Defensemen preview: How early to draft Cale Makar, Brent Burns and others

Cale Makar already has a Conn Smythe, a Stanley Cup, and now he may be the top defenseman drafted. Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire

Gone are the days when you were forced to pad your roster with mediocre fantasy assets only because the blue line demanded asmuch. Not only has 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.


A whopping 23 defensemen earned more than 2.0 fantasy points per game in ESPN's standard league this past season, up from only a dozen the previous campaign. Another 33 between 1.8 and 2.0 ... But then consider that 14 blueliners finished in ESPN's Top-50 in total fantasy points, another 14 in the next 50. By no means is this a position to disregard.

The 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 (again, in my view) 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. 3 defenseman)

He's a star, that Makar. After hoisting the Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy only a few months ago, the young defender is beyond startling even the most casual fan. But in this case, familiarity does not breed fantasy contempt. We asked for a lot this past season and got even more, watching Makar smash through his own ceiling by averaging 2.9 fantasy points/game in ESPN.com's standard league, a 0.1 hair under No. 1 defender Roman Josi (96 blueline points are tough to beat) and superstar forward Connor McDavid. He shoots, he scores, he assists, he contributes on one of the better power plays in the leagues. As bonus, the young well-rounded defenseman also hits and blocks a fair number of shots. Ranked third at his position, Makar is number one in my fantasy heart. Go on and draft him in the first round, if you feel so inspired.

Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings (No. 4 defenseman)

I can't wait to see what this Sophomore does for an encore following his Calder-winning rookie season. Averaging 23 minutes/game, the sixth-overall draft selection (2019) potted 50 points on 187 shots, while blocking another 161 and throwing 151 hits through all of 82 games. Seider also led the Red Wings in power-play points (21) in anchoring a top unit that will be better this round, now that Lucas Raymond is more seasoned, and former Blues forward David Perron joins the special teams fray. Again, can't wait.

Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes (No. 15 defenseman)

As both an invested fantasy managers and everyday hockey fan, I'm really excited about this new marriage. After managing to bang out 54 points with a Sharks team ranked 30th in scoring in 2021-22, the ageless veteran joins a top-10 Hurricanes club that averaged 0.81 more goals/contest. That, my fantasy-loving friends, is no small disparity. I don't care that he's 37 years old. The legendarily durable, minute-munching, shot-happy former forward is going to light it up on a top-pair and No. 1 power play in Carolina. And to think you could secure Burns as a No. 2 fantasy defenseman. Sensational.

See also: John Carlson, Washington Capitals (No. 10 defenseman), Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 14 defenseman)

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Mid-tier defensemen to target

John Klingberg, Anaheim Ducks (No. 27)

Fully embodying the positive spirit of new-faces-in-new-places, Klingberg likewise offers a little extra fantasy sugar in signing a one-year $7-million "audition" deal in Anaheim. That's a pile of cash alright, but if the 30-year-old wants to make more gigantic masses of moolah, he best put on a show in his new west coast digs. Incentive aside, the former long-time Star is forecast to bump Cam Fowler and/or Kevin Shattenkirk (my guess is both) from the Ducks' No. 1 power play right from liftoff. A top pair assignment also feels in order. Remember when Klingberg went off for 67 points, including 23 with the extra skater, on 204 shots back in 2017-18? That was nice. He probably won't reach identical statistical heights this season, but 55-60 points with an improved Ducks squad feels manageable enough. Nailing down this veteran as your No. 3 fantasy defender could serve as a triumph.

Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks (No. 31)

Entering his fourth full NHL season, the still-only 22-year-old projects to maintain stride with his seemingly imperturbable 0.80 point/game pace. Hughes has contributed to the scoresheet at a reliable clip since day one, particularly with the extra skater. Most recently anchoring a unit with Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller, the young blueliner consistently makes the most of his special teams opportunities. Nearly half of his 165 points to date have counted on the power play. Now that Miller has signed a long-term extension in Vancouver, that group should remain comfortably intact. Just don't count on Hughes for a bunch goals. He boasts the greatest value in fantasy leagues where assists provide equal reward.

See also: Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights (No. 24), Tony DeAngelo, Philadelphia Flyers (No. 26)

Key sleepers

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (No. 43)

I'm playing a little loose with the "sleeper" label here, but ranked 43rd in fantasy defensemen, Chabot technically qualifies. Averaging more than 26 minutes/game for three seasons running, the Senators' first-rounder (2015) is essentially on the ice half the time when the team isn't shorthanded. Opportunity begets success, so no small wonder the 25-year-old has averaged 2.42 shots, 0.60 points, 1.36 blocked-shots/game in his still blossoming career to date. Still blooming, because the best is undoubtedly yet to come. Beginning this fall, Ottawa's top defenseman will anchor a top power play that also includes new Senators Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux, who combined for 51 points with the extra skater with their respective ex-teams last season. Chabot averaged 2.1 fantasy points/game with a lesser Sens team in 2021-22. He'll improve on that already impressive sum with a more dangerous squad this round.

