2017 Fantasy Hockey Draft Prep: Blue Line (Defensemen) Tiers

Defensemen used to be overlooked Fantasy assets, as their inherent lack of offensive upside often left owners disinterested and gravitating toward the exciting pool of elite forwards. However, times have changed.

Having a strong crop of blueliners is now -- more often than not -- essential to a Fantasy team's success. As you take a look at this tiered preview of NHL defensemen for the 2017-18 season, you'll want to keep in mind that these rankings are based on a 12-team, CBS head-to-head league, which emphasizes goal scoring and plus-minus rating.

 The order in which players are listed represents their ranking within each tier.

Tier 1 -- "The Elite" -- Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman

This trio was in a class of its own in 2016-17, as they were the only defensemen able to surpass the 70-point mark by season's end -- Kevin Shattenkirk came in as a distant fourth with 56 points in 80 games. Burns should be the first defender taken off the board in nearly all leagues  due to his goal-scoring prowess, but Karlsson's consistency and point-per-game upside render him a close second, with Hedman coming in as a clear third due to the distinct possibility of regression.

Hedman broke out to the tune of 72 points last campaign -- 17 more than his previous career best -- but if he's able to replicate that level of success, it wouldn't be shocking to see him supplant Burns as the first blueliner off the board in 2018-19.

 Tier 2 -- "The Studs" -- Roman Josi, Dustin Byfuglien, Shea Weber, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, John Klingberg, Kevin Shattenkirk, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith

Owners that miss out on a member of the elite trio shouldn't fret, as this tier is chock-full of high-end options, albeit with lower ceilings. Josi regressed a bit in 2016-17, notching 49 points after racking up 61 during the prior campaign, but he still has 60-point upside which is why he appears first in this tier. Byfuglien is a virtual lock for at least 50 points and double-digit goals every year for a level of consistency that separates him from the rest of the pack. Weber, Subban and Pietrangelo have all shown throughout their NHL careers that a 40-point campaign is the floor, but Weber gets the edge due to his knack for potting at least 15 goals on an annual basis.

Klingberg has a ton of upside, and with the defensive-minded Marc Methot set to skate as his partner in 2017-18, the 25-year-old Swede may be able to break through the 60-point mark for the first time in his career. Shattenkirk, Doughty and Keith round out this tier as rock-solid options that don't have quite as much upside as the rest of the group.

 Tier 3 -- "The Points Producers" -- Zach Werenski, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Schultz, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nick Leddy, Ryan Suter, Kris Letang

In general, we advise that owners plan on snagging a member of the first two tiers to serve as their No. 1 option this season. However, savvy league managers will also consider picking from one of the players that appear in Tier 3, as having two high-end options on defense is an important part of building a winning Fantasy roster. Werenski is ranked first in this tier for good reason; the sky's the limit for the 20-year-old, who racked up 47 points in 78 games as a rookie.

Using a high pick on a player who's only had one year of success can be a risky venture for Fantasy owners, but Werenski has enough upside to justify a roll of the dice. Krug, Hamilton and Schultz have each improved steadily over the past three seasons, and each should once again approach the 50-point mark. Ekman-Larsson had a down season in 2016-17, tallying 39 points after notching 55 the prior season, but the addition of the defensive-minded Niklas Hjalmarsson as his partner should allow him to open up offensively and return to form. Ristolainen has upped his point total and ice time in three consecutive seasons, a trend that should continue in 2017-18. If the 22-year-old Finn doesn't begin to plateau, he could notch double-digit goals and 50-plus points. Leddy and Suter don't have as much upside as some of the other players that appear in Tier 3, but they shouldn't have any issue hitting the 40-point mark.

Letang would likely be included in Tier 2 due to his offensive upside if he wasn't a major injury concern. The 30-year-old blueliner hasn't logged a full season since 2010-11, but owners willing to bet on his health could be rewarded handsomely if he's able to fend off the injury bug.

 Tier 4 -- "The Up and Comers" --  Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere, Brady Skjei, Colton Parayko, Oscar Klefbom, Jake Gardiner, Jaccob Slavin, Jared Spurgeon, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, Mathew Dumba, Noah Hanifin, Jacob Trouba

This class of defenders have either shown steady improvement or are fresh off a breakout year. Jones, Gostisbehere, Skjei, Parayko and Klefbom have all flirted with (or surpassed) the 40-point mark at some point over the past few seasons, and since they're all less than 25 years old, it's safe to assume there's room for improvement in the scoring department. Gardiner broke out to the tune of 43 points in 82 games in 2016-17 while primarily skating with newcomer Nikita Zaitsev, who appears later in the list.

