Commentary

Thin Blue Line: '12-13 defense ranks

Updated: April 5, 2012, 4:08 PM ET
By Victoria Matiash | Special to ESPN.com

The sun/clock/curtain/final grain of sand is about to set/wind down/draw closed/slip through the hourglass in regard to the 2011-12 regular season. Whatever metaphor you fancy, there remains approximately 68 fantasy-relevant hours left. It's the perfect occasion to look ahead to 2012-13 while reflecting on what has transpired in the past few months.

Of course, a lot can and will happen between now and early October. So please peruse these very early defensemen rankings for next season with the elementary spirit in which they were cobbled together. Cheers.

Top 75 Defensemen for 2012-13

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. The 2011-12 preseason ranks are in parentheses.

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

Top of the list

1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: Following an explosive 2011-12 campaign, we can only ask: What does this impressive young Swede have in store for an encore? Flourishing under coach Paul MacLean, Karlsson rode a point-per-game pace for most of the season while averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time. Top of the table in shots fired, the not-yet-22-year-old may deserve the most credit for improving his minus-30 from a season earlier to a plus-19 (at the time of this writing). While Karlsson has been labeled by some as a forward dressed as a defenseman, you won't hear his fantasy owners complaining.

2. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: If not for injuries, the elite Penguins D-man may have challenged Karlsson for the blue-line scoring title. As it stands, two concussions -- one confirmed, one suspected -- have prevented Letang from making such a grand splash. Still, the 24-year-old has managed 39 points in 49 games with a couple of games left to play. After a full summer of rest and recovery, Letang should be in prime position to make a serious charge in 2012-13. Playing with all that firepower up front doesn't hurt, either.

3. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: Year in and year out, Chara puts up above-average scoring numbers, shoots up a storm, racks up a "respectable" amount of penalty minutes, munches up a significant amount of ice time, all the while (ahem, usually) boasting a plus/minus rating well in the black. What more is there to ask? A perennial factor in the Norris Trophy discussion, the imposing 35-year-old appears nowhere near slowing down. Not the way he works out, anyway.

4. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: You get the sense Big Buff never got off to the start he wanted following offseason legal and body-image distractions. Yet, when healthy, he still performed exceptionally well (50 points, 216 shots, 72 PIM through 64 contests). Considering the 27-year-old's physical attributes and scoring skills, we expect a stellar fantasy showing. Fingers crossed that he doesn't overindulge too much in the summer months.

5. Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers: Proving he can shine anywhere, Campbell has settled in better than expected with his new Florida squad after several years in Buffalo and then Chicago. Leading all NHL defenseman in average ice time, this season's minus-10 through 80 games is the only off-putting mark on an otherwise sparkling fantasy record.

6. Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks: One of the most consistent fantasy performers of his defensive ilk, Boyle has two years remaining on his current contract with the Sharks. The 35-year-old appears as dominating as ever.

Two steps forward

8. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: Anyone who watched Pietrangelo compete with the OHL Niagara Ice Dogs or Barrie Colts won't be the least bit surprised by his NHL success. After two seasons of stalled starts, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft enjoyed a pleasant coming-out party in 2010-11, one which he confidently expanded on this past campaign. Finally able to strut his stuff as top blue-line enchilada in St. Louis, Pietrangelo notched 50 points in 78 games while playing mega minutes in all situations. Only 22 years old, this young lad is poised to be a star for many, many years to come.

11. Michael Del Zotto, New York Rangers: After yo-yoing between the NHL and AHL in 2010-11 (and going in and out of coach John Tortorella's doghouse), Del Zotto has finally satisfied expectations laid out in the infancy of his pro career. On pace for a 45-point, plus-22 season, the 21-year-old power-play quarterback is nowhere near the defensive liability he has been in the past. Those early comparisons to Brian Leetch don't seem so silly anymore.

Three steps back

37. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: Even if he doesn't retire, the future Hall of Famer is expected to slow down further in 2012-13. For the first time since 2003-04, Lidstrom won't finish the regular season with 40 points. Games missed due to injury only played a minor part in the drop in production. The baton is about to be passed to Niklas Kronwall, whether it happens quickly this summer or via a drawn-out process through next year. The most militant Red Wings fans can howl all they want; that won't stop Lidstrom from turning 42 years old at the end of April.

49. Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche : The emergence of youngsters Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie means Johnson doesn't have to be that guy for the Avalanche anymore. That's handy because that's how the cookie appears to be crumbling for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2006. The productive promise shown in his early years with the Blues has never really come to fruition. Furthermore, as a restricted free agent this summer, there's no guarantee Johnson will even remain in Colorado.

63. Tomas Kaberle, Montreal Canadiens: After disappointing stints with the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens in the span of a single calendar year, it is evident Kaberle's fantasy glory days are well behind him. Poised to take a backseat to P.K. Subban, a (hopefully) healthy Andrei Markov and a gaggle of other promising blue-line youngsters, the 34-year-old faces a diminished role in the final two years of his contract.

(NR) Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers: No one -- not even fans of opposing teams who have despised him the most -- wants to see it end this way. But from judging the situation at present, it appears Pronger's playing days are over. Hopefully we're way wrong.

Bouncing back?

