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Blue Line Buzz: Defensemen hitting their mark

by | Rotowire.com
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(all statistics through Friday, March 15)

Hits Galore

While most Fantasy leagues employ the standard scoring categories of goals, assists, power-play points, plus-minus and penalty minutes, many leagues are starting to use more estoeric statistics such as hits and blocked shots, mirroring the use of advanced metrics to measure on-ice performance such as Corsi or Fenwick. Hits and blocked shots aren't exactly the same as the WAR (wins above replacement) or VORP (value over replacement player) metrics used in baseball, but they add another layer to a defenseman's effectiveness. Some players rake in points but are less likely to hit another player than one of the Sedin twins. For instance, while Alex Pietrangelo is in the midst of a campaign that should generate a nomination for the Norris Trophy, he has a modest 16 hits along with his 18 points, but he's in the top 10 for blocked shots.

Players like Zdeno Chara, Dan Girardi, Shea Weber and Brent Seabrook are multi-category producers in the truest sense of the word, but this season has seen some newer names pop up on the list. Philadelphia's Luke Schenn has not been shy about throwing his body around, yes the Luke Schenn that was traded for James van Riemsdyk, who's currently lighting up Toronto. Schenn has 110 hits after Friday's shootout win over the Devils and is showing little signs of slowing down. Schenn's teammate, Nicklas Grossman is near the top of both hits and blocked shots, but he's hardly a reliable offensive threat.

As for players with over 15 points in the top 20 for hits among defensemen, Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson and Weber populate that list. Meanwhile Girardi is one of the players among the leaders in blocked shots with a high offensive upside, but you have to believe he'd be benched instantly by John Tortorella if he wasn't throwing his body into shooting lanes. It's likely that none of these defensemen are going to be bouncing around on your waiver wire, but odds are a Johnny Oduya (Blackhawks: blocked shots aplently), Montreal's Alexei Emelin (10 points plus big hit numbers), or even Luke Schenn (seven points and monster hit numbers) are kicking around in your league and can chip in some offense.

Most players who rack up hits and blocked shots typically are defensemen used to stop goals than opposed to score them, but examining the leaders among those categories can be huge in making small gains in the minor categories. Even consider employing a streaming strategy if you can afford to roll over your roster regularly. Don't overvalue minor statistic categories, but in most leagues, no category can be ignored entirely and lesser ones such as hits, blocked shots and penalty minutes are easy to make gains in if approached properly.

Taming The Wild

Don't look now, but Ryan Suter is making his way up the list of the NHL's scoring leaders among defensemen. The $98-million man has one goal and 20 assists buoyed by a three-point effort in Thursday's win over Colorado; the 21 points place him second entering Saturday. After a rocky start, Suter has acclimated himself well to the Wild, posting 12 points in the last nine games. Hopefully, you were patient with Suter. Those that were patient have been rewarded with solid assist numbers that are good enough for seventh in the league among all skaters.

Much like the team Suter came from, Nashville, the forwards on Minnesota not named Zach Parise are a group of skaters that have trouble putting the puck in the net regularly. True, even this version of Dany Heatley is a better option than what the Predators offer, but it's not exactly the Pittsburgh Penguins. Suter is leading all NHL skaters in minutes and his plus-minus, minus-4 could be a bit better, but it's more than a forgivable sin. An even greater sign that Suter's production is likely to continue is that he has 13 points at even strength.

The production should not be a surprise to those that have relied on Suter the last few seasons. He's averaged 41.5 points the last four seasons, but if he hits even close to 40 points in the truncated season, it should bode well for him come draft day next fall, maybe even cracking the top 10. Suter won't be an elite Fantasy defensemen as he doesn't score the goals that Shea Weber, Kris Letang and others are capable of doing; most owners though will be happy with a boatload off assists.

While Suter has been steady, teammate Jared Spurgeon has been solid since returning from injury with five points in the last eight games, albeit four of them coming over two games. Spurgeon's definitely worth taking a flier on in deeper leagues if you haven't already.

Montreal Sizzle

Why teams take penalties against Montreal is baffling. The Canadiens have one of the league's most lethal power plays. What's even more staggering are the numbers P.K. Subban has put up in the 21 games since his mini-holdout, which will look like a relative bargain next season. The mercurial defender has seven goals and 20 points through 21 contest, numbers that rate out close to 30 goals and 80 points in a full season. Fifteen of his 20 points are on the power play, however he is trailing teammate Andrei Markov in terms of power-play points, who has 16 of his 18 total on the man advantage. This is leaving out the injured Raphael Diaz, who was a savvy pickup for vigilant owners the weeks that Subban held out, as Diaz has a Suter-like stat line of one goal and 12 assists, although very few points since Subban returned.

The Habs are one of the Eastern Conference's best teams and have a power-play clocking in just over 20-percent.

