Commentary

Thin Blue Line: Sabres D-men valuable

Updated: October 12, 2011, 2:56 PM ET
By Victoria Matiash | Special to ESPN.com

For players and supporters, the start of the NHL regular season has that same feel of a brand new school year for students. The slate is wiped clean; the sky's the limit; anything is possible. Fans across North America -- with the possible exception of those cheering on the Ottawa Senators -- can still legitimately dream about their own beloved club winning it all before the start of next summer. This stretch should be enjoyed before the cold, hard fist of reality comes crushing down for many around mid- to late-November.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ehrhoff
Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty ImagesSo far, Christian Ehrhoff's move from Vancouver to Buffalo looks like a good one for his fantasy value.

Fans of the Buffalo Sabres, however, have every right to remain optimistic for months to come. Stemming from the change in ownership last season, Terry Pegula's team has steadily morphed into a top contender. Following the offseason acquisitions of Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino and Robyn Regehr, the Sabres haven't been this strong and well-balanced in quite some time. And this bodes well for the squad's fantasy-relevant defenseman.

In a recent interview with the Buffalo News, coach Lindy Ruff said his squad has three legitimate No.1 scoring lines. And it's true. The Sabres are capable of racking up lots of goals, as already made evident by the eight potted in the first two games. As a member of the top power-play unit, Ehrhoff is going to have a hand in plenty of scoring opportunities; he may even surpass his career-best 50-point output with the Vancouver Canucks last season. Once he becomes comfortable, we anticipate the 29-year-old could put up some seriously sexy fantasy numbers while playing an average of 24 minutes a game.

The other two blueliners to pay close attention to are Tyler Myers and Marc-Andre Gragnani. Fortunately for the Sabres, Myers is in excellent position to rebound from a disappointing sophomore campaign. Not only is he in solid physical shape, but his psychological outlook is reportedly in much better condition. Ehrhoff's presence will also help in lifting the pressure from the young lad's broad shoulders. For his part, Gragnani should get many chances to contribute with the man advantage. Just keep in mind the potential power-play specialist in the making is considered a bit of a defensive liability. He won't put in heavy on-ice minutes. Owned in less than 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues, the 24-year-old should still be monitored in most leagues.

Rising and Falling

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, Win (1)
2. Kris Letang, Pit (3)
3. Keith Yandle, Pho (4)
4. Zdeno Chara, Bos (2)
5. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (5)
6. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
7. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (7)
8. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (8)
9. Mark Streit, NYI (9)
10. Shea Weber, Nsh (11)
11. Tobias Enstrom, Win (12)
12. Drew Doughty, LA (13)
13. Alexander Edler, Van (16)
14. Alex Goligoski, Dal (10)
15. Ryan Whitney, Edm (17)
16. John-Michael Liles, Tor (18)
17. Duncan Keith, Chi (15)
18. Mike Green, Was (19)
19. Andrei Markov, Mon (14)
20. Brent Burns, SJ (23)
21. James Wisniewski, Cls (21)
22. Chris Pronger, Phi (22)
23. Jack Johnson, LA (26)
24. P.K. Subban, Mon (25)
25. Brent Seabrook, Chi (24)
26. Brian Campbell, Fla (30)
27. Marek Zidlicky, Min (27)
28. Mark Giordano, Cgy (28)
29. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (20)
30. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (33)
31. Tomas Kaberle, Car (29)
32. Ryan Suter, Nsh (31)
33. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (40)
34. Erik Johnson, Col (32)
35. Sheldon Souray , Dal (45)
36. Niklas Kronwall, Det (35)
37. Erik Karlsson, Ott (37)
38. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (38)
39. Joni Pitkanen, Car (36)
40. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (34)
41. Tyler Myers, Buf (39)
42. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (42)
43. Cam Fowler, Ana (41)
44. Joe Corvo, Bos (53)
45. Roman Hamrlik, Was (43)
46. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (51)
47. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (46)
48. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (50)
49. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (52)
50. Kevin Bieksa, Van (47)
51. Grant Clitsome, Cls (44)
52. Travis Hamonic, NYI (54)
53. Ian White, Det (55)
54. Dennis Wideman, Was (72)
55. Adam Larsson, NJ (NR)
56. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (61)
57. Kurtis Foster, Ana (62)
58. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (56)
59. Andy Greene, NJ (58)
60. Matt Carle, Phi (67)
61. John Carlson, Was (59)
62. Matt Niskanen, Pit (NR)
63. Yannick Weber, Mon (75)
64. Tom Gilbert, Edm (71)
65. Zach Bogosian, Win (NR)
66. Paul Martin, Pit (65)
67. Victor Hedman, TB (63)
68. Cam Barker, Edm (68)
69. Marc-Andre Gragnani, Buf (NR)
70. Marco Scandella, Min (NR)
71. Dan Hamhuis, Van (NR)
72. Nick Leddy, Chi (NR)
73. Jonathon Blum, Nsh (NR)
74. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (NR)
75 (tie). Filip Kuba, Ott (NR)
75 (tie). Dan Girardi, NYR (NR)

Dennis Wideman, Washington Capitals (up 18 spots): The acquisition of Roman Hamrlik hasn't sullied Wideman's fantasy value like initially thought. In fact, Hamrlik and Wideman have been paired together on the Capitals' second power-play unit, while Mike Green mans the point with the top group. With a goal and an assist in three games for the Capitals, the situation has worked out well for Wideman so far. And, keep in mind, the 28-year-old tied P.K. Subban to lead all blueliners with nine power-play goals in 2010-11.

