Open Ice: The elite defensemen

When assessing just the top 100 defensemen, certain players stand out

Updated: November 26, 2013, 3:53 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

KrugJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesBruins defenseman Torey Krug already has seven goals and eight assists this season.

The reaction was quite positive when we did a reshuffled ESPN Player Rater analysis of the top 200 forwards last week in the Fantasy Forecaster column, so we continue that analysis here with the top 100 defensemen. If you missed the Forecaster, now would be a good time to recap at least the introduction to know what we are looking at here; those who read the Forecaster can jump ahead.

We are still using the same data set from last week, which means it only includes games played through Monday, Nov. 18. It's not ideal to have week-old data, but the copy-and-paste effort to build this formula is Herculean, as far as copy-and-paste efforts go. Besides, we are looking at the season as a whole to this point, so two or three games per player won't throw off the bottom line.

As we explained last week with the forwards, the ESPN Player Rater does a great job of giving you a snapshot into an NHL player's pure, numbers-based fantasy value by comparing an individual's production to that of the entire league. Two things could give us a better reading though: comparing apples to apples, and only comparing the apples that are likely to be eaten.

To do that, we first run a Player Rater-style calculation on all the stats put up by defensemen this season for average ice time, goals, assists, plus/minus, penalty minutes, power-play points and shots, but we do it only with the stats put up by the universe of 249 defensemen that have played. That still doesn't give us quite the right picture though, because there are likely fewer than 80 and rarely more than 100 defensemen rostered in the average fantasy league. So, we take the top 100 defensemen and run them through the same calculation again, based only on the stats accrued by their fellow elite blueliners.

Why 100 defensemen? Because, like the 200 we chose for forwards, it's a good sample size related to the number of defensemen generally being rostered in fantasy leagues. It also represents the same 40 percent (100 out of 249) of the player universe that 200 forwards does.

