The first edition of this list was put together last August, and it is something I am going to update at least once each season. 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 of an emphasis on youth and prospects instead of trying to add players who could help them 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 the two-to-three-year window in mind, I have compiled a list of the top 10 keeper league defenseman 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. The cut-off point for this list is 25 games played at the NHL level. Almost the entire list from last summer has graduated on from prospect status, including John Carlson, Jamie McBain, PK Subban, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Cam Fowler. A premium is being placed on puck moving defensemen around the NHL, and there certainly has been a huge influx of young defensemen into the league over the past few seasons. With any luck, at least seven of the players on this edition of the list will be regular NHL defensemen by this time next season.
This list is in order, which means that I wouldn’t trade the fourth player straight across for the fifth player, and so on. This list will look different as soon as the 2011 NHL Entry Draft commences, as the best fantasy prospect defenseman for keeper leagues is still undrafted (and no, he isn’t Swedish).
1. Stefan Elliott – Colorado Avalanche
Colorado felt they could part with budding offensive star Kevin Shattenkirk largely because of the development of Elliott over the past few years. He recently scored his 30th goal of the season (an extremely impressive feat for a defenseman in the WHL), and he also recently set the mark as the highest scoring defenseman in Saskatoon Blades history with 240 points, breaking a 37 year old record.
He has NHL size and will make the jump into the league seamlessly; much like Shattenkirk. Elliott will face a bit of competition for ice time in Colorado, though. The Avs have a number of good young puck movers (including Tyson Barrie and Cameron Gaunce), and they also have JM Liles and Erik Johnson in the NHL now. Elliott will rise above the competition because of his elite offensive instincts and his ability to create in a variety of ways.
He slipped a bit in the 2009 draft because of skating-related issues (his skating is much improved this season). Another former Saskatoon Blade defenseman slipped a bit in his draft year – Mike Green. Like Green (as a prospect, at least), Elliott is heralded for his solid two-way play. Green wasn’t the elite offensive dynamo he is today back in junior. He was projected to be more of a two-way defenseman, and it took him a few years in the professional ranks to find his niche. Elliott appears to be at least one year ahead of Green on the development curve.
Player Comparison: Tomas Kaberle
One Year Upside: 7 goals, 35 points
Three Year Upside: 10 goals, 55 points
2. Brendan Smith, Detroit Red Wings
Smith has had a very solid rookie season as a professional in the AHL with Grand Rapids. He dominated the NCAA last year, scoring 15 goals and adding 37 assists in his final year at Wisconson. He also led the Badgers in penalty minutes with 76. He has 11 goals this season, and his PIM number is north of 100. He is a flashy offensive defenseman who plays with a physical edge and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves.
Like they do with all prospects, the Red Wings are being very patient with Smith. In the short term, he’d have to contend with Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, and Nik Kronwall for power play ice time. In the long term, he’s the guy the Wings are going to build their power play around. He is an extremely fluid and mobile skater – think Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell. He was a bit of a defensive liability at times in college, but has worked hard at improving his positioning this season. Spending a year or two under the wing of Lidstrom looks to be the next step for him.
Player Comparison: Chris Chelios
One Year Upside: 5 goals, 25 points
Three Year Upside: 12 goals, 46 points
3. David Rundblad – Ottawa Senators
Rundblad’s 2010-11 season has been nothing short of spectacular. He has 11 goals and 50 points in 55 games in the SEL with Skelleftea. He has yet to play a single minute of professional hockey in North America, but he is NHL ready. He was originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues, but they traded him to Ottawa last summer because they really wanted Vladimir Tarasenko (Ottawa held the 14th overall pick St. Louis used on the Russian pivot). As of now, the trade looks like a major win for both clubs. Rundblad and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson could form the most dominant power play duo in the league in the future for the Senators. Rundblad has ironed out his defensive game a lot this season – he is much improved in his decision-making both with and without the puck.
Look for him to have an immediate impact with the rebuilding Senators in 2011-12. Rundblad has a ton of skill and is a very cerebral defenseman – his offensive explosion this season speaks to both.
Player Comparison: Mark Streit
One Year Upside: 7 goals, 40 points
Three Year Upside: 10 goals, 50 points
4. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators
Ellis barely cracked the list last time around, placing 10th. He continues to dominate at the OHL level. He has a huge shot, skates reasonably well, thinks the game well, and moves the puck extremely efficiently. His lack of size is his only knock, but he possesses elite smarts and rarely is caught in bad positions in his own zone. He has scored 70 goals over the past four OHL seasons and currently has 92 points with Windsor this season – 51 more points than any other defenseman on his team. He has 18 more points than any other OHL defenseman.