As an aside, John Carlson remains the odd-man out in terms of getting chances to contribute with the man advantage in these early stages.

Sheldon Souray, Dallas Stars (up 10 spots): Living up to as advertised from his earlier days in the NHL, the formerly disgruntled ex-Oiler Souray is making the most of his second chance with the Stars. Utilizing his vicious shot, Souray is averaging an assist/game (three in three), and he's even edging Alex Goligoski in power-play minutes. And no, the 35-year-old doesn't appear slow. GM Joe Nieuwendyk can only pat himself on the back at this point.

Cody Franson, Toronto Maple Leafs (off): It's hard to believe the Maple Leafs would broker a deal with the Nashville Predators for Cody Franson -- and agree to take on Matthew Lombardi and his questionable health as part of the package -- then not actually play the talented, puck-moving defenseman. But, so far, that's the case. Sitting in the press box as the Leafs' seventh d-man, Franson has yet to see any regular season action for the blue and white. This won't last. A fair number of pundits predict GM Brian Burke will move a blueliner (Carl Gunnarsson?) and a centerman in the not-too-distant-future, creating a void in the regular lineup for Franson to fill. Even if such a deal doesn't go down, he's too good to not utilize. Keep an eye on how it all shakes out for the 24-year-old in Toronto.

Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins (re-emerges at 62): Niskanen has played very well, in all situations, for the Penguins in these early days. Yeah, we're also pleasantly taken aback. Widely available in ESPN.com leagues, Niskanen could effectively plug an early hole, temporarily.

Matt Taormina, New Jersey Devils (off): To start, he didn't even make the team. This is a little surprising since Taormina showed a fair amount of promise before sustaining a nasty ankle injury last November. The Devils are currently experimenting with rookie Adam Larsson on the primary power-play unit and Mark Fayne on the second, while Andy Greene is also getting some chances. We get the sense coach Pete DeBoer will continue to fiddle with pairings and shuffle his blueliners about for a while to come. Plus, there's still no word whether or not the Devils will sign Anton Stralma, who's just hanging around.

Yannick Weber, Montreal Canadiens (up 12 spots): Injuries to Chris Campoli and Jaroslav Spacek are forcing coach Jacques Martin to shift the ever-versatile Weber from the fourth-line wing to a top-six defense position. This suits Weber just fine. The 23-year-old will continue to man the point on the Habs' second power-play unit with young blueliner Raphael Diaz, looking to build on his point-per-game total.

Key injury (and other) notes:

The oft-used expression "oft-injured" may have been originally inspired by just such a player as Carlo Colaiacovo. Mr. Fragile lasted all of 11:21 for the St. Louis Blues before sustaining a concussion. He's on the injured reserve list, and there's no word when he might be able to skate again ... No one seems to have any idea as to when Marc Staal (concussion-related headaches) will be able to re-join the New York Rangers ... According to Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney, Ryan Whitney should be back "soon" from an ankle injury. Tom Gilbert and Cam Barker are helping out with the power play in the meanwhile ... Three games down and five to go in James Wisniewski's suspension. Fedor Tyutin and Grant Clitsome will see a depreciation in fantasy value once Wisniewski is able to compete for the Columbus Blue Jackets (as an aside, fellow d-man Kris Russell hasn't looked good at all to start the season) ... A victim of too many (nine) cooks (defensemen) in the kitchen, Jamie McBain has been a healthy scratch for the Carolina Hurricanes so far ... Shortly after joining the Montreal Canadiens, Chris Campoli is poised to miss "months" with a knee injury ... Kurtis Foster will probably play a couple of games with Syracuse in the AHL before making his debut for the Anaheim Ducks (very soon) ... Unrestricted free agent Bryan McCabe remains unsigned, although we suspect he'll land somewhere eventually.

Potent Pairings

Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, Winnipeg Jets: This dangerous duo may have jetted to a cooler climate north of the border, but their chemistry remains hot as ever. Paired at even strength and (often) with the man advantage with the Jets, Byfuglien and Enstrom are poised to pick off where they left off in 2010-11. When healthy, the two combined for 79 points through the first three months of last season.

Power Play Performers

Marc-Andre Bergeron is the stand-out power-play asset on an otherwise well-balanced Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. Armed with a new two-year, $2 million deal, Bergeron already has a couple of helpers in his first three games.

Brand new to the Boston Bruins, Joe Corvo is eclipsing both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg in quality chances with the man advantage. Recognized for the excellent first impression he usually makes with a new team, Corvo could enjoy a very fruitful autumn. If so, the 34-year-old might make for ideal trade fodder before Christmas.

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

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