Neil Pionk, Winnipeg Jets (No. 49)

Winnipeg's go-to on the top power play only two years ago has stumbled in the scoring stats department since, posting only 12 points with the extra skater in 2021-22 and 34 total. The former Ranger is naturally more productive than that and I smell a bounce-back campaign under new bench boss Rick Bowness. The Jets need to shake up matters, which could involve tossing Pionk back on the No. 1 unit, regularly, along with posting him alongside Josh Morrissey at even-strength. With that in mind, the 27-year-old - on record as feeling embarrassed about his performance this past season - makes for a solid flyer in later rounds of conventional fantasy drafts.

Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche (No. 96)

He needs to stay healthy, that's it. Just ask ESPN's Greg Wyshynski, who has Byram pegged as a breakout candidate for 2022-23.

"When Byram has played, he has been outstanding, including a 20-game run in the Avalanche's Stanley Cup championship journey in which he led the playoffs with a plus-15. He missed most of the 2021-22 regular season battling back from concussion symptoms. His skating is elite, his puckhandling is strong and he can grow into the kind of shutdown defenseman many project he'll become. Get ready for a one-two punch of Cale Makar and Bowen Byram for the next several seasons."

A shutdown defenseman with the ability to contribute to the scoresheet on regular occasion. Minutes on Colorado's power play appear in the offing for the coming season, along with a bump in on-ice minutes altogether. Fingers crossed Byrum gets the opportunity to do it all, staving off injuries through a full, healthy season. If so, he'll make for a fantasy steal in deeper ESPN.com leagues.

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Late-round picks to consider

Jake McCabe, Chicago Blackhawks (No. 51)

It's important to note that this appraisal only applies in fantasy leagues that reward blocked shots. Otherwise, the Blackhawks defender doesn't merit such attention. But block shots he did, with comforting regularity, ranking seventh in the league in that category in 2021-22. McCabe also tossed in 22 points in 75 games, which also helped account for his average of 1.8 fantasy points/game in ESPN.com's default league. The former Sabre presents as an excellent example - along with the perennially bruised bodies of Brayden McNabb, Calvin de Haan, Connor Murphy et. al - who can help bolster your fantasy blue line once the game's more productive types are spoken for. It doesn't matter how the points add up, only that they do.

Editor's note: McCabe will miss the start of the season due to cervical spine surgery. He is expected to return in late November.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (No. 92)

In later stages of the draft, what have you got to lose? The Sharks veteran is still only 32 years old. He's saying all the right things about working to pull it together again. Having a new head coach (Dave Quinn) and General Manager (Mike Grier) in the mix can't hurt. With Burns gone for Carolina's brighter competitive pastures, the No. 1 power play now belongs to Karlsson alone. During last year's muddling campaign, the former Norris winner still managed to rip off 35 points in 50 games (1.7 fantasy points/contest), up from 22 in 52 the previous season. We'll never again see a point/game from the ex-Senator, but as a low-risk fantasy candidate with the aforementioned upside, you could pad your roster in much worse fashion.

See also: Tyson Barrie, Edmonton Oilers (No. 52), Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild (No. 59), Sean Durzi, Los Angeles Kings (No. 69), Jeff Petry, Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 78)

Avoid in drafts at current value

Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers (No. 12)

First of all, the 25-year-old can bid adieu to his top power-play assignment, now that the Flyers have lassoed Tony DeAngelo over from the Hurricanes. Barring a serious falling out with new coach John Tortorella (hardly a wild prospect, admittedly), DeAngelo will be the club's go-to for the No. 1 unit assignment. Then there's Provorov's lackadaisical scoring numbers from a year ago - 31 points in 79 games - falling in disappointing step with the rest of his club, which ranked 31st in goals/game altogether. Sure, Provorov shoots the puck a fair bit, and yes, he blocks an impressive numbers of shots, but the production isn't, and hasn't been, there to justify a Top-15 fantasy ranking. Not until we see an improvement in the production department.

See also: Alec Martinez, Vegas Golden Knights (18), Justin Faulk, St. Louis Blues (22), Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets (23), Kevin Shattenkirk, Anaheim Ducks (40)