The Top 200

Note: Sean Allen's top 200 players are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice for skaters, and wins, goals-against average and save percentage for goalies. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Alex Ovechkin, F, Was (1)
2. Sidney Crosby, F, Pit (2)
3. John Tavares, F, NYI (4)
4. Tuukka Rask, G, Bos (3)
5. Henrik Zetterberg, F, Det (5)
6. Corey Perry, F, Ana (6)
7. P.K. Subban, D, Mon (8)
8. Anze Kopitar, F, LA (9)
9. Erik Karlsson, D, Ott (11)
10. Evgeni Malkin, F, Pit (15)
11. Phil Kessel, F, Tor (7)
12. Daniel Sedin, F, Van (12)
13. Henrik Sedin, F, Van (13)
14. Patrick Kane, F, Chi (14)
15. Jonathan Toews, F, Chi (16)
16. Dustin Byfuglien, D, Wpg (21)
17. Pavel Datsyuk, F, Det (10)
18. Carey Price, G, Mon (17)
19. Chris Kunitz, F, Pit (18)
20. Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pit (19)
21. Ryan Getzlaf, F, Ana (20)
22. Tyler Seguin, F, Dal (22)
23. Josh Harding, G, Min (23)
24. Zach Parise, F, Min (24)
25. David Backes, F, StL (32)
26. Logan Couture, F, SJ (25)
27. Alexander Steen, F, StL (40)
28. Nicklas Backstrom, F, Was (26)
29. Kris Letang, D, Pit (27)
30. Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR (28)
31. Antti Niemi, G, SJ (29)
32. Patrick Sharp, F, Chi (30)
33. Corey Crawford, G, Chi (31)
34. James Neal, F, Pit (49)
35. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Pho (33)
36. Semyon Varlamov, G, Col (38)
37. Drew Doughty, D, LA (34)
38. Ryan Suter, D, Min (35)
39. Martin St. Louis, F, TB (36)
40. Patrick Marleau, F, SJ (37)
41. Bobby Ryan, F, Ott (39)
42. Eric Staal, F, Car (55)
43. Taylor Hall, F, Edm (41)
44. James van Riemsdyk, F, Tor (42)
45. Shea Weber, D, Nsh (43)
46. Roberto Luongo, G, Van (44)
47. Alex Pietrangelo, D, StL (46)
48. Jamie Benn, F, Dal (47)
49. Joe Pavelski, F, SJ (52)
50. Claude Giroux, F, Phi (58)
51. Evander Kane, F, Wpg (50)
52. Joe Thornton, F, SJ (51)
53. Matt Duchene, F, Col (45)
54. Rick Nash, F, NYR (53)
55. Mikko Koivu, F, Min (70)
56. Marian Hossa, F, Chi (54)
57. Thomas Vanek, F, NYI (56)
58. Jaroslav Halak, G, StL (57)
59. Jason Spezza, F, Ott (59)
60. Niklas Kronwall, D, Det (60)
61. Jonathan Bernier, G, Tor (61)
62. Andrei Markov, D, Mon (62)
63. Matt Moulson, F, Buf (63)
64. Duncan Keith, D, Chi (64)
65. Ryan Kesler, F, Van (65)
66. Dustin Brown, F, LA (66)
67. Johan Franzen, F, Det (102)
68. Kari Lehtonen, G, Dal (67)
69. Nazem Kadri, F, Tor (68)
70. Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Cls (48)
71. Gabriel Landeskog, F, Col (69)
72. Keith Yandle, D, Pho (71)
73. David Krejci, F, Bos (73)
74. Max Pacioretty, F, Mon (79)
75. Justin Williams, F, LA (75)
76. James Wisniewski, D, Cls (91)
77. Jimmy Howard, G, Det (76)
78. Brad Richards, F, NYR (77)
79. Jordan Eberle, F, Edm (78)
80. Joffrey Lupul, F, Tor (74)
81. Radim Vrbata, F, Pho (80)
82. Kyle Okposo, F, NYI (81)
83. Braden Holtby, G, Was (82)
84. Craig Anderson, G, Ott (72)
85. Dion Phaneuf, D, Tor (84)
86. Jeff Carter, F, LA (166)
87. Jason Pominville, F, Min (85)
88. Andrew Ladd, F, Wpg (87)
89. Kyle Turris, F, Ott (89)
90. Torey Krug, D, Bos (101)
91. Jarome Iginla, F, Bos (90)
92. T.J. Oshie, F, StL (95)
93. Mike Smith, G, Pho (92)
94. Patrice Bergeron, F, Bos (93)
95. Jay Bouwmeester, D, StL (100)
96. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F, Edm (94)
97. Milan Lucic, F, Bos (96)
98. Zdeno Chara, D, Bos (97)
