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Thursday, January 26, 2012
Thin Blue Line: The top defensemen are

By Victoria Matiash
Special to ESPN.com

In honor of the All-Star festivities and accompanying hoopla, here's a nod to those who have performed exceptionally well in individual fantasy categories. Consider this our version of the Oscars, but without venue, red carpet, tangible reward, pizzazz and any acknowledgement or interest from those being honored.

Jason Garrison
Jason Garrison leads all defensemen in goals at the All-Star break with 13 after entering the season with just seven for his career.

• Very few (read: absolutely no one) could have predicted that Jason Garrison of the Florida Panthers would be leading all blueliners in goals (with 13) by this stage of the season. In his second full NHL season, the 27-year-old has really blossomed on a squad with so many new additions. And without Dmitry Kulikov (more on that below), Garrison will be asked to continue producing regularly. Heavy on-ice minutes and a healthy affection for shooting the puck could see Garrison add another 10 goals before the first week of April.

• A tip of the hat to the Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall for his current second-place total of 11 goals. A jaw-dropping number by no means but impressive enough, considering the 31-year-old admits he's struggled at times this campaign. We consider Kronwall a top candidate to break out after recess.

• Leading all blueliners by a ridiculous margin, the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson has 40 assists through 51 games. Forty. Plus, the 21-year-old shoots up a storm and averages over 25 minutes per contest. You think this kid is having fun playing under coach Paul MacLean? Under different circumstances, Karlsson could be endorsed as a scrumptious sell-high candidate, but we're no longer convinced the youngster will let up. He's like the marathon runner who launches the race at seemingly too high a pace -- one that can't conceivably be maintained -- and never slows down until the finish line.

• Veteran Mark Streit doesn't score as frequently as his owners would like, but when he does it's often on the power play. With 17 of 26 points counting with the man advantage, Streit satisfies two categories simultaneously more often than most. If not for the minus-21, the New York Islanders' captain would be top-15 fantasy material. Meanwhile, Dennis Wideman is proving last season was no fluke. Amassing 15 power-play points to date with the Washington Capitals, Wideman is doing his part (and more) in making up for Mike Green's absence.

• Owning a player with a robust plus/minus rating is like dating a guy with a really nice car. Although not reason enough to hook up with someone on its own, the attribute can provide a very pleasant perk. That's why Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Ian White of the Detroit Red Wings, both sitting plus-26, are worth that little bit more.

• The New York Rangers' Michael Del Zotto merits an extra special shout-out in this department. A minus-20 two seasons ago and minus-5 in 2010-11, Del Zotto has every right to brag about his current plus-22 rating. The young lad is reputed to have worked his butt off to improve the defensive element of his game.

• In the category of average time on ice, Dan Girardi (27:22) of the Rangers leads Duncan Keith (26:33) of the Chicago Blackhawks by nearly a minute. Unlike Keith, who contributes more in other facets of the fantasy game, Girardi's ice time is his most prominent trait. And one that can make a palpable difference, especially on a shorter roster.

Jay Bouwmeester also deserves a pat on the back for averaging more than 26 minutes per game with the Calgary Flames. Considered a disappointment after several exceptionally productive seasons with the Panthers, Bouwmeester is quietly enjoying a respectable campaign in Calgary. After only 50 games, the 28-year-old is just three short of his 24-point total for 2010-11.

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

• The All-Star "Happy Shooter" crown goes to Dustin Byfuglien, presently on the Winnipeg Jets' injured shelf with a knee issue. Other blueliners have greater totals, but no one of significance nears Byfuglien's average of over 3.5 shots per game. Fingers crossed the imposing 26-year-old is good to go soon.

• As no single defenseman is running away with the category (Shane O'Brien leads with 77 PIM), a rich collection of penalty minutes should be thought of as the cherry on the 2011-12 fantasy sundae: a precious bonus paid out by already-valued assets such as Kevin Bieksa (Vancouver Canucks), P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens), Dion Phaneuf (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Chara. One young lad with the potential to break out in this feisty vein is the Islanders' Travis Hamonic. The 21-year-old has the potential to stir up trouble each and every time he's on the ice. And he seems to be gaining confidence as the season wears on.

Rising and Falling

Dmitry Kulikov, Florida Panthers (off): Make no mistake, this is an unexpected and crushing loss for the Panthers. Kulikov needs knee surgery and is out until late March/early April. Brian Campbell and the aforementioned Garrison will be asked to carry more of the offensive load, while rookie Erik Gudbranson could also benefit from additional minutes with the man advantage. But don't be caught off guard if GM Dale Tallon deals for another offensive defenseman before the trade deadline. Not one to sit back and take the more conservative managerial path, that guy.

Joe Corvo, Boston Bruins (down three spots): Well, wouldn't you know, Corvo has hit one of his cold streaks. No worries; it'll pass. With one lonely assist in 14 games, it's only a matter of when. At that point, get ready for a tear since the 34-year-old is still playing a prominent power-play role for the Bruins.

Marc Staal, New York Rangers (off): Staal isn't playing anything resembling an offensive role for the Rangers, as clearly indicated by his zero points through 11 games. Frankly, with Del Zotto, Girardi and Anton Stralman in the mix, John Tortorella's team has the luxury of using Staal in a limited defensive capacity. Battling concussion symptoms for several months, the 25-year-old can only benefit from slowly easing back into the swing of things. The talented D-man isn't worth owning this season.

Key injury (and other) notes

Forget about reactivating Joni Pitkanen anytime soon. The Carolina Hurricanes have delayed his comeback until March at the earliest. ... Ryan Whitney returned to the Edmonton Oilers' lineup after missing another chunk of time to a chronic ankle issue. By his admission, Whitney isn't nearly 100 percent and could easily suffer another setback ... The Minnesota Wild coaching staff hopes that making Marek Zidlicky a healthy scratch for two straight games serves as a righteous kick in the pants. The 34-year-old's fantasy owners can only long for the same result. ... Marc-Andre Bergeron is listed as day to day with a suspected back injury. Another week off may suffice as recovery time. Bergeron has already missed nearly two weeks of action for the Tampa Bay Lightning. ... Nikita Nikitin is nursing a knee injury. Both Nikitin and James Wisniewski could return for the Columbus Blue Jackets by the second week of February.

Power-Play Performers

On the shelf with an upper-body injury since late December, Christian Ehrhoff made his return with a solid performance for the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. As power-play partner to Tyler Myers on the top unit, Ehrhoff should provide an offensive boost to the struggling squad. As unspectacular as the Sabres have been with their top D-man in the lineup, they've floundered even more so with him absent.

Signing John-Michael Liles to a four-year extension, the Toronto Maple Leafs evidently aren't fretting about any concussion issues. Out for just over a month, the 31-year-old defenseman is due back right after the All-Star break. And the timeliness of Liles' return could be all the more felicitous, if Leafs GM Brian Burke trades another blue-line regular, as anticipated.

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