Thin Blue Line: Deconstructing the Habs

Don't fault yourself for being caught off guard by the state of the Montreal Canadiens blue line; the extent of experimentation and shuffling currently underway is enough to make any weathered fantasy hockey player weep. Only a month ago, Andrei Markov and rookie P. K. Subban were considered the top two fantasy assets for the Canadiens. Now? The veteran Russian is done for the year, scheduled to undergo imminent, season-ending knee surgery, and the so-called "explosive" rookie -- a projected Calder Trophy favorite by some -- has spent the past three contests in the Canadiens' press box as a healthy scratch. Meanwhile, Roman Hamrlik has stepped up to contribute six points in his past four games and AHL call-up Yannick Weber has been entrenched as quarterback on the Habs' top power-play unit. Okay then. So, what are we supposed to make of this new fan-dangled recipe?

First of all, Subban's fantasy owners (and fans) have no reason to panic. The benching is temporary; a gentle lesson in humility directed at the rookie in light of some poor on-ice decisions of late. Many believe his confident (read: cocky) attitude needed a mild adjustment as well. However, since the Canadiens have been victorious in all three games without Subban, Jacques Martin is a bit stuck. Even though he probably didn't plan on sitting the young defenseman for this long, how does the head coach justify altering the roster when the team is winning? Maybe he doesn't. Perhaps Martin keeps Subban off the ice until the Habs lose, or maybe he justifies dressing him next game by highlighting the team's poor performance with the man advantage against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. (Note: They were so bad, the Montreal hometown crowd chanted P.K.'s name as the special teams skaters floundered in the second and third periods). One way or the other, Subban will return before you know it. And you can count on him to really tear it up in his first game back.

To clear the roster space for Subban, the Canadiens have a couple of options. If he chooses to go with seven defensemen, Coach Martin can continue to use Weber on the power-play point while skating him on the fourth forward line at even strength. Otherwise, the Habs will have to drop a blueliner, with Weber or Alexandre Picard being the likeliest candidates. The Habs are really smitten with young Yannick at present and would probably prefer to keep him in the lineup, at least for now. As for Hamrlik, you can expect his numbers to level out once Subban returns, but the 36-year-old still has some scoring life in him yet. And owned in less than half of ESPN.com leagues, the veteran could add a touch of fantasy punch to your roster.

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. Mike Green, Was (1)
2. Dan Boyle, SJ (2)
3. Zdeno Chara, Bos (3)
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Atl (6)
5. Chris Pronger, Phi (4)
6. Duncan Keith, Chi (5)
7. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (7)
8. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (8)
9. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (10)
10. Kris Letang, Pit (13)
11. Drew Doughty, LA (9)
12. Ryan Whitney, Edm (12)
13. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (11)
14. John-Michael Liles, Col (16)
15. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (14)
16. James Wisniewski, NYI (15)
17. Brian Rafalski, Det (20)
18. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (17)
19. Alex Goligoski, Pit (18)
20. Tomas Kaberle, Tor (21)
21. Bryan McCabe, Fla (19)
22. Alexander Edler, Van (22)
23. Stephane Robidas, Dal (23)
24. Joni Pitkanen, Car (24)
25. Shea Weber, Nsh (25)
26. Jack Johnson, LA (26)
27. P.K. Subban, Mon (27)
28. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (29)
29. Niklas Kronwall, Det (28)
30. Marek Zidlicky, Min (31)
31. Brian Campbell, Chi (30)
32. Erik Johnson, StL (32)
33. Kevin Shattenkirk, Col (46)
34. Dennis Wideman, Fla (33)
35. Mark Giordano, Cgy (38)
36. Joe Corvo, Car (35)
37. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (47)
38. Brent Seabrook, Chi (39)
39. Anton Stralman, Cls (36)
40. Brent Burns, Min (37)
41. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (51)
42. Kurtis Foster, Edm (42)
43. Keith Yandle, Pho (43)
44. Tyler Myers, Buf (40)
45. Ed Jovanovski, Pho (34)
46. Victor Hedman, TB (45)
47. John Carlson, Was (44)
48. Paul Martin, Pit (48)
49. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (41)
50. Cam Fowler, Ana (53)
51. Erik Karlsson, Ott (50)
52. Carlo Colaiacovo, StL (49)
53. Matt Carle, Phi (52)
54. Jordan Leopold, Buf (54)
55. Ryan Suter, Nsh (55)
56. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (61)
57. Pavel Kubina, TB (56)
58. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (57)
59. Brett Clark, TB (59)
60. Ian White, Car (60)
61. Filip Kuba, Ott (58)
62. Michal Rozsival, NYR (63)
63. Zach Bogosian, Atl (64)
64. Francois Beauchemin, Tor (65)
65. Cody Franson, Nsh (62)
66. Daniel Girardi, NYR (66)
67. Andy Greene, NJ (67)
68. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (74)
69. Tom Gilbert, Edm (off)
70. Alec Martinez, LA (72)
71. Yannick Weber, Mon (off)
72. Kevin Bieksa, Van (68)
73. Adrian Aucoin, Pho (70)
74. Marc-Andre Bergeron, FA (71)
75. David Schlemko, Pho (73)

