Thin Blue Line: Late-season pickups

Crunch time: By definition, a critical moment or period when decisive action is needed. If we're not there yet in this fantasy season, we're certainly mighty close. A few key decisions in the next couple of weeks can mean the difference between finishing at the top of your rotisserie table, gaining the necessary advantage in head-to-head play or falling just short regardless of format. Here's a selection of fantasy blueliners -- available in most ESPN.com leagues -- that might give your roster the required edge to push through until the end of the season.

A spectacular dud for most of 2013, Tyler Myers is enjoying an improved, if still very modest, finish to the regular season with the Buffalo Sabres. Remember, Myers pulled a similar trick (unintentional, we assume) last season -- enjoying a greater rate of production in the final two months as compared to the first three (he missed all of December with an injury). Maybe the young, towering blueliner is just that much better when so much less is expected. The 23-year-old could be worth a late-season gamble, particularly since he's logging heavy minutes and shooting up a storm.

The lack of enduring fantasy interest in Ryan Whitney is somewhat of a puzzler. A projected lineup regular as long as the Edmonton Oilers are still mathematically eligible to nail down a playoff spot, Whitney has contributed regularly to the score sheet since the beginning of March. Yet he's still owned in only 35 percent of ESPN.com leagues. Here's one excellent reason to give the 30-year-old a second thought: He's an unrestricted free agent this summer. The puck-moving defenseman is performing for his next contract right now. As long as the Oilers remain in the postseason mix, Whitney should get ample opportunity to put up some good numbers.

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. P.K. Subban, Mon (2)
2. Ryan Suter, Min (1)
3. Mike Green, Was (10)
4. Dustin Byfuglien, Win (3)
5. Shea Weber, Nsh (6)
6. Zdeno Chara, Bos (5)
7. Andrei Markov, Mon (4)
8. Niklas Kronwall, Det (9)
9. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (14)
10. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (15)
11. Drew Doughty, LA (17)
12. Brian Campbell, Fla (11)
13. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (12)
14. Tobias Enstrom, Win (7)
15. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (8)
16. Duncan Keith, Chi (13)
17. Keith Yandle, Pho (18)
18. Dan Boyle, SJ (19)
19. Brent Burns, SJ (21)
20. Justin Schultz, Edm (20)
21. Mark Streit, NYI (23)
22. John Carlson, Was (29)
23. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (16)
24. Alex Goligoski, Dal (26)
25. James Wisniewski, Cls (37)
26. Slava Voynov, LA (25)
27. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (24)
28. Alexander Edler, Van (22)
29. Jack Johnson, Cls (28)
30. Cody Franson, Tor (32)
31. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (31)
32. Ryan Whitney, Edm (30)
33. Kris Letang, Pit (39)
34. Jay Bouwmeester, StL (47)
35. Lubomir Visnovsky, NYI (27)
36. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (33)
37. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (34)
38. Nick Leddy, Chi (36)
39. Sheldon Souray, Ana (48)
40. Brent Seabrook, Chi (41)
41. Matt Carle, TB (49)
42. Jared Spurgeon, Min (40)
43. Francois Beauchemin, Ana (35)
44. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (42)
45. Sami Salo, TB (46)
46. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (43)
47. Kevin Bieksa, Van (57)
48. Roman Josi, Nsh (45)
49. Justin Faulk, Car (off)
50. John-Michael Liles, Tor (63)
51. Dan Girardi, NYR (51)
52. Patrick Wiercioch, Ott (53)
53. Jake Muzzin, LA (44)
54. Joe Corvo, Car (55)
55. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (52)
56. Dan Hamhuis, Van (61)
57. Mark Giordano, Cgy (62)
58. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (58)
59. Matt Niskanen, Pit (54)
60. Victor Hedman, TB (38)
61. Jason Garrison, Van (75)
62. Cam Fowler, Ana (56)
63. Ryan McDonagh, NYR (69)
64. Jakub Kindl, Det (60)
65. Jonas Brodin, Min (66)
66. Zach Bogosian, Win (64)
67. Andy Greene, NJ (65)
68. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (70)
69. Andre Benoit, Ott (68)
70. Tyler Myers, Buf (71)
71. Tyson Barrie, Col (67)
72. Travis Hamonic, NYI (73)
73. Marc-Andre Bergeron, Car (50)
74. T.J. Brennan, Fla (off)
75. Luke Schenn, Phi (off)

Owned in only 33 percent of ESPN.com leagues, John-Michael Liles of the Toronto Maple Leafs might be an easy acquisition with a pleasing amount of upside for the final stretch. A lineup regular for coach Randy Carlyle more often than not these days, Liles has four points in his past six contests. Third on Toronto's fantasy depth chart behind Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson, Liles remains a regular on the squad's secondary power-play unit. It was only two seasons ago that Liles notched 46 points with the Colorado Avalanche.

