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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Thin Blue Line: Caps' new-look line

By Victoria Matiash
ESPN.com

To label the Washington Capitals' current defense as "new look" could be an understatement. The six defensemen who participated in Tuesday's 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins played an individual average of 36 regular-season NHL games for the Capitals in 2011-12. The number carries an even greater impact when you consider that both John Carlson and Karl Alzner participated in every contest during the 82-game campaign. That leaves four players with much lighter résumés. Collectively, it's a fairly new bunch.

While the Capitals are scoring more these days (averaging 3.4 goals per game in their past 10 contests versus 2.27 through the first 11), we're going to take a fresh look at what coach Adam Oates has shaking on his back line, particularly with Mike Green on injured reserve with a lingering groin ailment.

First and foremost, Carlson vaults into the must-own department in most fantasy leagues. Alex Ovechkin's partner on the Capitals' top power-play unit, Carlson is earning mega minutes and scoring chances with the man-advantage. As long as he doesn't duff the opportunity, the 23-year-old will start racking up points with regularity. If available, he's inarguably worth scooping up. Otherwise, you may consider approaching Carlson's owner with a trade offer. His numbers aren't that impressive (yet).

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. Brian Campbell, Fla (2)
3. Ryan Suter, Min (5)
4. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (6)
5. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (3)
6. Zdeno Chara, Bos (7)
7. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (4)
8. Andrei Markov, Mon (8)
9. P.K. Subban, Mon (13)
10. Niklas Kronwall, Det (16)
11. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (14)
12. Shea Weber, Nsh (12)
13. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (20)
14. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (11)
15. Alexander Edler, Van (10)
16. Drew Doughty, LA (15)
17. Dan Boyle, SJ (9)
18. Mark Streit, NYI (18)
19. Justin Schultz, Edm (19)
20. Keith Yandle, Pho (23)
21. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (17)
22. Duncan Keith, Chi (21)
23. Lubomir Visnovsky, NYI (22)
24. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (26)
25. Slava Voynov, LA (36)
26. Jack Johnson, Cls (31)
27. Cody Franson, Tor (40)
28. Paul Martin, Pit (24)
29. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (35)
30. Alex Goligoski, Dal (30)
31. Matt Carle, TB (27)
32. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (33)
33. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (32)
34. Victor Hedman, TB (34)
35. Francois Beauchemin, Ana (37)
36. Justin Faulk, Car (38)
37. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (29)
38. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (47)
39. Nick Leddy, Chi (39)
40. John Carlson, Was (50)
41. Dan Hamhuis, Van (43)
42. Brent Seabrook, Chi (42)
43. Sheldon Souray, Ana (44)
44. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (51)
45. Sami Salo, TB (54)
46. Dan Girardi, NYR (56)
47. Tyson Barrie, Col (41)
48. Ryan Whitney, Edm (off)
49. Travis Hamonic, NYI (49)
50. Kevin Bieksa, Van (52)
51. Erik Johnson, Col (off)
52. Jared Spurgeon, Min (61)
53. Jake Muzzin, LA (off)
54. Stephane Robidas, Dal (57)
55. Joe Corvo, Car (64)
56. Zach Bogosian, Win (59)
57. Roman Josi, Nsh (58)
58. Mark Giordano, Cgy (53)
59. Brendan Smith, Det (off)
60. Cam Fowler, Ana (68)
61. Jakub Kindl, Det (60)
62. Tim Erixon, Cls (off)
63. Patrick Wiercioch, Ott (66)
64. Tomas Kundratek, Was (off)
65. Tom Gilbert, Min (55)
66. Jonathan Ericsson, Det (off)
67. Tyler Myers, Buf (65)
68. Jeff Petry, Edm (off)
69. Paul Postma, Win (67)
70. Brenden Dillon, Dal (70)
71. Jason Garrison, Van (72)
72. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (63)
73. Andy Greene, NJ (62)
74. Joni Pitkanen, Car (45)
75. Anton Stralman, NYR (75)

In terms of a dark-horse option, Tomas Kundratek merits serious examination. A new staple on the Caps' secondary power-play unit, Kundratek is warming up nicely in his first real NHL campaign. Earning more ice time as the season wears on (plus-5 in his past eight contests), the 23-year-old is able to boast of his first multipoint game at the highest level after scoring a goal and an assist Tuesday against the Bruins. It won't be his last. Kundratek had 13 goals and 13 assists with the AHL Hershey Bears before joining the Caps this season. Virtually unrostered in ESPN.com leagues, Kundratek may serve as a suitable fill-in if injuries have ravaged your blue line.

