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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Thin Blue Line: Youth auditions

By Victoria Matiash
ESPN.com

There's a certain advantage to playing for a nonplayoff team this time of year -- particularly for younger players who are in a position to carve out a positive impression for the future.

Teams with little to no chance of reaching the postseason will use the final week or two as an audition period, a stretch in which AHL call-ups and other hopefuls are given the opportunity to strut their stuff with plenty of on-ice minutes and little pressure. When nothing is on the line -- except, arguably, a shot at a higher draft pick -- why not have a good look at potential future assets?

As a result, the final handful of games tends to yield an irregular burst of production from prospects gearing up for next season. Those young, and sometimes not-so-young, lads can do well to plug a fantasy blue-line hole just before the 2013 regular season fades to black.

T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames is one such player. Benefiting from additional responsibilities following the departure of Jay Bouwmeester, Brodie has garnered three assists in his last four contests, including a couple of power-play points. The 22-year-old is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer, so the Flames will want to see him in action as much as possible in the next couple of weeks. Look for Brodie to average around 23-24 minutes per game during that period, including an abundance of time with the man advantage.

At the end of an exceptionally dismal regular season, the Colorado Avalanche are allowing two young prospects to show off their talent and skill from the back end. While Tyson Barrie has four assists in his last four contests, Stefan Elliott has two points in his last three games. And Elliott anchored the top power-play unit in Colorado's most recent tilt with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Beyond 2013, these two should be on your fantasy radar for many years to come. Both Barrie and Elliott have another year on their respective contracts before becoming restricted free agents in 2015.

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 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. P.K. Subban, Mon (1)
2. Ryan Suter, Min (2)
3. Mike Green, Was (3)
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (4)
5. Kris Letang, Pit (33)
6. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (9)
7. Zdeno Chara, Bos (6)
8. Drew Doughty, LA (11)
9. Andrei Markov, Mon (7)
10. Niklas Kronwall, Det (8)
11. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (10)
12. Shea Weber, Nsh (5)
13. Brian Campbell, Fla (12)
14. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (15)
15. Keith Yandle, Pho (17)
16. Mark Streit, NYI (21)
17. Dan Boyle, SJ (18)
18. Brent Burns, SJ (19)
19. Duncan Keith, Chi (16)
20. John Carlson, Was (22)
21. Alex Goligoski, Dal (24)
22. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (13)
23. James Wisniewski, Cls (25)
24. Alexander Edler, Van (28)
25. Justin Schultz, Edm (20)
26. Cody Franson, Tor (30)
27. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (23)
28. Slava Voynov, LA (26)
29. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (27)
30. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (31)
31. Jack Johnson, Cls (29)
32. Jay Bouwmeester, StL (34)
33. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (46)
34. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (37)
35. Jason Garrison, Van (61)
36. Matt Carle, TB (41)
37. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (44)
38. Lubomir Visnovsky, NYI (35)
39. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (36)
40. Sheldon Souray, Ana (39)
41. Brent Seabrook, Chi (40)
42. Dan Hamhuis, Van (56)
43. Nick Leddy, Chi (38)
44. Ryan Whitney, Edm (32)
45. Francois Beauchemin, Ana (43)
46. Justin Faulk, Car (49)
47. Mark Giordano, Cgy (57)
48. Jared Spurgeon, Min (42)
49. Patrick Wiercioch, Ott (52)
50. Victor Hedman, TB (60)
51. John-Michael Liles, Tor (50)
52. Dan Girardi, NYR (51)
53. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (58)
54. Joe Corvo, Car (54)
55. Jake Muzzin, LA (53)
56. Sami Salo, TB (45)
57. Jared Cowen, Ott (off)
58. Tyson Barrie, Col (71)
59. Grant Clitsome, Win (off)
60. Zach Bogosian, Win (66)
61. Jakub Kindl, Det (64)
62. Kevin Bieksa, Van (47)
63. Roman Josi, Nsh (48)
64. Matt Niskanen, Pit (59)
65. Ryan McDonagh, NYR (63)
66. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (68)
67. T.J. Brennan, Fla (74)
68. Jonas Brodin, Min (65)
69. Andy Greene, NJ (67)
70. Jack Hillen, Was (off)
71. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (55)
72. T.J. Brodie, Cgy (off)
73. Stefan Elliott, Col (off)
74. Andrew MacDonald, NYI (off)
75. (tie) Andrew Ference, Bos (off)
75. (tie) Brendan Smith, Det (off)

