Only one returning player from last year's list. A Winnipeg Jet ranks quite high, as does a player who was recently traded in the NHL.
I have a few general rules when it comes to building a team in a fantasy hockey keeper league. One of the more important ones is to not plan beyond a two or three year window. You are not building a real NHL club, and too often I see poolies place too much emphasis on youth and prospects instead of trying to add players who could help win now.
Using this rule, take a look at your team(s). Can you realistically say you will have a shot at winning the league at some point within the next two or three seasons? If not, time to scrap the rebuild and start adding proven NHL talent.
Keeping that window in mind, I have compiled a list of the top 10 keeper league defensive prospects to own (assuming standard keeper league rules and scoring categories). Using the scope, the long-term upside of these players is balanced with their NHL readiness.
This list is in order, which means that I wouldn’t trade the fourth player straight across for the fifth player, and so on (although with prospects, player type and position matter more than they would with NHL players). I was asked to clarify by what “standard categories” means, so here is the league format that I am basing my selections on:
- 12 to 15 teams
- Start 4 C, 4 LW, 4 RW, 6 D, 2 G (5 Bench)
- G, A, +/-, PIM, PPP, GWG, HITS, SOG
I put an emphasis on offensive categories. They are harder to find in the draft – it is much easier to scoop up a PIM/HITS type of player on the waiver wire (Matt Martin, Derek Dorsett) than it is to get a player who fills the G/A/PPP categories nicely.
Unlike the forward list (which was published last week), there are some sure-fire/can’t miss prospects on this list. There are a few returnees from last season, as well. Defensemen typically take longer than forwards to learn the NHL game, as they are often told to focus on the defensive side of things first (Alex Pietrangelo is a great example of this). This is why talented young defensemen stay in the AHL longer than forwards do, and also why they usually take a few years to gain fantasy hockey value and relevance in most league formats.
That all being said… let’s get to the list. Reminder – 25 games of NHL experience (regular season and/or postseason) is the cut-off being used. In the case of players who are close to reaching that mark, I used my own judgement there.
1. Jacob Trouba – Winnipeg Jets
The future multi-category stud of the Winnipeg Jets narrowly edges out the guy below him for the top spot on this list. I am a huge fan of Trouba’s game – he’s big, physical, skilled, and tough. His game has no holes/weaknesses. He was the best skater for any country at the recent World Junior tournament, and he figures to play a large part on the American World Championship team in a few weeks.
In fact, now may be the last time you are able to acquire Trouba. If he has a breakout tournament for the USA, his value is going to skyrocket. Trouba is the first Michigan player to turn pro after just one season since Max Pacioretty did the same five years ago.
Red Berenson, Michigan’s famed coach, gave Trouba his blessing.
Berenson, who himself played more than 1,000 games in the NHL, compares Trouba to former NHLer Rob Blake, a physical defenceman who was good at both ends of the rink.
“I told him from Day 1, ‘You’re going to play in the NHL,’ ” Berenson said. “It’s just a matter of when (he’s) ready.”
2. Morgan Rielly – Toronto Maple Leafs
Rielly is the most offensively gifted defensemanon this list. He could be the best skating defenseman to hit the NHL since Scott Niedermayer (high praise, I know). He had 12 goals and 54 points this season in 60 games with Moose Jaw, and is finishing out 2013 in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies.
Rielly has a very good shot at cracking the Leafs roster this fall, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him spend one more year of junior. The Leafs aren’t in a position where they need to rush him, but I could very easily see him emerging as one of the best six defensemen in the organization at training camp this fall.
Rielly will undoubtedly continue to be compared to Luke Schenn (not because of playing style – you couldn’t find more opposite defensemen if you tried) because Schenn was also a 5th overall pick, and the Leafs rushed him to the NHL. Rielly isn’t the biggest defenseman in the world, and the Leafs will want him to get bigger and stronger this summer if he wants to be able to go up against NHL quality forwards over a full 82 game season starting this fall.
3. Ryan Murray – Columbus Blue Jackets
Murray’s 2012-13 season was cut short in January due to shoulder surgery (he is expected to be fully healthy by June or July), but he still managed to put up 17 points in 23 games. He controls games with his hockey sense, his ability to see the ice, and his defensive acumen. Murray isn’t as flashy as Rielly or Trouba, but he is just as effective. He may get placed in a defensive or two-way role in the NHL, as his defensive contributions are often just as valuable to his team as his offensive contributions are. The Oliver Ekman-Larsson effect, if you will.
