Thin Blue Line: Three sleepers


As the chilly and blustery winter-like weather continues to pummel many sections of North America, the urge to just hunker down under the covers until mid-March grows hour by hour. Regrettably, most of us can't exploit complete hibernation as an option, but (awkward and disjointed segue alert!) we can bolster our fledgling fantasy rosters with some cozy sleeper picks. Eh? Ah well, weak introductory transition aside, the following three are legitimate sleepers that could provide your fantasy stats with a bit of comfy padding. These players won't single-handedly spurn your squad on to certain victory, but they could serve as useless-dud replacements. And their ownership numbers in ESPN.com leagues are super-duper low.

Cody Franson, Predators (5.7 percent): The absence of appreciation for Franson's fantasy charms is puzzling. Almost equalling fellow Nashville Predators Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in power play minutes of late, Franson has four points in his past five games. Still learning and ever-improving, this large chap has apparently found his groove, at least temporarily, after a fairly dismal November. The only real knock on Franson is his ice time. It's on the low side. Still, the 23-year-old deserves to be owned in more than six percent of ESPN.com leagues.

Andrej Meszaros, Flyers (14.5 percent): In terms of fantasy-relevant defenseman, Meszaros might be considered the fourth amigo on a rich Philadelphia Flyers blue line. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are the standout options, while Matt Carle is a solid, if middle-of-the-road choice. Yet, with four points in his past five contests, Meszaros is finally finding his stride as new member of the Flyers. Plus, paired with Carle, Meszaros is a staple on a very dangerous secondary power-play unit and carries the real potential to regularly contribute on special teams.

Kris Russell, Blue Jackets (0.2 percent): Since 2007, Russell has supplied fantasy owners of varying experience, knowledge and enthusiasm with migraine-inducing bouts of frustration. All that promise, and yet so little in his NHL career to show for it thus far . He'll do your head in, seriously. Yet here we are, again, acknowledging Russell's potential to meaningfully contribute as a fantasy asset. And you can credit (blame) the wisest of fantasy hockey scribes around and fellow ESPN.com contributor, Sean Allen.

In his latest edition of Forecaster, Mr. Allen (rightfully) points out that Russell has been the best of the blue line bunch for the Columbus Blue Jackets in recent games. Sean also reminds us (again, justifiably) of the 23-year-old's incredible potential stemming from his superstar history in the WHL. For crying out loud, the kid racked up 69 points in 59 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers in '06-'07! If you care to accuse Sean of being a bit sweet on Russell (fantasy-hockey wise), it's not without just cause.

So is he worth the gamble? Simply put, if you have a raw, gaping hole to plug on defense, then yes. And boy oh boy, is he ever available. At last check, Russell was owned in less than half of a percent of ESPN.com leagues.

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

Rising and Falling

Brent Burns, Wild (up five spots): It's mid-December and he's still healthy! Considering Brent Burns' recent history of injury concerns, that's what counts most heavily. With 17 points in 27 games, Burns leads all other members of the Minnesota Wild with nine goals, proving what he's capable of when he can put in the minutes, game in and game out. And the towering 25-year-old has been hot as all get-out lately. Skill/ability has never been up for argument; fingers crossed Burns' good (health) luck continues. But, if you're his owner and sceptical in that regard, it may be time to "sell high."

James Wisniewski, Islanders (down four spots): On and off the ice, the New York Islanders are not having a pleasant go of it. Soap opera-esque ownership/attendance drama besides, the Isles simply aren't playing well and, unfortunately, James Wisniewski is falling victim to the failure of the collective. Despite a solid start to the season, Wisniewski hasn't been able to overcome the overall "suck" in recent games as well as his fantasy owners would like. However, he's still the man when it comes to anchoring the power play and providing scoring support from the back end. If anyone is going to put up some decent numbers from the Isles' blue line, it will be Wisniewski. That's reason enough to stay reasonably patient.

Francois Beauchemin, Maple Leafs (down two spots): Coach Ron Wilson is opting to use defenseman Brett Lebda in lieu of Francois Beauchemin on the Toronto Maple Leafs second power-play unit. Hey, who are we to judge? Still the owner of that wicked shot, it carries much less sting when Beauchemin plays more of a defensive role.

Key injury notes

Pleasantly riddled with an over-abundance of capable defenseman only days ago, the Vancouver Canucks may be grateful they didn't rush to ship one off elsewhere. Following what some are calling a freak accident, Christian Ehrhoff is out with a concussion after taking a puck to the ear/head last week. We still don't know how severe the head injury is, but until there are more details available, move Ehrhoff to your bench. In the immediate future, Alex Edler becomes even slightly more valuable.

Battling a so-called combo of illness/injury, Mike Green missed the past two contests for the Washington Capitals. The good news is Green is due back for the Capitals' game against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. The bad news? Last season's top fantasy blueliner is clearly dealing with some nagging health issues and the Caps aren't offering up much in way of specifics. Green remains one of the best out there, but lower your expectations if you want a repeat of '09-'10. He won't likely amass 75-plus points this season.

Alex Pietrangelo is listed as day-to-day with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Pietrangelo won't play when the St. Louis Blues face the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday and is unlikely for Thursday's contest versus the Los Angeles Kings. But according to Blues coach Davis Payne: "We would anticipate it not being long-term." Take from that what you will.

Power Play Performers

Sometimes being made a healthy scratch is just the cure for what may ail a talented young defenseman. Case in point: Michael Del Zotto. Banished to the press box for this past Thursday's tilt with the Ottawa Senators, Del Zotto has displayed a touch more pep in his step in the two games since. And coach John Tortorella continues to run Del Zotto out, regularly, as the anchoring blueliner on the New York Rangers' top power-play unit. Based on how much promise he showed in his rookie year last season, this kid could erupt at any moment. That's not saying Del Zotto will, but he could.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com