This week, the Eastern Edge takes a look at some of the top scoring defensemen from the Eastern Conference
One of the trademarks of my fantasy hockey pool teams over the years has been that I always try to end up with the best defense corps in my respective leagues. A large part of my rationale was that it was easier to find those plug and play forwards over offensively-gifted blueliners. That may have changed a bit over the years, but the basic premise is that defensemen had to play on the top power play unit to rack up big points. Most NHL teams use three forwards and two defensemen and a few even go with four forwards, which limits the number of potential high-end defensemen to pick from. Getting a legit power play defenseman was worth stepping up and taking early in the draft, at least in my opinion.
When we look at the top scoring defensemen this season, we see the usual suspects, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo and Keith Yandle. All those names come as no surprise, but dig a little deeper down the list and you come across some lesser known players.
How many of you knew that James Wisniewski was sixth in defensemen scoring so far this year with 10 points in 13 games? That kind of surprised me a little. He just had a five game, seven point streak broken on Saturday.
Last year, he recorded 14 points in 30 games and the year before, he had 27 points in 48 games. The problem is, that wasn't the lockout shortened season. The Wiz has as much trouble staying healthy as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has of keeping off the front page of the local tabloids.
Wisniewski burst on to our fantasy radars back in 2008-09 after he was traded from Chicago to Anaheim and finished that season with 11 points in 17 NHL games. He followed that up with 30 points in 69 games. In the summer of 2010, he was dealt to the Islanders where he proceeded to score 21 points in 32 games before being shipped off to Montreal and finished the year with a combined 51 points in 75 games, both career high numbers.
In addition to having bones made of porcelain, Wisniewski has also had his run-ins with the NHL wheel of justice. He's been suspended five times, including two eight game stints. His history has shown us that one way or another, he'll miss a fair number of matches, but when he is in the line-up, he could reward you handsomely.
The New Jersey Devils haven't had a defenseman top 40 points since Brian Rafalski registered 55 points way back in 2006-07. Since then, the best the Devils backend could muster over the course of a season was Andy Greene's 37 points.
This year, it seems as though that trend is going to come to an end. Marek Zidlicky is on pace for 53 points with nine in his first 14 games. Without the talented Ilya Kovalchuk around to run the power play, Zidlicky has stepped up to fill the void.
Heading into this campaign, many of us didn't have high hopes for Zidlicky or the rest of the rag tag crew in the swamp. The defection of Kovalchuk and loss of David Clarkson severely hurt the power play and the additions of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe would be hard-pressed to take up the slack.
After last season's disappointing 19 points in 48 games (32 point pace), it didn't seem as though the 36-year-old Zidlicky's stock would be on the rise, yet the five time 40 point defender has a realistic shot to add to that total this year.
Once it was known that Joni Pitkanen was gone for the year, fantasy owners were trying to handicap who would be given a gem of an opportunity to play on what has the makings of a dynamite power play in Carolina.
How would the kid, Ryan Murphy, deal with the pace of the NHL? Would Justin Faulk step up to fill the void left by the injured Pitkanen? What about Andrej Sekera, coming over in a deal that sent Jamie McBain to the Sabres?
The answer this season is of course all three. The sexy pick is Murphy, but more so in keeper leagues. He has five points in 13 games this season and has played over 20 minutes in each of his last five contests. Coincidentally, he is on a five game scoreless streak. Definitely the high risk, high reward pick here.
Faulk has six points in 14 games and receives nearly 24 minutes of ice time per game, including the seventh most average power play time. He has a single point over his last six games and is an ugly minus-6 over those games. Last year, Faulk recorded 15 points in 38 games, a 32 point pace. While that may be decent in deeper leagues, most of the time you'll simply be treading water with this guy.
The guy I'm taking a flyer on in my one year leagues right now would be Andrej Sekera. The 27-year-old has seven points in 14 games and already receives the second most ice time on the team, including second string power play minutes, a healthy 2:33 minutes per game.
Sekera played two seasons of major junior in Canada, recording 55 points in 51 games in his final season. In his best NHL season, he notched 29 points in 76 games with the Sabres in 2010-11. Sekera has four points over his last five games, so he's got the hot hand right now.
Now that Kris Letang is back, look for both Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen's power play minutes to dry up significantly. Niskanen has nine points in 15 games and Martin has six over the same number of contests. While Letang only has three points (all scored with the man advantage) in his six games since coming back, two of them have been over the last three matches. Heading into the season, he had recorded 80 points over his previous 86 games. The points will come fast and furious.
I know that this next guy is not an Eastern Conference player, but I just plucked him off the Free Agent wire in two of my salary-capped leagues and had to share. A teammate of Letang's on the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal winning team was Kris Russell, who has all the makings of a great feel good story this year. At that prestigious tournament, Russell tied Jonathan Toews for the team lead in goals with four and tied with Letang for second in team scoring with six points. It was a great year for Russell, he finished his junior career with an insane 32 goals and 69 points in only 59 games, which helped him in being named the Canadian Major Junior Defenseman of the Year.
Unfortunately, Russell's transition to the NHL wasn't quite as smooth as this two World Junior teammates. Russell played parts of five seasons with the team that drafted him, Columbus, recording a high of 23 points in 73 games.
The 26-year-old is taking full advantage of a Mark Giordano injury, recording six points in the six games since the injury. During that stretch, Russell was held off the score sheet only once and is averaging over 26 minutes of ice time. Over his last five games, he has also received top power play minutes, alongside Dennis Wideman.
Given that Russell will be an Unrestricted Free Agent following the season (motivation), has the confidence of the coach and has been rolling, he makes an excellent short to mid-term pick up, at least until Giordano returns from his injury in 6-8 weeks. Russell is only owned in six percent of Yahoo! leagues.
The final player I want to talk about today is a guy who doesn't get a lot of points, but in rotisserie leagues, he is golden this year. Other than having a very cool name, Radko Gudas leads all NHL defensemen in penalty minutes and hits, and sits 14th in blocked shots while recording five points in 14 games with the Lightning at this point in the year.
The 23-year-old Czech native receives the fourth most ice-time amongst Tampa blueliners, but will never be mistaken for an offensive player. In his best season of major junior hockey, he had 37 points in 65 games and recorded 20 points in 57 AHL games last year. He has the makings of a nice number six defenseman in most rotisserie leagues.
The best defense is a great defense.
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