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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Thin Blue Line: Keep eye on schedule

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

With less than three weeks left in the regular season, the rankings take on a much funkier flavor. This is the stage when strength or weakness of schedule can easily trump a heap of other factors. Take Keith Yandle, for example. It's not that his performance or personal potential has veered off in the wrong direction, only that the Colorado Avalanche -- for example -- have 10 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, while Yandle's Phoenix Coyotes have merely seven. That's a significant gap as every point can make a difference between victory and defeat in these waning stages, particularly in head-to-head leagues.

In light of this unique state of affairs, here's a few quick hits to ponder as you embark on the final fantasy stretch:

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 points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (2)
2. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (1)
3. Zdeno Chara, Bos (4)
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Atl (6)
5. Kris Letang, Pit (5)
6. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (7)
7. Dan Boyle, SJ (8)
8. Alex Goligoski, Dal (12)
9. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (13)
10. Drew Doughty, LA (10)
11. James Wisniewski, Mon (9)
12. John-Michael Liles, Col (14)
13. Shea Weber, Nsh (11)
14. Keith Yandle, Pho (3)
15. Tomas Kaberle, Bos (16)
16. Duncan Keith, Chi (18)
17. Jack Johnson, LA (17)
18. Bryan McCabe, NYR (15)
19. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (20)
20. Brian Rafalski, Det (19)
21. Brent Seabrook, Chi (24)
22. Niklas Kronwall, Det (21)
23. Joni Pitkanen, Car (23)
24. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (31)
25. Ryan Suter, Nsh (26)
26. Dennis Wideman, Was (27)
27. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (29)
28. Mark Giordano, Cgy (22)
29. Erik Karlsson, Ott (40)
30. Brian Campbell, Chi (32)
31. P.K. Subban, Mon (36)
32. Brent Burns, Min (25)
33. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (30)
34. Stephane Robidas, Dal (35)
35. Joe Corvo, Car (37)
36. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (44)
37. Matt Carle, Phi (39)
38. Erik Johnson, Col (41)
39. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (33)
40. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (42)
41. Tyler Myers, Buf (47)
42. John Carlson, Was (48)
43. Sami Salo, Van (43)
44. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (38)
45. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (45)
46. Cam Fowler, Ana (50)
47. Marek Zidlicky, Min (34)
48. Grant Clitsome, Cls (46)
49. Andy Greene, NJ (49)
50. Paul Martin, Pit (51)
51. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (52)
52. Filip Kuba, Ott (55)
53. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (57)
54. Kevin Bieksa, Van (59)
55. Andrew MacDonald, NYI (53)
56. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (61)
57. Jason Demers, SJ (62)
58. Cody Franson, Nsh (58)
59. Marc Staal, NYR (54)
60. Jordan Leopold, Buf (63)
61. Brett Clark, TB (65)
62. Francois Beauchemin, Ana (66)
63. Zach Bogosian, Atl (67)
64. Kurtis Foster, Edm (60)
65. Matt Niskanen, Pit (64)
66. Ron Hainsey, Atl (NR)
67. Carlo Colaiacovo, StL (69)
68. Dan Hamhuis, Van (68)
69. Ian White, SJ (74)
70. Andrej Sekera, Buf (70)
71. Tim Gleason, Car (71)
72. Mike Green, Was (56)
73. Jared Spurgeon, Min (72)
74. Pavel Kubina, TB (73)
75. Kris Russell, Cls (75)

Rising and Falling

Alex Goligoski, Dallas Stars (up four spots): The stars are nicely aligned for Goligoski's owners as the 2010-11 season comes to a close. With 10 games remaining, the squad is battling hard for a playoff spot, and the ever-dangerous Brad Richards is fully back in the swing of things on offense. Goligoski should average a point per game from here on out while logging a massive amount of ice time.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators (up 11 spots): The schedule has absolutely nothing to do with his boost in value this week. With nine points, including four goals, in his past seven games, no defenseman has been hotter in the last couple of weeks. Plus, the young Senator is in an ideal position to finish strong. With Sergei Gonchar out of the lineup (more details below) and the absence of pressure to reach the postseason, Karlsson has the freedom to strut his stuff as the squad's top offensive D-man without worry. And that's exactly what he's doing.

Ron Hainsey, Atlanta Thrashers (returning to the rankings at No. 66): Don't look now, but Hainsey seems to be having one of his more productive moments. Usually eclipsed by the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian, the 29-year-old has managed a goal and five assists in his past six games. This "onslaught" won't last, but Hainsey probably has a few points left in him before the season concludes. Back in the day (2008-09) he did contribute regularly. And owned in less than 1 percent of all ESPN.com leagues, Hainsey is more than a little available. You could do much worse.

Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes (down 11 spots): As discussed in the intro, each member of the Coyotes has only seven games left. What's more, three of those final games involve the San Jose Sharks, whom the Coyotes have struggled against this season. It's not like you're going to dump Yandle; just ensure your expectations are conservative by comparison. However, all other Coyotes D-men -- Adrian Aucoin, Michal Rozsival, Derek Morris, etc. -- should be considered irrelevant, fantasywise, from this point forward.

Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild (down seven spots): No one is performing up to scratch for the Wild these days, and that includes Burns. Losers of seven straight games (including an overtime loss), the Wild have bumbled their way out of playoff contention. It's bleak. And with only eight games remaining, there's no sign of a turnaround in fortune on the near horizon. Burns should still notch a point here and there, but not in the same regular fashion as he was accustomed to before this slump hit.

Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames (down six spots): Along with the Coyotes, the Flames are the only other team in the NHL with only seven games remaining on the regular-season schedule. That's why Mark Giordano, along with fellow blueliners Jay Bouwmeester and Anton Babchuk, takes a slight hit in projected fantasy value down the stretch. Babchuk's production, in particular, has dried up of late as well.

Key injury notes

Kevin Bieksa is reportedly set to return for the Vancouver Canucks after missing over a month with a foot injury. More likely than not, Bieksa will get power-play time at the expense of Dan Hamhuis.

• For fantasy purposes, Sergei Gonchar is done for the season with a concussion. If Gonchar does return before April 10, it will be for a game, maybe two, at most. With the Ottawa Senators looking forward to next season and auditioning younger players, there's no point in them bringing the veteran back this season.

• Young Grant Clitsome didn't travel with the Columbus Blue Jackets during the team's ongoing two-game road trip. However, Clitsome is considered no worse than day-to-day and could be back in action on the weekend.

• Nursing an injury of the goodness-knows-what variety, Marc Staal didn't participate in Tuesday's 1-0 win over the Florida Panthers. Maybe he'll be back for Thursday's contest versus the Senators. Maybe not. The New York Rangers aren't being terribly helpful in this regard.

• Good news for owners of Brian Campbell: The Chicago Blackhawks expect their veteran defenseman back for Wednesday's game against the Florida Panthers. There goes any potential fantasy value Chris Campoli may have had.

Kurtis Foster of the Edmonton Oilers may have a head injury. Stay tuned, but remove Foster from your active lineup for now.

Power Play Performers

Please, please consider Dmitry Kulikov if you're in need of a defenseman as the season winds down. Top offensive banana on the Florida Panthers' blue line, Kulikov has six points and 17 PIM in his past nine games. This kid should be owned in far more than 9 percent of ESPN.com leagues.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst and contributor to Rumor Central for ESPN.com.