mardi 6 mai 2014

The Best Defense(man) is Good Offense

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This week the Eastern Edge takes a closer look at seven Eastern Conference defensemen who are putting up offensive numbers this post season

It's been said that defense wins championships. I've been a firm believer that this applies to fantasy hockey as well, but obviously with a slightly different angle. For leagues that require a certain number of defensemen, finding players that can provide steady production from the back end are invaluable.

This week, I'll take a look at seven Eastern Conference defensemen that are putting up some very good numbers in the playoffs so far, six of which had more points than Sidney Crosby heading into last night's game. Then I'll look into my crystal ball to forecast whether their production will carry over to next season.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  27
Contract Status:  Signed through 2021-22
2014-15 Cap Hit:  $7,250,000

Last Sunday's three point game by Letang is exactly why you can't sell low on this guy. Even after suffering a stroke at such a young age, he has the home run potential that very few fantasy players can provide. When he's on the ice, he's often making highlight-reel plays, both offensively and defensively.

Over the last four seasons, Letang has averaged 51 games and 38 points, which includes the lockout shortened season. In those four seasons, he has scored at a 61 point pace. For those leagues that use NHL cap hits, next season is the first of his 8-year $58-million dollar extension that sees his annual cap hit go from $3.5M to $7.25M. If you own Letang, don't expect him to play a full season, but know that if he does manage that feat, he will richly reward his owner.

One final thing to keep in mind with Letang, in addition to his penchant for finding the injured reserve list, is that with his cap hit going up significantly and the Pens organization seemingly endless supply of offensive defensemen, could we see the team dangle their defensive weapon in the off-season? I don't think they deal Letang, but weirder things have happened. If he does leave Pittsburgh, take 5-10 points off his potential point total.

Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  27
Contract Status:  Unrestricted Free Agent
2013-14 Cap Hit:  $2,300,000

Boy did Matt Niskanen ever pick a great time to have a career season; he recorded 46 points, eclipsing the 35 points he had in the 2008-09 season. He is set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent on Canada Day and he's only 27-years-old. With the NHL salary cap about to rise from $64.3M to somewhere around $70M per team, some organization is going to grossly overpay for Niskanen's services. Seriously, who isn't willing to pay through the nose for a puck moving defenseman in his prime?

While Niskanen did take advantage of lengthy Letang and Paul Martin absences to man the point on the power play, he did have the fifth most even-strength points (31) amongst NHL defenders. He has eight points in nine playoff games so far this year.

He's a good fit on this team. If he does sign for big bucks and leaves Pittsburgh, his point production should only take a slight hit to about 40 points with his new team, giving him every opportunity to show that it was money well spent. He won't produce much more than he did this season for the Pens, even if he signs a sweetheart deal to stay with the team because Letang and Martin will eat into some of his power play minutes.

P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  25
Contract Status:  Restricted Free Agent
2013-14 Cap Hit:  $2,875,000

With only two of their top six defensemen under contract for next season, the Canadiens are going to have a lot of work to do this summer. The most important being P.K. Subban. After playing hardball in contract negotiations two years ago, essentially telling the young buck to prove himself, the ball is squarely in Montreal's court. Subban has more than proven himself since signing that contract in winning the Norris trophy as the league's top defenseman and leading all NHL defensemen in scoring with 91 points over 121 regular season games.

He is doing nothing to lower his bargaining power in these playoffs, registering nine points in six games. While I don't see Montreal letting Subban go, if they don't get him under contract by July 1st, wouldn't one team be willing to come in with a desperate offer sheet, forcing Montreal to make a very difficult choice? My money says that he signs with the Habs, but not for max term, maybe something like four or five years. That way, he can have a shot at unrestricted free agent status when he is around 30-years-old.

Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  23
Contract Status:  Restricted Free Agent
2013-14 Cap Hit:  $916,667

Fun-sized defender made a splash in last year's playoffs when he recorded four goals in his first five games. Krug logged an impressive 14 goals and 40 points in his rookie NHL campaign and is having a very good playoff run this year again with seven points in as many games.

What might we see from Krug next year? Looking back at his season, he struggled during the months of December and March, recording seven points over 27 games. In the other months combined, he scored at a 52-point pace, recording 33 points in 52 contests. With more experience, he will smooth out those peaks and valleys and 50 points is going to be the standard going forward.

Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  21
Contract Status:  Signed through Next Season
2014-15 Cap Hit:  $894,167

The surging sophomore has six points in his last five playoff games. His ice time looks like it is all over the place as shown in the table below:

Game 1
Game 2
Game 3
Game 4*
Game 5
Game 1*
Game 2

*Overtime Games

Outside of those overtime games, Hamilton is clearly receiving bottom pairing minutes, which is fine while he is learning to play with the big boys, but he is also showing us an offensive side. His upside is as huge as he is tall; over his last two seasons of junior hockey, Hamilton recorded 113 points in 82 games.

In his rookie campaign last year, he recorded 16 points in 42 games. This year, he had 25 points in 64 games, which works out to virtually the same points-per game ratio. However, when you break it down in a little more detail, in his opening 28 games, he had seven points. In his next 29 games, he scored 18 points, a 51 point pace. He's still growing and learning, but he's going to be a legitimate option on the Bruins backend for many years to come.

Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  27
Contract Status:  Signed through 2017-18
2013-14 Cap Hit:  $4,357,143

JJ is often vilified for his frequent forays into the offensive zone, leaving his defensive partner and goaltender hanging out to dry. He (and his fantasy owners) endured a sub-par season points-wise, recording 33 points in 82 games. Johnson started the year with only five points in his first 27 games, then scored at a 42-point pace the rest of the way.

During the regular season, Johnson led Columbus in ice time and it was amplified in the post season, where he logged the most minutes on all special teams and averaged nearly five minutes more overall ice time per game than the next Blue Jacket. Those even-strength and penalty-kill minutes were played against the Pens top talent and yet Johnson finished the playoffs with a respectable minus-1 rating and seven points in six games. He lives for the post season as his 19 points in 18 NHL career playoff games attest.

Over his last four seasons, Johnson has missed only six games and averaged 38 points if we pro-rate the lockout campaign. It's reasonable to expect him to challenge 40 points next season as the team will be hungrier and more experienced. It's safe to say that his minus-20 days are over.

Paul Martin, Pittsburg Penguins

Age at Start of 2014-15 Season:  33
Contract Status:  Signed through Next Season
2014-15 Cap Hit:  $5,000,000

Perhaps we should have seen this post season production (eight points in nine games) coming, based on last year's 11 points in 15 playoff games. A broken leg and serious hand injury caused Martin to miss over half of this regular season. In the 39 games he did play, he registered only 15 points, a 32 point pace over a full season. In last year's lockout shortened campaign, Martin scored at a 55 point pace, recording 23 points in 34 games.

The 33-year-old has a career high of 37 points, but did find himself on the Pens power play for essentially three minutes per game, the sixth most on the team. What can we expect next year? While he's not getting any younger, at 34 years of age, he doesn't yet need a walker to get around. He'll score between 30-35 points and miss a bushel full of games.