(All statistics through Saturday, December 14)
Beyond the Sea
Chicago is reeling from its thrashing at the hands of Toronto on Saturday evening and the team will have to get their act together if they're going to defend their Cup through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. Despite Saturday's 7-3 loss to the Buds, albeit without Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks are still one of the most fruitful teams in Fantasy hockey, notably their top defensive pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, both of whom will likely be on their way to eastern Russia in February as part of Team Canada's stalwart defensive corps.
Seabrook has been even more of a value to owners this season in leagues that reward secondary statistics such as plus-minus, hits and blocked shots. It doesn't hurt that Seabrook has six points over the last five games as well. With 22 points on the season, he's one of the league's top scoring defensemen and among the defensive leaders in hits with 86. Seabrook's talent and reliability is no secret to Fantasy owners and it's going to take a bit to pry him from the clutches of an owner who is no doubt satisfied for burning a middle round pick on him. If you're looking for all-around production, Seabrook is the top of the second tier of blue liners. Playing with a resurgent Keith doesn't hurt either.
While Seabrook is a known and valued commodity, these players can be looked at in deeper leagues as cheap options who can contribute.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, Blackhawks: Noted as one of the league's steadier stay-at-home defenders in Chicacgo's system, Hjalmarsson has been quietly productive at the offensive end of the rink with 14 points through 35 games and a plus-12 to boot. His 68 blocked shots won't hurt you either, just don't expect power play production from the veteran Swede, as none of his 14 points have come on the man advantage. He's more than on his way to surpassing his career-best of 17 points from Chicago's 2009-10 Cup-winning season. He has just one assist in the last six games and has scattered his 14 points over the course of the year. Don't expect huge numbers, but Hjalmarsson is in a great situation to challenge 30 points on one of the league's more prolific teams while contributing in secondary categories.
Radko Gudas, Lightning: Seven points through 27 games aren't appealing in standard leagues - in fact they don't even register. 70 PIM and 109 hits will change people's minds in deeper leagues that reward secondary statistics. He's a bruising hitter and one of the league's up-and-coming defensive blue liners and seeing more ice time in the wake of Victor Hedman's injury. Gudas could challenge 20 points this season, but the guarantee of him delivering hits and penalty minutes should be enough to make up for the fact that he won't score at a prolific pace.
Cody Franson, Maple Leafs: It's no secret that the Leafs count hits rather liberally while at the Air Canada Centre, to the point where the San Jose broadcasters joked at the 56 hits the Buds had in a 3-2 loss to the Sharks two weeks ago. It's not Radko Gudas or Niklas Kronwall, but Franson who is leading all NHL defensemen in hits with 100. His 15 points on the season are a nice boost as well on the mercurial Leafs, but you have to wonder how many of these "hits" are legitimate hits. Regardless, Franson's going to deliver in the hits category, but owners would like to see more offensive production from him, as he has a modest one point in the last five games, failing to register a point when the Buds scored seven goals on Saturday.
Factor in 51 blocked shots through 32 games and the fact that 12 of Franson's 15 points have come on the man-advantage and you have a defender who delivers across the board. While he might not be the next Rob Blake, although the hits numbers belie this, Franson is a viable albeit streaky option. He has more points and hits than teammate and lightning rod Dion Phaneuf, a player known for lowering the boom occasionally.
It's also worth noting that Toronto's Carl Gunnarsson and Paul Ranger are among the top 30 players in hits among blue liners. If you're in need of a hits boost in daily leagues, don't be shy about rolling some Leafs players while they're at home. Morgan Rielly and John-Michael Liles were credited with 11 hits between them in Saturday's win over Chicago.
Jan Hejda, Avalanche: The Avs are still contending for a playoff spot and their top pairing of Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda is one of the surprises of hockey with a combined plus-35, each of them clocking in at one and two among NHL defensemen in that category. Hejda has nine points to go with 72 hits. Those nine points through 27 games have him on pace to challenge his career-best of 21 from the 2008-09 season when he was with Columbus. He's delivering in both hits and blocked shots (49) although none of his nine points have come on the power play. It's clear that the presence of Patrick Roy and goalie coach Francois Allaire have boosted the Avalanche's goaltending and their ability to defend; Hejda and Johnson have been huge beneficiaries of these coaching moves.
Hejda has value in deeper rotisserie leagues that reward secondary statistics. He doesn't shoot much and is not the most adept of puck-movers, but he's seeing plenty of ice time with the Avs and will chip in occasionally with an assist or two. He's not going to light up the league, but he has enough production in lesser categories where his lack of scoring won't hurt too much.
Andrew MacDonald, Islanders: His 12 points aren't going to win you a league and the minus-9 is a red flag, but he has 113 blocked shots and four points on the power play. Someone has to produce from the blue line for the Islanders and MacDonald appears to be that man. His 12 points lead Travis Hamonic by six for the team's lead and the 113 blocked shots are tops among NHL blue liners. Unless your league rewards blocked shots, MacDonald appears to be a liability thanks to his plus-minus. He has one point in the last five games, but the Isles were shut out twice in that span. In deep leagues, defenders who produce on the power play are difficult to obtain once the season has begun. Whether MacDonald is worth adding to your roster is a choice to be weighed and analyzed based on who else is available. He's seen a huge bump in power-play time, a power play that features one of the league's leading scorers in John Tavares. Caveat Emptor.
Checking Up On ...
Dylan Olsen, Panthers: The former Chicago draft pick is still producing in South Florida, as he is riding a five-game points streak with three goals and assists over that span. These kind of numbers are going to correct themselves soon, but Olsen is seeing scoring chances on a team that has difficulty generating consistent offense. Olsen hasn't been a big scorer during his career, but he seems to be finding a niche with the Kitties. Keep in mind he doesn't see much power play time, getting time on the man advantage in just three of his nine games this season. Still, seven points through nine games.
Eric Gelinas, Devils: He's still producing for the Devils and his 13 points in 25 games have him trailing only Boston's Torey Krug for points among rookie blueliners. Gelinas grabbed an assist in Saturday's win over Tampa Bay and has three points over the last seven tilts. He's slowed a bit, but he's still on pace for a solid rookie season while seeing power-play time on the Devils' second unit. Since his call-up, Gelinas has not gone more than three games without a point.
Seth Jones, Predators: Nashville isn't going to be an offensive force this season, but that isn't much of a variation to the norm in Hockey Tonk. Jones has seen his ice time fall in the last week, being moved off the top pairing with Shea Weber, playing barely over 47 minutes total over the last four games. He'd been averaging close to 24 minutes a night before this recent demotion, a demotion that has seen him log no power play time in the last three games.
He has just one assist in the last 11 games and 10 points on the season. Ebbs such as the one Jones is currently experiencing are not unexpected from rookie defenders. If there's a coach who knows how to handle defensemen, it's Nashville's Barry Trotz. Look for Jones to be back in the fold soon, but it's still pretty impressive for a 19-year old learning to play defense in the NHL, despite the recent slide.
Question of the Week: Which country, other than Canada, will boast the strongest blue line in Sochi?