By Kyle Riley, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Forwards get most of the attention due to their eye-popping offensive production, but fielding a group of productive blueliners is equally important when it comes to achieving success in fantasy hockey.
Here's a preview of this year's class of defensemen, ranked by tier.
Tier 1 — Top-flight options
John Carlson, Cale Makar, Roman Josi, Dougie Hamilton, Quinn Hughes, Victor Hedman, Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Miro Heiskanen, Brent Burns
Carlson will be the first rearguard off the board in most fantasy drafts after leading all defensemen with 75 points in 69 games last campaign, but this tier is chalk full of skaters that could perform just as well, if not better than the Caps' stud defender in 2020-21.
Makar was third in points per game among defensemen behind Carlson and Josi last year, and should only continue to improve during his sophomore season.
Josi is coming off his first Norris Trophy win following his 16-goal, 65-point, plus-22 performance in 2019-20, and should threaten the double-digit goal and 45-point marks while posting healthy power-play totals this year.
Hamilton missed a large chunk of the 2019-20 campaign with a lower-body injury, but he was electric when healthy, racking up 14 goals and 40 points in 47 contests. Last year was the first time Hamilton was forced to miss extended time due to injury since entering the league in 2012, so virtual managers shouldn't have any concerns about his health.
Hughes finished second in Calder Trophy voting behind Makar after racking up eight goals and 45 assists last season. He, like Makar, should only get better during his second full NHL campaign.
Hedman is Mr. Consistent, having notched at least 11 goals and 54 points in four consecutive campaigns. He may miss out on the double-digit goal mark for the first time in seven seasons due to the shortened schedule, but he should come close.
Now with the Golden Knights, Pietrangelo's offensive production may decline a smidge due to a slightly decreased power-play role, but he should still threaten double-digit goals and 35 points at a minimum.
Krug will take an already-elite Blues power-play unit and make it even better in 2020-21. His offensive output should remain consistent despite the change of scenery.
Heiskanen put up a respectable 35 points in 68 regular-season contests last year, but he was arguably the Stars' best player in the bubble, racking up 26 points in 27 playoff games. He could break out in a big way in 2020-21.
Burns took a major step back from an offensive standpoint last year, failing to crack the 60-point threshold for the first time in five seasons, but I expect him to bounce back, at least marginally, this year.
Tier 2 — Strong secondary options
Morgan Rielly, Erik Karlsson, Rasmus Dahlin, Zach Werenski, Kris Letang, Shea Theodore, Keith Yandle, Thomas Chabot, Tyson Barrie, Anthony DeAngelo
These defenders aren't quite cut out to be No. 1 fantasy options, but most of them are pretty darn close, and they'll all make for rock-solid No. 2 defenders this year.
Rielly had a disappointing season from an offensive standpoint in 2019-20, posting 27 points in 47 games a year after racking up 20 goals and 72 points in 82 contests, but he should bounce back in 2020-21.
Karlsson may have the highest upside in this tier. He's been hampered by injuries during his first two seasons in San Jose, but he's had over 10 months to rest and heal up, so he should be firing on all cylinders during the upcoming campaign.
Dahlin and Werenski are both youngsters on the rise who should threaten the 35-point mark despite the shortened season.
Letang's only issue is his health — he's missed 25 games over the past two campaigns. When he's healthy, he produces at an elite pace.
Theodore has begun to emerge as one of the NHL's best young defensemen and could be in the Norris conversation sooner rather than later.
Yandle may be the least sexy option in this tier, but he's been the model of consistency for years, having posted at least five goals and 40 points in seven straight campaigns.
Chabot, Barrie and DeAngelo all have a ton of offensive upside, with DeAngelo being the riskiest of the trio due to a limited track record of success.
Tier 3 — Proven vets and youth with upside
John Klingberg, Aaron Ekblad, Neal Pionk, Drew Doughty, Adam Fox, Seth Jones, Ryan Suter, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Shea Weber, Mark Giordano, Jeff Petry, Ryan Ellis, Oliver Ekman-Larsson
This tier has a nice mixture of proven veterans and youngsters with upside. Klingberg, Ekblad, Doughty, Jones, Suter, Weber, Giordano, Petry and Ekman-Larsson are all essentially known commodities at this stage of their careers. Balancing risk and reliability is a vital component of building a winning fantasy team, so although the aforementioned rearguards may not be overly exciting, adding them to your team will allow you to swing for the fences on a few guys later in the draft without jeopardizing your season.
Pionk broke out to the tune of six goals and 45 points, 25 of which came on the power play, during his first season with the Jets last year. He should continue to produce at a high level while seeing ample time with the man advantage in 2020-21.
If he's able to leapfrog DeAngelo for time with the Rangers' first power-play unit, Fox could very well leapfrog DeAngelo in the fantasy rankings heading into next season.
McAvoy has yet to blossom from an offensive standpoint since entering the league as a 19-year-old in 2017, but he should get more opportunities to put up points in 2020-21 now that Krug is no longer in the picture.
Provorov already has four NHL seasons under his belt, but he's still just 23 years old, so there's still room for improvement despite the fact he's been the Flyers' unquestioned No. 1 defender since 2017. Double-digit goals and 30-plus points are both reasonable expectations for him this year.
The only reason the 29-year-old Ellis wasn't lumped in with the rest of the vets is the fact that he just put up 38 points in 49 games last campaign, his highest points-per-game average since entering the league in 2011. It'd be easy to write that performance off as a flash in the pan, and injuries are always a concern with Ellis, but he'll be skating on the Predators' top pairing with Roman Josi while seeing time on the second power-play unit this year, so the opportunity for a repeat will be there.
Tier 4 – Rounding out your starters
Ryan Pulock, Darnell Nurse, Jared Spurgeon, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mattias Ekholm, Jacob Trouba, Matt Dumba, Colton Parayko, Jaccob Slavin, Mikhail Sergachev, Josh Morrissey, Jake Muzzin, Damon Severson, Duncan Keith, Devon Toews, Sami Vatanen, Nate Schmidt, Travis Sanheim
This tier is full of guys that should produce 30-plus points over the course of a full 82-game schedule, but who aren't in a position to do much more, whether it be due to their skill, team situation, role, etc. These skaters should all be nice fourth or fifth options at defense for your fantasy squads, but don't expect a major leap in production from any of them.
Tier 5 — Late-round upside
Erik Gustafsson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Filip Hronek, Samuel Girard, Alec Martinez, P.K. Subban, Vince Dunn, Alexander Edler, Ryan Graves, Jakob Chychrun, Matt Grzelcyk
This tier is composed of defenders who should be available in the later rounds that could outperform their draft position in a major way due to a variety of factors including an increased role, a more favorable team situation, a breakout/bounce-back year, etc. If you're looking for upside late in your draft, these are some names to target.