Fantasy hockey season preview: What to look for when drafting defensemen

Don't overthink it, Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche is a fantasy star. Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire

The incorporation of defensive categories - such as blocked shots - into ESPN's standard game has changed the way we look at blueliners through the fantasy scope. It's no longer about those precious few candidates who shoot the puck with abandon and contribute regularly with the extra skater. Beginning for the first time this past season, well-rounded blueliners - those who provide goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, blocked shots, and hits - are more relevant to the game than ever. As in real life. Other categories such as average-time-on-ice and plus/minus can also help in rendering a defenseman a highly coveted fantasy commodity.


Only 12 defensemen earned more than 2.0 fantasy points per game in ESPN's standard league this past season. One measly dozen. But then consider that 16 blueliners finished in ESPN's Top-50 in total fantasy points. By no means is this a position to disregard.

Number of lineup spots, and how they're split between forwards and defensemen, also helps to determine how you draft your blue line. A wealth of slots up front and few on the backend requires a more conservative tactic. The discrepancy between excellent fantasy defenseman and those who are just good isn't that large. A closer split - let's say seven forwards and five defenders - asks for a more aggressive approach in selecting the best blueliners available. But never at the expense of more explosive forwards who, by and large, pay out greater fantasy dividends altogether. In more conventional leagues, I like to secure a top-12 (in my view) defender early, fill in later rounds with high-ceilinged mid-tier candidates, then pad my roster with wild cards and super-sleepers as the draft nears a close.

Top-tier defensemen I like

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (No. 8 defenseman, ESPN ranks):

He's a star, plain and simple. Only four defensemen averaged more fantasy points per game in 2020-21, and the sophomore wasn't at his healthiest. Despite sitting out a dozen games in an already compact season, Makar still finished third in scoring with the extra skater and fifth in assists. He's entrenched on one of the league's more dangerous power play units and averages upwards of 24 minutes per game. A few more blocked shots and the still-only 22-year-old could finish top of the fantasy table for his position. He's well worth early-draft selection.

Seth Jones, Chicago Blackhawks (No. 15 defenseman):

Between you and I, this here manager is targeting the newest member of the Blackhawks' blue line as her No. 1 fantasy defenseman. One of the game's more well-rounded assets, Jones already contributes handsomely across the board. Scoring? Check. Shots of goal? For sure. Blocked-shots and hits? You betcha. All the while putting in an average of 25-minutes-plus per contest. And now the gifted 26-year-old (his supposed prime) is jettisoning one of the NHL's least productive teams in Columbus for a squad of scoring colleagues including Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews (fingers crossed), and up-and-comer Kirby Dach. Chicago is paying Jones the big bucks to be elite and elite he will be. Look out.

See also: Adam Fox, New York Rangers (No. 4 defenseman), Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens (No. 10 defenseman)

Mid-tier defensemen to target

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 29 defenseman):

Toronto's top defenseman didn't shoot the puck nearly as often in 2020-21 and still managed to lead his club with 0.64 points per game and 12 points on the power play. He plays a ton of minutes and can be relied upon for a healthy plus/minus. A few more blocked-shots than this past season, and Rielly becomes top-tier once more. Snagging the Leafs D-man as your D2 or D3 (my goodness) in production-heavy fantasy leagues would serve as a huge score.

See also: Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights (No. 19 defenseman and arguably top-tier cusp), Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (No. 27 defenseman), Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks (No. 41 defenseman)

Key sleepers

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (No. 50 defenseman):

Even considering last season's relatively woeful output (23 points, minus-36 in 56 games), Dahlin's current ESPN ranking feels melodramatic. The just-turned 21-year-old accumulated 40 points in 59 contests only one season earlier when the Sabres weren't exactly a powerhouse either. The 2018 first-overall draft pick is well due for a significant bounce-back campaign on team that has nowhere to go but up (the Jack Eichel drama will be resolved at some point). Two other factors that play into my appreciation of Buffalo's best blueliner as a sleepy fantasy asset: Head coach Don Granato appears more inclined to let Dahlin to his offensive thing, as opposed to former coach Ralph Krueger's more defensive approach. And the current RFA could feel additionally inspired if signed to a bridge deal, which is a real possibility. Unless plus/minus carries extraordinary weight in your league, don't avoid drafting Dahlin as D3 or D4. He could outperform many D-men selected beforehand.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (No. 51 defenseman):

First of all, he's reportedly healthy, which is a blessed change from recent offseason stretches. Then there's the Norris Trophy-worthy resume of 625 career points in 788 regular-season games to still consider. Sure, last season was wretchedly awful by the 31-year-old's standards, but there's no just cause to believe he's irredeemably broken. Looking forward to representing Sweden at the Olympics, and earning $11.5-million on average annually for his NHL play, this former fantasy superstar will feel inspired to put up respectable numbers at minimum. If you're willing to gamble on the enduring health of his groin, go on and take a later-round flyer on one of the most prolific fantasy performers of the past decade. Just imagine if Karlsson even nears his numbers of seasons' past.