Even if he doesn’t get the prime time power play minutes right away, he will still put up points. He makes such good passes and knows when to join the rush and pinch in to create scoring opportunities. Columbus has a pair of offensive defensemen already – Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski, but the John Moore trade did make things a bit easier for Murray to earn a spot.
He may spend one more year in the WHL, as the team likely wants him to get some more seasoning before turning pro (especially after missing such a large chunk of this past season).
4. Jon Merrill – New Jersey Devils
I love Merrill’s game. He’s a confident defenseman who wants to make a difference on the ice, and he usually does. His production at Michigan won’t blow you away (he missed time this season with a serious injury), but returned to play 21 games. He has great size and is a fantastic skater, and the Devils love his ability to play in all situations. He won’t need much AHL seasoning, either. I’d expect him to be a regular in New Jersey by 2014-15 at the latest.
After turning pro and joining New Jersey’s AHL affiliate, Merrill put up eight points in 12 games. Not too shabby.
5. Joe Morrow – Dallas Stars
The Stars traded away some talented players at the deadline, and Brenden Morrow likely fetched them the best return (the injury is still out on the draft picks they acquired from Boston for Jagr and Vancouver for Roy). Morrow is a defenseman I got to see live in the WHL, and he impressed me a lot. He played on a stacked Portland team, and ran a lethal powerplay with the lives of Sven Bartschi and Ryan Johansen.
Morrow is big and physical, but his best attributes are his skating and offensive aggressiveness. The Stars will be patient with him – he will be in tough to earn a roster spot next season – but they won’t hold him back if he proves to be ready for NHL minutes. Morrow had 17 goals, 64 points, and 99 PIM in his final WHL season. He won’t hit those totals in the NHL, but they do show what kind of numbers he can put up across the board.
The fact that the Penguins traded him shouldn’t be a red flag – the team is knee-deep in young defensemen, including Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot, and Brian Dumoulin. Here’s more on Morrow from DefendingBigD.
6. Nathan Beaulieu – Montreal Canadiens
Beaulieu has quickly adjusted to the speed and pace of the pro game in 2012-13. He scored seven goals and added 24 assists in 61 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs before getting the call up to Montreal. He’s looked good at the NHL level – he still needs to get bigger and stronger, and needs to play with the confidence he displayed in junior hockey. With experience that will come. He’s a fluid skater and can cover a lot of ice in a short period of time.
He loves jumping into the rush, and Montreal has the defensive veterans to pair him up with as he learns the other side of the game, too. Expect him to bounce back and forth from the AHL to the NHL in 2013-14 before earning a full-time roster spot with the Habs the following season.
7. Matt Donovan – New York Islanders
He has had a fantastic season for Bridgeport, though, finishing with 14 goals, 48 points, and 112 PIM. Imagine getting close to that level of production from him in a few years?
He’s big, mobile, physical, and obviously very offensively gifted. His short term offensive upside depends on the future of Mark Streit, as well as a few other veteran defensemen on the Islanders. All he needs is an opportunity.
8. Mattias Ekholm – Nashville Predators
Like Donovan, Ekholm had a fantastic 2012-13 AHL campaign. While playing for Milwaukee, the skilled defenseman scored 10 goals and added 22 assists in 59 games. He earned the call up to Nashville for a single game to get a taste of the NHL speed and pace. Ekholm had two strong SEL seasons from 2010 to 2012 with Brynas before coming over to North America.
Where does Nashville keep finding these guys? He was selected 102nd overall (4th round) back in 2009, and figures to have a bright future as a power play QB for the Predators. I like his chances of being a productive NHLer more than the chances of either Ryan Ellis or Jonathan Blum.
9. Sami Vatanen – Anaheim Ducks
Vatanen will never be mistaken for Larry Robinson or Scott Stevens, but he has improved his play away from the puck by leaps and bounds in 2012-13. He scored nine goals and had 45 points this season in the AHL, and has scored a pair of goals in eight games while up with the Ducks. With Cam Fowler’s Benjamin Button-like skill reversal, the Ducks are once again on the lookout for a puck moving defenseman who can help them out on the power play.
