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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Thin Blue Line: Final preseason ranks

By Victoria Matiash
ESPN.com

Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr may have left the regular-season soup on the work-stoppage burner far too long, but most NHL players and fans are ready to slurp up the resulting condensed broth anyway. Again, most players. Less than 100 hours away from the launch of a compact 2012-13 campaign, we're still awaiting the arrival of a couple of stragglers from Europe. And from a Thin Blue Line perspective, whatever individual course Lubomir Visnovsky and Dmitry Kulikov opt for in the next few hours/days/weeks will carry its own set of fantasy ramifications.

Fortunately, at the time of this writing, Visnovsky's perplexing situation is starting to disentangle. The latest rumblings suggest the veteran D-man fully intends to join the New York Islanders once "personal issues" in his Slovakian homeland -- which reportedly concern the health of his son -- are resolved. Visnovsky's agent, Neil Sheehy, has essentially guaranteed his client would be on the ice for the Islanders in the next two to three weeks. That's what we have to go on for now.

So, as long this saga isn't in for another twist (no guarantees, mind you), Visnovsky shouldn't miss more than 10 games. In which case, a decent 18-point campaign is still well within reach. The Islanders haven't put up with this series of shenanigans (remember the trade protest?) just to use the 36-year-old in a sparing manner. You can bet your pudding the club will get as much (read: power-play offense) out of Visnovsky as possible, in whatever limited time available. And if he does end up sitting out the NHL season, the fully healed Travis Hamonic (concussion) will be that much more valuable.

Kulikov's situation is both more straightforward and fuzzier than Visnovsky's, depending on your perspective. While the young Russian D-man isn't breaking any rules by not reporting to camp for the Florida Panthers -- he has every right to continue playing overseas as an unsigned restricted free agent in the NHL -- it seems he has already cut ties with his KHL squad, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. That move would indicate a readiness to return to North America. Yet, as relayed by George Richards of the Miami Herald, Kulikov's agent and the Panthers had not had any contact for a couple of days, as of Tuesday morning. So now we wait.

A talented offensive defenseman, Kulikov is a key piece of the Panthers' blue line, one the club doesn't want to lose. And the NHL-weathered 22-year-old could be in for an explosive campaign once he's back on board, especially with Jason Garrison (Vancouver Canucks) out of the picture.

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. Erik Karlsson, Ott (1)
2. Kris Letang, Pit (2)
3. Zdeno Chara, Bos (3)
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (4)
5. Brian Campbell, Fla (5)
6. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
7. Ryan Suter, Min (7)
8. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (8)
9. Shea Weber, Nsh (9)
10. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (10)
11. Tobias Enstrom, Win (13)
12. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (12)
13. P.K. Subban, Mon (11)
14. Jack Johnson, Cls (14)
15. Alexander Edler, Van (16)
16. Mark Streit, NYI (17)
17. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (18)
18. Drew Doughty, LA (21)
19. Keith Yandle, Pho (15)
20. Niklas Kronwall, Det (19)
21. Duncan Keith, Chi (20)
22. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (22)
23. Andrei Markov, Mon (23)
24. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (24)
25. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (29)
26. Alex Goligoski, Dal (26)
27. James Wisniewski, Cls (27)
28. Mark Giordano, Cgy (25)
29. Matt Carle, TB (28)
30. Justin Schultz, Edm (30)
31. Mike Green, Was (32)
32. Tyler Myers, Buf (33)
33. Joni Pitkanen, Car (31)
34. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (34)
35. Cam Fowler, Ana (35)
36. Ryan Whitney, Edm (36)
37. Brent Burns, SJ (37)
38. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (38)
39. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (39)
40. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (40)
41. Jason Garrison, Van (41)
42. Travis Hamonic, NYI (47)
43. Brent Seabrook, Chi (42)
44. Erik Johnson, Col (44)
45. John-Michael Liles, Tor (45)
46. Slava Voynov, LA (46)
47. Kevin Bieksa, Van (49)
48. Jared Spurgeon, Min (51)
49. Ian White, Det (62)
50. Sheldon Souray , Ana (50)
51. Nick Leddy, Chi (52)
52. Brendan Smith, Det (43)
53. Justin Faulk, Car (53)
54. Victor Hedman, TB (55)
55. Tom Gilbert, Min (56)
56. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (61)
57. Roman Josi, Nsh (60)
58. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (54)
59. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (58)
60. John Carlson, Was (59)
61. Lubomir Visnovsky, NYI (48)
62. Adam Larsson, NJ (63)
63. Joe Corvo, Car (66)
64. Stephane Robidas, Dal (64)
65. Paul Martin, Pit (65)
66. Tomas Kaberle, Mon (68)
67. Ryan McDonagh, NYR (67)
68. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (72)
69. Dan Girardi, NYR (57)
70. Luca Sbisa, Ana (69)
71. Jamie McBain, Car (71)
72. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (73)
73. Jeff Petry, Edm (74)
74. Dmitry Orlov, Was (75)
75. Sami Salo, TB (100)

Rising and falling

Dennis Seidenberg, Boston Bruins (down four spots): While the Bruins are planning to skate four forwards with defenseman Zdeno Chara on the No. 1 power-play unit, Seidenberg is relegated to the secondary assembly with rookie Dougie Hamilton. Understandably, the demotion hurts Seidenberg's fantasy value a little bit.

