Hello and welcome in for the first installment in this series in which I break down my top 20 defensemen for fantasy hockey in 2020/21. These projections and rankings may vary over time as the draft/free agency/coaching changes come down, but at least this should give everyone a place to start. Let’s kick it off with #20:
Adam Fox is my 20th ranked defenseman for 2020/21, ahead of teammate Tony DeAngelo. This is a rare case where the PP1 option (DeAngelo) may not outscore the second-stringer in Fox. Fox came on more and more over the course of 2020/21, averaging 21 minutes and 0.7 points per game over the last 23 games. I’ve got him projected to match that 21 minute level in 2020/21, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him elevate into the 23-24 minute range at which point his production potential obviously skyrockets. Fox doesn’t have the insane chances for rates of a Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes, but the Rangers have a good offense and Fox has demonstrated the ability to score points and drive play and then some. He has one of the most remarkable WOWY graphs I’ve ever seen; even given the fact that it was against secondary competition for much of the season his effect on teammates’ play is marked.
Neal Pionk fits in at #19 for me after a monster breakout season, his first with the Jets. Pionk was used in all situations but most importantly became a capable power play quarterback on a stacked Jets line. 25 of Pionk’s 45 points came with the man advantage, and while I don’t expect Pionk’s 86% IPP on the power play to last, he should stand to improve some at even strength and even things out to some extent. Pionk also provides bangers value with his hit and block totals, which paired with his point production makes him a very attractive option in those leagues. Pionk took a legitimate step forward in both individual and team play in 2019/20 and there is no apparent competition for his minutes both at even strength and on the power play. This combination makes me confident that he’ll be a 45-50 point option for your team next season.
Keith Yandle fills the #18 slot for me and it’s all about that PP1 slot alongside a talented Florida Panthers lineup. Yandle isn’t a very effective 5v5 defenseman at this point in his career, but he is still a top-flight power play quarterback and until the Panthers take that role away from him, Yandle will continue to post 50 point seasons year after year. His upside is capped by his declining 5v5 usage but his chances for rates remained consistent and there’s no reason here to expect an age-related decline with Yandle, at least in 2020/21. Yandle doesn’t provide much help in peripherals with some of the lowest hits/blocks/PIM totals among the defensemen on this list, but the bankable point production is of obvious value to your lineup.
Ryan Ellis comes in at #17 after an injury-shortened season that saw him post his highest PPG rate since coming into the league. Ellis was excellent in those 49 games, ranking 17th in the league in CF/60 among all defensemen who played at least 1000 minutes. Ellis didn’t get a lot of help from Nashville’s average offense and is firmly stuck on Nashville’s PP2 unit behind team captain and stud Roman Josi, but he drives play and elevates the team in a way that places him squarely in the top 20 defensemen for me. He’ll provide those blocks for leagues that track it, and his minutes are as safe as anyone’s across the league. I don’t see a reason Ellis can’t maintain a number at least close to the 7% he shot last season as long as he maintains the iCF rate he established, and if Nashville takes even a small step forward in team scoring (looking at you, Matt Duchene), Ellis should complete his first 50-point season in 2020/21.
Erik Karlsson rounds out this group at #16 in my rankings, coming off a second straight injury-plagued season with the Sharks. Karlsson clearly represents a major injury risk and his iCF rates absoluted cratered in 2019/20, but Karlsson has stated that he didn’t feel 100% at the start of the season and was only starting to find his groove when the thumb injury ended his campaign early. The Sharks will almost certainly rebound somewhat from a horrifying season that saw them ranked 26th in the league in goals per game and 23rd in power play efficiency, and Karlsson should be a beneficiary. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Karlsson’s ADP (average draft position) in 2020/21 drafts, as I’ll be ready to pounce if people are writing him off and devaluing his potential to provide elite production. To put it another way: there are very few defensemen capable of scoring 60 points in a season and Karlsson has six such seasons to his credit already before the age of 30.
Now that defensemen 16-20 have been revealed, let’s put them side by side and I’ll explain the rankings a little bit:
These players are very close to one another in my mind, but Fox sticks at the bottom just because we only have one season’s worth of data to make our projections for next year off of. Pionk comes in below Yandle for a similar reason, having just one season of production at this level while Yandle has a long history of consistent high level point production. Ellis ranks above Yandle due to his extra minutes and the lack of risk of falling off the proverbial age cliff. Karlsson is a cut above the group because frankly, he’s Erik Karlsson and injury concerns or not, he’s still a remarkable talent.
Honorable Mentions: Tony DeAngelo, Mark Giordano, Zach Werenski, Miro Heiskanen
As I mentioned above, I ranked Fox above DeAngelo despite DeAngelo’s PP1 status. I have DeAngelo regressing due to significantly less 5v5 usage and large impending regression on both S% and IPP. Giordano is an interesting case and his projection is largely dependent on whether you think Calgary’s offense will rebound to 2018/19 levels in 2020/21. Werenski is a talented, young offensive defenseman but he will undoubtedly come down off the astronomical 10.7% S% he posted in 2019/20 and his Columbus teammates are simply not good enough to support his 50+ point potential. Heiskanen improved on his rookie campaign in 2019/20, but unfortunately John Klingberg stands between him and PP1 quarterback status which severely caps his upside. Were Heiskanen to supplant Klingberg on the top unit his upside would jump to 60 points – this is a player to watch throughout the 2020/21 season if only for that reason.
Stay tuned for ranks 11-15!
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