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Thin Blue Line: Markov due back soon

The Montreal Canadiens, barely hanging on to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, are about to receive the best holiday gift they could envision. After suffering severed tendons in his leg in early October, Andrei Markov is set to return to the lineup well ahead of schedule. Don't expect to see the elite defenseman in the lineup this week, but according to the Montreal Gazette, he will play before Christmas. Although coach Jacques Martin says the Habs will play "lots of games" before Markov sees game action, he is traveling with the team and, according to observers, is skating well in practice. And he's reportedly itching to return. Educated guess: Markov is back Monday night in Atlanta. If not then, soon after.

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 goals, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Mike Green, Was (1)
2. Dan Boyle, SJ (2)
3. Zdeno Chara, Bos (3)
4. Duncan Keith, Chi (5)
5. Chris Pronger, Phi (4)
6. Dion Phaneuf, Cgy (6)
7. Sergei Gonchar, Pit (9)
8. Kevin Bieksa, Van (7)
9. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (8)
10. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (10)
11. Drew Doughty, LA (13)
12. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (14)
13. Mark Streit, NYI (11)
14. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (20)
15. Stephane Robidas, Dal (15)
16. Scott Niedermayer, Anh (16)
17. Lubomir Visnovsky, Edm (25)
18. Brian Rafalski, Det (17)
19. Ryan Whitney, Anh (19)
20. Shea Weber, Nsh (18)
21. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (22)
22. Brent Seabrook, Chi (12)
23. Sheldon Souray, Edm (24)
24. Brian Campbell, Chi (21)
25. Matt Carle, Phi (23)
26. Erik Johnson, StL (27)
27. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (26)
28. Ed Jovanovski, Pho (32)
29. Zach Bogosian, Atl (29)
30. Braydon Coburn, Phi (28)
31. Adrian Aucoin, Pho (31)
32. Marc-Andre Bergeron, Mon (40)
33. Kyle Quincey, Col (33)
34. Tomas Kaberle, Tor (34)
35. Alex Goligoski, Pit (36)
36. Pavel Kubina, Atl (35)
37. Cam Barker, Chi (30)
38. Bryan McCabe, Fla (39)
39. Francois Beauchemin, Tor (46)
40. Andrei Markov, Mon (75)
41. Tyler Myers, Buf (47)
42. Craig Rivet, Buf (37)
43. Dennis Wideman, Bos (38)
44. Rob Blake, SJ (41)
45. Filip Kuba, Ott (45)
46. Ryan Suter, Nsh (43)
47. Kris Letang, Pit (44)
48. Marek Zidlicky, Min (42)
49. Niklas Kronwall, Det (49)
50. Mattias Ohlund, TB (50)
51. Joni Pitkanen, Car (56)
52. Matt Niskanen, Dal (53)
53. Alexander Edler, Van (52)
54. Anton Stralman, Cls (55)
55. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (57)
56. Andy Greene, NJ (58)
57. Victor Hedman, TB (51)
58. Derek Morris, Bos (59)
59. Dennis Seidenberg, Fla (60)
60. Tom Gilbert, Edm (54)
61. Jaroslav Spacek, Mon (61)
62. Matt Carkner, Ott (62)
63. Paul Martin, NJ (48)
64. James Wisniewski, Anh (63)
65. Kurtis Foster, TB (69)
66. Ian White, Tor (70)
67. John-Michael Liles, Col (68)
68. Denis Grebeshkov, Edm (*)
69. Matt Gilroy, NYR (66)
70. Keith Yandle, Pho (67)
71. Brent Burns, Min (64)
72. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ (65)
73. Jack Johnson, LA (71)
74. Randy Jones, LA (*)
75. Mathieu Schneider, Van (72)

Fortunately, Markov's return shouldn't drop the production of any of his fellow defensemen. At least, not those with any real fantasy weight. If anything, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Roman Hamrlik stand to prosper as Markov's partners at even-strength and on the power play. The Canadiens are a much better team with Markov in the lineup, and every player at every position stands to benefit from his presence. We suppose Jaroslav Spacek could see a slight dip in playing time/production, but with only 11 points in 32 games, the significance of that is minimal.

If you're wondering why Markov jumps only to No. 40 with his return imminent, consider that there's always some uncertainty and anxiety when a player has missed such a chunk of time, no matter how good he is. Is he truly fit, physically and emotionally? Once Markov gets a couple of games under his belt, and looks no worse for the wear, he'll shoot up the rankings.

Rising and Falling

Tyler Myers, Sabres (up 6 spots): The big, young lad in Buffalo is clearly, and deservingly, surpassing veteran Craig Rivet in terms of minutes and production. With nine points in his past 10 games, Myers plays with urgency usually seen in younger players with something to prove, but in the body of a (6-foot-8) behemoth. And his reach is something else.

Brent Seabrook, Blackhawks (down 10 spots): With the exception of a productive six-game stretch in mid-November, Seabrook hasn't lived up to the fantasy promise he showed at the onset of the season. It doesn't help that fellow Hawks defensemen Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and even Cam Barker are enjoying more ice time with the man-advantage. Although a solid defenseman all-around, Seabrook doesn't belong in the top 20.

Drew Doughty, Kings (up 2 spots): The 20-year-old has a realistic shot at making the Canadian Olympic team and will do everything in his power to prove he belongs in Vancouver. It doesn't hurt, at least in terms of power-play production, that forward Ryan Smyth is due back on Boxing Day (ahem, that's Dec. 26).

Denis Grebeshkov, Oilers (re-emerges at No. 68): Grebeshkov is back, and looks well enough. After missing more than a month, Grebeshkov made his return Tuesday against the L.A. Kings. Although his timing was (understandably) off early in the game, he endured, logging more than 18 minutes and skating with the man-advantage. Lubomir Visnovsky and Sheldon Souray remain your top fantasy assets in Edmonton, but remember, Grebeshkov was good for a point every other game before he got hurt.

Key injury notes

Dan Boyle is day-to-day after taking a solid hit from Phoenix's Taylor Pyatt on Saturday. According to the San Jose Mercury News, a Sharks spokesperson says the injury "does not appear to be serious."

• As alluded to in last week's column, Alexander Edler will indeed miss some time because of an arm injury, but not much. The Vancouver Canuck should be back on the ice within a couple of weeks.

Power-Play Performers

Don't fret too much about the boys in Philly. Even good teams slump, as do good players. Regardless of coaching and goaltending issues, the Flyers are too talented a squad to continue losing with any consistency. Continue to activate defensemen Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle at every opportunity.

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.