Commentary

Thin Blue Line: Wings getting healthy

Updated: January 27, 2010, 1:04 PM ET
By Victoria Matiash | Special to ESPN.com

Slowly but surely, one player at a time, the Detroit Red Wings are returning to good physical condition. Top-four defenseman Niklas Kronwall made his much-anticipated comeback on Tuesday after missing 30 games because of a knee injury. While battling early to regain his timing, by all accounts, the joint held up well in nearly 22 minutes of ice time. Before getting hurt, Kronwall was productive when many of his teammates were laboring, scoring 13 points in 21 games. Now healthy again, the hard-hitting blueliner could make quite an impact in the final stretch of the season.

And there's more sunny-side-up news ahead for the Red Wings. Forwards Jason Williams and Tomas Holmstrom are due back as soon as this weekend. Should that be the case, and assuming no one is felled by injury in the meantime, the team will have almost all of its regulars healthy (Johan Franzen is due back following the Olympic break). Considering the Wings are scoring nearly one fewer goal per game this season as compared to last, this is huge. Plus, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are playing their best hockey of the season, and you really get the impression this team is about to make a charge. They might not be the same squad that won the Stanley Cup two years ago, or finished runner-up last year, but there's still a great deal of talent on this team.

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 goals, 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. Duncan Keith, Chi (3)
3. Chris Pronger, Phi (5)
4. Dan Boyle, SJ (2)
5. Zdeno Chara, Bos (4)
6. Sergei Gonchar, Pit (7)
7. Andrei Markov, Mon (6)
8. Drew Doughty, LA (8)
9. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (9)
10. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (10)
11. Mark Streit, NYI (11)
12. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (14)
13. Brian Campbell, Chi (13)
14. Dion Phaneuf, Cgy (12)
15. Scott Niedermayer, Anh (15)
16. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (17)
17. Brian Rafalski, Det (18)
18. Stephane Robidas, Dal (16)
19. Lubomir Visnovsky, Edm (19)
20. Shea Weber, Nsh (20)
21. Tomas Kaberle, Tor (23)
22. Brent Seabrook, Chi (22)
23. Erik Johnson, StL (26)
24. Matt Carle, Phi (25)
25. Tyler Myers, Buf (28)
26. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (21)
27. Bryan McCabe, Fla (27)
28. Marc-Andre Bergeron, Mon (29)
29. Sheldon Souray, Edm (30)
30. Ryan Whitney, Anh (24)
31. Ed Jovanovski, Pho (31)
32. Pavel Kubina, Atl (32)
33. Marek Zidlicky, Min (35)
34. Kyle Quincey, Col (34)
35. Rob Blake, SJ (43)
36. Alex Goligoski, Pit (36)
37. Francois Beauchemin, Tor (37)
38. Adrian Aucoin, Pho (38)
39. Joni Pitkanen, Car (45)
40. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (33)
41. Zach Bogosian, Atl (40)
42. Cam Barker, Chi (39)
43. Andy Greene, NJ (42)
44. Filip Kuba, Ott (44)
45. Anton Stralman, Cls (48)
46. Craig Rivet, Buf (46)
47. John-Michael Liles, Col (57)
48. Alexander Edler, Van (47)
49. Ryan Suter, Nsh (49)
50. Kris Letang, Pit (50)
51. Braydon Coburn, Phi (41)
52. Niklas Kronwall, Det (68)
53. Keith Yandle, Pho (53)
54. Kurtis Foster, TB (56)
55. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (54)
56. Dennis Wideman, Bos (52)
57. Derek Morris, Bos (55)
58. Mark Giordano, Cgy (61)
59. Denis Grebeshkov, Edm (64)
60. Ian White, Tor (63)
61. Sami Salo, Van (51)
62. Dennis Seidenberg, Fla (59)
63. Victor Hedman, TB (58)
64. Brent Burns, Min (75)
65. Jaroslav Spacek, Mon (62)
66. Matt Carkner, Ott (65)
67. Chris Butler, Buf (66)
68. James Wisniewski, Anh (69)
69. Tom Poti, Was (67)
70. Jack Johnson, LA (70)
71. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ (72)
72. Mattias Ohlund, TB (71)
73. Matt Gilroy, NYR (73)
74. Randy Jones, LA (74)
75. Tom Gilbert, Edm (60)

All in all, count on more goals from the Red Wings as a team from here on out, as long as their stars can stay healthy. And from a fantasy perspective, expect the team's top two defensemen, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, to continue to be steady producers, as they both have been in recent games.

Rising and Falling

Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild (up 11 spots): Following a two-month absence, Burns made his return to the ice for the Wild last week. Considering Burns is recovering from his second serious concussion, and wasn't able to practice much before returning, the team is easing him back into the swing of things. However, there's reason to be cautiously optimistic here. After logging just more than 13 minutes in his first game, the 6-foot-5 24-year-old rifled a couple of shots and earned a roughing penalty in nearly 19 minutes in his second games. He also saw a nice chunk of ice time with the extra skater. It's difficult to predict how well Burns will bounce back, if he can even stay healthy. But he has been a solid offensive threat for the Wild over the past two seasons and might be worth the fantasy gamble.

Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary Flames (down five spots): As you've probably noticed by now, Bouwmeester's tenure with the Flames hasn't worked out quite as well as many had hoped. After a respectable start to the season, Bouwmeester has just one point (an assist) since New Year's Eve, and hasn't scored a goal since Nov. 14. To be fair, Bouwmeester still logs a ton of ice time, but that's not enough for a defenseman who earns as much as he does. And the fact the Flames are playing as poorly as they are isn't an excuse, either.

Rob Blake, San Jose Sharks (up eight spots): With five points in his past four games, the "elderly" captain is showing zero signs of slowing down. And even if he is hurting a tad, Blake will have a nice two weeks off for the Olympic break in February. That will give his 40-year-old body a chance to rest and recuperate for the final push to the playoffs.

Key injury notes

Dan Boyle is expected to return to the Sharks' lineup for Thursday night's matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. The fantasy dreamboat missed the past two games because of an upper-body injury/flu combo, but he practiced on Tuesday and is reportedly ready to go again.

Fantasy owners should keep an eye on Alex Goligoski after he missed Monday's game against the New York Rangers. The Pittsburgh Penguins blueliner is listed as day-to-day because of an undisclosed injury.

If Sami Salo's ultimate goal in life is to frustrate his fantasy owners, he should feel pretty satisfied with himself. The frequently injured Finn is hurt again -- a sore groin this time, for those keeping score at home -- but the injury isn't considered serious, and he's slated to return Saturday, when the Vancouver Canucks face the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Power Play Performers

Anton Stralman is steadily and successfully carving out his role as the Columbus Blue Jackets' No. 1 power-play defenseman. A regular contributor all season long, Stralman has really blossomed of late, with six assists in his past six games, all but one of them coming on the power play. Only his minus-13 keeps him out of the top 35.

Trade Talk

This week's hottest gossip has Sheldon Souray being dealt from the Edmonton Oilers before the March 3 trade deadline. That could very well happen, considering Souray gave Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini a list of teams for which he would waive his no-trade clause. A potential deal makes a lot of sense for all involved. The Oilers are struggling badly and have essentially no hope of making the playoffs, and with two years left on his contract, the pricy Souray (he's being paid more than $5 million per year) is taking up a lot of salary-cap space. From a fantasy perspective, with only 13 points and at minus-17, Souray's value has nowhere to go but up. Getting him off the worst team in the NHL wouldn't be a bad thing at all.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.

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