99. Ryan O'Reilly, F, Col (98)
100. Mike Green, D, Was (99)
101. Shane Doan, F, Pho (114)
102. Brent Burns, F, SJ (131)
103. David Perron, F, Edm (118)
104. Bryan Little, F, Wpg (109)
105. Jaromir Jagr, F, NJ (103)
106. Tobias Enstrom, D, Wpg (88)
107. Dan Boyle, D, SJ (125)
108. Cody Franson, D, Tor (104)
109. Mike Ribeiro, F, Pho (105)
110. Derek Stepan, F, NYR (106)
111. Cam Ward, G, Car (111)
112. Brian Campbell, D, Fla (107)
113. Frans Nielsen, F, NYI (108)
114. Pascal Dupuis, F, Pit (110)
115. Steve Downie, F, Phi (124)
116. Dennis Wideman, D, Cgy (86)
117. Blake Wheeler, F, Wpg (115)
118. Brandon Dubinsky, F, Cls (123)
119. Robin Lehner, G, Ott (132)
120. Jakub Voracek, F, Phi (119)
121. Mike Richards, F, LA (112)
122. Paul Stastny, F, Col (133)
123. Kevin Bieksa, D, Van (121)
124. Tomas Fleischmann, F, Fla (113)
125. Justin Schultz, D, Edm (164)
126. Kevin Shattenkirk, D, StL (116)
127. Ryan Callahan, F, NYR (126)
128. Jonas Hiller, G, Ana (117)
129. Cam Fowler, D, Ana (158)
130. Tomas Hertl, F, SJ (122)
131. Radko Gudas, D, TB (168)
132. Martin Hanzal, F, Pho (130)
133. Daniel Alfredsson, F, Det (145)
134. Tomas Plekanec, F, Mon (128)
135. Loui Eriksson, F, Bos (134)
136. Jiri Hudler, F, Cgy (129)
137. Cory Schneider, G, NJ (120)
138. Scott Hartnell, F, Phi (137)
139. John Carlson, D, Was (193)
140. Clarke MacArthur, F, Ott (149)
141. Martin Brodeur, G, NJ (144)
142. Erik Johnson, D, Col (140)
143. Steve Mason, G, Phi (188)
144. Brent Seabrook, D, Chi (135)
145. P.A. Parenteau, F, Col (136)
146. Sam Gagner, F, Edm (127)
147. Marek Zidlicky, D, NJ (146)
148. Jeff Skinner, F, Car (138)
149. Brad Marchand, F, Bos (139)
150. Pekka Rinne, G, Nsh (150)
151. Brendan Gallagher, F, Mon (141)
152. Ben Bishop, G, TB (142)
153. Jonathan Quick, G, LA (143)
154. Patrik Elias, F, NJ (147)
155. Alexander Edler, D, Van (148)
156. Slava Voynov, D, LA (197)
157. Alex Galchenyuk, F, Mon (151)
158. Lars Eller, F, Mon (152)
159. Mike Cammalleri, F, Cgy (153)
160. Alex Burrows, F, Van (154)
161. Mikhail Grabovski, F, Was (155)
162. Ben Scrivens, G, LA (170)
163. Cody Hodgson, F, Buf (156)
164. Jason Garrison, D, Van (157)
165. Kris Russell, D, Cgy (187)
166. Brandon Saad, F, Chi (159)
167. Teddy Purcell, F, TB (160)
168. Jussi Jokinen, F, Pit (161)
169. Nathan MacKinnon, F, Col (162)
170. Matt Carle, D, TB (165)
171. Alexander Semin, F, Car (83)
172. James Reimer, G, Tor (167)
173. Gustav Nyquist, F, Det (NR)
174. Dustin Penner, F, Ana (NR)
175. Patric Hornqvist, F, Nsh (171)
176. Alex Killorn, F, TB (172)
177. Marcus Johansson, F, Was (174)
178. Valeri Nichushkin, F, Dal (176)
179. Kris Versteeg, F, Chi (178)
180. Ilya Bryzgalov, G, Edm (179)
181. Vincent Lecavalier, F, Phi (180)
182. Niklas Backstrom, G, Min (NR)
183. Justin Faulk, D, Car (181)
184. Sean Monahan, F, Cgy (184)
185. Brandon Pirri, F, Chi (185)
186. Seth Jones, D, Nsh (175)
187. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, G, Col (173)
188. Ryan Johnasen, F, Cls (186)
189. Ondrej Pavelec, G, Wpg (189)
190. Valtteri Filppula, F, TB (190)
191. Alex Chiasson, F, Dal (191)
192. Tyler Bozak, F, Tor (192)
193. Antoine Vermette, F, Pho (195)
194. Charlie Coyle, F, Min (196)
195. Chris Stewart, F, StL (NR)
196. Mason Raymond, F, Tor (199)
197. Tim Thomas, G, Fla (200)
198. Brayden Schenn, F, Phi (NR)
199. Nail Yakupov, F, Edm (NR)
200. Ryan McDonagh, D, NYR (NR)

