Thin Blue Line: Jake Gardiner impresses

As a member of one of the hottest teams in the NHL, Jake Gardiner has been audaciously making a good amount of noise with the Toronto Maple Leafs of late. With eight points in the 12 games since New Year's, Gardiner has clearly secured a top-four role on a roster bursting with talented and NHL-capable defensemen. And the rookie shows no signs of letting up in his current productive ways.

Seemingly encouraged to join in offensively at his own discretion, Gardiner displays a great deal of maturity and sense of discipline for being only 21 years old. The resulting adult-like confidence is a part of the reason general manager Brian Burke wanted the University of Wisconsin standout so badly as part of last season's deal with the Anaheim Ducks that also included forward Joffrey Lupul and a pick for Francois Beauchemin. A perceived favorite of coach Ron Wilson, Gardiner is adapting splendidly so far.

Admittedly, I was initially a bit worried about how the Minnesota native would fit in amongst the likes of Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie (not to mention cherished prospect Korbinian Holzer). But Gardiner has simply beat out a healthy and richly paid Komisarek (press box) and Aulie (AHL Marlies) for the right to heavy minutes each and every night. Even if Burke swings a much-anticipated deal sending a blueliner like Schenn or Gunnarsson out of town, Gardiner's power-play role and anticipated production shouldn't change.

In fact, the blue line altogether for the Maple Leafs hasn't been this rich in fantasy assets in ages. Beyond Phaneuf and Liles, Franson deserves more respect than he's getting at the moment. Able to finally work his way into Wilson's good graces, Franson is benefiting from solid minutes at even strength and chances with the man advantage. And that shot of his, which he's willing to unleash wherever appropriate, is a vicious beaut to behold. We've been all over the young man since he emerged as a talent with the Nashville Predators two seasons ago. It's confusing why others have yet to join the 24-year-old's bandwagon.

One last point to leave you with: The Leafs' assembly of blueliners collected a total of 139 points in 2010-11. This season, the squad's defensemen already have 122 points, and there are 28 regular-season games remaining. Just another reason Gardiner and Franson may be worth another look.

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. Dan Boyle, SJ (4)

4. Alexander Edler, Van (3)

5. Shea Weber, Nsh (5)

6. Erik Karlsson, Ott (6)

7. Kris Letang, Pit (7)

8. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (10)

9. Keith Yandle, Pho (9)

10. Duncan Keith, Chi (8)

11. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (11)

12. Drew Doughty, LA (12)

13. Ryan Suter, Nsh (14)

14. Tobias Enstrom, Win (13)

15. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (15)

16. P.K. Subban, Mon (16)

17. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (17)

18. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (18)

19. Alex Goligoski, Dal (23)

20. Mark Streit, NYI (21)

21. Ian White, Det (19)

22. Dennis Wideman, Was (22)

23. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (20)

24. John-Michael Liles, Tor (27)

25. Jack Johnson, LA (25)

26. Mark Giordano, Cgy (24)

27. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (26)

28. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (28)

29. Brent Burns, SJ (29)

30. James Wisniewski, Cls (off)

31. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (30)

32. Sheldon Souray, Dal (31)

33. Matt Carle, Phi (34)

34. Kevin Bieksa, Van (32)

35. Niklas Kronwall, Det (33)

36. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (39)

37. Kyle Quincey, Col (36)

38. Jason Garrison, Fla (37)

39. Tomas Kaberle, Mon (35)

40. Tyler Myers, Buf (38)

41. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (40)

42. Brent Seabrook, Chi (43)

43. Erik Johnson, Col (41)

44. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (44)

45. Joe Corvo, Bos (47)

46. Ryan Whitney, Edm (off)

47. Zach Bogosian, Win (42)

48. Jake Gardiner, Tor (off)

49. John Carlson, Was (46)

50. Marek Zidlicky, Min (45)

51. Cody Franson, Tor (53)

52. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (50)

53. Nick Leddy, Chi (49)

54. Corey Potter, Edm (48)

55. Kurtis Foster, NJ (58)

56. Dan Girardi, NYR (56)

57. Dan Hamhuis, Van (57)

58. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (54)

