Neil Parker, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
In recent years, the push to land a high-end defenseman early has been an avenue to fantasy success. After all, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman all posted offensive numbers resembling a go-to center in 2015-16. Still, there is enough depth at the position for gamers to pick their prices, and there’s no need to reach for a blueliner at any point in your draft or auction. Let the value come to you and focus on upside. Replacement level off the waiver wire is high in the majority of settings.
The below tiers are collections of defenseman with relatively similar fantasy outlooks. Remaining flexible during drafts and auctions is critical, but it’s also important to aim for a high-floor, high-ceiling roster. These tiers are assembled with that in mind.
There’s no exact blueprint to selecting a successful defense corps, but a well-balanced blue line is vital to year-end success. Utilize these tiers to ensure your blue line has the offense, supporting-category coverage, and right blend of upside and security to be competitive.
Tier 1: Alone at the Top
Big bucks or early-round picks will be needed to secure Burns, who stands in a tier by himself now thanks to Karlsson’s injury. He’s a roster building block who move the needle across multiple categories, but there is always the risk of having to play catchup in the scoring columns when investing significant capital in a rearguard. Make sure you’re confident in your ability to nab some breakout forwards in the middle rounds if you’re turning to Burns early.
Tier 2: The High End
Victor Hedman, Dustin Byfuglien, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Rasmus Ristolainen, Roman Josi, Erik Karlsson
Hedman is a fringe top-tier asset after last year’s 72 points, and a strong case could be made for his inclusion alongside Burns. However, his injury history can’t be ignored, and the 26-year-old Swede also has just the single elite showing on his resume. Don’t underrate the stability Doughty’s cross-category production offers. The 27-year-old stalwart is still in his prime and logs huge minutes, so he’s in line to be a ripe draft-day value following a substandard campaign. Byfuglien’s a proven veteran in a go-to role, and Pietrangelo now offers the same distinction with Kevin Shattenkirk out of the picture. Ristolainen and Josi will likely offer the best return on investment from this group, and they’re likely to be undervalued in most circles. Karlsson (foot) is in line to miss time to begin the season, and without a firm return timeline, it’s difficult to justify making him an early-round priority. Be ready to pounce if he begins to fall into a value range you’re comfortable with, though.
Tier 3: Reliable Rearguards
P.K. Subban, Shea Weber, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan Suter, Seth Jones, Mark Giordano, John Carlson, Cam Fowler
It’s only fitting for Subban and Weber to slot in side by side, isn’t it? The defenders in this tier offer both high fantasy floors and cross-category coverage. Barring injury, they’re all going to be solid virtual contributors. Shattenkirk, Weber, Suter, Carlson and Fowler project to benefit from top power-play roles, whereas Subban and Jones, Giordano are in murkier situations with the man advantage.
Tier 4: Point Producers
John Klingberg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Zach Werenski, Duncan Keith, Keith Yandle
For the most part, this tier doesn’t offer the same multi-category coverage as those above. However, it’s packed with defenseman with tremendous offensive upside. Klingberg, Gostisbehere and Krug are all excellent power-play quarterbacks with track records of scoring. Ekman-Larsson is a ripe candidate for positive regression after a down 2016-17, whereas Hamilton just needs more ice time (just 19:41 last year) to take a step into the elite ranks. Werenski deserves the benefit of the doubt after a sterling rookie campaign, but be wary of reaching — it’s a deep position. Yandle and Keith are proven veterans on the wrong side of their primes; the latter is coming off a bounce-back, 53-point showing, but he shouldn’t be valued as if a repeat showing is a lock.
Tier 5: Risk-Reward Targets
Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Justin Faulk, Mike Green, Aaron Ekblad, Tyson Barrie, Sami Vatanen, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Erik Johnson, Tyler Myers
Letang and Schultz are intertwined. If both are healthy, Schultz loses a considerable amount of value. However, in the not entirely unlikely event that Letang misses time again, Schultz is a high-end offensive defenseman. Faulk and Ekblad have showcased tremendous upside, but both also have injury concerns. Gardiner, Barrie and Vatanen all carry a degree of risk, but they also are locked into key offensive roles for their respective teams. Zaitsev and Johnson have flashed cross-category upside, but they both come with drawbacks — Zaitsev has just a single season on his resume, and Johnson rarely stays healthy for an entire campaign. Myers is a complete wild card after playing just 11 games last year.
Tier 6: Upside Grabs
Oscar Klefbom, Colton Parayko, Nick Leddy, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Dumba, Shea Theodore
Klefbom is a high-volume shooter, and he shared the ice with Connor McDavid more than any other Oilers defenseman last season; he should be their top power-play blueliner in the wake of Andrej Sekera’s knee injury. Parayko should also see a spike in opportunities with Kevin Shattenkirk out of the fold. As the likely power-play quarterback for the Golden Knights, Theodore’s in position to thrive — the 22-year-old offers significant offensive upside after posting 57 points through 76 AHL games the past two seasons. Leddy could easily slot into a higher tier, as the 26-year-old Islander has seen his point total climb for three straight seasons and has potential to improve on last year’s 15 power-play points. Dumba’s talent is off the charts, and his ice time increased as last season progressed.
Tier 7: Category Fillers
Ryan McDonagh, Matt Niskanen, Alex Goligoski, Dion Phaneuf, Alec Martinez, Jacob Trouba
While all of these defenseman project to settle into secondary roles for their respective teams, they all tilt the scales across most categories while chipping in offensively. Additionally, they’re all more valuable in settings that include hits and blocked shots. It’s also worth noting that while their power-play minutes could vary from game to game, each of them is capable of being a strong asset with the man advantage if they can climb their respective depth charts.
Tier 8: Proven Assets
Jake Muzzin, Brent Seabrook, Mattias Ekholm, Jared Spurgeon, T.J. Brodie, Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Here’s a round of low-risk targets to fill out your virtual blue line. They all receive power-play time while chipping in across all statistical columns. Like the tier above, this group is capable of providing better offensive numbers if injuries catapult them up the depth chart.
Tier 9: Emerging Youngsters
Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Morgan Rielly, Will Butcher, Brady Skjei
Young defensemen are always risky fantasy assets, but they also each offer unique upside because they’re usually deployed in favorable on-ice situations. While their talent isn’t in question, McAvoy and Butcher could struggle acclimatizing to the highest level after playing a much lighter schedule in the NCAA last year. Provorov and Rielly are being groomed to play a shutdown, 200-foot game, which limits their fantasy ceilings. Skjei’s value took a hit after he got bumped even further down the depth chart following the acquisition of Shattenkirk.
Tier 10: Flier Territory
Nathan Beaulieu, Jeff Petry, Jaccob Slavin, Anton Stralman, Alexander Edler, Cody Ceci
There’s an avenue for each of these rearguards to be strong fantasy assets, but things will need to break their way. In most setups, it’s advisable to take a wait-and-see approach. Beaulieu is perhaps the most interesting name here, as he owns untapped offensive upside and posted a respectable 1.17 points per 60 minutes last season.