Commentary

In The Crease: Part-timer worth pickup

Weekly news, notes and rankings on fantasy hockey goalies

Updated: November 19, 2009, 3:36 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Still owned in just 55.8 percent of ESPN fantasy hockey leagues, Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Antero Niittymaki is playing like a true No. 1 for our purposes -- in nine starts this season, he's posted five wins to go with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. That goals-against average trails only Ryan Miller for the top spot, and the save percentage is tied with Miller at No. 1. Moreover, Niittymaki's stats on the season put him No. 7 among goalies on the Player Rater, ahead of many goalies drafted in the top three rounds; Tim Thomas, Niklas Backstrom, Pekka Rinne, Roberto Luongo and Tomas Vokoun all find themselves trailing the 29-year-old from Finland with about a quarter of the season in the books.

On the other hand, as fans of the Philadelphia Flyers will confirm for you, we've seen this from Niittymaki before, only to have his performance come crashing back to earth. So, what's the rest of the story, and how much can he really help you for the rest of this season?

First, we need to remember the situation in Tampa Bay is going to stay a pretty strict time-share it would seem, no matter what Niittymaki does. In his past five starts, the Finn is 3-0-2, relenting nine goals with a .947 SVP. You might think that would ensure he'd continue to start, but you'd be thinking wrong -- Mike Smith had a 30-save win Monday night in Phoenix, and he's slated to get the start again Thursday against Anaheim. So the brain trust in Tampa is either exhibiting a pro-Smith bias or knows that, in order to stay effective, Niittymaki can't start too many games.

But wait, don't goalies play better when they start more games, getting into a groove? Sometimes, but with Niittymaki, that hasn't been the case. To wit, in 2005-06 and 2006-07, he started 42 and 46 games, respectively, and posted save percentages of .895 and .894, respectively. Compare that to 2007-08 and 2008-09, when he started 23 and 29 games, respectively, with save percentages of .907 and .912. For a starker display of this discrepancy, here are his quality-start percentages for those four seasons, using Puck Prospectus' cutoffs of .912 or better with fewer than three goals against per start: 14-for-42 (33.3 pecent), 10-for-46 (21.7 percent), 9-for-23 (39.1 percent) and 12-for-29 (41.4 percent). In other words, he is better in small doses, such as the 2006 Olympic tourney where he was voted MVP, as well as his current streak of success.

Whether Lightning coach Rick Tocchet and his henchmen are paying attention to those trends is unknown; but for our purposes, let's suppose they give Niittymaki 46 total starts this season (tying his career high). In that case, he's got 37 more starts to go. With an offense that has not lived up to its potential and sits at No. 21 in goals per game with 2.61, we can project him getting 20 more wins (a little generous), and split the difference between his current numbers and his career marks (also a little generous ... I don't think he'll finish with .939 and 1.93, but he could finish with .922 and 2.44). Doing this, he's still not going to crack the top 10 for the games remaining, given the fact that he's still in a time-share; in addition, as we saw above, if he gets more starts, that might actually hurt his overall production in the ratios. Bottom line: Ride the hot streaks, but have a replacement ready when the Lightning give him his scheduled breaks from action. Definitely worth a roster spot in all formats, though.

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies 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 wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Ryan Miller, Buf (1)
2. Martin Brodeur, NJ (2)
3. Evgeni Nabokov, SJ (6)
4. Craig Anderson, Col (5)
5. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
6. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (8)
7. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (4)
8. Ray Emery, Phi (15)
9. Roberto Luongo, Van (7)
10. Tim Thomas, Bos (10)
11. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (12)
12. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (9)
13. Cristobal Huet, Chi (20)
14. Niklas Backstrom, Min (11)
15. Marty Turco, Dal (16)
16. Jonas Hiller, Ana (17)
17. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (23)
18. Semyon Varlamov, Was (21)
19. Chris Mason, StL (28)
20. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (14)
21. Antero Niittymaki, TB (25)
22. Steve Mason, Cls (18)
23. Jose Theodore, Was (13)
24. Jonathan Quick, LA (24)
25. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (26)
26. Carey Price, Mon (29)
27. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (22)
28. Cam Ward, Car (19)
29. Jaroslav Halak, Mon (27)
30. Chris Osgood, Det (33)
31. Mathieu Garon, Cls (NR)
32. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (31)
33. Ty Conklin, StL (32)
34. Antti Niemi, Chi (34)
35. Tuukka Rask, Bos (37)
36. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ana (36)
37. Dan Ellis, Nsh (30)
38. Johan Hedberg, Atl (NR)
39. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (38)
40. Jimmy Howard, Det (NR)

Rising and falling

Ray Emery, Flyers (up seven spots): I don't expect Emery to finish with the 53 wins for which he's on pace, nor do I expect his 2.22 GAA and .923 SVP to hold up. But he's getting the overwhelming majority of starts on a team with a strong defense; moreover, with a quarter of the season now in the books, we can start to say his rebirth is looking more and more "for real."

Miikka Kiprusoff (up six spots): Kipper had been more valuable for wins than the ratios, but that changed this past week. The 33-year-old had a 1-1-1 record in three starts but gave up only six total goals, and two of the three starts were quality. Now, the two quality starts were against the Sabres (No. 19 in the league in scoring) and Maple Leafs (No. 23), but good for him anyway. He's proving the doubters wrong thus far.

