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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Thin Blue Line: Top names near return

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

To make even a minor comparison to the impact resulting from the storybook-like and universally celebrated re-introduction of Sidney Crosby to NHL action this week would be misguided and dumb. However, that doesn't mean the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers aren't giving a whole lot of thanks that their best offensive blueliners, respectively, are due back very shortly from injury. Both clubs stand to improve significantly as a result. Furthermore, the return of Andrei Markov for the Canadiens and Ryan Whitney for the Oilers should also have some serious fantasy side-effects.

There's still no specific timetable, but Markov (knee) seems poised to make his season debut for the Canadiens in early December. Recently cleared for contact, the elite blueliner has been practicing and travelling with his teammates for the last little while. But there's still no great rush. Coach Jacques Martin has said he wants Markov to get a few more hard sessions in before appearing in a game. Fair enough. The Canadiens have been clear from the get-go: Markov won't be back until everyone involved is confident there's as little chance of re-injury as possible. The Habs aren't going to mess around, as they're stuck with Markov until 2014 at the price tag of nearly $6 million a year. So you can rest assured, once he retakes to the ice, the 32-year-old veteran will be in excellent shape. We suggest Dec. 6 might be a sane target, when the squad hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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

P.K. Subban's fantasy value shouldn't take a hit once Markov re-joins the Habs' lineup. In fact, as the veteran's projected power-play partner, Subban could see an increase in his special teams' numbers. Yannick Weber, on the other hand, likely will experience a reduction in production as his power-play minutes shrink. Despite enjoying the lion's share of time with the man advantage, Weber's stats have only been mediocre.

Whitney's situation is a little more clear-cut. We expect to see the 28-year-old back in the Oilers lineup before the end of November. Itching with anticipation to get back out there, Whitney is set to join and complement the squad's already solid top power-play unit. Subsequently bumping Tom Gilbert -- who's been doing his very best, bless him -- back to the team's second unit, where he belongs. Until Corey Potter returns from an ankle injury in approximately a month, Whitney and Gilbert are the only Oilers defensemen of serious fantasy significance. Furthermore, owned in under 40 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Whitney should be snatched up without hesitation. Like now.

Rising and Falling

Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs (re-emerges at No. 61): Goodness gracious, it's about time. If there's any silver lining to Mike Komisarek's broken arm, it's that the madness of sitting Franson as a healthy scratch for the Maple Leafs has come to an end. With Komisarek on the shelf for about eight weeks, coach Ron Wilson has little choice but to play Franson each and every contest, and fantasy players should take note. During his recent string of four straight games as a regular, the 24-year-old potted a goal and two assists, including two power-play points. A fixture on the second unit, along with the likes of forward Tim Connolly, Franson is clearly demonstrating an eagerness to shoot while remaining successful at keeping the puck in the offensive end. Honestly, the guy is a serious talent. Again, we simply don't get coach Wilson's earlier aversion to playing the former Predator, but that chapter is mercifully over. Owned in less than 3 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Franson could be a valuable asset for the duration of the season.

Nikita Nikitin, Columbus Blue Jackets (re-emerges at No. 64): As envisioned in this space last week, Nikitin is already enjoying an early renaissance to his playing career with the Blue Jackets. Dealt from the St. Louis Blues less than two weeks ago, Nikitin has four assists in his first five games with his new squad. So far, so good. And, as a member of the second unit, two of those helpers have counted with the man advantage. Plus, no other blueliner with the Blue Jackets is averaging more on-ice minutes. There's a reason the 25-year-old has been seen sporting a goofy grin; this gig must be a loads more fun than sitting in the Blues' press box.

Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres (not rated): Out at least a month following surgery to fix a broken wrist, Myers tumbles far enough to drop out of the Top 75. His numbers have only been so-so this year, anyway. Consequently, we expect a lot more from power-play specialist Marc-Andre Gragnani, in Myers' absence. Jordan Leopold should experience an increase in production as well.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, Tampa Bay Lightning (down two spots): Admittedly, the nagging "upper-body" injury is a worry. Bergeron played against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, but his minutes were cut back substantially. Plus, we don't like seeing Eric Brewer on the top unit with the extra skater, instead of the Lightning's undisputed power-play specialist. It's all a bit bothersome.

Key injury (and other) notes:

The Raleigh News & Observer reports Joni Pitkanen of the Carolina Hurricanes should be considered week-to-week with what's called a lower-body issue. Don't be surprised if the veteran is placed on IR. ... Ian White (busted cheekbone) is set to return for the Detroit Red Wings for Wednesday's contest versus the Calgary Flames. ... Out with a nasty virus, Chris Pronger shouldn't miss much more time for the Philadelphia Flyers. ... There's still no word on when to expect Marek Zidlicky (concussion) back for the Minnesota Wild, but it won't be in the immediate future. ... As for Mike Green (groin), the Washington Capitals d-man still isn't skating. That's all we know. ...

Power Play Performers

Sitting atop the rankings for a handful of weeks in anticipation of this Monday's happy event, Kris Letang is worth even more now that -- you guessed it -- Sidney Crosby is back in the mix for the Pittsburgh Penguins. As the anchor to a top power-play unit that includes Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Steve Sullivan, Letang has the scary potential to realistically earn a point each time the Penguins have the man advantage. Plus, as indicated by last season's stats, Letang is considerably (and unsurprisingly) more productive all around with Crosby in the lineup.

For those wondering why this needs mentioning -- it's not like Letang is just hanging around as a fantasy free agent -- it's worth acknowledging the defenseman's rich value, not only as a blueliner, but as a player overall. Consider offering up a top-notch forward via trade for Letang, especially if your blue line is in rough shape. In terms of numbers, there's a lot less flexibility in managing to assemble a decent corps of d-men than a roster of wingers and centermen.

As discussed by Sean Allen in the recent edition of the Fantasy Forecaster, defenseman Trevor Daley could be worth grabbing as the power-play partner of Sheldon Souray with the Dallas Stars. Sure. But only if you're really desperate.

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