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Thursday, April 7, 2011
Thin Blue Line: Early 2011-12 rankings

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

As the current regular season comes to a close, here's a sniff of what to expect in 2011-12. This Top 75 is only a preliminary index, and should be treated as such; a lot can happen between now and October. But it's still useful to cobble an outline together when on-ice performances are still top of mind.

In the meanwhile, don't forget to sign up for ESPN.com's Playoff Hockey Challenge. It's a super-fun way to scratch your fantasy hockey itch once the regular season concludes.

Have a wonderful spring/summer and, as always, thanks for reading.

Top 75 Defensemen

Note: Victoria Matiash's top 75 defensemen are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues in the 2011-12 season. 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. Kris Letang, Pit
2. Dustin Byfuglien, Atl
3. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana
4. Zdeno Chara, Bos
5. Keith Yandle, Pho
6. Christian Ehrhoff, Van
7. Alex Goligoski, Dal
8. Dan Boyle, SJ
9. Tobias Enstrom, Atl
10. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det
11. Alexander Edler, Van
12. Mark Streit, NYI
13. Drew Doughty, LA
14. Shea Weber, Nsh
15. Ryan Whitney, Edm
16. John-Michael Liles, Col
17. Bryan McCabe, NYR
18. Tomas Kaberle, Bos
19. Sergei Gonchar, Ott
20. Chris Pronger, Phi
21. Duncan Keith, Chi
22. Jack Johnson, LA
23. James Wisniewski, Mon
24. Mike Green, Was
25. Andrei Markov, Mon
26. Kimmo Timonen, Phi
27. Brent Seabrook, Chi
28. Brent Burns, Min
29. Joni Pitkanen, Car
30. Mark Giordano, Cgy
31. P.K. Subban, Mon
32. Erik Karlsson, Ott
33. Dion Phaneuf, Tor
34. Alex Pietrangelo, StL
35. Ryan Suter, Nsh
36. Brian Rafalski, Det
37. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL
38. Niklas Kronwall, Det
39. Brian Campbell, Chi
40. Tyler Myers, Buf
41. Stephane Robidas, Dal
42. John Carlson, Was
43. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla
44. Cam Fowler, Ana
45. Anton Stralman, Cls
46. Joe Corvo, Car
47. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB
48. Erik Johnson, Col
49. Marek Zidlicky, Min
50. Matt Carle, Phi
51. Dennis Wideman, Was
52. Jamie McBain, Car
53. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy
54. Matt Taormina, NJ
55. Kevin Bieksa, Van
56. Roman Hamrlik, Mon
57. Zach Bogosian, Atl
58. Michael Del Zotto, NYR
59. Carlo Colaiacovo, StL
60. Andy Greene, NJ
61. Paul Martin, Pit
62. Anton Babchuk, Cgy
63. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos
64. Cody Franson, Nsh
65. Jason Demers, SJ
66. Carl Gunnarsson, Tor
67. Kurtis Foster, Edm
68. Grant Clitsome, Cls
69. Andrej Meszaros, Phi
70. Filip Kuba, Ott
71. Andrew MacDonald, NYI
72. Jordan Leopold, Buf
73. Ed Jovanovski, Pho
74. Victor Hedman, TB
75. Kris Russell, Cls

Top of the List

1. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: If there was a mourning period to mark the loss of Sergei Gonchar, it was short-lived. We can't wait to see what the 23-year-old Letang is capable of once a healthy Sidney Crosby and recovered Evgeni Malkin are back on the scene for a full season.

2. Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers: We were admittedly caught off guard by how dangerous Byfuglien was as a defenseman with the Thrashers, following his influential play as a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks the previous season. We won't be nearly as surprised next season. But keep in mind, Byfuglien is much better with a healthy Tobias Enstrom than without.

3. Lubomir Visnovsky, Anaheim Ducks: With 66 points in 78 games (and a plus-15), Visnovsky is not showing any signs of slowing down at the age of 34 years.

4. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: One of the most valuable fantasy assets all around, Chara should be even better with Tomas Kaberle on board full-time. And the Bruins have been open about their willingness to re-sign the former Maple Leaf after the season.

5. Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes: Yandle entered the league in 2006, and his steady improvement since has been no happy accident. On pace for at least 60 points by the final weekend, the 24-year-old could hit the 65-point mark next season.

6. Christian Ehrhoff, Vancouver Canucks: An unrestricted free agent as of this upcoming July, Ehrhoff will continue to dominate with whomever he chooses to sign, be it the Canucks or another organization. At 28 years old, Ehrhoff should be at his best through the next two to three seasons.

Two Steps Forward

22. Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings: Although he hit a wall at the end of February, Johnson still enjoyed his first 40-plus-points campaign in the NHL. If he gets off to another hot start next season, it's worth remembering the gas tank may empty before the season concludes.

32. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: In his sophomore season, the youngster has made it clear why he's considered one of two "untouchables" with the Senators organization (along with Daniel Alfredsson). While Sergei Gonchar floundered amongst a gaggle of Sens underachievers, Karlsson improved month by month. More experience will help remedy the ugly plus/minus rating.

34. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: While others ran hot and cold, Pietrangelo produced at a steady pace, from October to April. We're really excited about what the 21-year-old, along with Kevin Shattenkirk, will be able to accomplish after enjoying a full NHL season.

72. Jordan Leopold, Buffalo Sabres: There's no arguing that with 35 points in 71 games, Leopold has had a heck of a season for the Sabres. And he doesn't have a snowball's chance in the Sahara of repeating that performance ever again.

Three Steps Back

19. Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa Senators: With less than 30 points and a minus-15, Gonchar is closing out his worst nearly complete NHL season in almost forever. Next season will be much, much better, he pledges. Taking his history into account, we believe him.

41. Stephane Robidas, Dallas Stars: Once the Stars acquired Alex Goligoski via trade, the initial feeling was Robidas' best fantasy days were behind him. That has been and will continue to be the case.

53. Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary Flames: Although he has logged mega on-ice minutes, game in and game out, we're ready to accept that Bouwmeester will never come close to mimicking the scoring numbers put up as a member of the Florida Panthers. And acceptance is a very important first step.

73. Ed Jovanovski, Phoenix Coyotes: Although a solid start to the campaign was ruined by injuries midway through, you get the sense Jovanovski is taking his first steps toward (fantasy) irrelevancy regardless. He's a pending unrestricted free agent and turning 35 this summer, and there are too many questions surrounding the veteran's future.

Bouncing Back

11. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks: Following successful back surgery, Edler is poised to resume his scoring tear that was cut short in January. Never mind next season, the Canucks are hoping to get Edler back for the playoffs. Before he was hurt, Edler was on pace for nearly a 60-point season.

Mark Streit
Mark Streit missed all of the 2010-11 season with injuries but still has the potential to be a top-scoring defenseman.

12. Mark Streit, New York Islanders: Out with a torn labrum and rotator cuff, Streit is expected to make a full recovery for next season. An above-average producer in his past three seasons, the 33-year-old is champing at the bit to get at it.

15. Ryan Whitney, Edmonton Oilers: Whitney hasn't played since sustaining a bad ankle injury Dec. 28, and yet still leads all Oilers D-men with 27 points (in 35 games) at the time of this writing. Look forward to a monster campaign in 2011-12, especially since the 28-year-old is in position to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer.

20. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers: A smattering of injuries has kept Pronger from being his usual consistent self. When he played, he was effective. And there's no reason the 36-year-old can't put in another full, healthy campaign after a restful summer.

24. Mike Green, Washington Capitals: In all honesty, the head injury is a concern, especially since Green was out much longer than anticipated. He's expected to play for the Caps in this postseason, so we'll know a great deal more after the next month.

25. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens: Poised to become a free agent this summer, Markov has little choice but to prove his string of consecutive knee injuries was just an awful fluke. Wherever he plays, and there's a good chance he will re-sign with the Canadiens, the 32-year-old is determined to put his bad luck behind him. If he can stay healthy, we expect good things.

Future Sophomores

31. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens: This guy is a force, is he not? Unlike Cam Fowler (mentioned below), Subban just got getter and better as the season wore on. Unless he takes a huge step back in the maturation process, expect an explosive 2011-12 from the ever-rambunctious Pernell Karl.

37. Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues: Extremely streaky with both the Avalanche and Blues, Shattenkirk is finishing off the season on a high note to break the 40-point barrier. One gets the sense this 22-year-old is going to come out guns a-blazing again next autumn.

42. John Carlson, Washington Capitals: Coming off a solid season with the Caps, Carlson could have a diminished role if both Mike Green and Dennis Wideman are healthy next season. That could be a concern.

44. Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks: A strong start and finish sandwiched a mediocre midseason for young Fowler. A prime sophomore slump candidate at the age of 19, Fowler will want to focus on becoming more consistent next season.

NR. Nikita Nikitin, St. Louis Blues: There would be more excitement surrounding Nikitin's potential if the Blues weren't already flush with young talent on the blue line.

NR. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes: Although his reputed value lies mostly in the PIM department, Ekman-Larsson should enjoy an increased role with the Coyotes in 2011-12. Still a teenager, he could evolve into a more complete player as he matures.

NR. Jeff Petry, Edmonton Oilers: With only five points in 32 games with the Oilers, more will be expected from Petry moving forward.

2011-12 Calder Hopefuls

Looking ahead, here's an abbreviated list of some potential fantasy stars of the future. This next crop deserves more attention once camps open at the end of summer:

54. Matt Taormina (Devils)
Erik Gustafsson (Flyers)
T.J. Brodie (Flames)
Matthew Corrente (Devils)
Jonathon Blum (Predators)
John Moore (Blue Jackets)
Teemu Laakso (Predators)
Erik Gudbranson (Panthers)
Bobby Sanguinetti (Hurricanes)
Brendan Smith (Red Wings)
Adam Larsson (draft eligible 2011)

2011 Unrestricted Free Agents

Ed Jovanovski
Nicklas Lidstrom*
Bryan McCabe
Andrei Markov
Roman Hamrlik
Tomas Kaberle
Joni Pitkanen
Kevin Bieksa
Craig Rivet*
Sami Salo*
James Wisniewski
Christian Ehrhoff
Ian White
Anton Babchuk
Andy Greene
*candidates for retirement

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