- Tim Kavanagh, Fantasy and Insider
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There have been some surprises thus far in the 2010-11 NHL season, both in the real world and our world of fantasy. But the recent developments in Canada's capital city are not one of them.
Pascal Leclaire -- whom Ottawa Senators coach Cory Clouston declared as his unquestioned No. 1 goalie prior to the season -- was injured while making a save against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 14. The reports indicate that it is a groin pull, with the prognosis that Leclaire will miss at least a week with the injury, and possibly more. Clouston stood up for the oft-injured Leclaire, telling the Ottawa Citizen that Leclaire had been "our best player overall in the first three games."
Leclaire has had a knack for sustaining injuries throughout his career, as his career-high, 52-start 2007-08 campaign appears to be the exception to the rule. Perhaps due partially to this history, Leclaire was a bit under-owned compared to some other No. 1 real-life 'tenders, just over 50 percent prior to the injury. Additionally, it can't be overstated that the group of muscles in a goalie's groin area is vastly important to their success between the pipes; as a result, the Sens will want Leclaire to be fully operational before re-inserting him as their backstop.
In the meantime, Brian Elliott slides in to the No. 1 role in Ottawa, with future franchise netminder Robin Lehner called up from Binghamton to act as understudy. Elliott looked OK in a hard loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, in front of a typically vociferous crowd at the Bell Centre, before lasting just 30 minutes (and five goals-against) while visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday. Elliott has always been streaky -- as detailed in this space on Jan. 28 -- so perhaps he's due to rattle off a few hot starts in a row, as he did on multiple occasions last season, twice earning himself NHL.com's first star of the week.
On the other hand, for those who like to play risk-averse fantasy hockey, Elliott has not shown a particular proclivity for keeping pucks out of the net this season, nor have his offensive teammates truly figured out this whole "scoring" business too well as of yet. Those two factors mean that wins may be hard to come by (until the offense starts clicking), and the ratios won't be worth the wasted starts.
Moreover, if Leclaire actually does only miss a week or so due to his injury this time around, Elliott will have only one or two more starts left before his demotion back to second fiddle because of a relatively light schedule this week for the Sens. Last season, the team used a two-thirds to one-thirds split in favor of Leclaire while he was healthy, and this season has been even more slanted, as Clouston had given every start to his No. 1 prior to the injury. This means that Elliott may not see a ton of icetime in the very near future. The lesson here, as we've seen many times in the past: just because a goalie is starting for his real team doesn't mean you want him starting for your fantasy team. As a specific addition to that rule, instead of adding Elliott for the chance of short-term starts, take a longer look at one of the other many backups earning numerous starts this season (see below for some ideas).
Rising and falling
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. Roberto Luongo, Van (2)
3. Jimmy Howard, Det (4)
4. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (6)
5. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
6. Martin Brodeur, NJ (5)
7. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (7)
8. Jaroslav Halak, StL (8)
9. Cam Ward, Car (12)
10. Jonathan Quick, LA (15)
11. Craig Anderson, Col (13)
12. Niklas Backstrom, Min (9)
13. Tuukka Rask, Bos (10)
14. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (11)
15. Carey Price, Mon (14)
16. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (17)
17. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (18)
18. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (16)
19. Chris Mason, Atl (19)
20. Tim Thomas, Bos (27)
21. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (20)
22. Jonas Hiller, Ana (21)
23. Semyon Varlamov, Was (23)
24. Antti Niemi, SJ (25)
25. Dan Ellis, TB (22)
26. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (24)
27. Steve Mason, Cls (28)
28. Jonathan Bernier, LA (26)
29. Michal Neuvirth, Was (31)
30. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (32)
31. Marty Turco, Chi (29)
32. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (36)
33. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (30)
34. Anders Lindback, Nsh (NR)
35. Brent Johnson, Pit (NR)
36. Michael Leighton, Phi (33)
37. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (34)
38. Martin Biron, NYR (35)
39. Mike Smith, TB (37)
40. Brian Elliott, Ott (NR)
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings (up five spots): Perhaps the pressure of having the vaunted future of the franchise behind him has sparked "Quicker" early on, as his 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage are both near the top of the league at this early juncture. This is in a bit of contrast to last season, when Quick finished the campaign in the No. 14 spot for GAA (2.54) and No. 26 in SVP (.907). Recently, Jonathan Bernier told Tony Gallagher of the Province that he's been instructed by the Kings he'll get at least one start per week. This should keep the wear and tear on Quick down -- as has been noted here and elsewhere, he looked extremely fatigued by the time the playoffs rolled around at the tail end of last season -- and will keep the rust off of Bernier in case he needs to be relied upon for a lengthier stretch. In spite of these occasional breaks, Quick remains a must-start in all formats. If the rest yields a more productive Quick for 62 games instead of a less effective one for 72, that's something anyone will buy in on.
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild (down three spots): I was cautiously optimistic on Backstrom heading into this season, and in truth, his ratios have been a massive improvement over last season's disappointing set. My concern with Backstrom -- and the Wild in general -- is that coach Todd Richards' system may not be a great fit for the players on the roster. As a result, this may not be a team that generates a lot of wins, which would pull Backstrom out of the realm of the elite fantasy 'tenders. Still quite rosterable and startable, but his projection isn't as high as it was a few weeks ago.