Rising and Falling

Dennis Seidenberg, Bruins (up five spots): No one would ever accuse Dennis Seidenberg of being the flashiest of fantasy performers around, but he doesn't need to be. Seidenberg will get you a point once every two or three games, and doesn't act as a liability otherwise. And as a new member of the Boston Bruins this season, you can witness his growing comfort level as he becomes more and more confident in his new role with each passing week. The fact that he's partnered with Zdeno Chara on the Bruins' top power-play unit doesn't hurt either; nor that he's logged a lot of ice time lately; over an average of 28 minutes in his past two games.

Filip Kuba, Senators (down three spots): The Ottawa Senators are having a heckuva time putting the puck in the back of the net and Filip Kuba's personal statistics reflect that current struggle. The Sens have only 21 goals in their past 14 games, while the 33-year-old Czech native has all of one assist to show for his past 10 matches. Never mind the solid personal numbers from seasons gone by, until the Senators figure out a way to right the ship, offensively, you can't expect the usual from Kuba. Or any other defenseman on the team, for that matter.

Drew Doughty, Kings (down two spots): We're more than a week into the month of December and there's growing concern over Drew Doughty and why he hasn't yet snapped out of this unproductive nonsense. After notching 59 points -- including 31 on the power play -- in '09-'10, Doughty's total of seven points over 19 games pales significantly in comparison. As a member of a good, young team, the gifted blueliner should have much more to show for his efforts.

Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom going forward. After an unpleasant stretch spanning mid- to late November, the Kings, as a whole, are off to a better start in December with two victories. And coach Terry Murray is (strongly) encouraging his power-play skaters to make a bigger effort in getting the puck back to the blueliners on the point. Once that strategy flushes out, and Doughty gets back into the habit of shooting from that quarterback position more often, his point tally will increase, quickly. Especially in regards to special teams play. Expect to see superior results from the 21-year-old before the new year.

Key injury notes

The Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping to have Dion Phaneuf back in the lineup for Saturday's contest versus the Montreal Canadiens. Recovering from a deep cut to his leg, Phaneuf has been practising with the team and is considered day-to-day.

Matt Taormina of the New Jersey Devils could start skating again as early as next week. Nursing a high ankle sprain, the young defenseman hasn't played since Nov 12.

Power Play Performers

It's not the first season Tom Gilbert has emerged from an unproductive snooze and handed us cause to take notice. Once again, just when he's been written off as a fantasy asset, the Edmonton Oilers defenseman makes a decent case for himself. After collecting a paltry three points in his first 18 games, Gilbert has seven is his past nine contests, including a power-play goal and assist. He has the tools to contribute with the man advantage and he's getting the chances. Plus, the 27-year-old is available in all but six percent of ESPN.com leagues. Gilbert is worth snagging if your blue line numbers need a bit of a boost, at least temporarily.

A young defenseman with a lot of offensive potential is Ian Cole of the St. Louis Blues. Recently called up for the second time this season, and known for his powerful shot from the point, Cole is getting a few opportunities to strut his stuff when the Blues have the man advantage. Furthermore, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong is reportedly open to trading a defenseman for some much-needed scoring talent up front, and that could help secure the strong 21-year-old more playing time in the NHL.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com