Thin Blue Line: Stats to trust, avoid

The first week to 10 days of a new campaign is, by far, the wackiest stretch of any NHL fantasy season. At least on the statistical surface. With such a minuscule sampling of numbers to draw from, even the most weathered manager can slip into a state of mild panic. If anything, this compact, post-lockout drive provides an even wider early slate for inflated or deflated individual scoring statistics. As we've touched upon earlier, those who benefited from professional play leading up to the lockout's conclusion are in better position to make a more sparkling impression off the start. Plus other unusual fantasy suspects will simply benefit from short-term luck.

Case in point: While the likes of Alex Goligoski, Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter, Jack Johnson, Shea Weber, etc. have yet to post a single point, Eric Brewer of the Tampa Bay Lightning is on pace for a 30-goal season. The fact that Brewer hasn't once hit the double-digit mark in goals since joining the NHL in 1998 doesn't make that statement any less true right now. Yet there's little chance Brewer -- a high-quality all-around defenseman -- will score anywhere near a significant fraction of that number. He's not required to; the Lightning have Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, Sami Salo (as long as he remains in one piece) and even Marc-Andre Bergeron to contribute in that department. And yet Brewer has two more goals than the four offensive-defensemen mentioned above. Combined. Maybe numbers never lie, but they certainly can mislead.

Naturally, some unanticipated early fantasy performers do merit a second look. Raphael Diaz, for instance, is in position to produce regularly for the Montreal Canadiens, especially if contract negotiations with P.K. Subban continue to sit stagnant. Second only to partner Andrei Markov in power-play minutes, Diaz leads the Habs' blue line with three points (all assists) after two games. While Tomas Kaberle continues to underperform and Subban remains out of competitive sight, Diaz could serve as a valuable asset for many fantasy owners. And the 27-year-old Swiss native is owned in less than 2 percent of ESPN.com leagues.

There's no doubt Subban will burst forth like a bat out of a handbag once pen is put to paper, but when and with whom? While both sides appear far apart in negotiations, there's even talk the Canadiens could trade the rights to their precious restricted free agent. All the more reason to consider Diaz for your own blue line.

Diaz is just one example of an early-season pickup with great upside. More are listed below. Just keep in mind, potential role and opportunity trump raw numbers. In other words, beware the stat-bolstered false fantasy prophet, particularly at this stage of the game.

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. Erik Karlsson, 1 (1)
2. Kris Letang, 2 (2)
3. Dustin Byfuglien, 3 (3)
4. Zdeno Chara, Bos (3)
5. Brian Campbell, Fla (5)
6. Dan Boyle, SJ (6)
7. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (8)
8. Ryan Suter, Min (7)
9. Tobias Enstrom, Win (11)
10. Shea Weber, Nsh (9)
11. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (12)
12. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (10)
13. Alexander Edler, Van (15)
14. Andrei Markov, Mon (23)
15. Jack Johnson, Cls (14)
16. Mark Streit, NYI (16)
17. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (17)
18. Drew Doughty, LA (18)
19. Kevin Shattenkirk, StL (24)
20. P.K. Subban, Mon (13)
21. Niklas Kronwall, Det (20)
22. Dennis Wideman, Cgy (25)
23. Christian Ehrhoff, Buf (22)
24. Duncan Keith, Chi (21)
25. Keith Yandle, Pho (19)
26. Matt Carle, TB (29)
27. Alex Goligoski, Dal (26)
28. Justin Schultz, Edm (30)
29. James Wisniewski, Cls (27)
30. Mark Giordano, Cgy (28)
31. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Pho (40)
32. Mike Green, Was (31)
33. Tyler Myers, Buf (32)
34. Joni Pitkanen, Car (33)
35. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (34)
36. Cam Fowler, Ana (35)
37. Ryan Whitney, Edm (36)
38. Marek Zidlicky, NJ (38)
39. Travis Hamonic, NYI (42)
40. Brent Seabrook, Chi (43)
41. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla (39)
42. Jason Garrison, Van (41)
43. Sheldon Souray, Ana (50)
44. Nick Leddy, Chi (51)
45. Erik Johnson, Col (44)
46. Justin Faulk, Car (53)
47. Kevin Bieksa, Van (47)
48. Brendan Smith, Det (52)
49. Jared Spurgeon, Min (48)
50. Slava Voynov, LA (46)
51. Brent Burns, SJ (37)
52. Ryan Ellis, Nsh (59)
53. Dougie Hamilton, Bos (68)
54. Raphael Diaz, Mon (off)
55. Tom Gilbert, Min (55)
56. Victor Hedman, TB (54)
57. Roman Josi, Nsh (57)
58. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (56)
59. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (58)
60. John Carlson, Was (60)
61. John-Michael Liles, Tor (45)
62. Paul Martin, Pit (65)
63. Dan Girardi, NYR (69)
64. Stephane Robidas, Dal (64)
65. Fedor Tyutin, Cls (off)
66. Jake Gardiner, Tor (off)
67. Tomas Kaberle, Mon (66)
68. Joe Corvo, Car (63)
69. Sami Salo, TB (75)
70. Luca Sbisa, Ana (70)
71. Matt Niskanen, Pit (off)
72. Kurtis Foster, Phi (76)
73. Filip Kuba, Fla (off)
74. Dan Hamhuis, Van (off)
75. Patrick Wiercioch, Ott (off)

