Every player develops into the NHL differently and brings a different skill set to the table. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t clear trends and peaks when it comes to fantasy production.
Taking the past seven years of all NHL scoring and looking at the output from different age brackets, positions and tiers, we can see where there are steeper inclines to a typical player’s development.
In other words, yes, we can visualize a breakout.
I took the top 72 defensemen in fantasy points from each season between 2015-16 and 2021-22, and combined the output from each age (which is based on their age as of Jan. 31 in the season in question). So, over the course of seven seasons, we have a sample of 504 seasons from defensemen that we can consider to be fantasy relevant.
The average fantasy output from each age is a relatively flat line. This makes sense, as there are fewer players in each age group as you move to either end of the spectrum. In fact, there is only one 18-year-old that qualified for the dataset at the young end and only one 39-year-old that qualified at the old end. (The 18-year-old was in 2018-19, while the 39-year-old was in 2016-17; Can you name them both? Answers below.)
But while the average output may not yield much information for breakouts, looking at the number of players in each age group and the total fantasy points they produced does give us a curve with which to draw conclusions.
The age that produces the most fantasy points for fantasy-relevant defensemen is the age of 26, with 55 of the 504 player-seasons from the sample combining for 6,958 fantasy points.
But that’s not where the breakout happens. While 26 is the peak, it’s only a minor uptick from the 51 player-seasons producing 6,648 total fantasy points at age 25.
The breakout increase occurs from age 23 to age 25. There’s a monumental increase in the number of players earning a spot in the top 72 each season and, with that, the expected boost in total fantasy points by them.
Again, each player is different and each circumstance is different, but it’s worth noting some of the players coming into that key demographic to consider whether they will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.
Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: Well, well, well … Werenski’s team has added a free agent that sits sixth in the NHL for scoring since 2014-15 and has also re-upped with the player that has the fourth-most goals under the age of 24 since 2010. Phrased another way: Johnny Gaudreau plus Patrik Laine equals a very good power play. While it may be easy to say Werenski has already broken out and that expecting more might be asking too much, there could be something here. During Werenski’s tenure, the Blue Jackets haven’t quite had the scoring offense on paper they look to have this season. Gaudreau and Laine are game-breaking talents. Some of the top defensemen can approach 2.5 fantasy points per game (FPPG), while Werenski posted a career-high 2.04 FPPG last season. If he has another level, this is the season we should get it. Werenski turned 25 during the summer.
Mikhail Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay Lightning: If not this season, which it may well not be, some time in the next two seasons, Sergachev will have to start taking the lead on the Bolts power play over Victor Hedman. But after the season Hedman just put up, it’s hard to envision this being the year he starts ceding looks. That said, it wouldn’t be the first time a team had two defensemen top 2.0 FPPG — but usually one of them manages the feat through accelerated blocked shots and hits. Sergachev could easily get there with a slight bump to his physical stats. But he probably needs the power-play work to truly find another level. This is his age-24 season, so he still has some time before finding his next gear.
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Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers: While he is technically heading into his age 26 season, Ekblad actually only misses the cutoff by seven days with his early February birthday, so we are going to take a quick beat here. If we haven’t seen the best Ekblad has to offer from a fantasy perspective to date, that would mean his upside is pretty close to Cale Makar/Roman Josi/Victor Hedman levels. With an ADP closer to 40 than 10, Ekblad could be a steal if you can wait on D a couple rounds.
Noah Hanifin, D, Calgary Flames: OK, I admit that Rasmus Andersson is heading into the same age-25 season that Hanifin is, so it’s strange to call out one over the other. But I keep coming back to the fact that if Hanifin has another level to his game, it’s going to be a much higher ceiling than what we’ve seen from Andersson. Consider that Hanifin managed six more goals than Andersson and only 12 fewer assists last season, but that Andersson played more than 200 minutes with the members of the top line on the power play, while Hanifin played fewer than 40. I’d love to see Hanifin get more opportunity as the quarterback for the Flames.
