In the Crease: Solving position battles
Weekly news and notes on fantasy hockey goalies
With less than a week of games in the books, not much should change on a seasonal projections list unless there's been a complete change of heart on someone, a devastating injury or a position battle that shakes out in unexpected ways.
With that last possibility in mind, there are still some unsettled situations around the league, some of which -- as with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10 -- might go unsettled into the spring. For those who spent top draft choices on goaltending, you might not care; after all, the workhorses will start the vast majority of games for their respective teams and you won't have much to do on a lineup basis. But for the rest, who plan on having a fluid situation in the active roster, and perhaps on the roster in general, it's important to pay special attention to the tendencies of various coaching staffs: Do they ride the hot hand in net, alternate starts or dole out playing time in some other fashion? How quickly will confidence in the stated No. 1 wane?
Two situations that remain unresolved involve teams that expect to contend well into the spring. The first team in question is the Philadelphia Flyers, who rode Michael Leighton throughout the playoffs. The Flyers debated bringing on another veteran option this offseason before finally electing to re-sign Leighton. Unfortunately, he underwent surgery on Oct. 11 to repair a herniated disc in his back and will miss six to eight weeks, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.
While Leighton is out, 22-year-old KHL import Sergei Bobrovsky and 33-year-old NHL journeyman Brian Boucher will split the duties, and the two have alternated starts thus far for the Flyers. The intrigue will begin when Leighton returns, as the team will have to figure out whether it wants to retain the rights to all three or make a move. In addition, it's not yet clear that Leighton necessarily will get the lion's share of starts once he's healthy, and a solid two months by Bobrovsky and/or Boucher will influence that decision, as well.
The San Jose Sharks already face this dilemma with netminder Thomas Greiss in limbo. Greiss dutifully backed up Evgeni Nabokov last season (although he rarely saw the ice), and was in line to be in more of an even time-share with Antero Niittymaki after the team's signing of the streaky Finn. Instead, the Sharks signed Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi, leaving Greiss on the outside looking in. The 24-year-old was placed on waivers on Oct. 10 and, if he clears, will be sent to the team's AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass. If he's claimed, he could be an important fantasy asset, depending which goalie he is backing up. The Atlanta Thrashers, who face uncertainty with Ondrej Pavelec, have been mentioned as one possible claimant.
One other unresolved situation involves a team that might snooker its way into the playoffs with a promising mix of young talent and some key veterans: the Edmonton Oilers. Based upon his pedigree and salary -- and in spite of a tumultuous past 12 months because of back surgery and other off-ice issues -- Nikolai Khabibulin is the No. 1 for the Oil, and he's off to a good start, leading Puck Prospectus' first player power rankings, and sitting atop our fantasy rankings, with two wins, a 1.00 goals-against average and a .969 save percentage. Will this be a throwback season for Khabibulin, or will he need as much rest as one would expect for a 37-year-old? If it's the latter, the decision on which player the Oilers keep between Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers becomes a vital one, with Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal believing that Dubnyk will win out. Like Greiss, Deslauriers might benefit from an increased opportunity in a different setting, as his tenure as a starter in 2009-10 was marked by the team in front of him allowing the third most shots per game in the league.
With uncertainty ruling the day for the above goaltenders, let's take a look at some resolved situations before hitting our usual departments.
Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa Senators: Leclaire was acquired -- and is being compensated -- with designs on his being a legitimate No. 1 netminder. However, the Sens might have fallen victim to buying high on Leclaire stock, and now they're seeing what can happen with an overvalued asset. When healthy, Leclaire has the skill to be one of the league's best, as demonstrated by his 2007-08 campaign for the Columbus Blue Jackets: 24 wins, a 2.25 GAA, .919 save percentage and nine shutouts in 52 starts. However, in the two next seasons, he started just 43 games total. Although one of his injuries last season was unexpected (struck in the face with a puck while sitting on the bench), he obviously has had other health issues. He has started each of the team's first three games and played well from a qualitative standpoint despite mediocre stats (3.54 GAA and .905 save percentage). The second game, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, was a particular anomaly as he allowed five goals. Although Leclaire was diplomatic in his postgame remarks after that contest, his defense clearly hung him out to dry. Sens coach Cory Clouston has repeatedly declared Leclaire to be his No. 1, and I'll take him at his word on that for now. Of course, Leclaire and Brian Elliott might find themselves in the "Time-shares" department as the season rolls along.
Andrew Raycroft, Dallas Stars: Raycroft won the backup battle over Brent Krahn, who heads back to the team's AHL affiliate for another go-round. No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen started a career-high 66 games in 2006-07 but has started just 55 in the past two seasons combined, including just 10 in 2009-10 because of a lingering back injury. The Stars made it a point to work with Lehtonen on his conditioning (a noted shortcoming) this offseason, but it'll be a while before we can trust that the plan will pay off. All of this would indicate that we could be seeing a bit more of Raycroft than we did last season when he was the caddie for Roberto Luongo; if Rayzor falters in that duty, expect Krahn to get the call-up. Given Lehtonen's propensity for injuries, Raycroft and Krahn are worth keeping in mind.
