In conventional scoring leagues, it really is all about the power play. Anchoring a dynamic top unit not only offers increased opportunities to score, but lays bare a particular defenseman's convention for production. No coach is throwing out their top shut-down specialist to compete alongside Connor McDavid with the man-advantage. The most well-rounded blue-line assets will also reward fantasy managers through a slew of categories, including average time-on-ice, plus/minus, shots, blocked-shots, and hits. But, again, in most traditional leagues, production takes precedence.
While ESPN's 2019-20 rankings feature a glut of quality mid-tier defensemen, precious few serve as fantasy elite. Only four players grade in the Top-50 overall, while the next 25 scatter through 51st to 150th position (then several underrated gems thereafter). Makes sense, considering only four D-men collected 70 points or more this past season, while just another nine amassed 50-plus. The lesson here is don't blow an ultra-early round pick on a defensive asset unless he's named Brent Burns (see below). In conventional leagues that reward production above all else, roster balance is key. Beyond a pair of proven assets, fantasy managers are best advised to mine the mid to lower ranks for underrated blue-line talent, not only ahead of the draft, but throughout the season (hello Erik Gustafsson!). This is where a little research goes a long way.
Top-tier defensemen I like
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks (No. 10 overall, No. 1 defenseman)
My primary top-tier fantasy choice ahead of 2018-19, Burns ended up exceeding expectations by averaging more than a point-per-game - the only defenseman to dent that barrier - with 83, while also leading the blue-line crowd with 300 shots. Fourth overall in power-play scoring, he ranked seventh in average-time-on-ice, exceeding 25 minutes. And the 34-year-old hasn't missed a single regular-season contest in five years. If fellow star Erik Karlsson can stay healthy - a legit concern in light of recent injury issues - two defensemen might lead the Sharks in overall scoring this year. An exceptional producer since turning 30, Burns is the only D-man deserving of second-round selection overall, in my view.
Months after missing more than half the 2018-19 season following surgery to fix a torn pectoralis muscle, Dumba is healthy and jived to go. Before sustaining the injury in mid-December, he amassed 22 points, including 12 goals, through 32 games. Now in his prime at age 25, the 2012 seventh-overall draft pick boasts the potential to finish top-10 in blue-line scoring, while earning hefty minutes on the No. 1 pair and power play. He's fresh and ready to break through to the next level. Draft him accordingly.
According to Subban himself, the nerve issue that cost him nearly a quarter of 2018-19 is comfortably resolved. Following this off-season's trade to the Devils, the ex-Predator feels good and exceptionally eager to rip it up in his return to the East, out from under the partial shadow cast by Nashville star Roman Josi. In New Jersey, there's no arguing Subban slides in as the Devils' No. 1 D-man and power play anchor on a unit including Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and either Nico Hischier or top draft selection Jack Hughes (coach John Hynes will undoubtedly appreciate having the option). Anticipate a record number of shots and points - 65 total wouldn't surprise me at all - from the 30-year-old this campaign, along with an average near 25 minutes per game. Not everyone thrives under the spotlight. Subban does. Watch him shine, in owning the spotlight in New Jersey.
Mid-tier defensemen to target
Now a ripe 19 years of age, with a full NHL campaign under his socks, Dahlin is poised to take his next step. Which, after notching nine goals and 35 assists in his rookie season, appears promising. Learning and adapting to the North American game on the go, the 2018 first-overall draft selection bumped his on-ice average from 19 minutes in October and November to near 22 by season's end. This kid's just getting started and will blossom further in his Sophomore year. Fantasy managers with a taste for high, capricious ceilings over sturdy, reliable floors should give the Sabres' franchise defenseman a good, long look.
Following a career 50-point season in Winnipeg, Trouba gratefully finds himself settling in a city where he can spend significantly more time with his spouse-to-be, while endeavouring to carve out the most prominent role of his pro ride to date. Top of the Rangers' depth chart and slotted in on the Rangers' No. 1 pair, the 25-year-old old is also projected to anchor a dangerous new power play with ex-Blue Jacket Artemi Panarin and young sniper Kaapo Kakko, drafted second-overall this June. Just watch: he's going to put up 60-plus points this season, including 20-plus counting with the extra skater, while averaging 25-plus minutes. For where he's ranked, Trouba might be my favorite pre-season blue-line asset of all.