Vince Dunn, D, Seattle Kraken: One more time. I swear. No more Dunn touting after this season if he disappoints in fantasy again. He’s turning 26 in October, so the window for peaking is closing. But if the Kraken’s new faces can invigorate this offense, Dunn will be in good position to capitalize, as has no more competition for the power-play quarterback job. This is a low-risk play, as Dunn is rocking an ADP north of 200. If fourth-overall pick Shane Wright and Matty Beniers are what this offense needed to start scoring goals, Dunn should have a path to value.
Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks: He’s not quite old enough to hit the prime breakout ages, but Hughes started a little younger so may hit that incline a little sooner. He turns 23 in October and the offense is already there in spades (60 assists last season is nothing to sneeze at). But it’s the physical play that is holding him back from a fantasy perspective. Quinn had only 56 blocked shots and 19 hits last season, which was literally the fewest in the NHL among all defenseman that played more than 50 games and averaged 20 minutes of ice time. But Hughes only has to look to Adam Fox for a blueprint to climb north of 2.0 FPPG in the future, in that while Fox doesn’t hit either, he has added enough blocked shots to his game to round out his profile. Maybe not this year at just 23, but Hughes still has a few rungs to climb in the coming seasons and will likely be in the conversation for the top tier by 2024-25.
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Miro Heiskanen, D, Dallas Stars: With John Klingberg now fully and completely cleared out of his path, Heiskanen may be another defensemen that manages to breakout a little sooner than most. With four NHL seasons under his belt already, Heiskanen just turned 23 this offseason. But the important factor here is that he’s played all four of those seasons in the power-play shadow of John Klingberg. With Klingberg gone, Heiskanen will truly get his first crack at consistent ice time when the Stars have the advantage. While he got plenty of looks on the PP, the vast majority of it was on the second unit. For example, Jason Robertson played 176 minutes of power-play time with Klingberg last season, but only 30 with Heiskanen.
Scott Perunovich, D, St. Louis Blues: Considering the other names on this list, Perunovich’s resume in the NHL is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. But his resume outside the NHL is that of a budding power-play quarterback. Before he was called up to the Blues and ended up missing time to injury, Perunovich started the season in the AHL. There, he poured in 22 points in just 17 games with 12 of them coming on the power play. It was a pretty unreal showing for a rookie defenseman in the league and the eighth-best all-time points per game showing among defensemen with at least 17 games played. In other words, Perunovich, who turned 24 last month, has some upside. Justin Faulk and Torey Krug, meanwhile, were tied for 17th and 48th, respectively, for power-play points — despite the fact that only the Colorado Avalanche scored more power-play goals than the Blues last season.
Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins: Major offseason surgery means that McAvoy may have to wait until the 2023-24 campaign to find his next gear. McAvoy will turn 25 about the time he is expected to return to the lineup in December, but banking on an instant return to form following shoulder surgery is a dangerous investment. I included McAvoy here more to look forward to an anticipated bump in 2023-24. If it hadn’t been for the Bruins cascade of offseason injuries, we might have been talking about McAvoy in the same range as Adam Fox at drafts; just after the big three are gone.
Rasmus Dahlin, D, Buffalo Sabres: While he won’t be 23 until April, which puts Dahlin too young for our age curve, he is one defenseman who has always been, ahem, ahead of the curve. In fact, Dahlin is our answer to the trivia tidbit in the introduction: He’s the only 18-year-old player to put in a season worthy of being among the top 72 for fantasy in any of the past seven seasons. (The 39-year-old with the worthy season was, as you surely guessed, Zdeno Chara). Dahlin took a major step forward already last season, but his ceiling still lies ahead. After a showing of 1.89 FPPG last season, Dahlin could join the elite group of defensemen putting up 2.0 FPPG this season…and then spend the next few years repeating the feat.
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