Thin Blue Line: Murray the top rookie


As the weeks wear on, the 2012 NHL offseason is indubitably shaping into the "Summer of the Defenseman." Not only are several prominent D-men dominating a good portion of the unrestricted free agent discussion, but more than a handful of hot prospects are garnering attention as the (blue-line) belles of this year's 2012 Entry Draft ball.

However, even though eight of this year's top 10 picks are blueliners, the balance of the fantasy impact won't be felt for another season or two. Very few -- perhaps only one -- of the most recent first-round crop could see regular action in this coming NHL season. And the Columbus Blue Jackets snagged that young man with the No. 2 selection overall.

By consensus, Ryan Murray is considered big-league-ready. Skills, smarts and excellent vision aside, the Everett Silvertips D-man is reputed to be mature well beyond his 18 years. This fellow is so highly regarded, the New York Islanders (read: owner Charles Wang) is rumored to have offered the Blue Jackets all of their 2012 draft picks in exchange for the one selection needed to land him. All of them.

But as good as he's going to be, don't anticipate eye-popping numbers from the Saskatchewan native. Treasured for his leadership skills and all-around game, Murray doesn't have the reputation, or the résumé, to support offensive fireworks. Will the teen contribute? Absolutely; especially as a projected blue-line partner to Jack Johnson. Just enough to usurp Columbus teammate Nikita Nikitin place in the top 75 (for now).

Beyond Murray, only a small handful of first-round selections could realistically end up knocking on the NHL's door this year, including Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs), Mathew Dumba (Minnesota Wild) and Cody Ceci (Ottawa Senators). Often compared to Kris Letang or Erik Karlsson in light of his potential to put up ridiculous numbers, Rielly could eventual flourish as power-play partner to Dion Phaneuf or Jake Gardiner.

Meanwhile, the P.K. Subban-like Dumba is envisioned to be a physical, offensive presence, and Ceci is universally admired for his booming shot, in addition to other attributes. However, again, all three could use a little more seasoning before joining the big clubs.

Top 75 Defensemen

Note: Victoria Matiash's top 75 defensemen are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues, whose stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. April's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

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

Rising and falling

Justin Schultz, FA (debuts at No. 45): There may be no more popular a player in the NHL at the time of this writing than the University of Wisconsin star. According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, 26 of teams have expressed an interest in signing the unrestricted free agent. That's nuts. Wherever he signs July 1 (negotiations are allowed before then), Schultz is expected to be an impact player immediately at even strength and with the man advantage.

As it's believed the Kelowna native's preference is to join a Canadian squad, the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers top a list of perceived contenders for the soon-to-be 22-year-old. The Toronto Maple Leafs can't be ruled out. South of the border, the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings could be in the mix. If all goes well, Schultz may be a top-25 fantasy blue-line asset before too long.

Lubomir Visnovsky, Islanders (up two spots): A change in scenery can do the veteran some good, particularly after this past season's dismal showing. Joining the New York Islanders via trade with the Anaheim Ducks, Visnovsky is set to enjoy a fresh start with the best-looking blue line Garth Snow's club has sported in a while. Fellow vet Mark Streit might take a mild fantasy hit with the addition of Visnovsky, while Travis Hamonic could see his value shaved slightly, but overall, the team is in better shape for the change.

Brendan Smith, Red Wings (re-emerges at No. 42): The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom/departure of Brad Stuart combo all but cements Smith into a top-four spot on the Detroit Red Wings' blue line for next season. After enjoying a taste of NHL action in 2011-12, the 23-year-old should be ready to fully flex his offensive muscle. Following Niklas Kronwall and whichever big enchilada the Red Wings reel in through free agency -- if not Nashville's Ryan Suter, Florida's Jason Garrison perhaps -- Smith could rank third on the club's fantasy D-man depth chart. In other words, yes, we believe the young lad has more upside than Ian White.

Stefan Elliott, Avalanche (down five spots): While Avalanche GM Greg Sherman must figure out what to do with restricted free agent Erik Johnson, Elliott's role as a lineup regular is hardly guaranteed. Whether the Avs keep a grip on Johnson, or add another experienced offensive-defenseman, Elliott could be stuck battling fellow youngster Tyson Barrie for a spot in the top six.

Free-agent watch

The aforementioned Suter is the undisputed big defensive fish in this summer's pond, but he isn't the only UFA-to-be worth monitoring in the next few days/weeks. While there's a reasonable chance the coveted D-man opts to stick with the Nashville Predators after July 1, others who may be on the move include Garrison, Matt Carle and Sheldon Souray. As it stands, Carle appears poised to re-sign with the Philadelphia Flyers, while Garrison and Souray continue to negotiate with their respective clubs, the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars.

Otherwise, the Boston Bruins are reportedly done with Joe Corvo, and -- unless he's willing to take an indecent pay cut -- Filip Kuba is in position to bid adieu to the Ottawa Senators. However this collection of free-agent dominoes tumbles, the fantasy fallout could be considerable.

Changing sweaters?

This just in: Minutes after this column was filed, the Calgary Flames announced that they had acquired the rights to, and subsequently signed (five-year deal), Dennis Wideman from the Washington Capitals. The Capitals reportedly get defenseman Jordan Henry and a 2013 fifth-round draft pick in return. We can only assume the Calgary club will try to move Jay Bouwmeester at some point. This information has been reflected in the updated rankings.

There's a fair bit of trade speculation involving Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes at present. While the Coyotes may not be actively shopping the club's top defenseman, GM Don Maloney admits he's willing to listen to offers when approached (apparently one significant proposition has rolled in thus far). If Yandle is moved, Oliver Ekman-Larsson moves up the fantasy ranks, while young David Rundblad could enter the conversation. It would all depend on what the Coyotes get in return.

Furthermore, Bouwmeester of the Flames (see above: Wideman) and Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins have been popular trade-talk topics of late. If Martin is dealt, you can bet your bottom buck the Penguins will be looking to add a puck-moving defenseman of superior ilk. If not beforehand.

2012-13 impact rookies

Apart from those already mentioned, Dougie Hamilton is a standout as a projected future fantasy darling for 2012-13, and beyond. The Boston Bruins fully expect Hamilton to nail down a top-six spot out of camp. Otherwise, Matt Tennyson could make some noise if the opportunity to play is there within a very competitive corps of San Jose Sharks' D-men.