Dennis Wideman, Calgary Flames (up four spots): There's little doubt Wideman has the edge on Mark Giordano, in terms of production with the Flames. While Giordano is more valued for contributing to all aspects of play (blocked shots, penalty killing, etc.), Wideman is the one to rack up the goals. And that's why the Flames threw gobs and gobs of money at the 29-year-old. The club already has enough defensemen who are decent in several aspects of play (see: Jay Bouwmeester). It needs a blue-line sniper.

Ian White, Detroit Red Wings (up 13 spots): Projected to pair with Niklas Kronwall on the primary power-play unit for the Red Wings, White leapfrogs more than a handful of bodies in the rankings. Honest to goodness, we thought coach Mike Babcock would go in a different direction. Brendan Smith has more long-term upside, but White could be mighty useful this shortened fantasy campaign, if this strategy endures.

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings (up three spots): The fact that Doughty is said to be in the shape of his life is enough to merit a spot in the top 20. A campaign of 25-30 points isn't out of the question for the Kings' top defenseman.

P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens(down two spots): The restricted free agent is still without a new deal with the Canadiens, and that makes us a bit nervous. However, Subban's agent, Don Meehan, has a rock-solid reputation for dragging negotiations on with an endless supply of patience, and the Canadiens are nowhere near willing to lose the 23-year-old firecracker. Maybe Subban misses a game. Maybe two. Hopefully, it doesn't even come to that.

Key injury notes

Officially, Jake Gardiner (concussion/whiplash) is considered a "maybe" of some sorts for Saturday's opener. Interpret that status, compliments of the Toronto Maple Leafs, however you like. Goalie James Reimer (concussion/whiplash) was an ongoing "maybe" last winter and ended up missing nearly two months. However, there's still time for Gardiner to take part in team practice ahead of the weekend. At least he's skating. And 18-year-old Morgan Rielly has less of a chance to stick around if Gardiner heals up soon. … Anton Babchuk of the Calgary Flames is out for approximately three weeks with a shoulder injury. … Andrej Meszaros (Achilles) is hoping to be fit enough to participate in the Philadelphia Flyers' maiden contest of 2012-13. … For a more comprehensive look at ongoing injury issues, visit last week's Thin Blue edition.

Potent pairings

• Pegged to replace Ryan Suter as top-pair partner to Shea Weber with the Nashville Predators, sophomore Roman Josi has plenty to look forward to this season. The well-built 22-year-old presents the full package at the NHL level, just ask any Swiss hockey fan about this talented youngster. While Josi isn't likely to rack up eye-popping numbers himself, he should serve as a decent sub for Suter as far as Weber is concerned, at least at even strength. The only element holding the Predators' captain back from a spot in the top five is the lack of elite scoring talent up front.

Brian Campbell has himself a brand-new blue-line partner in Panthers offseason acquisition Filip Kuba. A perennial fantasy force, Campbell should benefit handsomely from the time and space created by Kuba's physically imposing frame. If health and durability don't become a concern, this, uh, seasoned duo could be very effective this shortened drive.

Power-play performers

• Confession: Despite enduring crushing disappointment in recent years, we just can't quit on Kurtis Foster altogether. And now that the power-play specialist has joined the Flyers' offensively anemic blue line, we're willing to forget all about 2011-12 … and 2010-11. If the towering 31-year-old with the vicious shot has any chance of reclaiming the productive glory experienced with the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2009-10, it's alongside Meszaros and the rest of the Flyers' secondary unit. On the cusp of joining the top 75, Foster is well worth a late-round gamble in deeper leagues.

Ryan Murphy is one to watch if he earns a roster spot with the Carolina Hurricanes. However, Jim Rutherford & Co. may believe another few months with the OHL Kitchener Rangers may benefit the 19-year-old offensive defenseman most.

• Either Stefan Elliott or Tyson Barrie is expected to nail down a regular spot in the Colorado Avalanche lineup, only one of the two youngsters. The other is bound to rejoin the AHL Lake Erie Monsters. Whoever clicks with the Avalanche should enjoy plenty of opportunities with the man advantage. The club's defensive corps isn't exactly bursting with obvious firepower potential.

• Projected to anchor the top power-play unit for the Lightning ahead of the season, veteran Sami Salo could be of some fantasy use. That is, until the 38-year-old falls apart physically, of course. With a look at history, it's likely to happen at some point.