Vince Dunn, Seattle Kraken (No. 99 defenseman):

Are we all so sure Mark Giordano will be tasked with quarterbacking the Kraken's No. 1 power play? Because I'm not. Aged 24 years old, and still on the rise, Dunn appears the more appealing candidate to embrace such a role on a team that's starting from literal scratch. Turning 38 in early October, the veteran former Flame will undoubtedly get his share of special teams play and minutes at even-strength, but not the lion's portion to which he might be accustomed. Away from the glut of too many too-good defensemen in St. Louis, Dunn is bound to blossom into (maybe) one of the league's more productive defenseman. Sleeper-city, in my view.

See also: Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild (No. 48 defenseman), Shayne Gostisbehere, Arizona Coyotes (No. 63 defenseman)

Late-round picks to consider

Rasmus Andersson, Calgary Flames (No. 55 defenseman):

Other members of Calgary's blue line are required to pitch in more production, at even-strength and on the power play, now that Mark Giordano has taken his veteran talents to Seattle. Along with Noah Hanifin, that's the 24-year-old from Malmo, Sweden. At least until the Flames make more changes on their back end. He won't put up the flashiest numbers, but Andersson is a steady fantasy presence and has the wherewithal to fill a depth position as a regular contributor. Especially in deeper leagues. With Giordano gone, 40-plus points in a full season in hardly out of the question. You could do much worse

Jamie Drysdale, Anaheim Ducks (No. 96 defenseman):

If Drysdale doesn't work his way into the Ducks' top pairing this season, it shouldn't take long thereafter. A superstar-in-the-making, this offensive-minded blueliner was drafted sixth-overall by Anaheim last year for good reason. As an 18-year-old, he's already impressed at the AHL level - 10 points in 14 games - and for holding his own in 24 contests with the big-league Ducks. The future top-power-play quarterback has a long and exceptionally productive career ahead. An absolute no-brain pick in dynasty and deeper keeper leagues, the former Erie Otter could also be worth fantasy consideration in re-draft competition as early as this fall. Other gifted rookies worth watching in the here-and-now include Colorado's Bowen Byram and Detroit's Moritz Seider.

Noah Dobson, New York Islanders (No. 103 defenseman):

The lazy, hazy days of clocking 16 minutes a game are well in the rear-view for this maturing 21-year-old. With Nick Leddy taking leave and joining the Detroit Red Wings, Isles coach Barry Trotz has little choice but to throw Dobson out there each and every game as a top-four defenseman (probably) and power-play asset (most definitely). Averaging 0.55 points per contest, Leddy's departure means Dobson is in position to play a big part in filling that significant scoring void. In his third NHL season, the 12th overall draft selection (2018) has the offensive chops and is ready to take the next big step. Before running into the eventual Cup-winning Lightning, Dobson racked up seven assists in 12 playoff games this spring, including four with the extra skater. He could turn a lot of heads this season as an emerging blueline and fantasy asset.

See also: K'Andre Miller, New York Rangers (No. 100 defenseman)

Avoid in drafts at current value

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils (No. 12 defenseman):

There's no question Hamilton is a top-tier defenseman with great offensive upside in real life. None whatsoever. But competing for the Devils isn't the same as playing with his former supporting cast in Carolina. From a scoring standpoint, Hamilton will make everyone around him better in New Jersey. Unfortunately, that less-productive group is equally bound to drag down their new blue-line star to their less-productive level. The Hurricanes iced the second-best power play in the league this past season (25.6%), partly, but certainly not wholly, because of Hamilton. New Jersey ranked 28th (14.2%). I'm not suggesting you don't draft Hamilton altogether - not at all - only don't pick him as early as his ranking suggests.

See also: Alec Martinez, Vegas Golden Knights (No. three defenseman)

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