What Is The Value Of Keeping Defensemen In Fantasy Hockey?

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Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara during warmup prior to game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place. Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

As a follow-up to my post on the value of goaltenders in fantasy hockey keeper leagues, I thought it would be pertinent to give a brief analysis on defensemen as keepers. I raise this point for a couple reasons:

  1. If trade deadlines have not passed, they are likely this week. It’s decision time for most owners about how their teams will look next year.
  2. I don’t think the correct value is placed on defensemen in most leagues.

I will say that when I write this post, I have the standard rotisserie format in mind; goals, assists, plus/minus, penalty minutes, power-play points and shots on goal. The format of your league can alter the value of a defenseman immensely. More specifically, if your league counts Average Time On-Ice (ATOI) or Blocked Shots (BKS), this places added value on defensemen. They will always be the league leaders over forwards in these two categories. At time of writing, there are two forwards in the top 60 in the NHL in ATOI: Ilya Kovalchuk (12th, 25:13) and Steven Stamkos (60th, 22:01).

However, instead of altering values for different permutations of leagues, I will stick to standard roto.

I decided to do a little bit of digging into trends of defensemen across the NHL over the last couple of years. This is what I found.

Goal Scoring

-        Goals are way up for defensemen in this abbreviated season. There were 41 instances of 10+ goal scorers among D-men over the last two years. A pace of 0.12 goals/game would be the minimum required to score 10 goals in an 82-game season. There are 40 defensemen this year alone that are on a 0.12 goals/game pace as of today. For a bit of consistency, I only included defensemen that have played at least 20 games so far this year. Players not included in the 40 I mentioned above are names like Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Mike Green.

-        Consistency is hard to find. Up to and including this point of the season, there are only three defensemen in the top-10  among D-men for goal scoring all three seasons: Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and Dustin Byfuglien.

-        Significant goal scorers are all but gone (with exception to possibly Erik Karlsson, who is out for the remainder of the season) nowadays. Since the 2008-2009 season when there were three 20-goal scorers from the back-end, there has been one defenseman to do it: Dustin Byfuglien had 20 exactly in 2010-2011.

-        So defensemen are scoring goals at a higher rate than in the previous couple of seasons but the elite goal scorer is not there. Outside of Zdeno Chara, Dustin Byfuglien, Shea Weber and a healthy Erik Karlsson, there’s not a lot of consistency. In all likelihood, I would add Dion Phaneuf—had an injury-shortened 2010-2011 season, was on pace for 10+ goals—and P.K. Subban.

This last point is very important when talking about defensemen. With more goal scoring among the upper echelon in general but not a lot of separation between the “elite” and everyone else, it will have an impact on value, which I will get into later.

Assists

-        There was a bit of a lull last year in assist-leaders from the back-end. After having 29 defensemen reach 30 assists in 2010-2011, there were only 23 that did so last year. Also, the number of elite assist-producing defensemen was cut in half from 10 rearguards who had 40+ assists to just five last year. All is normalizing, it seems, as there are 30 defensemen currently averaging a pace that would give them 30+ assists in a normal season (0.375 assists/game) with 12 defensemen on pace for 40+ assists in a normal season (0.5 assists/game).

Plus/Minus

-       One dubious category that is nearly impossible to predict outside of about 5 teams is plus/minus. In an interesting trend, there were 13 defenesemen in each of the last two year that finished with a rating of +20 or better. This year, there are 24 defensemen that are averaging at least a +0.25/game, which is a +20 pace for a full year.

-        A lot of this is because the PDO hasn’t had a chance to normalize yet this year. There are currently five defensemen with a PDO of 1050 or better who have played at least 30 games and there has been no defenseman to play at least 70 games and crack that mark over the last two seasons.

-        There are eight defensemen in the top-30 in the NHL in plus/minus this year (nine if you include Jake Muzzin, who is T-26th with seven other players). This is a drop-off from the last two years where there were 14 defensemen in the top-30 last year and 13 the year before.

-        Zdeno Chara and Dan Hamhuis (what?) are the only two defensemen to finish in the top-10 in the NHL in plus-minus each of the last two full seasons. Chara is the only one of the two with a realistic shot to get there again this year – he’s +13, good to be T-21st, while Hamhuis is (-1), good for… well way later than that.

I bring up the top-30 in the NHL instead of what the ratings among defensemen are for this reason; when you talk about keepers, often you are choosing between a forward and defenseman for a certain spot. In that sense, the ranking for defensemen among each other is less relevant than defensemen among all skaters when choosing keepers.