33. Lubomir Visnovsky, Anaheim Ducks: Maybe he had a tough time adjusting to new coach Bruce Boudreau, or perhaps a couple of minor injuries were more of a bother than we suspected. The Ducks' first-half struggles overall couldn't have helped, either. Whatever the reason, Visnovsky had a rather lackluster go of it this campaign. A long summer's rest and clean slate should help the veteran return to his ultra-productive ways from only a year previous. And, unless he's thinking of retiring next spring, the veteran D-man will be performing for his next big deal in 2012-13. Visnovsky has only a year left on his current contract in Anaheim.

34. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens: If his sliced-up/re-built knee holds up, Markov could be a precious fantasy asset once again. If not, he simply won't play.

36. Mike Green, Washington Capitals: After a series of injuries and setbacks through two seasons, no one needs a fresh start like the 26-year-old blueliner. The wild and heady days of scoring 70-plus points are likely in the past, but that's doesn't mean Green can't re-settle into a reasonably productive role with the Capitals. The potential propensity to re-injure himself is the biggest concern, by far. We'll be monitoring Green's health and fitness closely through the summer months.

(NR) Marc-Andre Bergeron, Tampa Bay Lightning: A fierce fantasy asset through the first half of the season (24 points through 43 games), Bergeron fell apart early in the new calendar year and decided to undergo season-ending back surgery. This inclination -- however unintentional -- is morphing into a disturbing trend, as Bergeron had a similar procedure in 2009. Draft the 31-year-old with extreme caution.

Looking for work

10. Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators: Whether he re-signs with the Predators or shops himself around on the free-agent market, Suter will remain an all-around solid fantasy asset. Still, it would be weird to see him partnered regularly with someone other than Shea Weber. If a parting of the ways does take place, youngster Ryan Ellis should see a significant boost in ice time and power-play responsibility. And if Suter signs in Detroit, you can relegate Ian White to the pile of fantasy irrelevance.

32. Matt Carle, Philadelphia Flyers: The odds of GM Paul Holmgren re-signing Carle could be directly related to those of Pronger never playing another game in the NHL. Frankly, it would be tough for the Flyers to squish both salaries under the projected cap, not only next season, but beyond. If Carle decides to test the market as a free agent, there will be ample interest in the 27-year-old Alaskan native.

39. Dennis Wideman, Washington Capitals: Look for John Carlson or young Dmitry Orlov to rise up the fantasy ranks if Wideman signs elsewhere as a free agent. As for the exceptionally adaptable D-man himself, Wideman likely will continue to collect an admirable amount of power-play points with whomever he represents.

44. Sheldon Souray, Dallas Stars: GM Joe Nieuwendyk deserves a good deal of credit for taking a chance on Souray following an exceptionally messy and super drawn-out divorce from the Edmonton Oilers. For the most part, the gamble has paid off. While Souray wants to re-sign with the Stars, there's a sense Nieuwendyk could invest in youth instead. One way or the other, the veteran will be terrorizing opposing NHL goaltenders with his killer shot somewhere next season. As long as his salary expectations aren't too high.

48. Jason Garrison, Florida Panthers: One the greatest fantasy surprises (16 goals and counting!) of the season, Garrison has laid a solid foundation from which to demand big bucks as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Panthers GM Dale Tallon has plenty enough salary-cap wiggle room to offer Garrison the raise he deserves.

67. Joe Corvo, Bruins: Re-signing with the Bruins may not be in the cards, but Corvo will land somewhere. A fresh start -- once again -- may serve the 34-year-old best.

(NR) Kurtis Foster, Minnesota Wild: Considering it's all been downhill for the power-play specialist since his (2009-10) days in Tampa, it's difficult to predict Foster's future in the NHL. Floundering with four different clubs in the past two seasons, the 30-year-old unrestricted free agent may have a tough time earning a decent gig.

Future sophomores

51. Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings: With Jack Johnson well out of the way, Voynov can settle in to his new role as the Kings' No. 2 offensive defenseman starting this postseason. The experience of competing in the playoffs could go a long way in helping Voynov be that much better next fall. This 22-year-old could be one of the nicest fantasy surprises in 2012-13.

56. Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes: Faulk is one reason Hurricanes fans should be optimistic in 2012-13. With the potential to hit the 40-point mark as early as next season, the 20-year-old surpasses Jamie McBain to sit second on the Hurricanes' fantasy depth chart behind Joni Pitkanen.

60. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils: The pressure of immediately living up to inflated expectations as the top defenseman picked overall can weigh heavy on a rookie; just ask this 19-year-old member of the Devils' blue line. This season may not have unfolded exactly as Larsson had hoped, but that matters little now. The ups and downs of 2011-12 will only help the young Swede be that much more prepared -- mentally and physically -- for next season. Outside of Marek Zidlicky, there isn't another Devils' defenseman with which we'd bother, fantasy-wise.

(NR) Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators: A promising puck-moving defenseman, Cowen could join Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar in threatening to contribute regularly from the Senators' blue line. Especially if UFA-to-be Filip Kuba doesn't re-sign with the club.

2012-13 impact rookies

Taking stock of recent history, the defenseman who makes a serious fantasy impact in his rookie season is a rare animal. Usually it takes a young blueliner a longer while to warm up. However, the Bruins' Doug Hamilton, the Sharks' Matt Tennyson and projected unrestricted free agent Justin Schultz -- assuming he doesn't commit to the Ducks -- make up a small sampling of those worth monitoring, beginning in the fall.

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