Anders Lindback, Nashville Predators (debuting at No. 33) and Brent Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins (debuting at No. 34): Piggybacking on the Brian Elliott discussion from above, two other backups have seen increased playing time early on this season in Nashville and Pittsburgh. However, that's essentially where the similarities end between the two. Lindback, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-6 Swedish behemoth, has been filling in for an injured Pekka Rinne, and has the big p-word on his side: potential. Not only that, but given the number of times Preds coach Barry Trotz has benched his preseason No. 1 in favor of an upstart historically, it wouldn't be surprising if their situation becomes more of a time-share. However, with Rinne returning, expect the team to see what they've got in their big-money goalkeeper, thus the modest bump up the rankings list.
As for Johnson, the 33-year-old journeyman has looked visibly better as the Pens' backstop this season, and the numbers back up the qualitative evidence. But in terms of long-term potential, there's no mistaking who the No. 1 'tender in Pittsburgh is. "[Fleury] is our franchise goaltender and our No. 1 guy," Pens coach Dan Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Monday. As a result, expectations must also be cautious on the continued output of Johnson. He's a nice pickup for now, and owned in only 23.4 percent of ESPN leagues, but be ready to cut him loose when Bylsma hands the bulk of the share back to Fleury.
Antti Niemi (99.8 percent) and Antero Niittymaki (29.0 percent), San Jose Sharks: As expected, the Sharks have alternated starts for their Finnish duo in net through three games, a trend that may continue for quite some time. Prior to the season, head coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com that there was no set plan to dole out the starts, however in addition to a simple alternating plan, the Sharks could go with the hot hand for a few games in a row at a time. Things may begin to shake out a bit more this week, as San Jose will play four games. For now, as has been said many times before, keep your eye on the newswire for updates on which goalie is getting the start that night.
Semyon Varlamov (80.2 percent) and Michal Neuvirth (81.3 percent), Washington Capitals: Neuvirth's ownership percentage in ESPN leagues more than doubled over the past week in response to his hot start, as his 4-1-0 record and ratios of 2.16 in GAA and .930 in SVP have him in the No. 9 spot in Puck Prospectus' Player Power Rankings as of Oct. 18. But Varlamov's return to active duty this past Saturday -- he was in uniform backing up Neuvirth during the win against the Predators -- complicates things. As we saw last season, Varlamov was given every opportunity to unseat Jose Theodore as the team's starting 'tender, and it was only injuries that prevented him from so doing. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau told the Washington Post this past week that his decision on the top dog in net will not be made hastily, and it could be March before his choice becomes final, much to the dismay of weekly lineup fantasy owners. Given how readily the Caps' offense will continue to give these two leads, as well as their apparent evenness in opportunity from Boudreau, both are worth stashing on a fantasy roster while this situation works itself out.
Tuukka Rask (98.9 percent) and Tim Thomas (42.8 percent), Boston Bruins: With a 22.8 percent increase in his ESPN fantasy league ownership over the past week, time's a wastin' for that Tim Thomas pickup you've been pondering. It's a very small sample, but it would appear he's over the health issues that plagued him since at least March of last season (and likely before then, given visual and statistical evidence). However, in spite of this hot start, Bruins coach Claude Julien confirmed to the Boston Globe on Monday that the team's plan for their two goalies is about "making our decision tougher as we go along." While this might seem like coach-speak, he's got the conundrum to back it up, given the lovely memories we all have of Rask from the second half of last season. Even so, if 2009-10 was, in fact, an outlier on Thomas' career arc due to the hip injury, the Michigan native has no business being on the waiver wire in any format. Sure, you might get only a start or two from either of these gentlemen in a given week, but if they're only relenting two goals at most in any of those starts, who can complain?
Marty Turco (94.7 percent) and Corey Crawford (2.0 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: It was a bit surprising to see Crawford get two consecutive starts last week (Oct. 11 against the Buffalo Sabres and Oct. 13 against the Predators), but the day after the game against the Preds, coach Joel Quenneville was decisive in telling ESPNChicago.com, "Marty is No. 1." He made good on that promise over the weekend, starting Turco in three games in four days. Turco backed up his coach's confidence, backstopping three Blackhawk wins while relenting seven goals on 107 shots (a .935 SVP). Turco had a goal of 55 starts prior to the season, and is now on pace for 59. Sure, anything can happen health-wise to a 35-year-old goalie approaching the 30,000 minutes-played mark in the NHL; however, before anyone goes wasting a roster spot on Crawford, note that Turco has proven quite durable throughout his career.
Dan Ellis (68.3 percent) and Mike Smith (2.8 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning have gotten some questionable play from both Smith and Ellis, making either a risky play in any format. Furthermore, while some early goalie ratios are skewed by one bad start (like Ellis, who has one quality start and one abhorrent one where he only made it through part of the second period before being yanked), Smith's allowed three or more goals in all four of his appearances. Here's where it gets tricky: Smith already has three wins on the season, one behind the league leaders at this early juncture. If Smith's ratios regress back near to his respective career means (2.71 GAA and .906 SVP), then a season akin to Marc-Andre Fleury's in 2009-10 (37 wins, 2.65 GAA and .905 SVP) is possible should Smith start to earn the lion's share of the playing time. Of course, this is a big hypothetical since there've been no signs in head coach Guy Boucher's comments that would indicate he'll deviate from his plan to work both goalies in the rotation, and a big reason why the Flower racked up 37 wins is that he started 66 games. For now, these men are only a safe start if you've also got someone else on the roster to counteract the ratio sabotage.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com
Tim Kavanagh checks in on goaltending injuries in Ottawa and time shares in San Jose, Washington, Boston and Tampa Bay.