Hello and welcome in for the third installment in this series in which I break down my top 20 defensemen for fantasy hockey in 2020/21. You can find my previous article on ranks 11-15 here. 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 #10:
Thomas Chabot leads off my top 10, coming off a season in which he led the entire NHL in average time on ice. Chabot took a step back in point production, but an examination of his underlying stats lays the blame for that result at the feet of his teammates. Chabot carried Toronto castoffs Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey through the season and suffered point regression due to Ottawa’s league-worst power play. Chabot’s S% dived from an average above 8% in his first two seasons to 3.2% in 2019/20, a stat that seems likely to positively regress considering both Chabot’s IPP and individual chances for statistics remained essentially unchanged as the team’s overall goal-scoring cratered. To underscore the point: Chabot’s on-ice xGF/60 was 3.21 in 2018/19 and 3.18 in 19/20, but his on-ice actual GF/60 bottomed out at a horrific 2.79 (compared to 4.09 in 18/19). It seems impossible that Ottawa could be nearly as inept offensively in 2020/21 as they were this past season, and with a measured level of teamwide offensive improvement Chabot will elevate back into a 55+ point player.
Alex Pietrangelo snags the next spot at #9 in my rankings. Pietrangelo balled out in a big way in a contract season, and his future is still in doubt after a career year in 2019/20. It’s unusual for a defenseman in his age-30 season to take another step, but that’s exactly what appeared to happen for Pietrangelo in 2020/21 as he posted the best individual chances for rates of his career while carrying the Blues sans Vladimir Tarasenko. What’s more, Pietrangelo’s IPP and S% fell in line with his career rates, which makes this new level of play look even more sustainable moving forward. St. Louis scored more often when Pietrangelo was on the ice more often than ever before despite a slight reduction in team CF/60 rates, which could indicate a little bit of luck for Pietrangelo regarding team scoring. The most important issue for Pietrangelo is clearly his landing spot for 2020/21, but whoever pays up for his elite-level services will almost certainly do so with the intent of granting him the 24+ minutes and PP1 time he has grown accustomed to in his career.
Quinn Hughes exploded onto the scene in 2019/20 and that is reflected in his #8 ranking for 2020/21. Hughes ranked 7th among all defensemen in on-ice CF/60 & SCF/60 as a rookie, a truly remarkable feat. He quickly became a PP1 staple and his career arc looks as rosy as any rookie defenseman in recent memory. Hughes did sport a relatively high IPP at 54% and doesn’t shoot as much as you’d like, but it’s impossible to ignore the enormity of what he accomplished in 19/20 as a 5’10” rookie defenseman. I don’t anticipate Hughes will score at quite the same rate. Hughes will hurt more than he helps in bangers leagues, registering a grand total of seven hits over the entirety of the 19/20 season, but the point production seems pretty stable given his locked-in role on the Vancouver blueline.
Victor Hedman clocks in at #7 after yet another Norris-level campaign. Hedman’s 82-game points pace over the past four seasons is 68.4, a truly elite rate. That being said, Hedman’s individual chances for rates have declined for two seasons in a row and it is rare to see a strong rebound for a player after that type of trend is established. Even if Hedman continues to regress in terms of creating chances on his own, his on-ice chances for rates have remained largely unchanged over the past 5+ seasons and his IPP and S% held closely to his recent averages. We could be seeing the beginning of a gradual decline for Hedman as he enters his age-30 season after seven seasons as Tampa’s #1 defenseman, but it’s hard to envision that decline being too sharp given the vast supply of talent around him and his entrenched position on the lethal Lightning power play.
Morgan Rielly is probably the biggest surprise of these rankings at #6, coming off an injury-plagued season in which he was supplanted by Tyson Barrie as Toronto’s PP1 quarterback. For anyone who watched any Maple Leaf games, however, it was apparent that Rielly was laboring through an injury for nearly the entire season. His elite skating ability was severely compromised, which is easily his greatest asset in terms of jumping into the play and creating space in the offensive zone. Examining his underlying stats gives reason to expect a 2020/21 renaissance as well; his IPP and S% both dove off the deep end, and while his individual chances for rates dropped as well, he still ranked 11th in iCF/60 and 10th in on-ice CF/60. If you ascribe to the theory that Rielly is more the player he was in 2018/19 than he was in 2019/20, his 18/19 on-ice CF/60 would have ranked 2nd among all defensemen in 19/20, while his 18/19 iCF/60 would have ranked 5th. I don’t expect Rielly to score 20 goals again, but with Barrie almost certainly leaving due to cap constraints, Rielly should resume his PP1 quarterbacking duties at full strength for 2019/20 and should eclipse 60 points.
Now that defensemen 6-10 have been revealed, let’s put them side by side and I’ll explain the rankings a little bit:
Chabot will have to be content with 10-spot for now, as questions still remain about the Sens’ ability to generate offense both at even-strength and on the PP. Pietrangelo could be higher and may get there depending on where he signs in the offseason, but without that information it’s hard to predict either positive or negative effects on his 2020/21 production. Hughes sticks behind Hedman due to the ever-present possibility of a sophomore slump and his lack of contribution in the peripheral categories. Lastly, I have Rielly over Hedman due to Hedman’s declining individual impact and the age difference between the two.
Stay tuned for ranks 1-5!
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