How do the elite D-men stack up against the whole? Well, like the forwards, the top 100 defensemen represent two-thirds to three-quarters of the total goals and assists by defensemen. The top 100 has 188 of the 251 goals (76 percent) and 633 of 889 assists (71 percent). Defensemen and forwards are eerily similar for PIM and power-play points, with the top defensemen earning 53 percent of the PIM (55 percent for forwards) and collecting 89 percent of the power-play points (91 percent for forwards). But there is a big deviation for shots on goal. Whereas the top 200 forwards only accounted for 23 percent of the shots on goal by all forwards, the top 200 defensemen represented 64 percent of all shots by defensemen this season.

(Once more, I will make the full spreadsheet of defensemen available, just contact me on Twitter and I'll send you the link.)

So, let's see who jumps out after we do an elite apples-to-elite apples comparison of the NHL's defensemen.

Radko Gudas, D, Tampa Bay Lightning: We've been big on Gudas' fantasy impact early this season, and it appears to be for good reason. When compared to the entire defensemen universe, Gudas is rated as the No. 21 fantasy blueliner. But when only the top 100 are considered, he jumps to 11th overall. Thanks to a healthy mix of PIMs to go with his contributions in all the other fantasy stats, Gudas becomes near-elite among defensemen. There is nothing to stop him from continuing to make the biggest fantasy impact on the Bolts' blue line, as Victor Hedman, Sami Salo and Matt Carle all still allow for Gudas to perform. Although he is day-to-day with an upper-body injury at the moment, Gudas is only questionable for now. Even when he experiences point droughts (like he is currently), he is still finding a way to take shots and collect PIM.

Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins: It's unbelievable what Krug has done this season, considering that he is a rookie and getting much less ice time than his peers. Already with seven goals this season, he scored the game winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime on Monday despite skating only 15:41 in the game. Krug is closer to 15th overall on the ESPN Player Rater this season, but when we put him through against only other defensemen, he is the seventh-best fantasy blueliner, a ranking he maintains when considering only the top 100 as well. At some point, Krug is going to start getting more minutes, and his numbers will only get better.

Cody Franson, D, Toronto Maple Leafs: It's interesting to note how Franson ranks when performing this analysis. He is outside the top 30 defensemen on the regular ESPN Player Rater, but he jumps to 17th when only defensemen are used for the calculations. However, when we reshuffle the numbers only including the top 100 defensemen, Franson falls to 24th. The volatility comes from his all-or-nothing performance in certain fantasy categories. Franson's 12 assists put him with the elite defensive playmakers in the league, but his zero goals is an obvious weakness. Franson is fifth among defensemen with nine power-play points, but his 35 shots on goal are below average. If you have categorical strengths or weaknesses, Franson might be more valuable to you than he is to his current owner. He is worth checking out as a trade target for his specialties.

Aside from studying individual defensemen in this scenario, perhaps the biggest takeaway is seeing the stark drop-off from the elite defensemen to the rest of the pack. The feast or famine among the defensive ranks is not a new phenomenon, but it looks to be amplified this season, due to the true prowess of the top performers, the mundane stats by the also-rans or a combination of both. Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are not only out ahead of all other defensemen, they are way out ahead of them when it comes to Player Rater calculations. Byfuglien's value is double that of all but 36 other defensemen, and his value is 33 percent better than all but 13 other defensemen.

Even a shallow ESPN standard league requires that 50 defensemen be started, but running through this exercise shows that you could make an argument that the 37th-best defenseman is no better than the 100th. There truly is a certain caliber that a defenseman should be, otherwise you would be just as well off with the next guy off the waiver wire. Consider that when you are making trades. If you can acquire an elite defenseman, it will do more for your team than an elite forward would.

