Defensemen are often difficult to evaluate in fantasy hockey because their value is very dependent on your league settings. Ranking them is relatively easier in leagues that emphasize points, but throw in blocks and hits into the mix, and it’s completely different.
Take, for example, Jacob Trouba, whose offensive upside is probably capped at around 50 points, but taking into account his blocked shots (177, second among defensemen) and hits (207, ninth), he makes a strong case to be in the top 10. Heck, Radko Gudas would have immense value for an otherwise offensively inept defender.
The rankings on this list are weighted more towards scorers as banger leagues are still less common despite their growing popularity. There are no surprises in the top few spots, but the names at the end of the list certainly skew towards potential upside over past performance. Most leagues have more ‘D’ slots than necessary – four of them in anything more than 12-team leagues is too many – so it might be worth the risk to reach for the up-and-comer.
Roman Josi, Predators
In just about every league, Josi will be No. 1. Where he holds the edge over Makar is his overall body of work last season: more points, more shots, more hits and more blocked shots. The gap is very thin, but it comes down to whether fantasy managers prefer someone dependable or someone with infinite upside.
Cale Makar, Avalanche
Fun fact: over the past three seasons, 27 players averaged at least a point per game and only one is a defenseman. Can you guess who? Makar’s trajectory is uncharted because we haven’t seen anyone quite like him, and Josi are the only two defensemen worth taking with first-round picks. The Avs blue line is stacked and load management may cut into Makar’s minutes a little, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Makar leapfrogs Josi this season and establishes himself as the premier fantasy defenseman for the next decade.
Adam Fox, Rangers
The biggest thing that separates Fox from the top two is his role as a playmaker, not as a shooter. His defense is underrated, and he’s no worse than Josi or Makar moving the puck up the ice, but when it comes to scoring, he’s a tier below.
Victor Hedman, Lightning
Already a Norris finalist for seven (!) straight seasons, Hedman set career highs across the board last season. It’s more likely Fox outscores Hedman, but where Hedman has him beat is his ability to contribute in multiple categories. It’ll also be interesting to see how the Lightning use Hedman without Ryan McDonagh, who has usually drawn the tougher matchups in past years.
John Carlson, Capitals
His sometimes-atrocious defensive play notwithstanding, Carlson is one of the most dependable offensive defensemen in the league. Since his breakout season in 2017-18, Carlson leads all defensemen with 328 points, 25 more than Josi and 26 more than Hedman. Carlson’s power play contributions are equally elite as long as Alex Ovechkin can clap bombs from the left wall.
Aaron Ekblad, Panthers
The biggest risk with Ekblad is his injury history. He’s missed 21 games in each of the past two seasons but otherwise ranked fifth in P/GP among defensemen last season and was easily on pace to register over 200 shots on goal. MacKenzie Weegar’s departure means Ekblad will play significant minutes again on a very good offensive team.
Quinn Hughes, Canucks
Over the past three seasons, Hughes ranks fourth in assists (143) and sixth in points (162) among rearguards, but also 43rd in goals (19), 38th in shots (374) and barely registers in hits (44) or blocked shots (145). His lack of all-around contributions will prevent him from ever cracking the top five unless he scores at least 80 points – definitely possible, though currently unlikely – and in banger leagues would rank well outside the top 10.
Moritz Seider, Red Wings
Stylistically, Seider’s closest to Hedman; he can score points, quarterback a power play and contribute in both hits and blocked shots. In banger leagues, Seider’s upside is huge and should climb a few spots higher. The theory about sophomores hitting a wall is overblown, and most bumps in the road for young players are only temporary. The hype is real and Seider will be a Norris contender for years.
Kris Letang, Penguins
Perhaps the shortened 56-game 2020-21 season was the recipe to their success, but quite a few 30-somethings had career seasons last season. Letang is part of that group, having missed just five games over the past two seasons after a string of injury-plagued years, and finished seventh in scoring with a career-best 171 hits and 122 blocks, the second-highest total of his career. The Pens have added key pieces and the addition of Jeff Petry should take some pressure off Letang, who will likely finish top-10 in scoring among defensemen again.
Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs
The best part about Rielly from a fantasy hockey point of view is that he’s very consistent, playing the top role on a Cup contender with lots of scoring talent. Barring a lucky shooting percentage, such as 2018-19 when he scored 20 goals, Rielly should rack up enough assists and shots to rank in the top-10 in both categories. In banger leagues, he doesn’t block as many shots (2.68 BkS/60, 194th of 203 among defensemen with 40 GP minimum) or dish as many hits (2.83 Hits/60, 138th) as you’d think for such a good all-round defender.
Drew Doughty, Kings
Before his injury, Doughty was having his best season ever, on pace to score a career-high 65 points with at least 200 shots, 100 blocked shots and 100 hits. The Kings are poised to take a big leap after taking a few seasons to re-work their roster, and the expectations are as high as they’ve ever been in recent memory.
Rasmus Dahlin, Sabres
It cannot be understated how different and improved the Sabres look under Don Granato, and Dahlin’s talent as an elite point producer is evident. Since entering the league, Dahlin has scored at the same point per game pace (0.58) as all-stars Seth Jones and Charlie McAvoy. Only five defensemen had a better P/GP (min. 25 GP) than Dahlin’s (0.54) in their rookie season: Makar (0.88), Hughes (0.78), Seider (0.61), Fox (0.60) and Bowen Byram (0.57). Dahlin’s plus-minus, easily his worst stat and a category quickly becoming eschewed in many leagues, is also bound to improve.
Charlie McAvoy, Bruins
McAvoy’s coming off his best season, but he’s slated to miss a big chunk of time due to injury. He’s finished top-five in Norris voting for two straight seasons and needs more sustained success to make the top 10.
Devon Toews, Avalanche
The game is easy when your partner is Makar, and Toews took advantage en route to a 57-point season. He’s a steady defender who had more even-strength assists (34) than Makar (33), but there’s no question who has more offensive upside. Toews is a safe mid-round pick but a reach in the earlier rounds until he can string together consecutive 50-point seasons.
Dougie Hamilton, Devils
Hamilton’s first season with the Devils didn’t quite go as expected following two very good seasons with the Canes. He’s shown plenty of offensive upside but has had suffered some poor injury luck over the past three seasons. He’s a high-risk, high-upside pick depending on how bullish you are on the Devils.
Brent Burns, Hurricanes
The Hurricanes require an offensive-minded right-hand defenseman to get the most out of their offense. Burns will be their third project in three seasons following Hamilton and Tony DeAngelo, who had excellent seasons with them. Burns is the oldest but also has the best track record, and perhaps a change of scenery will help rejuvenate his game. It wasn’t too long ago that Burns was one of the league’s best high-volume shooters, and perhaps with fewer minutes and better matchups on a stronger team, Burns can focus on what he does best. Burns is perhaps one of the best bargain picks among defensemen this season given his potential upside; age should not be a big factor for him.
Noah Dobson, Islanders
Dobson’s on an extreme upward trajectory after a breakout 51-point season, and no other defender on the Isles can challenge his power-play prowess. Dobson’s no one-trick pony, either, racking up 154 blocked shots under Barry Trotz and came 10 shots shy of hitting 200. If Lane Lambert can coax more offensive out of their roster, it’s possible Dobson can score 60 points, which would rank top-10 in most seasons.