Power-Play Points

-        There was a huge lull in PPP production last year among D-men. After 33 defensemen reached at least 15 PPP in 2010-2011, only 19 defensemen did so last year. There are currently 24 defensemen in the NHL with at least 0.2 PPP/game or a 15 PPP pace for a full season(ish). Excluded out of this are Erik Karlsson, Tobias Enstrom and James Wisniewski who have all missed significant time with injuries this year.

-        In 2010-2011, there were eight defensemen to finish in the top-30 for PPP, with just four last year and five so far this year. However, interesting enough, there have been two defensemen in the top-10 all three years. Don’t be fooled, however, as no defenseman has been in the top-10 in PPP in any two of the last three years (Markov, Subban this year; Campbell, Karlsson last year; Lidstrom, Visnovsky the year before that).

Shots On Goal

-        In a trend that would seem to make sense when you think that goal scoring is becoming more spread out among defensemen, the number of D-men with 2+ S/G grew by 21% from 30 in 2010-2011 to 38 in 2011-2012. However, the number has dipped back down to just 28 this year.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban takes a shot before the game against the Buffalo Sabres at the Bell Centre. Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

-        Dustin Byfuglien is the only defenseman to crack the top-30 in each of the last three years in SOG among skaters (must have played 20+ games this year). Zdeno Chara did so in 2010-2011 and Erik Karlsson was also top-30 last year. To be fair, I would think Karlsson stands a good chance of being in this Byfuglien range for years to come with an outside chance to P.K. Subban.

Penalty Minutes

-        This is where a fine balance has to be reached. Had P.K. Subban not missed time due to his contract dispute, he would be the only defenseman with a chance to be in the top-25 in the NHL in PIMs each of the last three years. Typically, defensemen don’t rack the PIMs at the same rate as the forwards: Matt Carkner, Theo Peckham, Mike Weber and Brenden Dillon join Subban as the only defensemen to be in the top-25 in PIMs the last three seasons including this one up to this point. If you’re keeping Matt Carkner, Theo Peckham, Mike Weber or Brenden Dillon, I can’t help you.

-        Any PIMS from your defensemen help, that’s why there is added value in this sense to already-elite defensemen like Weber, Chara, Byfuglien and Subban.

Where Do They Stack Up

So those are the trends that I’ve noticed over the last couple of years. But as I noted earlier, when choosing keepers, it matters how they stack up against the forwards as well. Keeping a top-30 defenseman is not the equivalent of a top-30 forward:

-        In a standard roto format on Yahoo!, there were 10 defensemen to finish in the top-100 in each of the last two years and there are 13 such defensemen this year.

-        There were six defensemen in the top-50 in 2010-2011, three defensemen last year and one this year.

-        There were three defensemen in the top-30 in 2010-2011, two defensemen last year and none so far this year.

-        There were 29 defensemen in the top-200 in 2010-2011, 27 last year and 31 so far this year.

What this tells us, quite obviously, is that there are more “good” defensemen and less “elite” defensemen. This is critical to understand when choosing keepers. For you fantasy footballers out there, I give you the analogy of the tight-end. There are probably 4-5 elite tight-ends and after that it’s a whole mess of acceptable substitutes. It’s the same for defensemen in fantasy hockey.

What To Do About Your Keepers?

As with any keeper league, the number of keepers matter.

If you keep four players each year, you’ll be hard-pressed to get me to agree to keeping any defenseman not named Erik Karlsson. I might consider three other guys after that: Zdeno Chara, Dustin Byfuglien and P.K. Subban. Forwards are just so much more likely to score goals, get power-play points, get shots on goal and so on that they are just that much more valuable in a roto league.

If you keep somewhere between 6-8 keepers, I could see keeping two defensemen (although I would probably still keep just one). This is where you start to include players like Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Duncan Keith, Dion Phaneuf, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty, Keith Yandle, Justin Schultz and Ryan Suter, just to name a few.

In leagues where you can keep 10 or more players, I wouldn’t argue with keeping two defensemen and you could start adding older players, taking chances on young guns or guys that don’t contribute across all categories like Dan Boyle, Brian Campbell, Victor Hedman, Dougie Hamilton, Jake Gardiner, James Wisnewski among others.

The point of all this is that defensemen are not as valuable as you might think. There is such a glut of “good” defensemen now that unless you have one of the true elite fantasy defensemen (Karlsson, Chara, Byfuglien, Subban, Letang), then you don’t have to keep any. But remember, number of keepers always matters.

*stats as of March 26th, 2013

** stats courtesy of ESPN, Hockey Reference, NHL and Behind The Net

Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions.
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