JH Schroeder is a contributor to Hockey Prospectus. A former intern of the Nashville Predators, he has also written for Hockey’s Future and spent time coaching college hockey in the Northeast. He currently resides in sunny San Diego where he coaches Jr. High School hockey.
As we head out of the All-Star break, owners may be looking to plug a spot or two on their blueline as they prep for the stretch run in their respective fantasy leagues. Below is a collection of some of the best defensemen available in more than 50 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Additionally, this column will also provide a couple of suggestions for those of you in deeper leagues or owners that are looking for a high-upside gamble. Players in “Deep League Pickups” will be owned in less than five percent of ESPN leagues.
Seth Jones – D – Nashville Predators – 14.3% owned
The question for much of the 2012-13 season was whether Seth Jones or Nathan MacKinnon would be the number one overall pick in the draft. Surprisingly, Jones fell all the way to number four overall, where the Predators scooped him up, and he’s quietly become one of the game’s best young defensemen for one of the NHL’s best teams. Jones has an impressive physical skillset that has blossomed playing behind one of the league’s best pairings in Roman Josi and Shea Weber.
Jones has progressed nicely this season. After averaging just over 17 minutes a night from October to December, his ice time has jumped up over 21 minutes in January. Furthermore, over the last month Jones has notched five powerplay points, of his six total on the season. In total, Jones’ stats are good enough to place him 21st on ESPN’s player rater over the past month, right between All-Stars Brent Burns and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Someone of Jones talent should always be on fantasy player’s radar, and should be a consistent source of ice-time and plus-minus moving forward. Don’t expect Jones to buoy a team in points, but his recent uptick in powerplay time should keep him a useful start in the short-term.
Trevor Daley – D – Dallas Stars – 30.9 % owned
After acquiring Jason Spezza to anchor their second-line during the offseason, the Dallas Stars had a disappointing start to the season. The team seemed to have turned a corner winning eight of nine games to end December and start January, capped off with a 7-1 thumping of the Minnesota Wild on January 3. Featuring a skilled, but young backend, Trevor Daley is the team’s primary stabilizing veteran presence. This has been particularly evident in Daley’s ice-time, a team leading 23:46 per game. Daley also leads Stars’ defensemen with 3:15 in powerplay ice-time per game.
Daley is a must-own in ESPN standard leagues. Given his ice-time, particularly on a highly-skilled powerplay, Daley is a bit unlucky to have registered just ten assists to this point in the season. However, his 11 goals is just one off of the pace for the NHL goal lead amongst defensemen. Daley should continue to be a contributor in goals, assists, and powerplay points moving forward, while being amongst the leaders in ice-time.
Alexander Edler – D – Vancouver Canucks – 47.6% owned
The Vancouver Canucks and Alexander Edler in particular suffered through a turbulent season in 2013-14 under the tight-checking system of John Tortorella. A reinvigorated Canucks squad has played a much more open, fast-paced brand of hockey under new head coach Willie Desjardins. Edler’s numbers have not rebounded quite like fantasy owners may have hoped, but a closer look at some of his underlying stats indicate the talented Swede is still a useful commodity.
For starters, Edler is 12th amongst all defensemen in the NHL in shots, so he can provide an immediate boost to fantasy teams in this aspect. Furthermore, amongst defensemen in the top 20 in shots, Edler has the lowest point output of any player (5-10-15), so prospectors should expect some regression to the mean in this respect (Oliver Ekman-Larsson (12-9-21) has the next lowest point total). Advanced stats also paint Edler in a positive light. By Fenwick and Corsi for percentage, Edler is the second most effective player on the Canucks, and he has accomplished this while logging 24:20 in ice-time, which is 18th in the NHL.
Finally, Edler is noted for his big shot from the point. The Canucks have consistently used Edler as the top defensive option on a first powerplay that includes Radim Vrbata and the Sedin Twins. The package that Edler offers fantasy owners is too good to pass up. Edler is a talented and effective player that is seeing a lot of ice both at even-strength and on the powerplay. Even if his offensive stats don’t see an uptick over the second-half of the season, Edler will continue to provide strong help in shots and ice-time.
Jared Spurgeon – D – Minnesota Wild – 19.3% owned
The Minnesota Wild have underperformed this season, particularly in light of the large free-agent commitments owner Craig Leipold continues to hand out. Yet, on struggling teams, fantasy owners can often find some cheap, undervalued players. For example, Jared Spurgeon is 7thin the NHL in shots on goal for defensemen over the last month, in the same territory as fantasy powerhouses like Dustin Byfuglien and Shea Weber.
Like Alexander Edler, Spurgeon has relatively little offensive output to show for his tremendous shot production. Spurgeon has only six goals and eight assists on the year. Despite sharing a blueline with the NHL league leader in ice-time, Ryan Suter, Spurgeon has had no problem seeing plenty of ice and has actually managed a positive rating of plus two despite Minnesota’s struggles.
Spurgeon should remain an interesting defenseman to follow, particularly if Minnesota puts together any sort of run in the second half of the season.
Deep League Pickups
Mattias Ekholm – D – Nashville Predators – 2.1% owned
Ekholm won a number of accolades in the Swedish Elite League before his transition to North America. In 2010-11, Ekholm was the SEL Rookie of the Year, and in 2011-12, was named defenseman of the year in the SEL. Ekholm has made great strides in his second full season with the Predators, and over the past several weeks has thrived on the team’s second pairing with Seth Jones. In fact, Ekholm has four goals over his last nine games. Ekholm is a talented player that could be a useful play for those in deeper leagues in need of some help on the backend.