Vatanen will be that guy, but for a veteran team, the question is – how soon? Is he ready to play top minutes next season? His defensive play is still a bit rough around the edges, and the Ducks may not be willing to experience the growing pains that Vatanen will inevitably go through.
If I were a betting man, I’d expect him on Anaheim’s opening night roster this fall. Souray, Beauchemin, Allen, Sbisa, and Fowler are the only returning defensemen that are locks for the top six, opening up two spots (one playing and one extra).
10. Ryan Sproul – Detroit Red Wings
Sproul finished 2013 with his second consecutive 20+ goal season for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL. He also set a career high in points with 66. He is a dynamic offensive talent who the Wings (and many other people in hockey) are quite high on. Detroit is known for taking their time developing young defensemen, but Sproul may buck that trend a little bit. Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith both spent at least two years in the AHL before making the jump up to the NHL, but Sproul may only need one year. Expect him to see a game or two as a rookie next season, and to challenge for a roster spot in 2014-15.
He has more offensive talent than any defenseman in Detroit’s system. The Wings have a number of really good young forwards, and that should increase Sproul’s long term fantasy value. He’ll have some talented teammates to play with on the top powerplay unit in a few years.
Brandon Gormley – Phoenix Coyotes
Decent offensive production this season in the AHL, but appears to be settling in as more of a two-way guy.
Brian Dumoulin – Pittsburgh Penguins
Great skater, but more of a two-way defenseman.
Oscar Klefbom – Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton really likes his game, and it is a good thing that they haven’t ruined him by rushing him to the NHL. His upside is a bit of an unknown though as he hasn’t been very productive offensively in the SEL (and he played only 11 games in 2012-13).
Griffin Reinhart – New York Islanders
Big, physical, great skater. Won’t see offensive minutes with the likes of Donovan and company on the depth chart.
Ryan Murphy – Carolina Hurricanes
Has fallen from graces a bit after a brutal 2013 WJC (unfair to have an opinion on such a small sample size, but his play was a bit worrying). Murphy is a dynamic skater who loves to play the role of “fourth forward.” He should fit in nicely with the Hurricanes, where defense is optional. He got a cup of NHL coffee earlier this year and looked pretty good.
The Hurricanes are a tough team to figure out fantasy-wise, as they tend to give their prime PP minutes to the veterans (Pitkanen, Corvo, Bergeron).
Cody Ceci – Ottawa Senators
Big, great skater, another fantastic Ottawa draft pick (there have been many in recent years). Could be the future top pairing partner for a certain Mr. Karlsson.
Mark Barberio – Tampa Bay Lightning
Barberio falls off the list from last year, not so much due to his own play, but because the Lightning went out and signed a few defensive free agents last summer (Carle, Salo). He still has a bright NHL future, but it will be a later arrival date than expected.
His production in 2013 wasn’t at the same level as 2011-12, but Barberio’s overall game improved. And that bodes well for his NHL future.
Derrick Pouliot – Pittsburgh Penguins
Lots of offensive upside, but pretty raw right now.
Hampus Lindholm – Anaheim Ducks
He is a very intriguing prospect – he was on the top 10 list for many submissions I received. However, his offensive upside is an unknown right now.
Alex Petrovic – Florida Panthers
Love his game – talent and toughness. Should be a full-time NHLer next season.
Jamie Oleksiak – Dallas Stars
6-7 and skates like Coffey (OK, that was a bit of a stretch). Oleksiak is still developing, but he passes the puck well and loves to involve himself in the offensive game. He isn’t as physical as you would expect from someone his size, but he isn’t soft, either.
Matt Dumba – Minnesota Wild
Dynamic skater and open-ice hitter, but the hockey sense has been called into question.
Other Top 10 Lists from 2013:
- Top 10 Centers
- Top 10 Left Wingers
- Top 10 Right Wingers
- Top 10 Defensemen
- Top 10 Goaltenders
- Top 10 Forward Prospects
The 2013 DobberHockey Prospects Report (get it here) is available for purchase, and will be made available via download on June 1st. And for only $2.50 more, you can get the Keeper League Fantasy Pack.