Those two have the potential to be a dynamic pair for years to come, and they could dramatically improve on their point totals from a season ago. Slavin, Spurgeon, Orlov, Zaitsev and Dumba have all proven to be competent offensive contributors in recent campaigns, and they shouldn't have much trouble hitting the 35-point mark this season. Hanifin has yet to surpass 30 points in a season, but he's only 20 years old, and should continue to improve while skating on the Hurricanes' second pair. Trouba tallied 33 points in 60 games in 2016-17 after notching 21 in 81 contests during the previous campaign, so his inconsistency drops him behind the more surefire options in this pack.

Tier 5 -- "The Bounce Backs" -- Mark Giordano, John Carlson, T.J. Brodie, Tyson Barrie, Jake Muzzin, Aaron Ekblad, Sami Vatanen, Morgan Rielly

This tier is populated by players who have enjoyed success in the past, but are coming off uncharacteristically stagnant campaigns. Giordano is getting up there in age at 33, and that may have been a contributing factor in his descent to 39 points last season; but it's also a distinct possibility that 2016-17 was an outlier and he'll return to upper-40-point form. Carlson broke out for 55 points in 2014-15, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented the American from hitting the 40-point mark in back-to-back seasons ever since. If he's able to avoid the injury bug in 2017-18, he could bounce back in a major way offensively. Brodie, Barrie and Muzzin each failed to crack 40-points last season after doing so in both of the two previous campaigns, but none of their roles have changed significantly, so it wouldn't be surprising to see all three return to form offensively.

Ekblad posted career lows in goals and assists in what was an injury-riddled campaign last year, but the 6-foot-4 skater was drafted first overall in 2014 for a reason, and the Panthers will do everything they can to get him back on track. Vatanen and Rielly both failed to break through the 35-point threshold in 2016-17 after doing so the previous year, and although there's potential for bounce-back in both players, there's definitely some risk involved. Vatanen hasn't played a full season since he entered the league in 2012-13, and Rielly may be taking on a more defensive-minded role going forward under coach Mike Babcock, while Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev shoulder the bulk of the offensive load for the Maple Leafs.

 Tier 6 -- "The Tried and True" -- Justin Faulk, Ryan McDonagh, Keith Yandle, Alec Martinez, Cam Fowler, Brent Seabrook, Alex Goligoski, Mike Green, Matt Niskanen

Justin Faulk undoubtedly has the most upside of this tier, which is why he's listed first. He's only 25 years old and has potted at least 15 goals in each of the past three seasons, but he's also failed to crack the 40-point mark in back-to-back campaigns, which would seem to suggest he's already plateauing in terms of his offensive capabilities. However, he's also been hampered by injuries over the past two seasons -- so, if he's able to stay healthy in 2017-18, there's the potential for an excellent return on the investment.

The rest of the tier is comprised entirely of players showing that they can generally be counted on for at least 35 points on a seasonal basis, but otherwise don't have much scoring upside. However, there's value in dependability, and any one of the players from Tier 6 would make a fine addition to Fantasy teams rounding out their defensive depth.

 Tier 7 -- "The Young Guns" -- Ivan Provorov, Charlie McAvoy, Anthony DeAngelo, Julius Honka

This tier represents the young, high-profile defenders who have recently debuted in the league, and also possess the pedigree to become immediate Fantasy assets. Provorov showed why the Flyers took him with the seventh overall pick in 2015 last season, notching 30 points in 80 games as a rookie. At just 20 years old, the Russian could threaten Shayne Gostisbehere's standing as Philadelphia's top offensive defenseman. McAvoy didn't suit up for the Bruins during the regular season in 2016-17, but he was a key contributor during their brief playoff run, logging three assists in six postseason contests.

The 19-year-old should secure a regular role with Boston, as well as earning a spot on one of the club's man-advantage units, giving him 35-point upside. Deangelo and Honka's statuses as Fantasy assets aren't as certain as the other two young guns included in Tier 7, but they're both former first-round selections known for their offensive prowess, so if they're able to lock down power-play duties in 2017-18, they could surprise Fantasy owners with solid scoring production in what should be their first significant taste of NHL action.

 Tier 8 -- "The Outsiders" -- Mattias Ekholm, Nick Holden, Hampus Lindholm, Jeff Petry, Tyler Myers, David Savard, Travis Hamonic, Erik Johnson, Zdeno Chara, Mark Streit, Ben Hutton, Johnny Boychuk, Anton Stralman, Trevor Daley, Jason Demers, Alexander Edler, Cody Ceci

Players in Tier 8 can be ignored in all but the deepest of Fantasy leagues. Ekholm could prove useful if he's able to return to form after logging a disappointing 23 points in 82 games last season, but Fantasy owners should be able to snag him off the waiver wire if he shows signs of improvement early on. The rest of this tier is comprised of solid NHL players, but they lack the offensive upside necessary to be viable options in head-to-head CBS leagues and thus should be avoided on Draft Day.

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