Forwards Rising and Falling

Alexander Steen, F, St. Louis Blues (up 13 spots to No. 27): So, this guy has been pretty good. Ranking Steen this high does not come without a decent amount of trepidation. On one level, we know he has skills to be a point-per-game type of player and we know his situation is ideal on a line with David Backes (who makes his linemates much better). But we also know that Steen has been brittle in the past and that depending on a linemate for value is never a wise move. But when Steen is trailing only Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby on the ESPN Player Rater, we can't just leave him ranked where it's comfortable. Steen is taking a ton of shots on goal, getting all the right kind of ice time and sharing the ice with true puck possession talents in Backes and T.J. Oshie. It really does appear that the only thing that could stop Steen now is injury.

Claude Giroux, F, Philadelphia Flyers (up eight spots to No. 50): While he still has a lot of work to do to erase the terrible start, Giroux is finally back with Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell. The trio has settled down this past week and gotten back to the business of scoring for the Flyers. His shots on goal have spiked, and Giroux is currently riding a five-game point streak. While few owners were silly enough to drop Giroux, linemates Voracek and Hartnell are available in some leagues. They will inevitably heat up to match Giroux, with Voracek especially ripe for a hot streak.

Defensemen Rising and Falling

John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals (up 54 spots to No. 139): Mike Green is back, but Carlson still isn't slowing down. Even with Green in the lineup the past two games, Carlson is leading the way when it comes to ice time and power-play ice time. Carlson performed so well in Green's absence that he may even be given enough opportunity to overtake Green as the top fantasy blueliner for the Caps. Carlson is exactly on his points pace from last season, which he parlayed into a spot as the 25th-best fantasy defenseman. He is definitely on the rise, and any ground ceded by Green will only improve Carlson's finish.

Goaltenders Rising and Falling

Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Columbus Blue Jackets (down 22 spots to No. 70): Consistency is king for goaltending, both in reality and in the fantasy realm. Bobrovsky seemed to shake his consistency issues last season, and he rode the performance to a Vezina Trophy. But those old consistency problems have already manifested in a large way this season, as Bobrovsky's overall numbers have been dragged down considerably by four- or six-goal hiccups. He even followed up a six-goal debacle on the weekend against the Vancouver Canucks with a shutout of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. But if fantasy owners don't know when that next explosion is coming, Bobrovsky can't be trusted as a No. 1 goaltender. The clear difference between a No. 1 and a No. 2 fantasy goaltender is the ability to simply activate and forget about your No. 1. That has not been the case with Bobrovsky this season.

Steve Mason, G, Philadelphia Flyers (up 48 spots to No. 140): The wins have been spotty, but it's easier to collect wins somewhere else than it is to make up for a goaltender's bad ratios. And that's why Mason is on his way to being considered a No. 1 fantasy goaltender. As mentioned in the discussion about Bobrosvky, Mason actually has been good enough this season to activate and forget about. He hasn't allowed a single blowup this season, save for a Nov. 1 game against the Washington Capitals. That kind of consistency is exactly what fantasy owners want from their goaltending. While the wins would also be nice, the Flyers offense has been coming around and should start turning more of Mason's two-goal outings into victories.

Quick Hits

• As expected, the Lightning brought up AHL leading scorer Nikita Kucherov to lessen the blow from Steven Stamkos' absence. Kucherov scored a goal in his first game on Monday.

Josh Harding is dealing with a hamstring injury, and that means Niklas Backstrom is a must-target. While Harding will get his crease back when healthy, the Minnesota Wild offer any goaltender a chance at good numbers. Fantasy owners can take advantage when a team is largely responsible for making a goaltender's life easier (see Ben Scrivens).

Gustav Nyquist is up for the remainder of the season with the Detroit Red Wings. He has the kind of scoring skills that make him worth a shot in deeper leagues, even before he proves he will earn regular top-six minutes.

Beau Bennett's poorly timed injury buys Jussi Jokinen some work with the Pittsburgh Penguins' top six. He will get his first real chance to settle in with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal this week. It's a big opportunity that could pay huge fantasy dividends.

Brent Burns, Jeff Carter and Justin Schultz are all recently back from injury and should probably be universally owned. Check your waiver wire and make the necessary moves.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.

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