Flame On

Is it that time of year again in southern Alberta? The seemingly annual Jarome Iginla trade fiasco has begun for the Flames and general manager GM Jay Feaster. Rumors abound as to where Iginla could end up, just like the last five years. While speculation does its usual dance with Iggy, they are also taking a few spins with veteran Jay Bouwmeester. Bouwmeester is owed another $6.8 million next season before he hits unrestricted free agency. His 13 points through 25 games are well above his points-per-game pace the last several seasons as Bouwmeester is getting involved in the offensive rush and contributing to the team's attack. Should he be moved, there are a handful of teams interested in his services and unsubstantiated rumors keep naming Detroit as one of the landing spots for the former Florida Panther. (Yes, Jay Bouwmeester could be one of several players aggregated together to form a replacement for Nicklas Lidstrom, almost like a Voltron of defensemen, just without the flaming sword used to vanquish all foes.)

With Calgary though, the ultimate question remains whether the Flames will actually move Iginla, Bouwmeester or even Alex Tanguay. They grabbed a convincing 6-3 win over Nashville on Friday and are just four points out of sixth place in the West entering Saturday.

The standings will dictate massively how many teams will be buyers and sellers on the April 3 trade deadline. There are few teams that are legitimately out of contention save for Florida in the East while Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Washington can get back in the hunt with a few wins. Out West, just eight points separate teams between third place and 15th place. Calgary, and other teams (Edmonton, Minnesota) will have to make a call in a few weeks to determine if they want to rebuild or stand pat. Bouwmeester has been serviceable in Calgary this season and should be able to make an impact wherever he ends up; take a chance on him.

Jake Who?

Jake Gardiner and his agent made waves this past week, using the least self-indulgent platform possible, Twitter, to voice their displeasure with Gardiner spending this season with the AHL's Toronto Marlies rather than the Leafs, tagging tweets with the hashtag #FreeJakeGardiner. Gardiner likely won't earn a spot in the Leafs' lineup by taunting management and Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, but it's amusing nonetheless. Gardiner appears recovered from the concussion he was battling, but he's played just two NHL games this season with no points and a minus-1 after notching 30 points in 75 games as a rookie.

The Leafs aren't exactly missing Gardiner either, as Cody Franson has been the team's most consistent playmaker on the blue line, putting up 17 points in 25 games, going no more than one or two tilts without seeing his name on the scoresheet. Franson is dishing the puck quite well, trailing only Phil Kessel for the team lead in assists. While Franson has six points on the power play, he's done most of his damage at even strength and his plus-10 rating is 21 points higher than team captain Dion Phaneuf's minus-11, although Phaneuf has 15 points and plenty of hits. Phaneuf's pricetag was much higher on draft day due to his skill, visibility and goal-scoring potential, but Franson has handsomely rewarded owners that snagged him for essentially nothing.

Observations

The NHL is finally realigning itself, using essentially the same plan that was vetoed by the Player's Union last winter as the first salvo fired in what would become the NHL lockout. The league will take a shape that makes more sense geographically, save for the two Florida teams (which we can assume will end up in Hamilton and Quebec City in the near future, thus joining them with the Red Wings and the rest of the current Northeast Division). Detroit and Columbus move to the Eastern Time zone while Winnipeg moves to what is essentially the Central Division, thus rekindling the old Jets-North Stars rivalry (which has a better ring to it than Wild-Thrashers). The Wild will no longer have to travel two time zones away to play divisional games either.

The move benefits teams like Dallas the most, as their jet fuel costs certainly will go down without having to play the majority of their road games in the Pacific Time zone. Colorado seems to be an outlier in between the Central and Pacific divisions, but Vancouver now will face the rest of the teams along the West Coast rather than traversing North America as far as Minnesota for divisional play.

One issue with NHL realignment is the fact that it will be easier to make the playoffs in the Western Conference than the East as the West will have 16 teams to the East's 14. It will be interesting to see how the wild-card formats play out or if a sixth-place team in one division has more points than a third-place team in another (top 3 in each division are guaranteed a playoff spot).

The real story with realignment though is the NHL hoping to manufacture rivalries at the cost of eliminating others, such as Detroit-Chicago. But the Wings won't be long without a hated rival, as the Florida Panthers will be coming to town often. (The realignment though will give the Leafs and Red Wings more games together, which could be entertaining). Columbus now finds itself in the Eastern Conference, which makes sense, but assuming they'll immediately become rivals with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey is folly. It will be intriguing to see the Jackets play the Rangers, as seemingly Columbus's entire current roster was acquired in the Rick Nash trade this past summer.

-Pavel Datsyuk is good at hockey. Just ask Edmonton and Jeff Petry. The Wings' dynamo punctuated Detroit's 3-2 comeback victory on Friday with another Datsyukian dangle.

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