Hutch's Hockey: Defense Wins Championships

Hutch's Hockey: Defense Wins Championships

We're through the first round of the fantasy playoffs. It's must-win season, and that means getting the edge over your opponent wherever you can. 

This week, I want to highlight a few defensemen that are heating up at the right time. I typically assume most forwards are going to cancel each other out, but getting more offense from your blue line can be a make-or-break move in fantasy. Whether that's enough to get you a title in a few weeks remains to be seen, but here are some guys that can help on the back end. 

Mike Matheson keeps rolling for the Canadiens, even as the team's injuries pile up, draining an already lackluster roster of some scoring punch. Matheson's had my attention from the All-Star break on, but it's his work in the last two weeks that's really stood out. I'm talking about three goals, six assists, 14 blocked shots and a plus-2 rating over seven contests. He's at 28 points through 39 contests this season -- injuries will end up limiting him to just over half a campaign, but it could still end up being a career year. Not much has gone right for the Canadiens, but getting Matheson in a July trade that sent Jeff Petry and Ryan Poehling to Pittsburgh appears to have favored Montreal this year. 

If you've given up on getting consistency out of the Flames, I understand, but hear me out. MacKenzie Weegar has finally regained his scoring touch with three goals and four assists over his last six games, and he's added 19 hits and 14 blocked shots over that span. Most of it has come with Chris Tanev (upper body) sidelined, with Weegar recently playing as the more scoring-oriented half of a pairing with Nikita Zadorov. Weegar's first year in Calgary has underwhelmed, but his all-around production has been at the expected level in March, so it's worth taking a look to see if he can help you out. 

Adam Larsson is another defenseman that's been on and off of my rosters a few times this season. He's picked up two goals, three assists, 16 blocked shots and 10 hits over his last five games, a span in which the Kraken have started to fluctuate a bit more on offense. Larsson's going to do basically all of his scoring at even strength, but his non-scoring production is as steady as ever, and his 31 points in 72 games this season have made it a career year for the 30-year-old. 

With Jakob Chychrun (lower body) out into April, an unlikely hero has stepped up for the Senators. Travis Hamonic has a goal and five assists over his last seven games, accounting for nearly a third of his offense this season. His 20 points in 73 games have given him his best scoring season since 2015-16. He's also picked up 140 blocked shots this year, which is his real key to fantasy value. He's more of a one-category specialist (blocks) than the other defensemen listed so far, but Hamonic's offense has been revitalized on a Senators team that's been a good source of high-event hockey. 

You might also want to consider Jake Sanderson, who has stepped back into a larger power-play role in Chychrun's absence. Sanderson's gone 14 games without a goal, but he has seven assists, 18 shots on net and 32 blocked shots over that span. Adding Sanderson is more speculative -- he needs to cash in on his advantageous minutes. He enters the upcoming week with no points in his last three games, but he's too talented to stay off the scoresheet the rest of the way. Facing the Flyers and Blue Jackets in two of the Senators' four games next week should be a boost to his scoring chances. 

On that note, Dylan Ferguson could be a good pickup in goal. He's been the Senators' backup lately with Cam Talbot (lower body) out, and I'm not sold on Mads Sogaard, who had two good games against the Bruins and Lightning last week, but on the heels of a six-game ugly patch. Ferguson wasn't great against the Devils on Saturday, but he was heroic versus the Penguins earlier in the week. If he gets a soft matchup, he's a strong streaming option, and a split of four-game schedule next week would be ideal. 

Enough about the Senators and defense. You still need some punch on offense. Even with a good defense, the NHL's not a 1-0 league -- though that would make for some spectacular theater. 

As I mentioned about the Canadiens above, little has gone right for them. While it's too little and too late to change the direction of their season, Nick Suzuki has two goals and eight assists over his last four games, all of which were multi-point efforts. I don't think Suzuki should be available in many fantasy formats, but he's been just a little below expectations at a deep position. I'll continue to advocate for doing your due diligence to see if he's out there, especially since he's been on quite the heater over the last week. 

I talked about punch earlier, so I'd be remiss not to include Tom Wilson this week. He's been covering categories at a strong rate with two goals, four assists, 18 shots, 12 PIM and 15 hits over his last six contests. The Capitals don't have much hope for a playoff spot, but you can bet they won't go out quietly. Wilson's getting some first-line minutes, which bodes well for his offense, and you can always count on his physical play to help shore up those categories. 

Wilson hasn't been alone in surging for the Capitals lately -- Dylan Strome is up to five goals and 12 assists through 12 games in March. Five of those helpers have come on the power play, and he also boasts a plus-6 rating for the month. Strome's always going to be a points-and-shots only type, but that's what will keep him in a top-line role. If you can make room for him, do it. 

Last week, I hyped up Reilly Smith on the Golden Knights' second line. A lower-body injury has taken him out of the lineup, but Pavel Dorofeyev is playing in a similar role and finding plenty of success. I'm talking about seven points over his last seven games with 18 shots and a plus-3 rating. The 22-year-old rookie has gone from call-up to trusted scoring forward in the blink of an eye. I don't envision head coach Bruce Cassidy sitting Dorofeyev when Smith or William Carrier (lower body) come back -- Brett Howden and Michael Amadio might have to worry about losing their spots, but Dorofeyev would have to go cold quickly to sit out. 

Key injuries keep piling up for the Predators -- Matt Duchene (hand) is considered week-to-week, which is almost synonymous with season-ending at this stage of the schedule. The kids are alright, especially the trio of Philip Tomasino, Thomas Novak and Luke Evangelista. All three should be widely available, but Tomasino looks like the safest option right now. He's picked up three goals and seven assists over his last nine contests, and he's seeing top-line minutes. How much of his success was a product of playing with Duchene? Who knows. Take the gamble later this week with games Thursday versus the Penguins and Saturday versus the Blues. 

Finally, loop around and see if Viktor Arvidsson is still on the waiver wire -- he's out there in about half of Yahoo! formats. He posted three straight multi-point efforts this week, racking up five goals and two assists. The return of Kevin Fiala from a lower-body injury elevates an already dangerous Kings offense, especially if he and Arvidsson continue to flank Phillip Danault on the second line. I'm done doubting this team. Their balanced attack is going to make them a very tough out in the playoffs if they can get anywhere near average goaltending, and the duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Pheonix Copley could deliver on that. 

This is the last normal week when it comes to fantasy hockey, with two-week championship matchups on the horizon. There's some pitfalls to avoid now as the elite teams in the Eastern Conference begin to clinch playoff spots -- they're more likely to be cautious with key players than teams on the bubble. It's worth keeping a closer eye on news throughout the day as you compete for a playoff spot, so you can adjust your roster on the fly. If you're in a weekly format, you may want to consider sitting players that are in that undefined day-to-day zone without a clear return date. Your biggest asset in most formats will get getting more games played than your opponent, so it's also worth checking which teams are set to play the most. Good luck in navigating the semifinals this week, and I'll have more in preparation for the finals next Monday. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Hutchinson
Shawn has covered sports independently since 2010, and joined RotoWire in 2019. In 2023, he was named FSWA Hockey Writer of the Year. Shawn serves as a contributor for hockey and baseball, and pens the "Hutch's Hockey" column. He also enjoys soccer, rooting for his hometown teams: Sounders FC and Reign FC.
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