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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Thin Blue Line: Panthers power play

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

These clearly aren't your 2010-11 Florida Panthers. Hitting the free agent market and making deals with unparalleled aggression over the summer, general manager Dale Tallon ripped apart and reassembled a perennially underachieving Panthers squad with the focused intent of earning a playoff spot for the first time in over a decade. So far, the Cats have shown a lot of promise, predominantly with special teams. Through five games, the squad is able to boast of a 29.6 percent power-play success rate. That's outstanding.

Defenseman Brian Campbell is one the several fresh new faces to join the Panthers and, early on, he's proving to be one of the most valuable. Averaging close to 28 minutes per game, Campbell ranks in the top five of NHL defensemen with seven assists and six power-play points through five games. Jelling well with his top power-play unit buddies, Campbell should continue to rake in the helpers as long as he remains fit, which at age 32, shouldn't be too much of a concern. As a potential sell-high candidate, unless the offer is too good to refuse and you're awash with elite fantasy D-man, you may be better off holding on to the experienced blue-liner.

Campbell's power-play partner, Dmitry Kulikov, is no fantasy slouch either. His numbers aren't nearly as eye-popping (yet), and so Kulikov has been dropped in more than 8 percent of ESPN.com leagues. With a couple of full NHL seasons on his resume, this seasoned 20-year-old is only going to get better. A 45-point season  with most of the damage taking place with the man-advantage  isn't too much to anticipate. Honest to goodness, we're really excited about this kid's upside.

However, once we delve into the Panthers' blue line further, projections become trickier to suss out. At face value, Ed Jovanovski appears to be a fairly valuable fantasy asset in these early stages. Utilized with the man advantage (second unit, mostly), the veteran has a couple of power-play points already to his credit. Those potential numbers shouldn't be shrugged off altogether but, keep in mind, Jovanovski got off to a similar start (nine points in his first 10 contests) with the Phoenix Coyotes last season. And then he got hurt. Bouncing between the nurse's office and playing injured, JovoCop only managed five points in his final 40 contests.

The 35-year-old veteran has greater value for the Panthers as an experienced leader and dressing room presence. The organization won't sacrifice his health when other blueliners are more than able to contribute to the scorecard. And that's partially why Jovanovski won't usually be asked to play more than 17 minutes per game, or engage in the rough stuff that draws penalty minutes (not with Erik Gudbranson around).

Finally, when it comes to Jay Harrison, a wait-and-see approach would suit best. Although it's evident the 26-year-old is having a ball pitching in on the second power-play unit, he has zero history of contributing consistently in that vein. Not since skating with the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League, anyway.

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. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (1)
2. Kris Letang, Pit (2)
3. Keith Yandle, Pho (3)
4. Zdeno Chara, Bos (4)
5. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
6. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (5)
7. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (7)
8. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (8)
9. Mark Streit, NYI (9)
10. Shea Weber, Nsh (10)
11. Tobias Enstrom, Win (11)
12. Alexander Edler, Van (13)
13. Alex Goligoski, Dal (14)
14. John-Michael Liles, Tor (16)
15. Ryan Whitney, Edm (15)
16. Drew Doughty, LA (12)
17. Duncan Keith, Chi (17)
18. Brent Burns, SJ (20)
19. Chris Pronger, Phi (22)
20. Brian Campbell, Fla (26)
21. Mike Green, Was (18)
22. Jack Johnson, LA (23)
23. James Wisniewski, Cls (21)
24. P.K. Subban, Mon (24)
25. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (30)
26. Andrei Markov, Mon (19)
27. Marek Zidlicky, Min (27)
28. Mark Giordano, Cgy (28)
29. Erik Johnson, Col (34)
30. Brent Seabrook, Chi (25)
31. Ryan Suter, Nsh (32)
32. Sheldon Souray , Dal (35)
33. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (33)
34. Tomas Kaberle, Car (31)
35. Erik Karlsson, Ott (37)
36. Niklas Kronwall, Det (36)
37. Joni Pitkanen, Car (39)
38. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (29)
39. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (38)
40. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (42)
41. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (48)
42. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (40)
43. Joe Corvo, Bos (44)
44. Cam Fowler, Ana (43)
45. Tyler Myers, Buf (41)
46. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (46)
47. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (47)
48. Travis Hamonic, NYI (52)
49. Roman Hamrlik, Was (45)
50. Ian White, Det (53)
51. Dennis Wideman, Was (54)
52. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (49)
53. Kyle Quincey, Col (off)
54. Grant Clitsome, Cls (51)
55. Kevin Bieksa, Van (50)
56. Kurtis Foster, Ana (57)
57. Matt Carle, Phi (60)
58. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (56)
59. Adam Larsson, NJ (55)
60. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (58)
61. Matt Niskanen, Pit (62)
62. Yannick Weber, Mon (63)
63. Paul Martin, Pit (66)
64. John Carlson, Was (61)
65. Zach Bogosian, Win (65)
66. Cody Franson, Tor (off)
67. Tom Gilbert, Edm (64)
68. Stephane Robidas, Dal (off)
69. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (74)
70. Marc-Andre Gragnani, Buf (69)
71. Victor Hedman, TB (67)
72. Marco Scandella, Min (70)
73. Nick Leddy, Chi (72)
74. Jonathon Blum, Nsh (73)
75. Filip Kuba, Ott (75)