59. Matt Niskanen, Pit (51)

60. Jamie McBain, Car (52)

61. Filip Kuba, Ott (56)

62. Stephane Robidas, Dal (69)

63. Cam Fowler, Ana (59)

64. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (60)

65. Jared Spurgeon, Min (62)

66. Paul Martin, Pit (67)

67. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (63)

68. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ (66)

69. Nikita Nikitin, Cls (off)

70. Justin Faulk, Car (68)

71. Anton Stralman, NYR (71)

72. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (65)

73. Andy Greene, NJ (73)

74. Travis Hamonic, NYI (70)

75. Jordan Leopold, Buf (75)

Rising and falling

James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets (re-emerges at No. 30): Due back from an ankle injury in the next week or so, Wisniewski should return to game action with a productive vengeance. This has been a super-crummy year for the defenseman and his new club, but there's still time to salvage a sense of pride and set the stage for next season. As the Blue Jackets' blue-line leader, Wisniewski is expected to play an inspired part to that end, and significantly build on the 17 points through 29 games accumulated to date.

Fellow Jackets D-man Nikita Nikitin is also expected back next week. An asset on the power play before hurting his knee, Nikitin bumps Fedor Tyutin down a touch in the rankings, and knocks Grant Clitsome (again) right out of the top 75.

Jay Harrison, Carolina Hurricanes (off): As the short-lived and out-of-character scoring streak is over, allow yourself to relegate Harrison back to the realm of fantasy free agency with a clear and confident mind. With Joni Pitkanen on the shelf, Jamie McBain may be the only member of the Carolina Hurricanes worth owning at present. And it's not recommended you put too much fantasy stock in him, either.

Stephane Robidas, Dallas Stars (up seven spots): It's difficult to get a firm grip on Robidas' fantasy value this season. Ranging from little-used (and nearly useless) to power-play partner of Alex Goligoski, Robidas has been aggravatingly inconsistent. Well, as a member of the Dallas Stars' top unit with the man advantage currently, the 34-year-old veteran has a bit of value again. Just don't get too attached.

Key injury (and other) notes

Travis Hamonic of the New York Islanders will miss the next couple of weeks with a broken nose. … Mike Green is skating and could be on schedule for a late-February return with the Washington Capitals following sports hernia surgery. … Stefan Elliott has been demoted to the AHL, allowing fellow rookie Tyson Barrie a shot with the Colorado Avalanche. Elliott could be promoted once again if the Avalanche deal a defenseman (as anticipated) ahead of the deadline. … Marc-Andre Bergeron returned on Tuesday to the lineup for the Tampa Bay Lightning after missing nine contests. Fingers crossed his back holds up for the final two months of the season.

Power-play performers

• Don't look now, but Ryan Whitney of the Edmonton Oilers is relevant again. That troublesome ankle has held up well enough to support the collection of five points in the five games following a monthlong absence. And no less than four of those points counted with the man advantage. Although he could crumple into a useless heap at any moment, Whitney also has the capacity to provide an ample, if temporary, boost to your roster. When healthy, the 28-year-old is a top-20 fantasy asset as far as defensemen go. Just make sure to monitor him daily.

• It's also worth noting that Tom Gilbert rejoined the Oilers on Monday after missing more than a month because of an ankle injury. We'll get a better sense of Gilbert's current role in the next week or so. A prominent position on the power play is no guarantee, with Whitney, Corey Potter, Cam Barker and even Jeff Petry all fit and present.

• Truth be told, it's difficult to predict what the immediate future holds for Marek Zidlicky of the Minnesota Wild. A healthy scratch for four straight games, Zidlicky was finally utilized in the Wild's latest two contests. Frankly, he didn't accomplish much. It's assumed Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is (desperately?) trying to move the 35-year-old veteran and accompanying $4 million-a-year contract (which expires in 2013). But that, understandably, may be easier said than done. Hopefully, for Zidlicky, his fantasy owners and the Wild, Fletcher is able to pull off some arrangement resulting in a fresh start, because the relationship with head coach Mike Yeo in Minny appears irreparably busted.

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