Commentary

Net gains

Drafting a productive goaltender crucial for fantasy hockey success

Updated: September 11, 2009, 10:30 AM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

NHL goalies are probably the most unique athletes in the world of professional sports. Like baseball catchers, they wear equipment that is completely different than their teammates, but catchers take all that gear off when they're in the batter's box or on the base paths. A goalie is a little like a starting pitcher, but only if that starting pitcher was pitching in three-quarters of his team's games (or more). The most valid comparison would be to football quarterbacks, in that each team would like to have just one alpha dog, with a backup there for emergencies and possibly mop-up duty. Then again, QBs have to play only 16 games a season while the NHL season is 82 games, and as you can imagine, very few men have the stamina to appear in all 82. The uniqueness of the goaltender position carries over into fantasy hockey, as well.

Recent entrants into the fantasy hockey world can get a little puzzled with the goaltender slots on their roster. In a standard ESPN league, two of the 17 starting spots are taken up by goalies, yet netminders account for three out of the 10 scoring categories. In numerical terms, that means that 12 percent of a fantasy roster will be determining 30 percent of its value. It's no wonder, then, that the opening rounds of any draft are littered with backstops; in truth, one workhorse can just about single-handedly vault your team to the top of the goalie categories in rotisserie leagues or can win you a week in head-to-head play.

Measuring Up: Fantasy Goaltending Stats

Before we delve deeper into roster strategy, let's review the stats that are used for goalies in fantasy hockey. The three stats used in the standard ESPN format are goals-against average (GAA for short), save percentage (SV% or SVP) and wins (W). There are a number of other goaltender categories available in custom leagues, but let's focus on these three.

Niklas Backstrom
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesNicklas Backstrom is a rare breed who can contribute nicely in GAA, save percentage and win categories.

GAA is similar to a pitcher's ERA, except without the confusing "earned" qualification inherent in the baseball stat. Essentially, it's a calculation of how many goals your keeper is allowing per 60 minutes played, and the league's best will typically hover just above the 2.00 mark, with an occasional dip below -- Minnesota Wild backstop Niklas Backstrom was the last to do so, with a 1.97 GAA for the 2006-07 season. Unlike its baseball equivalent, there is no adjustment for when a goal is allowed due to an error by the defense, so it's important to keep in mind the defensive acumen of the players in front of a goalie when projecting his value in this category.

On the other end of the spectrum, save percentage has long been the hallmark of 'tenders on defensively suspect teams. When Roberto Luongo was with the Florida Panthers, comparing the defense in front of him to Swiss cheese would be an exaggeration of the amount of holes in Swiss cheese. Based on our data from last season, Panthers goalies are still under heavy fire: within our statistically qualified sample, Craig Anderson was No. 1 and Tomas Vokoun was No. 4 in the ranking of shots-against per 60 minutes. Why is that relevant? Vokoun was No. 2 on the SVP leaderboard at season's end, with Anderson right on his tail at No. 3. So while you'd like a strong defense for GAA purposes, this can sometimes decrease a player's value in SVP.

The last category is wins, and yes, this can be just as maddening as wins for pitchers in baseball. Just as a starting pitcher can toss a complete game allowing one run, only to be outdueled by his opposite number who happened to hurl a shutout, so too can a sterling performance by one goalie be nullified by his team's offensive impotence. For this reason, to dominate the wins category, you want to target goalies who play for teams that are consistently putting goals on the board.

Bottom line: You want to target netminders who play for offensive powerhouses that let up lots of easy shots, but not too many good scoring chances. Simple, right?

Sign 'Em Up: Draft and Acquisition Strategy

The top echelon of goalies will be taken in the draft's first two rounds. This season, that's going to include Tim Thomas, Backstrom, Martin Brodeur, Pekka Rinne, Vokoun and Luongo. If you don't land one of those six, don't panic -- the second tier has a bit of talent too, with Cristobal Huet, Cam Ward, Jonas Hiller, Nikolai Khabibulin and last year's rookie sensation, Steve Mason. Make sure you get one of these 11 gentlemen; otherwise, you're going to be scrambling from the get-go.

During the preseason, it's important to keep an eye on the goaltender battles going on at various camps to fill out your other slots. As mentioned above, teams would like to have a clear delineation between their starting goalie and his backup, but that's not always the case. As with the dreaded running-back-by-committee in the NFL, a goalie-by-committee is not something you want to experience as a fantasy owner.

With that in mind, here are some key competitions on the horizon:

Jimmy Howard
Richard Wolowicz/Getty ImagesCould this be the year that Jimmy Howard emerges as the Red Wings' top netminder? Do you want to take the risk?

Detroit Red Wings: Chris Osgood versus Jimmy Howard. It seems like every season we advise keeping an eye on Howard as a fantasy sleeper/keeper. Osgood's numbers slipped tremendously from 2007-08 to last season -- his GAA jumped from 2.09 to 3.09 and his SVP dropped from a respectable .914 to a detestable .887 -- but he redeemed himself with a stellar run through the playoffs. The Wings let Ty Conklin go, so this should finally be Howard's chance to shine as the No. 2, and slide in if Osgood faces injury or ineptitude. With that offense, W's will be plentiful for either.

New York Islanders: Dwayne Roloson versus Martin Biron; Rick DiPietro versus his injuries. Frustrated by the dearth of good health enjoyed by the man they signed to a 15-year contract, the Isles brought in the other two veterans this offseason. The Islanders lacked a 20-goal scorer last season, so W's might be at a premium. On the other hand, the man who wins this contest will get a subsequent bump in SVP; the Islanders gave up the second-most shots in the NHL last season.

Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Boucher versus Ray Emery. Boucher was a waiver-wire hero last season, spelling Evgeni Nabokov for 20 starts, 12 of which he won, including two shutouts. Emery is a wild card. The Dr. Jekyll version carried the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals whereas the Mr. Hyde version was out of the league last year, owing to laziness and other off-ice issues. The Flyers were another of the league's top teams in shots against in 2008-09, but the addition of Chris Pronger may address that. These guys are a last resort on draft day.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Vesa Toskala versus Jonas Gustavsson. Essentially, this is going to come down to whether GM Brian Burke and Co. feel that the "Monster" is ready. Gustavsson is old for a rookie at 24, but he is most definitely the future of the position for the Leafs. With the addition of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to the defensive corps, this could be a fantasy gold mine. Gustavsson might not have the name recognition in your draft, so be sure to keep him in mind if his name is still on the board in the later rounds.

A final word on midseason acquisitions. Due to the nature of the position, injuries to goaltenders are likely. Sometimes, there's even a freak injury -- such as Martin Brodeur's last season -- that pushes a backup into action unexpectedly. As Scott Clemmensen's owners from 2008-09 can tell you, this can be a great source of production. With limited space on benches, and with many leagues playing without an IR slot, there's limited room for fantasy owners to carry "handcuffs" to their starting goalies. In other words, keep an eye on the injury reports during the season and be ready to jump on the waiver wire to grab the newly promoted backup. There's a good chance he'll be a free agent.

Keeping these tips in mind, even a fantasy hockey novice can develop and maintain a quality goaltending stable.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.