Rising and Falling

Kyle Quincey, Colorado Avalanche (re-emerges at No. 53): Erik Johnson may be (deservedly) commanding a good chunk of the fantasy spotlight with the Colorado Avalanche, but he's not the only member of the squad's blue line deserving some attention. Finally healthy following off-season shoulder surgery, Quincey is looking to re-establish himself as an offensive threat, particularly with the man advantage. Remember when he tallied 38 points (including 25 power-play assists!) in 72 games with the Los Angeles Kings back in 2008-09? As an entrenched presence on the Avalanche's second power-play unit, Quincey could better that total this season.

Grant Clitsome, Columbus Blue Jackets (down three spots) : Clitsome just doesn't look at ease in the offensive zone thus far this campaign. An excellent mid-season fantasy pick-up in 2010-11, the 26-year-old isn't picking up where he left off as a slick, puck-moving threat. With James Wisniewski nearing the end of his eight-game suspension, Clitsome could find himself the odd-man out in regards to available power-play opportunities and overall minutes. Especially since the talented (although outrageously unreliable) Kris Russell is currently teasing fans and fantasy players alike with a predictably temporary mini-streak of dazzling play.

Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs (re-emerges at No. 66): As expected, the press box assignment didn't last long. Snagging Jake Gardiner's spot amongst the Toronto Maple Leafs' top-six, Franson is evidently becoming more and more comfortable competing with his new club. Coach Ron Wilson's recent experiment of sliding John-Michael Liles to the left side and playing Franson on the other top power-play unit point is also cause for mild enthusiasm.

Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa Senators (down nine spots) : To be honest, we're not sure what's more disturbing; the lack of production or the (alleged) whining. Via the mouth of his agent, J.P. Barry, the Ottawa Sun recently reported Gonchar as being "flabbergasted" and hurt by the fans' live reception at Ottawa Senators home games. They're booing and jeering him personally, you see. What's particularly bothersome is that Barry hinted Gonchar may be further discouraged from turning his fortunes around -- "this this has just made it more difficult for him" -- in light of such expressed nastiness. A minus-five, the 37-year-old has two points through five games with the Sens. Young defenseman Erik Karlsson has eight points, including six with the man advantage, in six contests. Someone is managing to make a little hay in the rainstorm and he's 16 years Gonchar's junior. If the veteran blueliner doesn't start earning his $5.5 million annual salary soon, consider cutting ties.

Key injury (and other) notes

Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins is suspended for two games after hitting Alexander Burmistrov into the boards on Monday. The top defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins is scheduled to return on Saturday ... Slava Voynov is filling in for Drew Doughty as the Los Angeles Kings' d-man takes the next week or so to recover from a shoulder injury .... Ryan Whitney finally made his comeback for the Edmonton Oilers. After a short warm-up period, Whitney should once again emerge as the fantasy beast he was before sustaining that vicious ankle injury ... With a couple of conditioning games in the AHL under his belt, Kurtis Foster could make his first appearance for the Anaheim Ducks as early as this weekend ... November: That's the earliest Andrei Markov is tentatively scheduled to return for the Montreal Canadiens.

Power Play Performers

We don't care that Sami Salo notched a goal and a two assists (including two power-play points) in a recent 4-3 win for the Vancouver Canucks. We really don't. A productive night here and there isn't worth the headache and inevitable heartbreak the veteran Finn has in store for his fantasy owners once he tweaks/pulls/strains/sprains/breaks a body part. Consider Salo's relative good health through the latter part of 2010-11 pure fluke. Plus, coach Alain Vigneault is still mucking around with his defensive pairings in light of Christian Ehrhoff's departure. He hasn't found the right formula yet.

With three power-play points (six overall) in six games, Joni Pitkanen is enjoying a fierce start to the season for the Carolina Hurricanes. The solid 28-year-old is also averaging about 24 minutes per game. Furthermore, fellow blueliner Jamie McBain should see his fantasy stock rise since Justin Faulk was reassigned to the minors. If McBain continues to stay out of the press box and put in minutes with the man advantage, he'll earn his place in the top 75 soon enough.

Keep an eye on young David Savard of the winless Blue Jackets. Coach Scott Arniel is under immense pressure to shake things up, and Savard could find himself in a pretty plum position in terms of potential production. Or the 20-year-old could be sent back to the AHL.

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