OK, while James Wisniewski isn't available in most ESPN.com leagues, he should be spoken for essentially across the board. Healthy after missing a month with a broken foot, the Columbus Blue Jackets' defenseman is poised to finish the regular campaign on the upswing -- especially since Wisniewski is a member of a top power-play unit that also includes Marian Gaborik. Dealt from the New York Rangers just ahead of the trade deadline, Gaborik has two goals and three assists in his first four games with the Blue Jackets. Plus, there's a fresh, palpable sense of optimism emanating from the Columbus club. With a playoff berth still in reach, a strong finish could be in store for everyone, including the 29-year-old blueliner.

Rising and falling

Jake Muzzin, Los Angeles Kings (down nine spots): Muzzin isn't the first rookie to hit a nasty slump after posting better-than-expected numbers in his inaugural NHL season, and he won't be the last. But this current cold streak is stretching well beyond what was anticipated. The Kings have only eight games remaining, and Muzzin has contributed all of one assist since March 19. More importantly, coach Daryl Sutter is cutting back on the 24-year-old's ice time.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, Carolina Hurricanes (down 23 spots): With a healthy Justin Faulk back in the fold, most of the air has left Bergeron's fantasy tires. While a superior debut with his new club may have cemented his position in the lineup, Bergeron accomplished little after the first game in proving his worth as a power-play specialist. In other words, he didn't score. And he's not alone in that regard; to a man, the Hurricanes aren't often finding the back of the net these days. While the club has averaged 1.64 goals per game since March 12, it's no wonder they've only won once in that stretch.

Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa Senators (down seven spots): It seems that the wear and tear of competing without his team's biggest offensive stars is finally taking its toll on Gonchar. The 38-year-old veteran has no points -- nada -- to show for his past seven contests. The goose egg is all the more significant when you consider the 22 points earned in his first 29 games of the season. Plus, it doesn't help that the Senators, much like the Hurricanes, aren't exactly lighting it up as a group. Coach Paul McLean's squad has averaged 1.40 goals per game in its last five -- all regulation losses.

Matt Carle, Tampa Bay Lightning (up eight spots): Better late than never, right? After a decent start to the campaign, Carle contributed little to the Lightning's collective scoring efforts for most of February and March. Now, three-quarters into the lockout-shortened season, Carle appears to have finally found his stride. With seven points in his past six games, the 28-year-old is currently one of the hottest D-men in fantasy. Carle is even more valuable with Victor Hedman (lower-body issue) stuck on the sidelines.

Key injury (and other) notes

Recovering from a broken toe and ongoing groin issues, Kris Letang was expected back in action by now. As it stands, the Pittsburgh Penguins' No. 1 defenseman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he could return Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, or Saturday versus the Florida Panthers -- if he "feels comfortable." But with the Atlantic Division title all wrapped up, the Penguins are under no pressure to rush Letang back. … Tobias Enstrom of the Winnipeg Jets is a "bit sore" and listed as day-to-day after taking a hard hit during Tuesday's 4-1 win over the Sabres. … Back on the ice for light drills, Marc Staal (eye) is working his way back into the New York Rangers' lineup. "I have full eyesight in both eyes, just one is blurry, still," Staal said. "Things on the ice, like depth perception, are different. Just takes some getting used to." ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang suggests Staal "could return for the playoffs, if not sooner." … No, Erik Karlsson isn't expected back for the Senators before the regular season concludes. As nice as it is to see the elite D-man skating, he still has a way to go. After having his left Achilles sliced, a return by Karlsson later in the postseason would be astonishing enough."

Power-play performers

T.J. Brennan is reaping the silver-lining benefits of playing for a team that's already looking forward to 2013-14. The 24-year-old former member of the Sabres is relishing a regular offensive role, including minutes with the extra skater, in his new NHL digs. A former second-round draft pick (31st overall in 2007), Brennan has a goal and four assists -- including three power-play points -- in 10 games with the Florida Panthers. And, yes, he's very available in ESPN.com leagues.