It's already been a pretty crazy pre-season, let alone the weeks leading up to the pre-season. Surprisingly, the blueliners are the ones taking the brunt of the force, especially when it comes to injuries. These injuries also don't seem to be caring whether they take a rookie trying to make it into the league, a sophomore trying to establish himself further or a veteran player that's been around the block a few times. It's been a nasty mess.
Now that we're finally coming into hockey pool season, we're all going to have to figure out which defenders are going to help our team win. A daunting task to say the least.
Now, let's all not get too excited about some of these injuries. Nicklas Lidstrom will be missed during the pre-season, as he adjusts to the re-adjusting of his nose. He should only be missing pre-season encounters anyways, so his fantasy stock should remain the same. Sergei Gonchar is now out with a separated shoulder and that one is a little more iffy. Could be a week, could be two... any more than that, then he's cutting into some regular season time. Right now, the team is signalling for an indefinite amount of time off, which doesn't bode well. Gonchar's teammate, Ryan Whitney, he'll be out for quite some time after undergoing foot surgery last month. You shouldn't be thinking about him during your draft day shindig. Sergei Zubov is out with his ailing hip and will likely miss some of the early games this season. Still, even after missing 10 games, Zubov is still a better fantasy pick then a lot of defensemen, especially offensively. Erik Johnson is now a complete write-off for the year. Steer clear.
So, with all of these circumstances, what are we supposed to take from it? Well, in Pittsburgh, you should be looking towards Kristopher Letang. If Gonchar is to miss any games in the regular season, the smooth-moving Letang should be the one filling the void on the Pens' blueline. In two games played in the pre-season, Letang does have a goal and an assist, while being a +2. Last season, he only featured in 63 games, registering 17 points, but with more ice-time in more games, he should be able to gain some confidence and double that output.
In Dallas, you would think a guy like Phillipe Boucher would be the one taking the big minutes for the Stars while Zubov is out, but he's also struggling to heal a foot imjury, which has been nagging him for some time. In this case, I would look for Matt Niskanen to take the reins a bit and put up some numbers when the big guns are down. There is some leadership from Stephane Robidas, but Niskanen chould be the go-to-guy. In Dallas' only pre-season game, Niskanen had six minutes of power play time, registering an assist. Also, Trevor Daley is a possible option.
Auditions for Johnson's spot in St. Louis will likely go to more younger blueliners, as their veterans are a little more defensive minded. Alex Pietrangelo has a good shot at making the club out of camp, Steve Wagner does as well, and Roman Polak will get a long look as well. Going into Thursday action, Pietrangelo has a pair of assists, while Wagner and Polak have failed to register a point in two games. This shouldn't be an indication that Pietrangelo will step right in, but it does put his name in the mix against a pair of guys who have been waiting in line for a while.
Without being under the microscope of the Toronto media, look for Bryan McCabe to get back up to speed in Florida. With a good, young blueline cast to support him, McCabe could have some good successes with his new team, the Panthers, in 2009 and he could be a very good pick for your pool team, in the 40-45 point range to start.
Also looking to have a rebound season, Joni Pitkanen was dealt to Carolina in the off-season, which could revitalize his career. In the pre-season, he's already registered a goal for the Hurricanes and he'll look to improve upon the 8 goals he scored with Edmonton last year. The Southeast Division could be a good division for rebounding blueliners.
Last season, Vancouver had a hard time keeping their defensemen healthy. Sami Salo, Mattias Ohlund, Kevin Bieksa and Lukas Krajicek all missed considerable amounts of time and in turn, missed out on all sorts of opportunities for points. It was terribly freakish, the way it all went down, but is it really like to happen again? Not really. Look for all four of them to have rebound years and come almost out of nowhere to surprise some poolies.
There could be a few more surprises in store for the league as well. Jack Johnson in Los Angeles has a full year under his belt, as does Tom Gilbert in Edmonton, Tobias Enstrom in Atlanta and Alexander Edler in Vancouver. Those four blueliners should be able to improve on their numbers from last season and you should improve their projections a touch, since they are all going to have improved ice-time.
Wait to see who makes the final cuts and stay tuned here to see if any qualify as good sleeper picks.