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On the 'D'-fence: Rookie rearguards who rank

By Brian Metzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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On the 'D'-fence: Rookie rearguards who rank
In our weekly assessment of fantasy blueliners, NHL.com gives you the rookie defensemen who could wind up being difference-makers.
The 2012 NHL All-Star Game is in the books and as always it was an exciting event that showcased the skills of some of the best and brightest the league has to offer. Though there were 42 vets selected to participate in the game itself, the League's selection committee also chose 12 rookies to take part in the weekend's activities.

That is what we are going to do here today.

Considering that we had a short week in the fantasy realm due in large part to those All-Star festivities, we figured that we would point out a handful of rookies that are starting to slide into bigger roles for their teams. These players may not be a benefit to all of you, but they could offer some nice depth scoring and should definitely be on the radars of those in keeper or dynasty leagues.

We'll start with one defenseman who was actually chosen to take part in the All-Star events in Ottawa, Raphael Diaz. Diaz might not be as consistent on the offensive side of the puck at this stage of his career, but he has shown the ability to play big minutes and on both special teams in a top four role with the Canadiens this season. He did struggle through a recent eight-game scoreless drought that earned him a seat in the press box as a healthy scratch, but he has picked up points in consecutive game since returning to the lineup. Diaz now has 15-points (3G-12A), 47 shots on goal and a manageable minus-1 on the season.

TOP 60 FANTASY DEFENSEMEN

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.)
The Nashville Predators boast a couple of pretty impressive defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but they have accumulated some nice depth behind their studs, which brings us to Ryan Ellis. We have mentioned him before in this space, but it is necessary to mention him again. Ellis, the Predators' 11th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, has quietly put up 7-points (2G-5A) during a 14 game call up. The most intriguing thing about his time in the League is the Preds have gone 12-2-0 with him in the lineup. He did see his minutes fall to just 9:49 in his final game before the break, but has still managed 2 assists in his last three games. There is no telling how much longer Barry Trotz will opt to keep him in the lineup, but he is a threat to score each night when he is playing.

Before Joffrey Lupul exploded with one of the best comeback seasons in NHL history, Jake Gardiner was the focal point of the trade the sent Francois Beauchemin from the Leafs to the Ducks. Gardiner has recently started to show why he was so attractive to Toronto General Manager Brian Burke, as he has picked up 5 points (1G-4A) over his last seven games. He has played in 41 games for the Leafs this season and logs big minutes for the squad, skating an average of 20:53 per night. If there is a flaw, it is that he doesn't shoot the puck enough, but that will likely improve as he gets more comfortable in the League.

Though the Avalanche haven't had a great season to this point -- although they are still in the playoff hunt -- they have a couple of reasons to smile and one of them is Stefan Elliott. The young rearguard has played in 29 consecutive games since being recalled by the Avs and has posted 11-points (4G-7A) over that stretch. To say that he has been streaky would be an understatement as he has four 2-game scoring streaks and one 3-game streak on the season, but there is one category in which he produces on a nightly basis: shots on goal. The youngster has launched 68 pucks on net and is averaging 2.3 shots per game. There is a chance that his playing time will get a bit sporadic over the remainder of the season, but he is still worth a look in deeper leagues.

A few other rookie rearguards to keep an eye on moving forward are Jared Cowen of the Ottawa Senators, who has notched 14 points (4G-10A) on the year, Slava Voynov of the Kings who recently returned from injury and has posted 11 points (4G-7A) in 31 games and the Capitals Dmitry Orlov, who has notched 8 points (1G-7A) in 30 games this season.

TRENDING UPWARD

Niklas Kronwall -- Kronwall has long been a favorite here and was listed amongst our sleeper picks for this season. It took a while, but he is finally rewarding our faith and is sitting in second place in defensemen goal scoring with 11 on the season. He is riding a three-game scoring streak and now has 23 points (11G-12A) on the year. He could easily finish this season with 40-plus points.

Ryan Whitney -- We have a soft spot for Ryan Whitney. He is a great human, who interacts with his fans on twitter, cuts a mean joke and when healthy can score points by the bushel. The talented rearguard has been plagued by ankle problems this year and may not ever be able to get back to 100 percent, but he is again trying a comeback. He played in the Oilers' final game before the break and didn't score, but played over 18 minutes.  Here's hoping he can stay on the ice this time.

Sami Salo -- Speaking of guys who returned just prior to the break, Salo hit the ice with his mates and skated over 23 minutes. He was a regular contributor to the Canucks before being knocked out of the lineup due to injury on Jan. 7 and has value in deeper fantasy formats.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

P.K. Subban -- Subban has more talent than many of his peers, but he has to learn to use it a bit more efficiently.  He was recently benched by interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth for an undisciplined play against the Red Wings' Dan Cleary, which followed a recent fine for a dangerous trip on the Penguins' Chris Kunitz. Stir in the fact that he has just 3 points in his last 12 games and it is getting harder to keep him in starting lineups.

Adam Larsson -- Larsson has been amongst the best rookies on the blue line this season, but he finds himself here because he has been making a steady fall down our rankings. Sure he could help in deeper leagues, but he isn't a huge fantasy difference maker right now with just 2 points in his last fourteen games.

Marc Staal -- Staal has been listed here for two weeks in a row. Sure that may be extreme, but he has yet to register a point since returning to action in the Winter Classic. That is hard to do, especially with the Rangers playing so well. He has also registered a minus-4 over that span. It is wise to look elsewhere until he begins to start looking more like his old self.

KEEP AN EYE ON...

Kevin Klein -- Klein has never scored more than 18 points in a season, but he has been finding his way on to the scoresheet more frequently as of late. The six-year pro has picked up 6 points (2G-4A) over his last 12 games; he has launched 19 shots over that span and has registered a plus-5. He could help in deeper formats. Keep an eye on him moving forward.
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