Anders Lindback, Nashville Predators: Nashville coach Barry Trotz ran a time-share between Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis for much of the 2009-10 season before letting Ellis hit free agency this past summer. With some noteworthy backups available, the team elected to stage a battle between several promising youngsters, with Lindback winning out. Rinne suffered an injury in the Oct. 9 game against the Anaheim Ducks, and if this were baseball, Lindback would've gotten the save, stopping all seven shots he faced on the way to the team's 4-1 victory. Although the injury to Rinne is believed to be minor, we should be seeing more of Lindback this season.
Henrik Karlsson, Calgary Flames: Karlsson was treading water in the Sharks' system while playing in the Swedish Elite League, but the Flames liked what their European scouts saw of him and sent their sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft to San Jose for his rights. Karlsson then beat out Leland Irving and Matt Keetley to earn the job as Miikka Kiprusoff's backup. Typically, this is an easy job: Kipper has started 73, 74, 76, 76 and 72 games the past five seasons. It's tough to recommend Karlsson as anything more than an insurance policy at this point, but remember his name if Kipper does wind up going down.
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. Preseason ranking is indicated in parentheses.
1. Ryan Miller, Buf (1)
2. Roberto Luongo, Van (2)
3. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
4. Jimmy Howard, Det (5)
5. Martin Brodeur, NJ (4)
6. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (6)
7. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (7)
8. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
9. Niklas Backstrom, Min (9)
10. Tuukka Rask, Bos (8)
11. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (11)
12. Cam Ward, Car (13)
13. Craig Anderson, Col (12)
14. Carey Price, Mon (14)
15. Jonathan Quick, LA (15)
16. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (17)
17. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (19)
18. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (29)
19. Chris Mason, Atl (20)
20. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (NR)
21. Jonas Hiller, Ana (18)
22. Dan Ellis, TB (21)
23. Semyon Varlamov, Was (16)
24. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (23)
25. Antti Niemi, SJ (24)
26. Jonathan Bernier, LA (38)
27. Tim Thomas, Bos (33)
28. Steve Mason, Cls (26)
29. Marty Turco, Chi (27)
30. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (28)
31. Michal Neuvirth, Was (NR)
32. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (30)
33. Michael Leighton, Phi (25)
34. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (31)
35. Martin Biron, NYR (32)
36. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (39)
37. Mike Smith, TB (NR)
38. Corey Crawford, Chi (35)
39. Brian Boucher, Phi (NR)
40. Henrik Karlsson, Cgy (37)
Rising and falling
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Toronto Maple Leafs (debuting at No. 20): People forget that Jiggy is only 33 years old; moreover, there's early evidence that his final season and a half in Anaheim was just a blip on the radar. After his trade to the Leafs last spring, he put up a 2.49 GAA and .916 save percentage behind a team still searching for its identity. Although Leafs general manager Brian Burke tinkered with the franchise during the offseason, he didn't do much at goalie, believing Jiggy could regain his form. Giguere has picked up two wins thus far, with three goals against in two starts and a .935 save percentage. More importantly, it looks as if the Leafs might be finding their niche. He's owned in just 48.8 percent of ESPN leagues, so he'd be a tremendous waiver pickup and a nice speculative trade option, too. Jonas who?
Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers (up 11 spots): A series of bad luck and bad decisions had some people speculating this offseason that the Oilers would release the Bulin Wall, eating his salary for the duration of his contract. Instead, he has put up two strong performances in this young season (as mentioned above). I'm not thoroughly convinced on Khabibulin just yet, thus the reason he isn't among the surefire No. 1 fantasy goaltenders on the rankings list just yet, but if he can string together some more good starts, we might have to adjust our collective expectations.
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (down three spots): I'm not hitting the panic button on Hiller (or the Ducks, for that matter) after three disappointing starts in which he allowed four goals in each loss, and neither should you. But the Ducks need to figure out their defensive zone worries quickly. They've started down that track by signing Andreas Lilja, but the unit, which features many new faces, must still work things out schematically. "We definitely got to do a better job," Hiller recently told The Orange County (Calif.) Register. "Especially in clearing the puck out of the zone and skating the puck out of our zone. Too often, we lose the puck at our blue line and give them second chances." If they can't fix those issues, Hiller's value will continue to plummet. For now, maintain a holding pattern, but keep him on the bench while the team figures out how it's going to play defense.
