My tried and true strategy for drafts requiring positions of ‘set the market’ for defensemen has come under new stress. Used almost exclusively, getting the best defensemen early was key so that later in the draft when others were drafting 20-30 point defensemen, I still had a pick of prime forwards.
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The market is setting earlier, however, with trends favoring top end defensemen, to the point of replacing a top flight forward with Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns, has altered the market availability of the ‘best defensemen.’ Sometimes the elite are thinned among different poolie/GM’s and the selection lack the desired criteria to be selected early. In absence of the desirable traits, you’re hoping for a breakout, or bettering expectations from a secondary – or tertiary – tier of defensemen.
Traits for the elite defensemen are
Offensive contributions at 5v5:
Jumping into/supporting the rush
Strong outlet passing to breaking forwards – systematic or outside of team systems
Extend offensive zone time by pinches from the point or occupying support areas
And at 5v4:
QB the power play – as a lone defenseman or in partnership with another blueliner
Must line up for top line power play minutes
NHL teams are leaning towards different usage, favoring a four forwards and a lone defenseman model. Most first unit power plays may only have one defensemen, used almost exclusively, meaning that that defenseman’s ice time for first units is also more predictable than any second unit that could have its minutes eaten up by extended playing time for the first unit.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, use Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev on two different units as a lone defender, with Morgan Rielly – who fits some of the other 5v5 criteria above – isn’t receiving regular power play time. Rielly has the likelihood to produce better than either Ziatsev or Gardiner; there’s a market for the secondary defenseman where they offer value.
I’ve realized that 5v5 position labels for players matter less at 5v4. The only time a defender’s skills would be needed is upon a play breakdown in the offensive zone and then it’s usually a scramble back.
A skilled group of five forwards, or five defensemen could be intertwined to make any possible combination, but the traditional three forward-two defenseman formation seems to have been relegated to be more risk averse rather than optimizing the skill components, not taking advantage of pure offensive skillsets. Having say, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi at the points (a rare advantage) could arguably be the equivalent of five forwards. Dustin Byfuglien is a rover at 5v5, often alternating between a forward and defenseman positioning, and at 5v4, does it really matter whether he’s designated as either?
Finding value in defensemen will continue to be in that secondary tier. Let’s check out some. (Note Stats do not include games from November 8, 2016).
The images here show the team defense listed in the first column and where they end up in Points/60 at 5v4.
Demers has earned a point in 75% of all on-ice goals at 5v4 skating in 30.94 minutes (with a team high 22.22% on-ice shooting percentage, good enough for second overall among defensemen with more than 25 minutes). His three assists include one primary – for a bloated 5.82 P/60 early in the season. He skated 110 minutes last season in Dallas accumulating five points, so he’s outperforming 2015-16 while likely a cheap selection – and likely only in deep leagues – or a waiver wire addition. Still, he remains a secondary choice playing behind Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle that has drawn attention, but a caution in the underlying numbers for the hot start and lack of signs leading to sustainability.
Tied with Demers for second overall on-ice shooting percentage (22.22%) the Sabres defenseman has stamped his name as a power play point threat, amassing six assists in 32.13 minutes played for a gaudy 11.2 P/60 in a very small sample. No other Buffalo defenseman has cracked 20 minutes and none have a P/60 over 1.00. The young puck rusher has played almost 73% of the total ice time among defense corps that included Cody Franson’s point shot and Dmitry Kulikov’s puck moving skills. His production is not only sustainable – despite the high shooting percentage – it’s the beginning of the next stage as a legit QB power play defensemen that’s moved up in a majority of rankings.
Leading the first power play unit as the Devils remodeled their blueline, workhorse may have a prime power play spot, but it’s still in the low scoring New Jersey man-advantage. He’s already matched 2015-16 five points in 125 5v4 minutes after only 29.74 in ’16-17. The five points last season represented a point earned on 50% of on-ice goals, but all five points from this current season, represent a point in 100% of all goals scored. That’s right, a point on every single Devils goal scored at 5v4 while he was on the ice. Unshackled by a string of mid-season healthy scratches in ’15-16, a strong finish overflowed into an impressive Calder Cup playoffs. A full time NHL graduate to the NHL with eligibility to play in the AHL playoffs, he was a standout. The stepping stones are there to expect better production than at first glance.