The other day I tweeted out what I consider to be the top four defencemen in the majority of formats – Erik Karlsson, P.K Subban, Dustin Byfuglien, and Kris Letang. It was quickly pointed out to me that missing from the list was two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. This led to an interesting debate on where, exactly, we should be slotting him in the rankings.
Keith, to me, is one of the fantasy players that carries an aura of elite-ness (if that’s a word) that may outstretch actual production. He’s part of an impressive two-by-two-by-two club; winning each of the Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold, and Norris Trophy multiple times. It’s a terrifically impressive resume (he’d do well on linkedin), one that has had him entrenched firmly in forefront of poolies’ minds.
Awards, however, mean very little in fantasy hockey. So we debate (or send angry tweets at one another).
Reading through his numbers it’s hard to draw any line of consistency. Over nine full seasons you can make a strong case that only two of them have been elite from an offensive perspective. In 2009-10 it was 82-14-55-69, as this past season 79-6-55-61. Naturally, those two years correspond with the two Norris Trophies sitting in his living room (I haven’t actually seen his living room, so this is simply conjecture. I’d keep them in my living room though, force everyone to admire my greatness).
If you’re a defencemen and you’re breaking 60 points with any sort of consistency, then you are, almost by definition, among the top five in any format. But what if you only do it once every four and a half years? I’m willing to give Duncan a bit of a break on his first two years in the league – he was a rookie and going through rookie-like development. Even if we remove them from the equation, that’s still only two spectacular fantasy box scores in seven years (or a success rate of 29%).
When using an early round draft pick (and you know that’s what it will take in 2014-15) on a defencemen, do you really want to be taking a 70% chance that he’s merely ‘good’?
The counter-point is that all players have peaks and valleys in their production. And I recognize that. But does Keith really stack up against the other preeminent options? Karlsson (three years in a row as the top option); Subban (back-to-back 50+ seasons, in the midst of his prime); Byfuglien (an uncanny mix of shots, penalty minutes and powerplay production); and Letang (playing in Pittsburgh, a year removed from 38 points in 35 games).
The fear with blueliners like Keith is that they don’t shoot consistently. So much of a player’s value is derived out of shots. Shots lead to more offensive opportunities, more goals, potential rebounds, primary and secondary assists… the list goes on. When I’m putting together a draft list I look at shots first, even before point totals. Throwing vulcanized rubber towards the net with regularity is the foundation upon which the advanced stats revolution has been built, and in a way, it has a similar (albeit less advanced) impact on fantasy hockey.
In 2013-14, Keith finished seventh among defencemen, with 198 shots. The year before – 14th. And in 2011-12 he was 23rd. It worries me. And he is carrying a lot of the signs of a player who won’t be able to carry this production forward.
He’s never been one to score with regularity – surpassing 10 goals only twice. Any further drop off in shots will likely pull an already low number down further. After being a rather ornery individual to start his career, the penalty minutes have dried up in recent years – nestled in the 30 to 40 range. Great news if you’re a Blackhawks’ fan, frustrating as a poolie.
Digging through ExtraSkater.com I stumbled upon a stat that might better explain why exactly this year was so different from the three that preceded it – secondary assists. It’s those dang assists that come when you are the second-to-last person to touch the puck on a scoring play. They are a nice way to pad your stats, but unfortunately aren’t easy to replicate year-over-year. You could end with 25 one season, and drop down to 12 the next, and it may have had little to do with level of play.
Keith was first in the entire league for secondary assists by a blueliner with 35. The next closest defenceman was Erik Karlsson, all the way down at 25. In fact, only one forward finished ahead of him, that being Nicklas Backstrom with 37.
I took a look back at 2011-12, ignoring the lockout year to help avoid any anomalies from a small sample. In that year, he had 36 assists, 19 of which were of a secondary nature. If we take that number, and switch it out with his total of 35 from 2013-14, it changes the stat line to: 79-6-39-45. Does he even when the Norris Trophy with totals like that? Are talking about him as a sure-fire top 10 fantasy defencemen, let alone top five?
I bring all of this up because your draft picks in the first four or five rounds are pivotal. One misstep, one player that fails to produce, leaves a gaping hole in your roster that is near impossible to fill via trade. If you select Keith too early, passing on star forwards and goaltenders, you may be left with the 13th best defencemen when you thought you were getting the third.
There is an element of uncertainty with any and all players, no matter who you pick. But this year, when it comes to Keith, the risk might be too great.
Darren Kennedy is a contributor for Mckeen’s and Dobber hockey. You can find him on twitter @fantasyhockeydk or on his couch watching re-runs of Friday Night Lights.