It’s been quite some time since so many rookies have had such an impact on fantasy hockey. It’s been even longer since so many rookie defenders have become “must-have” players for next year’s fantasy season.
Taking gambles on rookie defensemen who have hot starts often proves to be more rewarding than gambles on forwards because of how shallow the talent pool is in fantasy hockey among blueliners. While there are a few “elite” guys at the top of the list, most are players who are often owned because they see a lot of ice time or have recognizable names like Jack Johnson from the Blue Jackets or Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues.
So when rookie defenders get off to hot starts in fantasy hockey they are almost always worth a pick up at the expense of the least valuable player on your fantasy roster. Here are fantasy hockey’s best three rookie defensemen.
Buffalo’s Ristolainen is the only rookie on this list who started the season in the NHL. The Finnish defender has great size and sees more ice time for the Sabres than any other player. At just 21-years-old the future is incredibly bright for Ristolainen who, as of the writing of this article, is tied for tenth in scoring among defenseman with the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Suter, and Drew Doughty.
The secret to Ristolainen’s fantasy value is his power play production. His 16 points on the man advantage are second only to Ryan O’Reilly on his team and help to make up for the -17 plus-minus rating, an unfortunate side effect of playing on the Sabres. Ristolainen shoots a ton from Buffalo’s blue line and also has respectable “real time” stats in the hits and blocked shots category.
Perhaps because of his troubling plus-minus rating and the unfamiliarity of his name, Ristolainen is still available in over 25 percent of Yahoo! leagues. His fantasy value is undeniable at this point thanks to his ability to move the puck to the young, dangerous forwards on Buffalo, his big shot, and the minutes he eats up. His is a name that belongs on every fantasy cheat sheet next fall when draft day approaches.
A name that is even trickier to spell but also belongs right next to Ristolainen is that of the Flyers’ power play wunderkind; Gostisbehere. In 34 games in Philadelphia Gostisbehere has 28 points, 16 of which have come on the man advantage. He has also unseated perennial power play standout Mark Streit on the Flyers’ top power play unit.
What Gostisbehere lacks in NHL size he more than makes up for in his ability to move the puck and contribute on the power play. In the world of unowned fantasy hockey defensemen, guys who see time on the man advantage with players like Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jakub Voracek don’t come around very often, but the Union College standout can still be picked up in a lot of leagues. ESPN fantasy managers were quick to catch on to the rookie defender’s value and have made him a universally owned blue liner.
The statistic that can’t be ignored with Philadelphia’s rookie phenom is that he is ninth among NHL defensemen in scoring despite playing about 20 fewer games than his peers. He isn’t seeing the even strength minutes that Ristolainen is, but he is undoubtedly already among fantasy hockey’s elite defensemen after just 34 games in the big league. Next season he will likely be seeing a more featured role at even strength.
Big, young, strong, and special: Parayko, like Gostisbehere, is a former third round pick that started the season as an unknown commodity on the crowded blue line in St. Louis. Since then, the 6’5″ 22 year old has quickly become a topic of discussion in fantasy hockey circles. A long goal-scoring slump that spanned from December 21st to February 9th turned some fantasy managers off, but the 20 points that he has scored so far remain plenty impressive.
Unlike Ristolainen and Gostisbehere, most of Parayko’s production has come at even strength thanks to his thunderous shot. With Kevin Shattenkirk’s name in the rumor mill and Pietrangelo on injured reserve, Parayko is set to see a more featured role in the coming weeks for the Blues. The rookie is fourth among Blues’ defenders in time on ice per game, but (excluding Jaden Schwartz’ small sample size of seven games) is tenth among skaters in power play ice time seen per game.
After Shattenkirk, Pietrangelo sees the most ice time among Blues’ blueliners which means that Parayko, with his monstrous shot, will likely soon be seeing some big minutes on the power play. So, the fantasy value for St. Louis’ rookie defender just went up and with the NHL’s trade deadline coming up on February 29th, there is the potential for an even larger role to be carved out for the big kid from Alberta.