I debated ranking him first, but debated against it. Two reasons – first, Nashville’s deep defensive core will make it hard for Ellis to earn ice time. The Predators have four players who could have made this list (two did), and they also have Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Cody Franson, and Kevin Klein at the NHL level. Ellis will face a lot of competition for power play time in Nashville. Second, he simply isn’t a very good skater. Small defenseman can succeed when they are mobile and smart. Ellis oozes hockey sense, but he needs to improve both his acceleration and quickness. Because of his shot and instincts, he will rise above the competition in Nashville and should develop into one of the best power play quarterbacks in the league within the next few seasons.
Player Comparison: Brian Rafalski
One Year Upside: 5 goals, 25 points
Three Year Upside: 10 goals, 50 points
5. Dmitri Orlov – Washington Capitals
Orlov is a very well-rounded defenseman for his age. He has a great shot, is a mobile skater, reads the play well, and he isn’t afraid to get involved physically. The fact that he is Russian would probably have dropped his value on this list a bit if he weren’t property of the very Russian-friendly Washington Capitals. He was among the top of his draft class in 2009 at the NHL combine in strength and conditioning testing.
The Capitals have Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson contributing offensively already, so Orlov will have to work hard for any power play minutes. He plays a smart game and will have to have an awful training camp this fall in order not to make the Capitals for 2011-12. He recorded nine points in eight games at the recent World Juniors and was selected as a tournament all-star. He has five points in 10 games so far with Hershey after recently making the trip over from Russia at the conclusion of his KHL season.
Player Comparison: Andrei Markov
One Year Upside: 8 goals, 25 points
Three Year Upside: 10 goals, 40 points
6. John Moore – Columbus Blue Jackets
Moore moves up two spots from the 2010 list. He’s a phenomenal skater (probably the best on this list, like he was last year). His situation in Columbus is almost the complete opposite of the one that Ellis is facing in Nashville. The offensive defensemen in Columbus right now include Anton Stralman, Grant Clitsome, and Kris Russell. Not horrible, but a far cry from Weber, Suter, and the prospects for the Predators. Moore also stands alone far and away as the best defensive prospect in the organization (no slight to Nick Holden and David Savard, who are both playing as well as Moore this season in the AHL).
Moore had a very good training camp but he is still pretty raw in his own zone. Another year in the AHL would be best for his long-term development, but the Jackets may want to cash in on their blossoming star as early as next season. Through 60 AHL games this season, Moore has four goals and 21 assists.
Player Comparison: Scott Niedermayer
One Year Upside: 5 goals, 25 points
Three Year Upside: 10 goals, 45 points
7. Justin Schultz – Anaheim Ducks
The offensive-minded Schultz finished the 2010-11 season at Wisconson with the selection as the WCHA’s best defenseman, as well as a spot on as a First-Team All-Star. He is a pure offensive defenseman who can absolutely fly up and down the ice. Schultz led the Badgers in scoring with an extremely impressive 18 goals and 49 points in 41 games. Alongside Cam Fowler and/or Lubomir Visnovsky, Schultz will soon be a part of one of the league’s deadliest power play units.
He will play another year in college (and his role will increase with defensive partner Jake Gardiner turning pro). Shultz needs to work on his defensive game, but he has proven about all he can offensively at the NCAA level. Visnovsky is signed through 2013, but Schultz will be knocking on the door before then.
For more on Schultz, check out this comprehensive analysis put together by Tim Lucarelli.
Player Comparison: Mike Green
One Year Upside: NCAA
Three Year Upside: 15 goals, 45 points
8. Jon Blum – Nashville Predators
I got to see a lot of Blum during his time with the Vancouver Giants. If I had to use one word to describe his game, it would be efficient. He is rangy and mobile, and much like former Duck Scott Niedermayer, Blum rarely wastes a stride on the ice. His upside in Nashville is a bit limited because of the competition I mentioned above with Ellis. Blum is solid defensively and will play more of a two-way role in order to let the relatively more talented offensive defensemen like Ellis and Franson maximize their talents.