Pascal Leclaire, Senators (down six spots): Seven goals in two starts over the past week are troubling, but Sens coach Cory Clouston seems quite committed to Leclaire as his No. 1, so I keep him as a low-end No. 2 option in fantasy. What's a little disappointing for those of you who play with shutouts as a category is that he hasn't earned a clean sheet once this season in 14 starts. For comparison, he had five through 14 starts in his breakout 2007-08 campaign.

Chris Mason, Blues (up nine spots): Mason continues to be a ratios freak in spite of no offensive support. He allowed the opposition to deposit two pucks in the net behind him in both his starts but lost both because the Blues were able to do the same with the puck at the other end only once. I expect his ratios to come back toward his career averages (2.53 and .914) by season's end, but even those ratios can help balance out more streaky options. A nice trade target if you have a ratios-poor, win-rich guy like Jonathan Quick on your team.

Time-shares

Jose Theodore (30.5 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (90.0 percent), Capitals: After a nice start to the season, Theodore's performance has fallen off quite sharply recently. He suffered an off-ice tragedy this offseason when his young son died, and the Caps have given him some time off to cope. Michal Neuvirth will remain on the roster until more is known about Theodore's situation, but he poses no real threat. In other words, Varlamov is a great buy-low candidate for a trade right now. Alexander Ovechkin is back and as good as ever, and Varlamov has been great in the past five games: 10 goals against and a .933 save percentage. Oh, and four more wins.

Jimmy Howard (4.5 percent) and Chris Osgood(60.7 percent), Red Wings: Osgood got so sick during the past week that he needed an IV, according to the Detroit Free Press, and Howard took the chance to start and played pretty solidly, posting wins in three of four games. Of course, one of those wins was quite ugly for the deep-leaguers who started him: four goals allowed and a save percentage of just .826. Gross. But he recovered decently Wednesday night against the Stars, with 29 saves on 32 shots in the loss. Signs point to Howard getting another chance on Saturday on the tail end of another back-to-back duo of games. He doesn't have a very high ceiling, though -- last season's backup to Osgood, Ty Conklin, started 37 games and ended the season in the No. 21 slot among goalies in fantasy. Bear in mind that Conklin's career stats are considerably better than Howard's, and I wouldn't expect anything fantastic out of Howard. Really, the best option, and this is wildly hypothetical, would be for the Ducks to trade Jean-Sebastien Giguere to the Wings for Howard plus Random Skater X. The Wings would get an upgrade in goal, Jonas Hiller wouldn't have to worry about Jiggy staring over his shoulder, and I could bust out all my old Howard the Duck paraphernalia. No one loses on that one.

Steve Mason (95.5 percent) and Mathieu Garon (3.5 percent), Blue Jackets: The Jackets are looking mighty smart for acquiring the 31-year-old Garon to back up last season's Calder trophy winner. To this point, Garon has looked like the starter as Mason has been mired in a sophomore slump, and the elder is ahead by far in both ratio categories. Three of Garon's five starts this season have been quality, although I do expect his current ratios of 2.46 and .923 to tail off a bit. Mason, on the other hand, should see a dramatic upturn in his stats if he can shake off his funk and the back spasms he's been experiencing, according to the Columbus Dispatch. In other words, you might be able to peel Mason off his current owner for very little right now. In the meantime, everyone should feel free to give Garon a whirl.

Collateral Damage

A goalie's stats can be a little temperamental over the course of a season, especially his success in the wins category, which is determined greatly by the offense skating in front of him. So while losing a potent linemate can hurt a forward or defenseman, it also can affect the netminder. Here, then, are some goalies who are about to get a bump in one direction because of injuries up front.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins: The Pens still are on pace to eclipse 100 points this season, and it has a lot to do with their depth. The injury updates this week are the best microcosm of what's been going on in the Steel City thus far: Max Talbot and Sergei Gonchar are expected back Thursday, but the team lost Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski this week (both will miss at least two weeks), and has been playing without regular D-men Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang. While the Gonchar return will be like a triple shot of espresso to the Pens' sleepy power play (currently second to last in the league), the loss of McKee is a huge one. Although he had only five points in 21 games this season, the 32-year-old Ontarian was tied for the league lead with 69 blocked shots through Wednesday's games. So, an upgrade by the addition of Gonchar is tempered by the loss of defensive stalwart McKee, meaning MAF will get more wins at the expense of lower ratios. Consider picking up or trading for a guy who has been a ratio star to offset this.

Jonathan Quick, Kings: With the news that Ryan Smyth will be out for up to a month with an upper-body injury, all of a sudden, the L.A. franchise might not be the Kings of the Western Conference for much longer, especially considering their blasť effort Wednesday night with the promotion of the up-and-down Alexander Frolov into No. 94's spot. Smyth's presence was huge for linemates Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, but the intangibles -- "heart," "passion," "luxurious, flowing locks" -- that he brought to the table inspired the whole team. This will have a big-time effect on Quick for the next month, or however long Captain Canada is out. Quick's ratios have been off this season compared to last, but he has been the backstop for 12 wins already, thanks to an offense that was greatly improved with Smyth. The team might rely more on its young corps of solid defensemen to steady the team now, but it will need to find a way to score more goals; otherwise, Quick's value will sharply decline. You might need to bench him until the Kings figure out what they're going to do on offense.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com

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.

ALSO SEE