Commentary

Thin Blue Line: Life without Pronger

Updated: December 22, 2010, 4:01 PM ET
By Victoria Matiash | ESPN.com

Chris Pronger's busted foot puts the Philadelphia Flyers and his personal fantasy owners in a bit of a pickle. Pronger plays such a integral part of the Flyers' game, he's not easily replaced. But since the big, aggressive (put nicely) and offensively-gifted defenseman is expected to miss 4-6 weeks following surgery, the squad must make a few key adjustments; until the latter half of January, at any rate.

Not an easy task, surely. Here is, from our perspective, how the Flyers have handled Pronger's absence thus far:

By all accounts, filling the void left by the veteran blueliner on the top power-play unit remains a work in progress. To this point, the Flyers have opted to go with four forwards and one defenseman, sliding Claude Giroux in alongside Kimmo Timonen on the point. To be frank, and even though he's enjoying an immensely productive season otherwise, Giroux hasn't appeared comfortable in that role, yet. Coach Peter Laviolette may continue to work with Giroux in that position, or he may try something different.

Which brings us to the secondary power-play unit, which has looked just dandy in the two full games following Pronger's injury. Defensemen Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros remain, as before, but the key difference involves the promotion of forward Nikolai Zherdev. Often accused (deservedly) of being uninspired or one-dimensional, Zherdev has been nothing short of fantastic in this position, although, admittedly, it has only been two games. Yet even when the Florida Panthers shut out the Flyers 5-0 on Monday, the Russian winger appeared to be enlivened and at the top of his game. Altogether, in Pronger's absence, the No.2 power-play unit has been better than the No.1.

So how does this all shake out in fantasy play? First off all, Timonen will always find a way to contribute, so his value doesn't change much, if at all. Meszaros -- who hasn't garnered enough fantasy respect to this stage -- merits another small bump in value; especially if Zherdev continues to be such a potent presence on special teams. But Carle stands to benefit the most. Laviolette may still throw in the towel on the Giroux-on-the-point experiment and opt to move the defenseman to first power-play unit instead. In which case, Carle's potential to make some fantasy noise would increase dramatically. It's certainly worth monitoring, anyway.

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

Rising and Falling

Christian Ehrhoff, Canucks (up 38 spots): Not a concussion! Vertigo, 'tis all. When Christian Ehrhoff took a puck to the ear/head and subsequently missed three games, there was great concern the Vancouver Canucks defenseman may have suffered a serious head injury. Nope. Ehrhoff is fine, and proved as much by scoring a goal in his first game back against the Toronto Maple Leafs on the weekend. All's well that ends well.

Stephane Robidas, Stars (up three spots): A regular "Thin Blue Line" favorite, Stephane Robidas is once again proving one doesn't have to be a member of the upper-echelon in the talent department to be a very good fantasy option. Circumstances go a long, long way. The Dallas Stars are playing some excellent hockey and Robidas is their No. 1 offensive-minded defenseman by a massive margin. And, averaging better than 26 minutes with seven assists (including five power-play points) and a plus-five rating in his past five games, no one has been a better blueliner than Robidas in the past 10 days. Not fantasy-wise, anyway.

Marc Staal, Rangers (debut at No. 61): What's to like about Marc Staal? He has five points in his past five games and 10 in his past 13. He, along with partner Daniel Girardi, has (allegedly) been promoted to the New York Rangers' top power-play unit. He has good hockey genes. According to his coaches, his skating has improved significantly since last season.

What's not to like? He earned only five points in his first 22 games this season. He had a total of zero power-play points in '09-'10. Zip. Nada. In terms of pure offensive talent, Michael Del Zotto is better. Sorry, it's true. The younger Del Zotto is unquestionably rougher around the edges, but holds way more promise. And the Rangers are plenty aware of that.

Is Staal's inclusion on this list a little overdue? Probably. Should we all get super-duper-excited about his potential production this season? Probably not. The Rangers are playing some mighty fine hockey at the moment, if (when) they level off, so will Staal.

Zach Bogosian, Thrashers (off): Although there's still plenty to be excited about when it comes to the 20-year-old's future in the NHL, Zach Bogosian has only five points through 30 games (minus-six) this season. And as a fantasy asset, that ain't gonna cut it. No matter how deep the league.

Key injury notes

Alex Pietrangelo seems healthy enough after missing three games for the St. Louis Blues. With a goal and an assist in his second contest back, Pietrangelo's upper-body (shoulder) injury appears to be old news.

Set to undergo shoulder surgery, Kyle Quincey of the Colorado Avalanche is done for the season. With one point in 21 games, Quincey has been a complete and total fantasy bust.

Power Play Performers

Each and every one of the five points Jack Johnson has tallied in his past seven games was earned on the power-play. In fact, of Johnson's total of 20 points thus far, all but six have come with the man advantage. This is what makes a very good power-play performer, yes?

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com

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