is earning his keep here with monstrous ice time and hefty shot totals, but his stats are a bit empty outside of that realm. Montour is going to be slipping, along with his ice time, now that Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are healthy again.
Tier 7: No. 4 fantasy defensemen
Dougie Hamilton, Anton Stralman, Dion Phaneuf, Colton Parayko, Derek Forbort, Jared Spurgeon, Mark Giordano, Ivan Provorov, Brent Seabrook, Charlie McAvoy, Tyler Myers and Mattias Ekholm fill out the 12-team league rosters with a total of 48 defensemen tiered up here. They also show just how spread out and unpredictable this early season value can be. It wouldn't be a complete shock to see half of this list move up in ranking and half this list move out of this ranking in less than a month's time. It's troublesome to see Hamilton and Giordano down here, and that concern is valid. As mentioned, the Flames are seemingly committed to a four-forward power play for the first unit, and the anchor on the blue line has been Brodie to date. It's left Hamilton and Giordano to pick up the scraps on the second unit. Still, Hamilton's ice time has spiked in the past week, which could be a sign of good things to come.
Missed out: Torey Krug is quickly rising the ranks, showing that he's shaken off an early-season injury and reclaimed his role as the Boston Bruins lead offensive defenseman. ... Rasmus Ristolainen has started at a snail's pace and is now on the shelf with an upper-body injury. He's not droppable yet, but he should be on benches. ... Oscar Klefbom has the shots on goal and ice time, but the other stats just aren't there. There's a chance the Edmonton Oilers can turn this thing around, but it's okay to part way with Klefbom in the meantime. ... Oliver Ekman-Larsson is on pace to come close to matching last season's output, which is very bad news for fantasy owners hoping for a bounce-back season. ... Justin Faulk is the highest Carolina Hurricanes defenseman on the Player Rater, but Noah Hanifin easily leads the defensive group in scoring so far. He may be the better defenseman to roster at this point.
Fantasy Forecaster: Nov. 13-19
After a spike in the number of games last week, it's a slower week of action in the NHL. Only four teams enjoy a four-game schedule, while seven teams are limited to only two games.
The Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings are the beneficiary of an extra contest. It's a week of extremes for the bonus teams, as the Hurricanes lead the league in Corsi, the Stars have the best power play in the NHL and the Kings feature the league's best penalty kill.
Playing only twice are the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Devils, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. None of the squads go on back-to-back nights, so your workhorse goaltenders should still be good for both starts.
Note: For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: "O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup) and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's season-to-date statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The "Ratings" column lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's offensive ("O") and defensive ("D") matchups.
In the notes -- team, goalie and player -- below, the focus every week will be mainly on players who are available for potential use. Rostering below 50 percent of ESPN leagues is a good generalized cutoff, and I'll try to include players below 10 percent whenever possible to cater to deeper formats.
The Stars hit the road to the Southeastern U.S. to face the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes before hosting the Oilers next week. The Hurricanes are 25th in the league on the penalty kill, while the Panthers and Oilers are last and second last. Combine that knowledge with the Stars boasting the NHL's best power play, and you have a potent play for the week. Of course, most of the Stars' fantasy assets are no-brainer starts, but consider Devin Shore as a back-end member of your roster. He's locked in on the first power play with Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Klingberg, while at the same time landing on the second line with Seguin in a recent shuffle. Jason Spezza and Esa Lindell are desperation plays for deeper leagues as the main catalysts of the second power-play unit.
Los Angeles Kings
Adrian Kempe's illness on Thursday night threw off the line combinations as the Kings were posterized by the Lightning. Assuming Kempe is feeling better for next week, it's a good time to roll the Kings second line, which features Kempe, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. The Kings stay home for contests against the Vancouver Canucks, Bruins and Panthers before a visit to the Golden Knights during a four-game week. During the past four healthy games together, the trio has combined for 12 points. Alex Iafallo is also worthy of a spot start in your lineup for the week, as he's finally starting to get some trickle-down points from spending so much time on the ice with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
The Jets have the best rating on the Forecaster thanks to a three-game homestead against the visiting Arizona Coyotes, Panthers and Devils. The question remains as Mathieu Perreault trends toward a return to the lineup: Does Kyle Connor stick in the top six when Perreault returns? Connor has managed seven points in the nine games with Perreault out of the lineup, skating on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. But better still, Wheeler and Scheifele have exploded for 30 points during those nine games and clearly have a flow going with the current lineup. With so much success on the books for this trio and Perreault's history of playing bottom-three minutes at times, here's betting that Connor gets an extended look. Try him out in your lineup next week.