After forwards Mark Stone and Matt Duchene were dealt, Chabot was left heading the leftover Sens' stats chart with 55 points in 70 games by 2018-19's end. All the more admirable a feat, considering this was only his second full NHL campaign. He also led all teammates, by a considerable margin, in minutes played, averaging more than 24 per game. Don't expect much to change this season, as Chabot remains comfortable a-top Ottawa's blue-line depth chart. As long as plus/minus doesn't carry too much weight, the 22-year-old sports sneaky value in most conventional fantasy leagues and might merit a minor reach in drafts. Bonus bit: Rookie Eric Brannstrom is one to watch in his first projected full season and should be heavily considered in dynasty leagues.
See also: Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks (No. 153, No. 30 defenseman), Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets (No. 166, No. 33 defenseman), Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes (No. 169 overall, No. 35 defenseman), Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars (No. 188, No. 41 defenseman)
Scoring on his first NHL shot during the Avalanche's most recent playoff run, Makar couldn't ask for a more auspicious start to his pro career. His following up with five assists in nine postseason games only demonstrates a readiness to take on the gig full-time. Now, especially with Tyson Barrie dealt to Toronto, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner is ready to challenge for the role of top offensive-defenseman in Colorado. And if he carves out a spot on the Avs' No. 1 power play with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen - as hoped - look out.
Last season wasn't good. One year after erupting for 65 points, Gostisbehere floundered for 37 through an equal number of 78 contests. Criticized on the regular for his defensive shortcomings - never his strong suit - the offensive-defenseman was visibly frustrated through most of his fourth full campaign. Fortunately, he seemed to partially rediscover his rhythm in the final third of the season, collecting 16 points through one stretch of 24 games. Not jaw-dropping, but better. Further, he's been vocal in his determination to prove 2017-18 was no accident, an undertaking that should be helped by changes behind the bench - not only in form of new head coach Alain Vigneault, but also assistant Mike Yeo. While another 65 point showing is unlikely, Ghost offers solid sleeper potential by possibly flirting with 50-plus.
Late-round pick to consider
As it stands, Klefbom - not the higher-ranked Darnell Nurse - remains pegged to anchor an Oilers No. 1 power play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. As long as that remains the case, and if he can stave off injury - a concern of late - the 26-year-old could serve handsomely as an under-the-radar fantasy asset. He's well worth a flier in later rounds of most drafts.
He isn't big, but he can move, and he can score. And Vancouver is counting on the latter from their 2018 seventh-overall draft pick, despite his limited resume of five games to wrap up last season (three assists). Turning 20 years old in mid-October, Hughes is anticipated to play on a top power play, helping usher in the next generation of competitive Canucks alongside forwards Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. A 45-point campaign is hardly out of the question from Jack's older brother, particularly in light of the family's recognized competitive edge. The University of Michigan Alum should be secured before the latest stages of most conventional fantasy drafts.
See also: Justin Schultz, Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 231 overall, No. 58 defenseman), Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 240 overall, No. 62 defenseman), Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche (No. 257 overall, No. 67 defenseman )
Avoid in drafts at current value
Maple Leafs newbie Tyson Barrie is the problem here. Not a problem for the Leafs as a competitive whole - quite the opposite - but for Rielly's prospective fantasy owners expecting a repeat of last year's unprecedented 72 points. See, Barrie is another reasonable contender to anchor the Leafs' No. 1 power play, particularly if coach Mike Babcock wants to muck around with utilizing a right-handed shot in the role. The offensive-defenseman served in that precise capacity for the better part of his seven years in Colorado. If that's how it tumbles out for a significant chunk of the season, Rielly is bound to take a productive hit, rendering him undeserving of the sixth-overall ranking. In this case, what improves the team altogether doesn't best serve these two players as individual assets. For elite fantasy performers on D, I'm looking elsewhere.