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Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Thin Blue Line: Johnson finally shining

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

No one with a reasonable long-term memory should be surprised by Erik Johnson's output to date. Remember, Johnson was expected to blow our collective socks off with the St. Louis Blues last season, before all promise was unceremoniously flushed away with a freaky accident involving a golf cart during the summer of '08. After using all of last season to recover from knee surgery, Johnson is living up to early expectations this season. Fantasy players and Blues fans alike should just call Johnson's lost year a mulligan and be content with the present.

Top 75 Defensemen

Note: Victoria Matiash's top 75 defensemen are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play goals, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Mike Green, Was (1)
2. Dan Boyle, SJ (2)
3. Zdeno Chara, Bos (4)
4. Chris Pronger, Phi (3)
5. Duncan Keith, Chi (5)
6. Dion Phaneuf, Cgy (6)
7. Kevin Bieksa, Van (7)
8. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (8)
9. Sergei Gonchar, Pit (9)
10. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (10)
11. Mark Streit, NYI (11)
12. Brent Seabrook, Chi (12)
13. Drew Doughty, LA (13)
14. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (15)
15. Stephane Robidas, Dal (14)
16. Scott Niedermayer, Anh (17)
17. Brian Rafalski, Det (18)
18. Shea Weber, Nsh (19)
19. Ryan Whitney, Anh (20)
20. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (24)
21. Brian Campbell, Chi (21)
22. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (25)
23. Matt Carle, Phi (27)
24. Sheldon Souray, Edm (23)
25. Lubomir Visnovsky, Edm (39)
26. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (16)
27. Erik Johnson, StL (35)
28. Braydon Coburn, Phi (26)
29. Zach Bogosian, Atl (28)
30. Cam Barker, Chi (22)
31. Adrian Aucoin, Pho (31)
32. Ed Jovanovski, Pho (38)
33. Kyle Quincey, Col (32)
34. Tomas Kaberle, Tor (33)
35. Pavel Kubina, Atl (34)
36. Alex Goligoski, Pit (29)
37. Craig Rivet, Buf (36)
38. Dennis Wideman, Bos (30)
39. Bryan McCabe, Fla (40)
40. Marc-Andre Bergeron, Mon (43)
41. Rob Blake, SJ (41)
42. Marek Zidlicky, Min (42)
43. Ryan Suter, Nsh (44)
44. Kris Letang, Pit (45)
45. Filip Kuba, Ott (48)
46. Francois Beauchemin, Tor (49)
47. Tyler Myers, Buf (53)
48. Paul Martin, NJ (37)
49. Niklas Kronwall, Det (50)
50. Mattias Ohlund, TB (51)
51. Victor Hedman, TB (52)
52. Alexander Edler, Van (47)
53. Matt Niskanen, Dal (54)
54. Tom Gilbert, Edm (55)
55. Anton Stralman, Cls (56)
56. Joni Pitkanen, Car (58)
57. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (60)
58. Andy Greene, NJ (61)
59. Derek Morris, Bos (57)
60. Dennis Seidenberg, Fla (63)
61. Jaroslav Spacek, Mon (59)
62. Matt Carkner, Ott (68)
63. James Wisniewski, Anh (66)
64. Brent Burns, Min (46)
65. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ (64)
66. Matt Gilroy, NYR (65)
67. Keith Yandle, Pho (72)
68. John-Michael Liles, Col (71)
69. Kurtis Foster, TB (70)
70. Ian White, Tor (76)
71. Jack Johnson, LA (69)
72. Mathieu Schneider, Van (62)
73. Paul Mara, Mon (73)
74. Ron Hainsey, Atl (74)
75. Andrei Markov, Mon (75)

At the start of this week, Johnson was the only defenseman not named Tomas Kaberle (Toronto Maple Leafs) to lead his team in points. He has 19 in 28 games, including seven with the man advantage. The big 21-year-old also tops his squad in ice time, averaging more than 22 minutes a game. At plus-3, there's no fantasy downside to Johnson, and he should amass between 50 and 60 points by season's end.

On the flip side, don't bother with fellow Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo in fantasy play, no matter how much he may impress you in those odd times. Not that he can't contribute, but Colaiacovo has a difficult time staying healthy. Just ask any devoted Leafs fan; he breaks easily. After staying relatively fit last season, the 26-year-old has already missed several games this season with a variety of ailments (upper-body injury, flu, bad foot). Add those to his collection of knee, groin, wrist and ankle injuries (plus a nasty concussion) from the past and you get a clear illustration of how easily he falls apart. Even after sustaining a clean hit, Colaiacovo looks worse off on the bench in comparison to other players around the league. It would be a different story if he was a fantasy superstar when healthy, but he's just OK. Therefore, he doesn't merit the risk of ownership and subsequent disappointment.

Rising and Falling

Ed Jovanovski, Phoenix Coyotes (up 6 spots): After missing most of November, then a couple of games at the start of this month, Jovanovski finally appears fit and healthy again. Knocking wood with crossed fingers, there's no reason to believe he can't pick up near where he left off at the start of the season, when he opened with 13 points in his first 16 games.

Michael Del Zotto, New York Rangers (down 10 spots): Despite enduring a tough go of it lately, accentuated by a minus-5 performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the end of November, there's no reason to throw in the towel on Del Zotto altogether. The 19-year-old rookie is making some glaring mistakes in terms of giveaways, just like all other young, fresh defensemen did before him. But Del Zotto also carries a ton of upside, especially since head coach John Tortorella is still giving him a good chunk of ice-time and using him heavily on the power play. As long as that remains the case, Del Zotto could be a nice asset again over the next couple of months.

Lubomir Visnovsky, Edmonton Oilers (up 14 spots): Garnering 11 points in his past 10 games, Visnovsky is clearly fit and comfortable, and he produced consistently even before then. As long as he stays healthy, Visnovsky deserves a spot in the top 30, at the very least.

Matt Carkner, Ottawa Senators (up 6 spots): With 81 penalty minutes under his belt thus far, Carkner is clearly not one to shy away from dropping the gloves. Furthermore, at plus-3 with five points, he's not a fantasy liability otherwise. If your league rewards PIM, Carkner will reward you as one of the NHL's premier roughhousers.

Key injury notes

Alexander Edler took a rattling hit into the boards from Shea Weber in Tuesday's game against the Nashville Predators. The Vancouver Canucks player left the ice wincing and holding his arm. He could be out awhile, but we won't know for sure until Thursday at the earliest.

• The Montreal Canadiens' Jaroslav Spacek is listed as day-to-day with a hurt knee. He blocked a shot from Alexei Kovalev in Tuesday's game with the Ottawa Senators and should be monitored.

• We may not see Brent Burns back in action until after the new year, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The Minnesota Wild have placed Burns on the IR with a concussion.

• Out since the end of November with a bad groin, Alex Goligoski participated in team practice Monday. The Pittsburgh Penguins' blueliner's return seems not far off.

Dennis Wideman is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury. The Boston Bruins' defenseman hasn't contributed much this season, so this development is hardly tragic.

Power Play Performers

As one of those uncommon forward/defenseman hybrids, Ian White earned his spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs' blue line last year by adjusting his game. Cementing his top-four position this season, he's merited minutes with the man advantage and has 15 points in 29 games altogether. He's at plus-9, and the 25-year-old's passing ability is above average. Perhaps more importantly, he works his caboose off, game in and game out. Recently paired with Francois Beauchemin, White offers an all-around pleasant, if not jaw-dropping, fantasy package.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.