Blum had 41 points in 80 AHL games in 2009-10, and he scored seven goals and added 27 assists this past season with Milwaukee before getting called up to the Predators. His real offensive breakout in hockey came in his final WHL season in 2008-09 (16 goals and 66 points in 51 games).
He may be trade bait in the future, and I debated moving him down the list because of the lack of offensive ice time available to him on an already average offensive club. However, talent and hockey sense usually prevail over a bad situation, and Blum has both in spades.
Player Comparison: Darryl Sydor
One Year Upside: 6 goals, 35 points
Three Year Upside: 8 goals, 45 points
9. Jake Gardiner – Toronto Maple Leafs
Gardiner has rebounded this season after a poor 2009-10 campaign. He has formed the best defensive pairing in the nation along with Schultz at Wisconson, and was named as a WCHA Second-Team All-Star. Gardiner is big and incredibly mobile. He is strong defensively (him and Schultz are the go-to shutdown pairing for the Badgers, and Gardiner was also a part of the shutdown pairing for the US at the 2010 World Juniors), and his offensive game has picked up in a big way this season.
The Ducks obviously soured on him enough to part with him at the deadline, but the Leafs also coveted him enough to move a solid defenseman in François Beauchemin (and to take on Joffrey Lupul’s bad contract). The Leafs are relatively deep on defense but they don’t have a true power play quarterback at the moment – Gardiner could be the guy to occupy the role in the near future.
He finished his final college campaign with 10 goals and 41 points in 41 games. An extremely impressive note about Gardiner – he didn’t even move to defense until his final year of high school hockey. Wisconson coach Mike Eaves doesn’t believe Gardiner possesses the same upside of former Badgers Brendan Smith or Jamie McBain, and I’d have to agree.
Player Comparison: Dan Boyle
One Year Upside: 6 goals, 33 points
Three Year Upside: 8 goals, 40 points
10. Roman Josi – Nashville Predators
Unlike Blum and Ellis, Josi has earned his reputation as a top offensive prospect the hard way. He isn’t Canadian (Swiss), and he wasn’t a high draft pick (38th overall in 2008). This season has been his first in North America, and the adjustment has been near-seamless. Through 54 games with the Admirals, Josi has six goals and 30 points. The first thing you notice about Josi when watching him play is his crisp accurate passes, and his heady decision-making.
Like Blum, I hesitated to put Josi on this list because of Nashville’s embarrassment of riches on defense. However, like Blum, I believe that skill and hockey sense prevail in the end (ether through finding ice time or the forcing of a trade). He plays with a ton of confidence and loves rushing the puck. He recently had a 13-game point streak in the AHL – an incredibly impressive feat for any defenseman, let alone a rookie.
Player Comparison: Kimmo Timonen
One Year Upside: 5 goals, 28 points
Three Year Upside: 9 goals, 40 points
Very Honorable Mentions:
Brandon Gormley – extremely smart, also a great skater and a sound puck mover. NHL ready for 2011-12. (But are the Coyotes ready for him?)
Slava Voynov – 13 goals and 45 points – a big offensive step forward in his third AHL season.
Jeff Petry – good playmaker and skater, lacks elite offensive instincts.
Calvin de Haan – has struggled since former teammates Tavares and Del Zotto turned pro. Projects as more of a two-way defenseman.
Martin Marincin – Big, physical, talented. Oilers very high on him for good reason.
Patrick Wiercioch – disappointing pro debut, but has all the skills necessary to succeed.
Matt Bartkowski – like many Bruins prospects, flies under the radar.
Charles-Olivier Roussel – the “other” Nashville offensive defenseman.
Eric Gudbranson – more of a defensive defenseman. Florida needs him bad.
Thomas Hickey – projects to be more of a two-way defenseman, leader-type.
Kevin Connauton – extremely raw defensively, but improving as AHL season goes on.
Maxin Goncharov – big shot, physical, but behind Yandle and Ekman-Larsson.
Justin Faulk – great Freshman season at UMD, Faulk is still raw. Should crack the top 10 next year.
Mark Pysyk – Sabres 2010 1st rounder has taken big offensive step forward in WHL this season.
Sami Vatanen – Ducks 4th round pick from 2009 is a bit of a wildcard. 11 goals this season.
Tim Erixon – Smooth skating, efficient, smart. Will be a terrific NHL defenseman for the Flames.
Philip Larsen – only two goals this season in the AHL. Needs more time to adjust to North American hockey.