Commentary

Thin Blue Line: Pens lose Letang

Updated: December 7, 2011, 7:05 PM ET
By Victoria Matiash | Special to ESPN.com

Nearly a third of the way through the season, the revolving door connected to the NHL infirmary is starting to churn with greater regularity. And no team's blue line has been as badly clobbered by the injury bug recently as the one belonging to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Only a short while ago, superstar Sidney Crosby was rejoining a roster with few, in any, serious weaknesses. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and the club is without its top offensive defenseman and best stay-at-home blueliner. So, the pressing question today is: How long will the Pens have to manage without Kris Letang and Zbynek Michalek?

Truth is, there's no clear answer in either case. Placed on IR retroactive to Nov. 26, Letang is considered out indefinitely with a concussion after taking a nasty hit from Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens. The power-play quarterback could return next week, next month or next season. We just don't know. As contemporary history has taught us, it's impossible to lay out any realistic timetable when a concussion is involved. But there's no point in acting rashly either (see below: Dmitry Kulikov). Until more details emerge, it's worth stuffing Letang on fantasy IR.

While Letang remains inactive, Paul Martin becomes a heckuva lot more valuable as a fantasy asset. Like it or not, the Penguins are stuck relying on Martin to fill in for Letang  to a certain extent  on the squad's top power-play unit. And the 30-year-old has three assists in five games to show for his enhanced status. Matt Niskanen also sees a bump in value on a blue line with few experienced options otherwise.

On that note, if Letang's prognosis doesn't brighten quick, GM Ray Shero will likely look to add a proven offensive defenseman from outside the organization. The club has too many assets up front to stand pat. In which case, Martin and Niskanen should be re-assessed accordingly.

As for Michalek (concussion), his perennially negligible fantasy value excludes him from any real attention in this space. Only that the Penguins aren't as strong a team all-around without the solid defender.

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

Dmitry Kulikov, Panthers (re-emerges at No. 31): Paying heed to coach Kevin Dineen at the time, you would have thought the young lad's leg was left dangling, half-attached. ... All in all, several analysts -- including in this column -- blew the severity of Kulikov's recent "nasty" laceration entirely out of proportion. As it turned out, the 21-year-old didn't miss a single game after sustaining the cut a week ago Tuesday. And we were mourning the potential loss of Kulikov in terms of weeks. Sincere and humble apologies for jumping the gun prematurely.

Andrei Markov, Canadiens (down 55 spots): Habs fans can put away the celebratory noisemakers and party hats; seemingly on the verge of returning in fine form only a few days ago, Markov resumes his post in recovery limbo after undergoing another round of arthroscopic knee surgery. The 32-year-old is now scheduled -- and that term is only to be used loosely in the veteran's case from here onward -- to return in four to six weeks. We're not ready to declare Markov irreparably broken quite yet, but that potential occasion nears closer and closer, week by week. One thing is for certain to our eyes, if Markov isn't able to play this season at all, GM Pierre Gauthier will be out of a job come spring. That three-year, $17.5 million extension awarded in the summer is looking uglier and uglier all the time.

On the upside for the Canadiens, Chris Campoli and Jaroslav Spacek could be back relatively soon. It could be worth keeping an eye on where Campoli, in particular, fits into the team's offensive scheme.

Grant Clitsome, Blue Jackets (down 24 spots): Nikita Nikitin has nine points in 12 games since joining the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second week of November. Clitsome has two assists (zero goals) during the same period. Which is why Nikitin is playing partner to James Wisniewski on the Blue Jacket's top power-play unit, and Clitsome is hardly skating with the man advantage at all. At present, Fedor Tyutin appears to be the only other blueliner meriting any substantial time with the extra skater.

Alex Goligoski, Stars (up 28 spots): Recovering from a broken thumb, Goligoski could make his return for the Dallas Stars at any point in the next seven to 10 days. "Everything feels good, better than I even expected," Goligoski told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News following Monday's practise. In fantasy terms, Stephane Robidas will become even less valuable once Goligoski is back on the ice.

Key injury (and other) notes:

Rough news for the Calgary Flames: Top defenseman Mark Giordano is out indefinitely with ruptured tendons in his leg. Scheduled to undergo another MRI in a couple of weeks, Giordano will be lucky to see action by mid-February. Cue the additional pressure on Jay Bouwmeester and Anton Babchuk (when healthy) to contribute more, production-wise, in Giordano's absence. T.J. Brodie could also be worth a second look, from a fantasy perceptive. Plus, the Flames are rumored to be interested in trading for an experienced offensive-defenseman ... Joni Pitkanen was forced from game action on Tuesday with an upper-body injury. So far, the Carolina Hurricanes aren't revealing much else and Pitkanen is considered day-today. Stay tuned ... Carlo Colaiacovo (hamstring) returned for the St. Louis Blues this past week. As fragile as they come, Colaiacovo is only worth owning if there are few to zero other reasonable options in your league ... Anton Stralman should get a second shot at strutting his stuff with the New York Rangers on Thursday, in light of the suspected upper-body injury (read: concussion) to Michael Sauer.

Power Play Performers

Please don't put too much fantasy stock in the recent play of Francois Beauchemin. Although the veteran defenseman has been carrying a heftier load for the Anaheim Ducks while Lubomir Visnovsky continues to recover from a broken finger, the situation is only temporary. With three power-play points, Beauchemin has averaged about 30 minutes per game in his past six contests. Impressive stuff, to be sure. However, Visnovsky is poised to return in the next few days and that should spell the end of Beauchemin's currently inflated role with the squad. With all due respect to that blistering shot of his, the 31-year-old simply isn't the same productive player of seasons gone by.

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

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