Thin Blue Line: Post-lockout ranks

As exasperating as the past few months have been, an abbreviated NHL season is significantly better than no NHL season at all. The same philosophy applies to a shortened fantasy hockey campaign. If anything, the compact schedule is likely to provide more than the usual measure of excitement, as stats rack up with greater frequency in a shorter period. With several seasons of labor calm ahead of us, we may as well relish what should amount to a torrid drive, densely packed with volatile fantasy fun. So, without further ado …

There's little doubt those who spent the lockout engaged in competitive hockey -- without getting hurt -- will be closer to game-ready shape than those who abstained. While several players benefited from skating in the AHL, ECHL or junior leagues (see: Dougie Hamilton), others took advantage of opportunities overseas. We're not referencing a small handful of players either. Several prominent fantasy defensemen spent at least some portion of the lockout in Europe, including Erik Karlsson (SM-liiga, Finnish league), Zdeno Chara (KHL), Sergei Gonchar (KHL), Mark Streit (Swiss National A League), Christian Ehrhoff (Deutsche Eishockey Liga), Tyler Myers (EBEL, Austrian League), Cam Fowler (HockeyAllsvenskan), Jamie McBain (SM-liiga), Michael Del Zotto (Swiss League), Tobias Enstrom (EBEL), Kevin Shattenkirk (SM-liiga), Marek Zidlicky (Czech Extraliga), Luca Sbisa (Swiss League), Jared Spurgeon (Swiss League), Victor Hedman (KHL), Philip Larsen (SM-liiga) and Dmitry Kulikov (KHL). The overwhelming majority survived relatively unscathed. And, again, this is just a sampling.

This isn't to suggest skaters who opted for informal scrimmages on North American soil are doomed to start the season in poor, dough-like physical shape. Only that there's no equal to genuine competition when fostering a combative edge. And the aforementioned should benefit -- especially at season's launch -- from being pushed to engage in legitimate on-ice conflict, where wins and losses carry real weight. It's a thought worth keeping in mind during your fantasy draft, in any case.

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. September'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. Ryan Suter, Min (7)
8. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (8)
9. Shea Weber, Nsh (9)
10. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (12)
11. P.K. Subban, Mon (11)
12. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (13)
13. Tobias Enstrom, Win (14)
14. Jack Johnson, Cls (15)
15. Keith Yandle, Pho (16)
16. Alexander Edler, Van (10)
17. Mark Streit, NYI (18)
18. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (19)
19. Niklas Kronwall, Det (20)
20. Duncan Keith, Chi (21)
21. Drew Doughty, LA (23)
22. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (24)
23. Andrei Markov, Mon (30)
24. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (29)
25. Mark Giordano, Cgy (17)
26. Alex Goligoski, Dal (25)
27. James Wisniewski, Cls (26)
28. Matt Carle, TB (27)
29. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (37)
30. Justin Schultz, Edm (41)
31. Joni Pitkanen, Car (31)
32. Mike Green, Was (32)
33. Tyler Myers, Buf (34)
34. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (36)
35. Cam Fowler, Ana (38)
36. Ryan Whitney, Edm (22)
37. Brent Burns, SJ (39)
38. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (35)
39. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (40)
40. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (51)
41. Jason Garrison, Van (42)
42. Brent Seabrook, Chi (43)
43. Brendan Smith, Det (44)
44. Erik Johnson, Col (45)
45. John-Michael Liles, Tor (47)
46. Slava Voynov, LA (49)
47. Travis Hamonic, NYI (53)
48. Lubomir Visnovsky, NYI (28)
49. Kevin Bieksa, Van (48)
50. Sheldon Souray , Ana (33)
51. Jared Spurgeon, Min (60)
52. Nick Leddy, Chi (54)
53. Justin Faulk, Car (55)
54. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (57)
55. Victor Hedman, TB (61)
56. Tom Gilbert, Min (52)
57. Dan Girardi, NYR (58)
58. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (65)
59. John Carlson, Was (71)
60. Roman Josi, Nsh (79)
61. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (78)
62. Ian White, Det (50)
63. Adam Larsson, NJ (62)
64. Stephane Robidas, Dal (68)
65. Paul Martin, Pit (63)
66. Joe Corvo, Car (64)
67. Ryan McDonagh, NYR (66)
68. Tomas Kaberle, Mon (69)
69. Luca Sbisa, Ana (72)
70. Dan Hamhuis, Van (86)
71. Jamie McBain, Car (75)
72. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (74)
73. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (73)
74. Jeff Petry, Edm (76)
75. Dmitry Orlov, Was (81)

Rising and Falling

Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers (up 11 spots): After tearing it up in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons, Schultz is in position to make a big splash with the Oilers right out of the gate. There's even (realistic) talk of the unproven rookie bumping Ryan Whitney off the club's top power-play unit. Projected even-strength partner to a physically dominating Nick Schultz, the former University of Wisconsin star should have plenty of time and space to contribute in all situations.

Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild (up nine spots): Pegged to partner Ryan Suter, the 23-year-old Spurgeon is poised for his breakout campaign. A healthy campaign could result in upwards of 25 points for Spurgeon through a 48-game season.

Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens (up seven spots): On the subject of players benefiting from overseas competition, Markov serves as an excellent example. Surviving a reasonably lengthy lockout stint with Vityaz Chekhov of the KHL, Markov is poised for a healthy and productive campaign. And that formerly troublesome right knee is holding up just fine, thanks. We anticipate a strong comeback performance from one the NHL's best offensive-defensemen of the past decade.

Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary Flames (remains at No. 73): With Dennis Wideman added to the mix and Mark Giordano still kicking around, Bouwmeester will be called upon even less frequently to contribute to the Flames' offensive effort. If he isn't traded -- a solid, honest-to-goodness possibility -- the 29-year-old's fantasy value could shrink further.

Lubomir Visnovsky, New York Islanders (down 20 spots): Assuming he's forced to quit the KHL, Visnovsky isn't likely to put forth the ultimate effort for his new club, the New York Islanders. For undisclosed reasons (to date), the 36-year-old doesn't care to leave his Slovakian homeland, even for a few short months. Hopefully, Visnovsky's competitive nature and sense of professional obligation will provide enough incentive to perform to some reasonable standard. Maybe once the first stab of homesickness wears off.

Andrej Meszaros, Philadelphia Flyers(up 17 spots): At first, Meszaros was expected to miss most -- if not all -- of 2012-13 after enduring offseason surgery on a torn Achilles tendon. But the 27-year-old recovered at breakneck speed and is cleared to join the Flyers for the start of season. Psychologically, Meszaros appears a bit hesitant to get back into the competitive swing, but on-ice workouts and time should help in that regard. With Chris Pronger out (sadly, presumably forever) and Matt Carle gone to the Tampa Bay Lightning, only Kimmo Timonen ranks higher than Meszaros as an offensive threat. The Flyers desperately need him to contribute.

Key injury notes

With the swelling finally diminished, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Ryan Murray is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery this week. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft needs about six months to recover. Hopefully 2013-14 unfolds in a more positive manner for the young blueliner. … Travis Hamonic is reportedly healing well after sustaining a mild concussion in early December. Hamonic may not miss much time, if any, once the Islanders' season begins. … Dealing with concussion/whiplash symptoms, Jake Gardiner has a rather fuzzy immediate future for the Maple Leafs. Although the young blueliner recently passed his baseline test, there's still no concrete return date in play. … Zach Bogosian (offseason wrist surgery) is expected back for the Winnipeg Jets by the end of February. … Following successful hip surgery, Jared Cowen will have to wait until 2013-14 before suiting up again for the Ottawa Senators. Look for Patrick Wiercioch to earn a roster spot in Cowen's place this campaign. … The Flyers' Marc-Andre Bourdon remains out indefinitely with a concussion. … Recovering from offseason hernia surgery, the San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns may not be 100 percent to launch the 2013 campaign, even though he was medically cleared in October. This befuddling state of affairs should clear once training camp gets going. … Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports in regards to when we can expect Jason Demers back for the Sharks. While he plans to be ready for the start of the season, his agent suggests a longer absence could be in the cards. This would be a bigger concern if Demers were more relevant as a fantasy asset.

Potent Pairings

Approximately nine months removed from meaningful competition, the Jets' Dustin Byfuglien is reportedly in (reasonably) fit physical condition ahead of training camp. This nugget is worth sharing, since that hasn't always been the case in the past. If a sluggish start can be avoided, Byfuglien and his defensive partner, Tobias Enstrom, are in position to make up one of the most dangerous duos in the league. For fantasy owners, Big Buff is heavily favored over Too-Big Buff.

If Alexander Edler (back) and Jason Garrison (groin) are as healthy as they claim to be after spending most of the work stoppage in rehab, the Vancouver Canucks' top pairing could enjoy an exceptionally productive campaign, at even strength and with the extra skater.

Power-play Performers

Keep an eye on young Morgan Rielly of the Maple Leafs over the next couple of weeks. If the 18-year-old manages to win more than a five-game NHL audition with the club, he could be a potent offensive force for the Blue and White, particularly while Jake Gardiner remains on the injured shelf. The decision on whether to retain Rielly for more than a taste of pro action is said to lie almost exclusively with head coach Randy Carlyle (especially now that former GM Brian Burke is completely out of the picture). And the ex-Anaheim Ducks bench boss has a history of placing his faith in young defensemen (see Cam Fowler). So there's a chance Rielly will get a substantial break from action with the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors this winter.