Thin Blue Line: Rookie Cowen rising

It's difficult to clearly project Jared Cowen's fantasy value for the rest of 2011-12. On the one hand, the Ottawa Senators rookie has been on a roll of late, potting two goals and four assists in a recent span of five games. But that was with Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba nursing injuries. With the veteran defensemen back in action, will Cowen endure as a dangerous offensive threat from the Senators' blue line? The answer is a resounding and hearty "perhaps."

We enjoyed a solid glimpse of Cowen's renewed role, with Gonchar and Kuba back, during Tuesday's tilt with the Buffalo Sabres. As suspected, the 20-year-old took a backseat to Gonchar and Erik Karlsson on the power play, skating with Kuba on the second unit. The glass-half-full types in deeper leagues will be justified in profiling Cowen as a legitimate top-four d-man with solid upside. Maybe not every game, but the young lad is going to score. Fairly regularly.

There's still more to the story. Considered ripe trade candidates this season, Gonchar and Kuba could find themselves playing elsewhere before March. It may be a stretch to believe the re-building Sens will be able to offload Gonchar and his monster contract, but Kuba (and his expiring $3.7 deal) is perceived as moveable. If Kuba stays healthy, odds are he finishes the season elsewhere. As for Gonchar, you never know. No one thought the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes would be able to move Tomas Kaberle. Now the 33-year-old is suiting up for the Montreal Canadiens and Jim Rutherford has freed himself from a fairly uncomfortable hook. Stranger things have happened.

If GM Bryan Murray is able to trade Gonchar and/or Kuba, Cowen's fantasy value will shoot up. Maybe way, way up.

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

Rising and Falling

Anton Stralman, New York Rangers (re-emerges at No. 64): Our fantasy tango with Stralman as partner has found a fresh tempo and spicy new rhythm. With few healthy bodies to choose from, coach John Tortorella has had little option but to award Stralman heavy minutes. In return, the Swede has graciously rewarded Tortorella with solid play in the past five games (don't worry, the points will come). With the likes of Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger out injured long-term, Stralman as power-play performer is reasonably secure, even if/when Marc Staal is able to play again.

Ryan Whitney, Edmonton Oilers (down 19 spots): Whitney's slow start returning from injury was a concern, but we were willing to wait it out a while. That is, until the Oilers revealed Monday that their top defenseman has been playing with an injured ankle:

"... Veteran rearguard Ryan Whitney has been back in the lineup for 11 straight, but isn't 100-percent. The 28-year-old admitted that his struggling start to the season could be due to some pain he's been forced to deal with as the 2011-12 campaign rolls along ..." (Oilers' official website)

Our enthusiasm for Whitney as a fantasy asset will re-inflate once he's no longer "forced" to play in agony.

Matt Carle, Philadelphia Flyers (up five spots): Without a great deal of fuss, Carle has stepped up in the absence of Chris Pronger (concussion), particularly in the heart of December. Earning seven points in his last six games, Carle has worked effectively with Kimmo Timonen and Andrej Meszaros in carrying the offensive load from the blue line. With Pronger out for the rest of the season, and GM Paul Holmgren seemingly skeptical about trading for another defenseman, the Flyers' top four could very well remain the same until spring. That is excellent news for Carle's owners.

P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens (up three spots): Subban is more effective on the power play with Tomas Kaberle in the lineup. No surprise there, since just about any talented, shot-happy, offensive-defensemen would benefit from playing alongside such an effective puck-moving veteran.

Key injury (and other) notes

Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks reportedly played with a busted foot from mid-November until just a week or two ago. That may partially explain the scoring drought during that period, and subsequent resurgence. ... Kyle Quincey (groin) could return for the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday. ... Tyler Myers (wrist) is due back for the Buffalo Sabres shortly after Christmas. ... Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins remains inactive with a concussion. He hasn't even started skating yet. ... Adam Larsson will miss a couple of games for the New Jersey Devils to attend his grandmother's funeral. ... Paul Martin is listed as day-to-day for the Pittsburgh Penguins with a lower-body injury. ... Joni Pitkanen of the Carolina Hurricanes remains out indefinitely with a concussion.

Power Play Performers

Maybe the hiring of snarly Darryl Sutter as bench boss will provide the inspiration (read: kick in the pants) the Los Angeles Kings need in hopes of turning the season around. It's not like the struggling players -- i.e. Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, to name only a few -- could perform that much worse. On the upside, it might not take much to get these guys going again anyway. Watching Doughty in action recently, it's clear the former Norris Trophy finalist is playing with the same passion and skill as in the past. For a variety of fluky reasons, his efforts simply aren't translating into marks on the score sheet often enough. However, a couple of assists in Doughty's last three games could be valid cause for optimism. The same philosophy applies to Johnson, if with a little less enthusiasm.

Regardless, fantasy owners have little choice but to stick it out with both Doughty and Johnson, a least for the next handful of weeks. If the Kings' top two d-men are still floundering in mid-January, you may want to cut your losses, depending on free agents available. Fortunately, we don't feel it will come to that.

Recovered from a broken collarbone, Tobias Enstrom needed all of six minutes and 19 seconds of ice time to log his first power-play assist since Halloween. Dustin Byfuglien's steady blue-line buddy with the Winnipeg Jets should be universally owned and active in virtually all ESPN.com leagues of reasonable depth.

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