Top ten defensemen set for their breakout

Every player develops differently in the NHL and brings different skills with them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t clear trends and highlights when it comes to fantasy productions.

Looking at the past seven years of all NHL scoring and looking at results across age groups, positions and levels, one can see where a typical player’s progression is steeper.

In other words, yes, we can imagine an eruption.

I took the top 72 defenders in fantasy points from each season between 2015-16 and 2021-22 and combined the performance from each age (based on their age on January 31 of that season). So, over the course of seven seasons, we have a sample of 504 seasons of defenders that we can consider fantasy relevant.

The average fantasy performance at any age is a relatively flat line. This makes sense as there are fewer players in each age group as you move towards one end of the spectrum. In fact, there is only one 18-year-old who qualified for the record at the young end, and only one 39-year-old who qualified at the old end. (The 18-year-old was 2018-19 while the 39-year-old was 2016-17; Can you name both? Answers below.)

But while average performance might not provide much information about breakouts, looking at the number of players in each age group and the overall Fantasy Points they earned gives us a graph that we can use to draw conclusions.

The age that produces the most fantasy points for fantasy-relevant defenders is age 26, with 55 of the 504 squadrons of players sampled totaling 6,958 fantasy points.

But that’s not where the outbreak happened. While 26 is the peak, it’s only a small increase from the 51 player seasons that produce a total of 6,648 fantasy points at age 25.

The breakout surge occurs between the ages of 23 and 25. There is a monumental increase in the number of players earning a place in the top 72 each season, and with it the expected increase in their total fantasy points.

Again, every player is different and every circumstance is different, but it’s worth noting that some of the players coming into this key group are considering following in the footsteps of their predecessors.

Breakout age defender


Zach Werenski, D, Columbus Blue Jackets: Well, well, well… Werenski’s team added a free agent who ranks sixth in the NHL for goals since 2014-15, and also reinstated the fourth-highest scoring under-24 since 2010. Put another way : Johnny Gaudreau plus Patrik Laine makes a very good power play. While it’s easy to say that Werensky has already broken out and that it would be asking too much to expect more, there might be something here. During Werenski’s tenure, the Blue Jackets didn’t quite have the goals on paper they’re expecting this season. Gaudreau and Laine are groundbreaking talents. Some of the best defenders can approach 2.5 fantasy points per game (FPPG), while Werenski posted a career-high 2.04 FPPG last season. If he’s at a different level, we should reach that this season. Werenski turned 25 in the summer.


Mikhail Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay Lightning: If not this season, which may not be the case, Sergachev needs to start taking the lead on the Bolts’ power play against Victor Hedman sometime in the next two seasons. But after the season Hedman just gave up, it’s hard to imagine this being the year he starts flashing looks. However, it wouldn’t be the first time a team has had two top 2.0 FPPG defenders – but usually one of them pulls off the feat with accelerated blocked shots and hits. Sergachev could easily get there with a slight improvement in his physical stats. But he probably needs the power play work to really find another level. This is his 24-year season, so he still has some time before he finds his next gear.

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Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers: While technically heading towards his 26-year season, Ekblad actually misses the cutoff by just seven days with his birthday in early February, so we’ll take a quick swipe here. If we haven’t yet seen the best that Ekblad has to offer from a fantasy perspective, that would mean that his advantage is pretty close to Cale Makar/Roman Josi/Victor Hedman’s level. With an ADP closer to 40 than 10, Ekblad could be a steal if you can wait a few turns for D.


Noah Hanifin, D, Calgary Flames: OK, I’ll admit that Rasmus Andersson is going into the same season at 25 as Hanifin, so calling one over the other is weird. But I keep coming back to the fact that if Hanifin has a different level in his game, it’s going to be a much higher cap than what we’ve seen from Andersson. Consider that last season Hanifin had six more goals than Andersson and just 12 fewer assists, but that Andersson played more than 200 minutes with the top row members on the power play while Hanifin played less than 40. I’d like to see Hanifin get more opportunities as quarterback for the Flames.


Vince Dunn, D, Seattle Kraken: One more time. I swear. No more Dunn commercials after this season if he disappoints again in fantasy. He’ll be 26 in October, so the peak window is closing. But if the Kraken’s new faces can revitalize that offense, Dunn will be in a good position to capitalize on it now that there’s no competition left for the powerplay quarterback job. This is a low risk play as Dunn is rocking an ADP north of 200. If fourth-placed Shane Wright and Matty Beniers are what this offense needs to score, Dunn should have a path to value.


Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks: He’s not yet old enough to hit breakout prime, but Hughes started a little younger, so he might hit that incline a little sooner. Turning 23 in October, offense already abounds (60 assists last season is nothing to scoff at). But it’s the physical gameplay that keeps him from a fantasy perspective. Quinn had just 56 blocked shots and 19 hits last season, which were literally the fewest in the NHL among all defensemen who played 50+ games and averaged 20 minutes of ice time. But Hughes need only turn to Adam Fox for a blueprint to climb north of 2.0 FPPG going forward, as while Fox isn’t hitting either, he’s added enough blocked shots to his game to round out his profile. Maybe not this year at just 23, but Hughes has a few more rungs to climb in the coming seasons and will likely be in talks for the top flight by 2024-25.

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Miro Heiskanen, D, Dallas Stars: With John Klingberg now completely out of the way, Heiskanen could be another defender who manages to break out a little earlier than most. With four NHL seasons under his belt, Heiskanen just turned 23 this offseason. But the important factor here is that he’s played in the powerplay shadow of John Klingberg for all four seasons. With Klingberg gone, Heiskanen will really get his first crack at consistent ice time when the Stars have the advantage. While he drew a lot of looks on the PP, the vast majority of those were on the second unit. For example, last season Jason Robertson played 176 minutes of power play with Klingberg but only 30 with Heiskanen.


Scott Perunovich, D, St Louis Blues: Considering the other names on this list, Perunovich’s resume is virtually non-existent in the NHL. But his resume outside of the NHL is that of an aspiring power-play quarterback. Before being called up to the Blues and missing through injury, Perunovich started the season in the AHL. There he scored 22 points in just 17 games, including 12 on the power play. It was quite an unreal performance for a rookie defenseman in the league and the eighth-best points per game ever among defensemen with at least 17 games played. In other words, Perunovich, who turned 24 last month, has some advantages. Justin Faulk and Torey Krug, meanwhile, ranked 17th and 48th on power play points, respectively — despite the fact that only the Colorado Avalanche had more power play goals than the Blues last season.


Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins: Major off-season surgery means McAvoy may have to wait until the 2023-24 season to find his next gear. McAvoy turns 25 around the time he is expected to return to the lineup in December, but betting on an immediate return to form after shoulder surgery is a dangerous investment. I included McAvoy more here to look forward to an expected bump in 2023-24. If it weren’t for the Bruins cascade of offseason injuries, we might have been talking about McAvoy at drafts on the same scale as Adam Fox; shortly after the big three left.


Rasmus Dahlin, D, Buffalo Saber: Despite not turning 23 until April, making Dahlin too young for our age curve, he’s a defender who’s always been, um, 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 have completed a season worthy of being in the top 72 for fantasy in any of the last seven seasons. (The 39-year-old with the worthy season was, as you may have guessed, Zdeno Chara). Dahlin made a big step forward last season, but his peak performance is yet to come. After putting in 1.89 FPPG last season, Dahlin could join the elite group of defenders and put up 2.0 FPPG this season… and then spend the next few years repeating the feat.

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