Scott Darling, G, Carolina Hurricanes (rostered in 34.0 percent of ESPN leagues)
Though two successful games against the Panthers and Coyotes aren't exactly worth writing home about, Darling should be building some confidence. The Hurricanes are the possession leaders in the early going for the NHL, ranking second in the league in shots per game and second in the league in limiting shots against per game. The recipe is there for more success from Darling. Next week's schedule isn't the greatest, but it should tell us a lot about where Darling is trending if he can come out unscathed against the Stars, Buffalo Sabres and two meetings with the suddenly-dangerous New York Islanders. Get him onto your bench and see where this goes.
Kari Lehtonen, G, Dallas Stars (2.2 percent)
Lehtonen should get one, if not two starts during a busy week for the Stars. Surprisingly, he's the Stars goaltender with better ratios this season, as starter Ben Bishop has struggled to a 2.71 goals-against average so far. If he only gets one start next week, it should be the sweetheart matchup with the Panthers. He's only allowed two goals in his past two starts - both wins - against the Sabres and Flames.
Honorable mentions: Carey Price is probably going to be healthy enough to return to the crease by next week, but it's not unreasonable to tuck Charlie Lindgren on your bench just in case. Lindgren has impressed during the past three games, posting a .961 save percentage for the previously-hapless Habs. ... John Gibson owners will want to monitor his health headed into next week and consider a backup plan. He's day-to-day for now, but didn't suit up on Thursday. With Ryan Miller leaving Thursday's game with an injury and only two games on tap for the Ducks, Reto Berra isn't much of a consideration, even if both Gibson and Miller stay off the ice. ... Marc-Andre Fleury was on the ice practicing this week with the Golden Knights. He's only rostered in 56.6 percent of ESPN leagues at the moment and should return to workhorse status when he's healthy. ... Cory Schneider's fantasy managers should make another plan for next week, as the Devils only face the potent offenses of the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets.
Pavel Buchnevich, LW/RW, New York Rangers (rostered in 35.4 percent of ESPN leagues)
The Rangers have seemingly settled into some semi-permanent line combinations, and Buchnevich is riding at the top of the depth chart. After posting some games with less than 10 minutes of ice time earlier in the season, Buchnevich has recently peaked at over 17 minutes. The result of the increase during the past couple of weeks has been a streak of 10 points in eight games for Buchnevich, as he roles on a line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Erik Haula, LW, Vegas Golden Knights (4.1 percent)
Replacing Cody Eakin on the top line with James Neal and David Perron in recent games, Haula has a three-game point streak with three goals and two helpers. He's also been sticking as part of the top power-play unit, showing four of his eight points this season on the man advantage.
Zack Smith, C/LW, Ottawa Senators (2.4 percent)
We have no evidence yet, but Matt Duchene feels like he's going to be a good fit with the Senators. Trying to get ahead of the curve in deeper leagues will mean targeting Smith, who is expected to flank Duchene in his debut along with Mike Hoffman on Friday. Despite never topping 40 points in a season, Smith has three double-digit-point months to his credit in the past two years, showing an ability to get hot in the right role on offense. He'll have to show well quickly, as Bobby Ryan is nearing a return from from a broken finger.
Honorable mentions: Mathew Barzal joins a host of Islanders that have been succeeding since the team decided to spread out its scoring. Ten of his 14 points this season have come in the past five and a half games, which is when the Islanders moved Jordan Eberle off the top line (to Barzal's side) partway through a game against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 26. ... Derek Grant has some longer-term appeal as Ryan Getzlaf is out indefinitely following facial surgery. Grant is playing with Rickard Rakell and Corey Perry and has posted nine points in his past 10 games.
To the bench: With the way the Blackhawks offense has been performing and only two games on tap, there's no reason to go much deeper than Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad for Chicago starters next week.