Thin Blue Line: Rangers' Staal returns


A Happy New Year indeed for the New York Rangers.

The post-Christmas, pre-New Year's period was kinder to some NHL squads than others. While the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets each lost a prominent defenseman (more on that below), the Rangers were able to welcome back Marc Staal, who made his season debut in the Winter Classic. If he's truly recovered from post-concussion symptoms -- and there's no reason to believe otherwise -- the 24-year-old could also have an impact, fantasy-wise, in his return.

First and foremost, the role of Michael Del Zotto won't change. Smokin' hot with 16 points in 18 games (plus-25 on the season), the 21-year-old has clearly become comfortable as anchor for the Rangers' top power-play unit. And, presumably to coach John Tortorella's delight, he doesn't make many bone-headed defensive plays anymore. Del Zotto's principal offensive role with the Rangers is as secure as it gets.

In addition to Staal himself, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi should share the rest of time available with the man advantage. A puck-moving, power-play specialist by nature, Stralman has the most upside from an offensive standpoint. More well-rounded and able to contribute in a variety of ways, Staal and Girardi are still expected to put up points, but their numbers probably won't knock your socks off. From our perspective, Staal's output of 29 points in 2010-11 is considered a ceiling of sorts. Especially with a settled-in Del Zotto in the mix.

That leaves Ryan McDonagh. An exceptionally bright spot on the Rangers' blue line all season, McDonagh has exceeded expectations with four goals and 12 assists in 37 games. But with Staal back in the lineup, the 22-year-old sophomore will be able to focus on what he does best: shut down the opposition. Barring other injuries -- or Tortorella losing his temper with, and subsequently benching, another blueliner -- we don't expect McDonagh (currently owned in 97 percent of ESPN.com leagues) to play as much of an offensive role, moving forward. He shouldn't have to.

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. Zdeno Chara, Bos (1)
2. Brian Campbell, Fla (2)
3. Alexander Edler, Van (2)
4. Duncan Keith, Chi (4)
5. Shea Weber, Nsh (11)
6. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
7. Keith Yandle, Pho (7)
8. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (8)
9. Erik Karlsson, Ott (15)
10. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (10)
11. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (3)
12. Ryan Suter, Nsh (12)
13. Drew Doughty, LA (16)
14. P.K. Subban, Mon (14)
15. Tobias Enstrom, Win (18)
16. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (16)
17. Mark Streit, NYI (17)
18. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (18)
19. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (21)
20. Alex Goligoski, Dal (20)
21. Ian White, Det (25)
22. Sheldon Souray , Dal (22)
23. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (24)
24. John-Michael Liles, Tor (24)
25. Dennis Wideman, Was (27)
26. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (26)
27. Matt Carle, Phi (30)
28. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (28)
29. Jack Johnson, LA (29)
30. Kevin Bieksa, Van (30)
31. Brent Burns, SJ (31)
32. Niklas Kronwall, Det (32)
33. Tomas Kaberle, Mon (35)
34. Matt Niskanen, Pit (34)
35. Erik Johnson, Col (33)
36. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (36)
37. John Carlson, Was (37)
38. Kyle Quincey, Col (38)
39. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (39)
40. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (40)
41. Tyler Myers, Buf (51)
42. Jason Garrison, Fla (42)
43. Marek Zidlicky, Min (46)
44. Joe Corvo, Bos (44)
45. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (43)
46. Zach Bogosian, Win (46)
47. Kurtis Foster, NJ (45)
48. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (48)
49. Jamie McBain, Car (49)
50. Brent Seabrook, Chi (50)
51. Nikita Nikitin, Cls (53)
52. Corey Potter, Edm (52)
53. Nick Leddy, Chi (52)
54. Mike Green, Was (54)
55. Cody Franson, Tor (55)
56. Stefan Elliott, Col (56)
57. Cam Fowler, Ana (54)
58. Dan Hamhuis, Van (58)
59. Jordan Leopold, Buf (NR)
60. Anton Stralman, NYR (60)
61. Jared Spurgeon, Min (61)
62. Marc Staal, NYR (62)
63. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (64)
64. Dan Girardi, NYR (64)
65. Jared Cowen, Ott (63)
66. Grant Clitsome, Cls (66)
67. Travis Hamonic, NYI (74)
68. Tim Gleason, Car (68)
69. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (66)
70. Paul Martin, Pit (70)
71. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (70)
72. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ (72)
73. Sami Salo, Van (73)
74. Tom Gilbert, Edm (74)
75. Adam Larsson, NJ (75)

Rising and Falling

Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres (up 10 spots): It was a good news/bad news holiday season for the Sabres. Shortly after the club found out franchise D-man Christian Ehrhoff (upper body) could be out for "weeks," news broke that Myers may return soon from a broken wrist. The 21-year-old could be back as early as Friday (against the Carolina Hurricanes). Goodness knows, the Sabres could really use the Calder Cup-winning version of Myers, who amassed 48 points (plus-13) in his rookie campaign of 2009-10. The tools (towering size, massive wingspan, good hands) are still there and, in Ehrhoff's absence, Myers will have every opportunity to make a serious impact offensively. Furthermore, as testament to his mental toughness and determination, the young lad bounced back nicely last season after a stinker of a first half. Owned in only 25 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Myers could be a real fantasy steal.

Shea Weber, Nashville Predators (up six spots): At the time of this writing, Josh Cooper of the Tennessean reports Weber is probable for Thursday's home game against the Dallas Stars. As cautious as any other NHL squad, the Predators aren't going to rush their star D-man back prematurely. If concussion symptoms were still in play, Weber wouldn't be suiting up.

James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets (off): With Wisniewski out until late February with an ankle injury, the Blue Jackets will require the likes of Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin and Grant Clitsome to contribute more offensively. Clitsome in particular will be asked to re-unleash his inner scoring beast made evident a season ago. An early-January replacement for Mike Commodore last season, Clitsome collected 19 points in 31 games in 2010-11.

Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver Canucks (up 18 points): Yes, yes, we're also impressed with what Bieksa has accomplished in the last little while: 20 points in 25 games. But how long will the scoring storm last? Well, perhaps a while yet, if coach Alain Vigneault continues to dish out a nice portion of power-play minutes to the 30-year-old. Make no mistake, Bieksa is going to fall off this torrid pace at some point -- to be honest, it's endured longer than we anticipated -- but his numbers won't dry up too much. Especially if power-play specialist Sami Salo continues to struggle.

Key injury (and other) notes

Dustin Byfuglien remains out until next week, at least, with a lower back problem. Tobias Enstrom is carrying the lion's share of the offensive load for the Winnipeg Jets' blue line in the meanwhile. ... It's only rumor, but there's word Mark Giordano (ruptured tendon) could return earlier than anticipated for the Calgary Flames. We don't know what that means, exactly, but the news feels promising. ... Joni Pitkanen of the Carolina Hurricanes is expected to miss a minimum of four more weeks after having knee surgery. ... Not only allegedly concussed, John-Michael Liles of the Toronto Maple Leafs is reportedly dealing with bronchitis as well. However, believe it or not, it's still thought possible Liles could be back in the not-too-distant future. ... For those still keeping track, the Montreal Canadiens have pushed the return of Andrei Markov back to mid-February, at the earliest.

Power Play Performers

One of the few bright spots on the Edmonton Oilers' blue line this season, Corey Potter is on a mini-tear with six points in six games. Owned in only 11 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Potter could be a nice acquisition from now until the end of the season.

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