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On the 'D'-fence: Letang cleared for takeoff

Tuesday, 01.17.2012 / 11:56 AM / Fantasy Hockey Draft Rankings, Advice and Analysis

By Brian Metzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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On the 'D'-fence: Letang cleared for takeoff
Fantasy owners may soon have an elite defenseman back in their lineup if they own Kris Letang, as all indications are the Penguins blueliner with the offensive knack is about ready to return.
Every Tuesday during the season, NHL.com Correspondent Brian Metzer will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy defensemen in our weekly segment: "On the 'D'-fence." From updated defensemen rankings to guys you should keep a close eye on and much more, Metzer will be your fantasy d-man expert all season long.

We promise that this space will eventually be used to talk about something other than injuries and those who are suffering from them, but it would be folly to gloss over the latest high-profile player that is set to make his triumphant return: Kris Letang.

Letang spent an awful lot of time sitting in the No. 1 slot in our rankings before exiting the Penguins' lineup with a concussion suffered on Nov. 26 against the Montreal Canadiens, and his return should have the Penguins as well as fantasy owners singing hallelujah.

The Montreal native was set to rejoin his teammates in practice Tuesday and has been cleared for full contact. Unfortunately there isn't a definitive date for his actual return to game action, but most believe it will be sooner rather than later. The gray area on when he will play kept him listed in our injured reserve section, but be aware that he could be back on the ice before we check back in next week.

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These modified re-rankings are based on expectations of the season going forward (including injuries). The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from last week. (NR means not ranked in previous rankings.)
Letang, who some were touting as an early-season Norris Trophy candidate, is one of those special players that will provide a spark on the ice and in the fantasy realm almost immediately. He was on the way to a career season before he sustained his injury, and the fact that he still could set career marks after missing 22 games speaks to just how special a run he was on.

The young rearguard was producing .86 points per game, an increase of a quarter point over his previous high of .61 which was reached last season. He also makes a huge impact on his teammates' production, as the Penguins scored 3.18 goals per game while he was in the lineup, but only 3.05 without him. You may not be impressed by that production difference, but remove an 8-3 drubbing of the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 17 and the “non-Letang” total drops to 2.68 goals per game.

Letang, who logs more than 26 minutes per night, helps in all facets of the game. He produces plenty of offense 5-on-5, scores on the power play, where he plays 4:57 per evening on average, and he kills penalties. Consider the fact that the Penguins' penalty kill was clicking at a 96-percent rate with Letang through the first 22 games of the season and just 83 percent without him over their last 20.

It isn't hard to see how much the loss of Letang has hurt the Penguins, as they were contending for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the National Hockey League when he exited the lineup, and since have come close to falling out of playoff contention. The same can be said for fantasy teams who had been riding high thanks to his 19 points (3G-16A), 64 shots on goal and plus-5 rating through the first two months of the season.

We realize that you have heard this story before in this space regarding Andrei Markov and most recently Mike Green, only to have your hearts shattered to bits by a non-return for Markov and a short-lived one for Green, but this should be different. Letang has been skating without issue for well over a week and all indications are that he will be back and performing at his previous level. Some owners clearly abandoned ship, as his ownership in Yahoo! Standard leagues has dropped to 93 percent. Keep an eye on the wire and grab him if he is there. At the very least, you are in good position to activate him from IR and get him back into your lineup over the next few days.

TRENDING UPWARD

Jay Harrison -- Harrison has never been known for offense, but he is bringing it this season for the Hurricanes. He is taking advantage of the loss of Joni Pitkanen, who has played only six games since Nov. 11, in playing 22-plus minutes a night. He has 5 points (4G-1A) over his last five games and now sits at 18 points for the year (7G-11A). He isn't going to put up Letang numbers, but at only 11-percent ownership, he could fill a void in your lineup.

Mark Streit -- We have been very tough on Streit this season, mainly based on his horrid plus-minus rating, but he is showing some signs of life. Yes, he still carries a minus-17 rating for the Islanders, but he is only a minus-1 over his last seven games. He has also put up 5 assists over that span. It's tough to comprehend his lack of goal scoring, picking up zero since Nov. 17, but he is starting to look like a helpful commodity. 

Mark Giordano -- Giordano is back in the Flames' lineup after sitting out since Nov. 29 with ruptured tendons in his leg. He picked up an assist in his first game back and was held off the board in his second outing, but that is sure to change. He is an offensive-minded defenseman who should be rostered in all leagues, as he gets time on a power play that features Jarome Iginla and the newly-acquired Mike Cammalleri.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Marc-Andre Bergeron -- Bergeron was a fantasy darling throughout the first two months of the season as he was one of the Lightning's best players. Not only is he now dealing with an upper-body injury that has held him out of a couple of games, but he has notched just 4 points (1G-3A) over his last 18 games.

Jordan Leopold -- Leopold's value was greatly enhanced by injuries to his Sabres teammates, but the return of Tyler Myers has bitten into his opportunities. Andrej Sekera is also back in the fold and Christian Ehrhoff will eventually rejoin the ranks as well. Mix in the fact Leopold has just 1 point in 2012 and you have a recipe for a fantasy separation.

Ryan McDonagh -- McDonagh has had himself a pretty nice season to this point for the Rangers, however the emergence of Michael Del Zotto and the return of Marc Staal put him in position to return to a more defensive role. He will still help fantasy teams, but his production will not be where it was during the later stages of 2011. He has just 4 points since Dec. 17.

KEEP AN EYE ON...

Luca Sbisa -- Bruce Boudreau's arrival in Anaheim had most thinking that he could turn Cam Fowler into the next Mike Green, and that still may happen; however, it is another young Duck, Sbisa, that is thriving under his leadership. Sbisa has quietly put up 8 points (2G-6A) over his last 11 games and has taken on more responsibility such as killing penalties and playing close to a minute per game on the power play. Sbisa now has 14 points (2G-12A) on the season and could make a run at 30-35 before all is said and done.
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