Don't forget about Dmitry Orlov. Reportedly healing from the upper-body injury that has kept him sidelined since December, the 21-year-old may not be far from making his competitive return for Hershey. Tim Leone of The Patriot-News reports that Orlov "continues to progress while participating in full-contact practices and may be on track to make the trip to Norfolk this week." If so, NHL promotion may not be far off.

As for Green, there's no sense in trying to predict when he might return for good. Bouncing in and out of the lineup, the 27-year-old is stuck having to deal with yet another frustrating season.

Rising and falling

Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo Sabres (down eight spots): Demoted to the Sabres' second power-play unit, Ehrhoff is under pressure to buck up and do better. While we can't see coach Ron Rolston riding young T.J. Brennan as the top anchor for long, Ehrhoff's relegation paints a vibrant picture of the former Canuck's struggles on offense (he's currently riding an eight-game pointless streak).

Ian White, Detroit Red Wings (off): A healthy scratch for four straight games, White is becoming increasingly irrelevant for the Red Wings. As it stands, Mike Babcock's squad is humming along well enough with Niklas Kronwall, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl and the rest of the team, and -- in admitted broken-record fashion -- we're still awaiting word whether Carlo Colaiacovo could make a healthy return in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Jonathan Ericsson is morphing into a fairly reliable fantasy asset as Kronwall's even-strength partner. While White is bound to see some action, he may serve as more of an insurance figure than anything else (especially with an expiring contract in play).

Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins (up nine spots): Amassing three goals and five assists (including three points with the man-advantage) in his past nine games, Hamilton is establishing himself as a perennial power-play threat for the Bruins. On the flip side, Dennis Seidenberg is filling a more well-rounded role, though one that carries minimal fantasy value.

Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils (down 11 spots): Second banana to No. 1 offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky, Greene has seen his production numbers completely shrivel up in the past 12 games. It doesn't help that the Devils don't score a ton. Greene's owners can only hope the 30-year-old is traded -- as rumored-- before the April 3 deadline.

Ryan Whitney, Edmonton Oilers (re-emerges at No. 48): Out of the press box and back on the ice, Whitney has reclaimed his spot in our top 75 (for now). While Oilers coach Ralph Krueger may simply be shopping the 30-year-old as trade fodder, it's a much better fate than wearing the suit and tie. Two goals in three games and minutes with the extra skater adds some shine to the fantasy armor. And look for Whitney's value to further increase if and when he's dealt as a desired commodity elsewhere. Otherwise, Jeff Petry is the Oilers' hottest blue-line act at present.

Key injury (and other) notes

We're still awaiting word on how badly Marc Staal (New York Rangers) is hurt after taking a puck to his visor-less face in Tuesday's contest with the Philadelphia Flyers -- a truly frightening moment. …After playing slightly more than six minutes, Joni Pitkanen was forced from Sunday's comeback match with a lower-body injury. We don't know if this is a new problem or if he aggravated the injury that cost him seven games in February. But it matters little; until there's a better sense of the injury severity and timeline for return, Pitkanen drops. …Raphael Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens is out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. And no, a re-engaged Tomas Kaberle will not serve as an adequate fantasy substitute. …With Dmitry Kulikov out a month, Brian Campbell remains the only sure-bet fantasy performer for the Florida Panthers. But keep an open mind about Erik Gudbranson and Colby Robak through the next couple of weeks. …Lubomir Visnovsky will miss at least one more game for the New York Islanders as he attends a personal matter in Slovakia. …After missing two games with a lower-body injury, Paul Martin could return Thursday for the Pittsburgh Penguins. …Still listed as day to day with a minor groin injury, Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks is traveling with the club during its current three-game road trip. …We continue to await word on when Tobias Enstrom (shoulder) is due to return for the Winnipeg Jets.

Power-play performers

While Colorado Avalanche defensemen Erik Johnson (concussion) and Ryan Wilson (ankle) return to health, Tyson Barrie is in danger of demotion to the AHL. However, there's word -- via the Denver Post's Adrian Dater -- that Avs coach Joe Sacco may opt to go with eight defensemen, sending Stefan Elliott down alone. If so, Barrie would continue to play a prominent role, because making the 21-year-old offensive defenseman a healthy scratch makes little sense development-wise.

Jake Muzzin is emerging as a potent power-play performer for the Los Angeles Kings. While Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov are more cherished for their consistency, Muzzin is clearly in the groove with three goals and two assists (including two power-play points) in his past five contests. And the 24-year-old is owned in a whopping 1 percent of ESPN.com leagues.