Rising and Falling

Sheldon Souray, Anaheim Ducks (up seven spots): The veteran D-man certainly knows how to make a favorable first impression. As anticipated, Souray is off to an explosive start for his new Ducks squad. With three points, including a power-play goal, in only two games, the 36-year-old is warranting the three-year, $11 million contract signed with the Ducks this past summer. So far. Souray ran out of scoring steam with the Dallas Stars last season, and we're wary of a similar performance in 2012-13. Perhaps the shorter campaign will help stoke the productive fire for a longer stretch.

Justin Faulk, Hurricanes (up seven spots): Not only is Faulk leading the Carolina Hurricanes in average on-ice minutes (nearly 26 per game), but the young defenseman is also marginalizing the need for power-play specialist Joe Corvo. Second only to Joni Pitkanen on Carolina's fantasy defensemen depth chart, Faulk should put up some serious numbers once the freshly slapped-together offense (including new additions Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin) develops some chemistry.

Fedor Tyutin, Blue Jackets (re-emerges at No. 65): While Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are the projected fantasy heavyweights for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tyutin's four points through three games can't be ignored. As long as coach Todd Richards relies on Tyutin and partner Nikita Nikitin to anchor the second power-play unit, the two imposing Russian defensemen deserve fantasy consideration.

Adam Larsson, Devils (off): A healthy scratch through the first week-plus, Larsson tumbles right out of our Top 75. Although Larsson won't spend the entire season in the press box, we'll shelve our fantasy faith in the 20-year-old Swede until he rejoins the lineup on a regular basis. Marek Zidlicky and -- to a much lesser degree -- Andy Greene are the only Devils D-men worth owning at present.

Lubomir Visnovsky, Islanders(off): Mid-February is a long way off from now -- and that's when Visnovsky is rumored to return from Slovakia (his son is reportedly scheduled to undergo minor surgery Feb. 9). If/when the 36-year-old veteran finally makes an appearance in a New York Islanders uniform, he'll reclaim his spot in our Top 75. Not before.

Key injury notes:

Nursing a lacerated thigh, Ian White is expected to miss two to three weeks for the Detroit Red Wings. With Carlo Colaiacovo and Jonathan Ericsson also on the injured shelf (Jakub Kindl is due back any moment now), the Red Wings' blue line is down to its bare bones. Niklas Kronwall and Brendan Smith will carry the lion's share of the offensive load from the back end. ... Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild has a sore foot, but isn't expected to miss more than a game or two. ... Dmitry Orlov (upper body) is still a no-show for the Washington Capitals, and that's a worry. ... The San Jose Sharks recently placed Brent Burns on their injured reserve list to make room for the signing of forward Scott Gomez. Clearly Burns is nowhere near ready to return from whatever lower-body issue is nagging him at present. We can only guess that the 27-year-old endured a setback in his recovery from offseason sports hernia surgery.

Potent Pairings:

One of the more endearing stories of this young campaign is the emergence of career minor leaguer Mike Kostka. Coupled with Dion Phaneuf to make up the Toronto Maple Leafs' top even-strength and power-play pair, the 27-year-old earned his big league shot through determination and years of hard work. So far, so good; Kostka has three power-play assists through his first three NHL contests.

However, Kostka is still a few games away from meriting a spot in the Top 75. Although the journeyman appears pegged to spend the entire season with the Maple Leafs, his specific assignment isn't set in concrete. Jake Gardiner is still shaking off the rust after missing a good chunk of time with a concussion. The young offensive-defenseman -- the club's best skater on the back end, according to head coach Randy Carlyle -- is poised to reclaim a more prominent offensive role once he's back up to speed. Plus, John-Michael Liles always has the potential to steal the productive spotlight when he's at his streaky best. Those factors could affect Kostka's fantasy value for the worse. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the former AHL regular certainly deserves to be owned in more than 9 percent of all ESPN.com leagues. Snag him -- quickly -- if you have a blue-line hole to fill.

Power-play Performers:

Patrick Wiercioch is a young standout worth keeping close watch on with the Ottawa Senators. If he sticks for the entire campaign, the towering 22-year-old holds the promise of contributing to the score sheet with some sense of regularity. After two games, Wiercioch has two points, including a power-play assist, to show for his efforts. Just don't expect a lot of on-ice minutes from the young D-man.

Poised for a fiery breakout season, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is already usurping Keith Yandle as top power-play banana with the Phoenix Coyotes. Averaging nearly 25 minutes per game, the 21-year-old has two goals and an assist (plus-3) through three contests.