Where the forward fantasy age curve looks like a mound, the curve for defense is more like a butte. When looking at the number of defensemen in the top 100 fantasy plays during the past eight seasons, there is a steep ascent at age 24 and a plateau at that level through age 29 before the descent begins.
There is a break in the descent at age 30 and 31, which could possibly be attributed to a particularly elite crop of defenders coming through that age group (Roman Josi, Erik Karlsson, John Carlson, Alex Pietrangelo and Victor Hedman are all age 33 or 34 for the coming campaign).
But the telling piece of this curve is that a defender will likely breakout before their age-25 season — or not at all.
I’ll identify the 20-year-old defenders down below, but to satisfy your curiosity, the only defender to make the top 100 in an age-37 or age-38 season in the past eight years was Zdeno Chara in both cases. Brent Burns will attempt to become another one in his age-38 season this year — and has a good shot at it.
But to target potential breakouts, we’ll hard focus on the age-24 curve, with a few other younger defenders mixed in based on the opportunity in front of them.
Evan Bouchard, D, Edmonton Oilers: This is the big one for the coming season, as Bouchard already had his breakout party in the 2022-23 postseason. There’s a chance that could have escaped some fantasy players, given the focus on the regular season, but it’s unlikely he’ll be overlooked much. Now coming into his age-24 season, Bouchard’s coming-out party included 17 points in 12 playoff games, including four power-play goals. Bouchard’s even-strength game should be bolstered by more time with new defense partner Matthias Ekholm, too.
Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks: I hear you saying, “Breakout for Quinn Hughes? That already happened.” I’m going to argue it hasn’t. Coming into his age-24 season, Hughes has finished his four NHL seasons to date with the following overall fantasy ranking (from oldest to most recent): 151st, 136th, 120th and 89th. If we are going to get a spike for Hughes into the upper echelon of the fantasy realm, this is when it’s coming. There is still plenty of talent on this Canucks power play and, really, Elias Pettersson is among the game’s elite.
Juuso Valimaki, D, Arizona Coyotes: Handed the keys to the Coyotes power play late in his age-24 season, Valimaki had a mini breakout in February and March, when he posted 21 points in 26 games. The Coyotes are on the upswing, with Logan Cooley, Matias Maccelli and Dylan Guenther all staged to boost the advantage. The question is whether Valimaki can keep his grasp on the quarterback role, as Matt Dumba, J.J. Moser and Sean Durzi may also attempt to stake a claim.
K’Andre Miller, D, New York Rangers: The template for value without power-play access exists on the same blue line, as Jacob Trouba doesn’t sniff the advantage but still does enough to warrant fantasy play. Miller may even have more of a deft touch, piling up 34 assists in his age-23 season in 2022-23. He averaged just shy of 22 minutes per game last season and will roll out regularly for counting stats again.
Brandt Clarke, D, Los Angeles Kings: No, there isn’t much NHL experience here (nine-game cup of coffee). No, he’s not coming into the age-24 breakout season. But Clarke is coming off a beastly OHL campaign and could very well be at the top of the Kings depth chart in a matter of games if he translates to the NHL game quickly. His points per game last season in the OHL have only ever been eclipsed by the tragic tale of Bryan Fogarty. In our eight-season sample for the age curve chart, there are only two 20-year-olds that have made the top 100 fantasy plays, Moritz Seider and Ivan Provorov, but I expect Clarke to make it three this season.
Noah Dobson, D, New York Islanders: Being four seasons into his NHL career, it’s hard to believe Dobson’s age-24 season is still to come. He had a brilliant 2021-22, finishing 43rd overall for fantasy, but slipped to 110th last season. The Islanders power play still hasn’t had an extended session with both Bo Horvat and Mathew Barzal, following Barzal’s extended injury to end last season. If Dobson is going to go next level, he’s primed for it right here.
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Calen Addison, D, Minnesota Wild: Let’s try this again, shall we? Addison was a late sleeper addition after winning the power-play quarterbacking in the preseason for the Wild. Unfortunately, he didn’t translate that into fantasy value in the season to come. Addison fell into almost a specialty role by the end of the season, getting minimal even-strength minutes. Another year older and another year wiser into his age-23 season, Addison can hopefully become a staple of an improved power play, but also get some regular ice time complement his counting stats.
Cam York, D, Philadelphia Flyers: With the departure of Provorov, York is left with a clear path to win the power-play duties for this rebuilding Flyers team, which for the record, has a beefier offense on paper than many “rebuilding” clubs end up with. York has the chops to put up points from the blue line and has slowly built his role with the club since debuting in 2020-21. This is his age-23 season and Rasmus Ristolainen is really his only competition for looks on the advantage.
Mario Ferraro, D, San Jose Sharks: Honestly, another minus-31 season is likely coming his way with this Sharks club, but that shouldn’t matter for points leagues. He builds up a nice cache of the counting stats in hits and blocked shots, and the only thing stopping him from playing 30 minutes a game will be his own stamina. What could really make Ferraro’s age-25 season special is if the Sharks decide he is also on their top power-play unit. The argument is, of course, who else is going to do it? Jan Rutta? Jacob MacDonald? Ferraro seems like the only logical choice.
Others on the radar:
Olen Zellweger, D, Anaheim Ducks (21).
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