Other young prospects making the most of more prominent roles with their also-ran teams include T.J. Brennan of the Florida Panthers, Brandon Manning of the Philadelphia Flyers and Victor Bartley of the Nashville Predators. Brennan has five points in his past six contests, Manning notched an assist in his season debut (the 22-year-old had a pretty good season with the Adirondack Phantoms), and Bartley has two helpers in his last three games with the Predators. If nothing else, these names deserve to be kept in mind for well beyond the next two weeks -- particularly if you dabble in keeper leagues.

Note: The rankings take on a stranger hue this week in light of balance of schedule as it applies to individual teams. For instance, the Boston Bruins have seven games remaining while the Nashville Predators have only four. Depending on your league's particular nature and set of rules, Dennis Seidenberg may be significantly more valuable down the final stretch than, say, Roman Josi.

Rising and falling

Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators (re-emerges at No. 57): He's back and, judging from Tuesday's coming-out party, willing to make up for lost time by pounding the stuffing out of the competition. Cowen fought not one, but two members of the Carolina Hurricanes (Chad LaRose, Kevin Westgarth) in the Senators' 3-2 victory. Collecting 10 penalty minutes in an injury-postponed season debut is nothing to sniff at. And make no mistake, Cowen is favored to put up some points between now and April 28 -- enough to justify fantasy ownership at this late stage of the game. The young Senator could be a great late-season add -- especially if you need penalty minutes.

Jack Hillen, Washington Capitals (emerges at No. 70): Hey, when you're hot, you're hot. Hillen has uncharacteristically notched three goals and three assists in his last five games with the Capitals. The tally matches his points total for all of last season (55 games) as a member of the Predators. Available in 95 percent of ESPN.com leagues, an ultra-sizzling Hillen may add some productive punch to your lineup through the Caps' final five games.

Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames (up 10 spots): It took nearly an entire (shortened) season, but Giordano finally appears to be back to his old productive self. The 29-year-old has really kicked it up a notch since Bouwmeester was dealt to the St. Louis Blues (April 1). Even-strength partner to Cory Sarich and paired with Brodie (see above) on the Flames' power play, Giordano has five points in his last six contests.

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (up 10 spots): Back in the lineup after missing four games with a lower-body injury, Hedman looks no worse for wear. Logging heavy minutes, the 22-year-old defenseman will want to finish what has been an up-and-down campaign in as strong a fashion possible.

Key injury (and other) notes

So much for feeling just a "bit sore." For our intents and purposes, Tobias Enstrom is done for the campaign. Listed as week-to-week with a suspected back injury, Enstrom isn't likely to return in the regular season. Whether he has a chance to play beyond then will depend on whether the Winnipeg Jets can seize a playoff spot. They sit ninth in the East. … Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Outside of keeper leagues, the 21-year-old should be unceremoniously dumped in fantasy leagues across the board. This hasn't been his season. … On the subject of terrible campaigns, Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres is out until 2013-14 with a broken leg. … The Vancouver Canucks may have to make do without Kevin Bieksa for a while. The 31-year-old veteran is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury. As a whole, the Canucks' blue line -- including Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison -- has been very productive of late. We'll see if Bieksa's absence messes with that mojo. Bieksa is highly valued as a right-hander among a gaggle of lefties.

Power-play performers

Paired with Dustin Byfuglien on the Jets' top power-play unit, Grant Clitsome can do a lot of damage between now and season's end. Even before he started filling in for Enstrom, the 28-year-old was on a nice little roll. He has two goals and two assists, including a power-play point, in his last five games (plus-6). While Clitsome's fantasy résumé ranges from annoyingly inconsistent to lousy, he has had his moments (see: 2010-11, as a member of the Blue Jackets). And he surely seems to be having one right now.