Antti Niemi (100.0 percent) and Antero Niittymaki (35.3 percent), San Jose Sharks: Niemi might wind up as the biggest over-draft this season, as his strong run through the playoffs and signing by one of the league's contenders yielded quite a lot of hype. Don't get me wrong, he'll do fine this season; however, the problem is that the Sharks also have Niittymaki, and it appears they're going to go with a nearly even time-share, at least for the time being. Of course, this is a big shift from what they've done in seasons past with workhorse Evgeni Nabokov, who started 210 regular-season games over the past three seasons. The Sharks likely will ride the hot hand through the early portion of the schedule before settling on one option. For daily lineup leagues, this is no problem; for weekly leagues, it's going to be incredibly frustrating. Of course, a start or two from one of these guys is better than three from someone of lesser value; with that in mind, Niitty is severely under-owned right now.
Semyon Varlamov (84.8 percent) and Michal Neuvirth (37.2 percent), Washington Capitals: Either the Caps feel strongly that one of these two will be a great NHL netminder based on what each has shown thus far, or they believe the lesson taught by the two Stanley Cup finalists last season, namely, that a team doesn't need a big-name goalie to make a deep playoff run as long as there's a successful system in place in front of him. As for current events, Varlamov began the season on injured reserve, although The Washington Post has reported that he could return at some point this week. Meanwhile, Neuvirth has notched two wins in his three starts, with a 2.62 GAA and .916 save percentage, slightly better than the ratios he put up in 16 starts in 2009-10. As we saw last season, the Caps will provide the opportunity for a goalie to put up a lot of wins, but they have their defensive shortcomings, which can lead to some rough nights for the men between the pipes. Nothing I've seen in the offseason or through this young campaign leads me to believe any different regarding the prospects for 2010-11.
Jonathan Quick (100.0 percent) and Jonathan Bernier (13.6 percent), Los Angeles Kings: Lest I get too carried away and fail to mention this: You need to go check whether Bernier is available in your league (as it appears is the case in an overwhelming majority of ESPN leagues) and add him immediately. Bernier led the AHL last season in save percentage, shutouts and saves; was second in GAA; and was third in wins and minutes played. But that's just the minors, right? Turns out he did OK in three NHL starts down the stretch, too: four goals allowed total in that trio (a 1.30 GAA), with a .957 save percentage and three wins. Now that Erik Ersberg is out of the way, the Jonathan-squared time-share can begin in earnest. Bear in mind that Quick started 72 times in 2009-10, an impressive feat of durability that led to some fantasy renown. On the other hand, he was visibly fatigued in the Kings' short playoff run, leading me to believe Bernier is going to get a healthy share of the workload this season. Don't sleep on this guy, especially in keeper leagues.
Tuukka Rask (100.0 percent) and Tim Thomas (20.0 percent), Boston Bruins: 2009-10 was a roller coaster for Thomas. He started the season as the defending Vezina Trophy winner and was atop many preseason fantasy rankings lists, as well. Things began to fall apart for Thomas concurrently with the rise of Rask, and the young Finn ended the season as the league leader in GAA and save percentage, as well as the clear favorite in net for the B's. An even greater sign of his dominance is the fact that he finished second among goalies in ESPN's fantasy hockey player rater last season despite just 22 wins. There were many trade rumors for Thomas in the offseason, but no move was made. This is either because no one offered the Bruins a package that they liked or because the team wasn't really all that interested in trading Thomas after all. The latter explanation has gained some support based on comments that have been made this fall --"We have two No. 1 goalies here," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPNBoston.com -- as well as the fact that the two men alternated starts in the season-opening pair of games in the Czech Republic. If the time-share continues in that fashion, it gives a boost to Thomas' value while putting a slight damper on Rask's. Keep an eye on the split early in the season, and make the move for Thomas if you have the space.
Marty Turco (95.3 percent) and Corey Crawford (0.9 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville carried out a time-share in net up until just before the playoffs began last season, finally deciding on Niemi (it worked out OK in the end). Although Turco has 481 more starts in his career than Crawford, it appears as though Quenneville will lean on the 25-year-old quite a bit this season (as he did Monday), likely in hopes of keeping Turco fresh for another postseason run. Turco built up a reputation for being durable in his days in Dallas, but it's smart to get his 35-year-old body some rest here and there. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Dan Ellis (89.7 percent) and Mike Smith (1.5 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: Ellis and Smith grew up together in the Stars' system, and they find themselves together again with the Lightning. Not only that but Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher recently told the St. Petersburg Times that his netminders are "equal," which I interpret as meaning they'll both get their chance to win the job early on. As with any even time-share, this will be frustrating for owners of either man in fantasy. However, for daily league owners, owning both and keeping an eye on the news for who's starting that night can be an effective strategy. In other words, Smith, like former teammate Niittymaki, is very much under-owned right now.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.
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