Commentary

In the Crease: Tuukka Rask's woes

Weekly news and notes on fantasy hockey goalies

Updated: October 26, 2010, 5:36 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

It's only our third full week of fantasy hockey, so any analysis will run into the problem of small sample size. However, some disturbing trends are emerging amongst some elite netminders. Looking at where players were drafted compared with their fellow backstops, and then putting that up against their position on the ESPN Player Rater -- which accounts for the three categories in standard leagues -- there are some surprises at both ends of the spectrum.

The top five includes two players who went undrafted in most leagues: Pittsburgh Penguins backup Brent Johnson and Vancouver Canucks backup Cory Schneider. Their high differential is not all that surprising given that draft pedigree, although I'm not sure that these two will remain atop the board as the season progresses. As for Tim Thomas, we'll get to him in a minute.

The bottom five does not include any players who went undrafted in most leagues, although those who selected either Antti Niemi or Dan Ellis knew that they were going with someone whose prospects for starting on any given night were no better than 50 percent. It's interesting to note that three of the largest negative differentials belong to men who are No. 1 on their team's depth chart, while each of their respective backups is among the top five differentials. But there is a big difference between the prospects for Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury compared with Tuukka Rask.

While Luongo and Fleury are not in any real danger of losing their starting jobs, we knew Rask -- like Ellis and Niemi -- was entering a time-share from the season's outset; moreover, we remember that Thomas can deliver a season's worth of good production, so the threat of his taking over the dominant role in this 1A versus 1B battle is very real. As of now, Thomas has started four games to Rask's two, the team has won all of Thomas' starts and lost both of Rask's, and the veteran has a big advantage in both ratios (0.75 to 3.54 in goals-against average and .978 to .894 in save percentage). Thomas has gained 72.1 percentage points in ownership in ESPN leagues over the past two weeks -- he's up to 92.1 percent right now -- so it's likely too late to pounce if you haven't already.

Tuukka Rask
Richard Wolowicz/Getty ImagesTuukka Rask has lost the only two games in which he has started this season.

But what should the disappointed Rask owner do at this juncture? Nothing, aside from keeping him on your bench until he turns the corner. If you're new to fantasy sports, welcome, we're glad to have you. Now that you're here, you should know that one of the most important credos in our world is one that's stolen from the stock market: buy low, sell high. If you used a high draft choice on Rask instead of bolstering your offensive firepower or adding an elite defenseman, chances are another owner in your league is not going to offer you the opportunity to trade for one of those other players for the benefit of taking an underperforming goalie off your hands. Instead, the Rask owner should hold on, at least for another 5-10 starts, depending on the relative bench size.

Will the patience be rewarded? Is Rask going to turn his season around? Several of the goals allowed on his watch, including all three in the most recent loss to the New York Rangers, were not the young Finn's fault. In fact, in the postgame breakdown provided by ESPNBoston.com's James Murphy, the word "flat" was used to describe the effort of the team in front of him. On the other hand, the NHL's truly elite goalies can bail their teams out occasionally when the defense hangs them out to dry, and we haven't seen that version of Rask too often in 2010-11 after he arrived on the scene during the 2009-10 campaign. The bottom line: Rask has only two starts, so it's definitely too early to panic. If the thought process is still the same by the end of November, then it may be time to cut the dead weight.

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. Jimmy Howard, Det (3)
3. Roberto Luongo, Van (2)
4. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (4)
5. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (5)
6. Martin Brodeur, NJ (6)
7. Jaroslav Halak, StL (8)
8. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (7)
9. Jonathan Quick, LA (10)
10. Cam Ward, Car (9)
11. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (14)
12. Niklas Backstrom, Min (12)
13. Carey Price, Mon (15)
14. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (16)
15. Craig Anderson, Col (11)
16. Tim Thomas, Bos (20)
17. Tuukka Rask, Bos (13)
18. Michal Neuvirth, Was (29)
19. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (17)
20. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (21)
21. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (18)
22. Jonas Hiller, Ana (22)
23. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (30)
24. Chris Mason, Atl (19)
25. Anders Lindback, Nsh (34)
26. Brent Johnson, Pit (35)
27. Semyon Varlamov, Was (23)
28. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (37)
29. Dan Ellis, TB (25)
30. Steve Mason, Cls (27)
31. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (26)
32. Jonathan Bernier, LA (28)
33. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (33)
34. Antti Niemi, SJ (24)
35. Marty Turco, Chi (31)
36. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (32)
37. Mike Smith, TB (39)
38. Michael Leighton, Phi (36)
39. Cory Schneider, Van (42)
40. Brian Boucher, Phi (43)

Rising and falling

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (up two spots): Last week I took a look at how Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has responded positively to the pressure of having promising backup Jonathan Bernier right behind him on the depth chart. Clearly, Quick is a guy who needs to be pushed. On the other end of the spectrum is Price, who plays in arguably the hottest pressure cooker in all of North American professional sports. During the 2009-10 campaign, Price struggled while crease-mate Jaroslav Halak took flight, so perhaps the pressure had gotten to the former. Over the summer, the Habs chose to stick with Price as their future franchise 'tender, shipping Halak to the St. Louis Blues and doling out a contract extension to Price. Thus far, the offseason vote of confidence has worked. Price has started every game for the Habs, and though he's had some difficult nights, the big picture is bright. In fact, defenseman P.K. Subban told the Montreal Gazette this past week that Price is "one of the best goalies in the NHL right now." Clearly, he got the memo that Price needs positive encouragement to succeed.

We've seen hot starts from Price before: in 2008-09, he racked up a 16-4-5 record over the first three months, allowing 58 goals in those 25 starts with a .921 save percentage. Thereafter, he went 7-12-5, with 85 goals allowed in one fewer start and a .891 save percentage. My belief is that Price has matured since then, and will be able to sustain a top-15 level of play throughout the season. If you're a Carey owner who doesn't believe that, then the Price may be right for a trade soon.

Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals (up 11 spots): Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Semyon Varlamov is "day-to-day" with an injury. At this point, it would seem it's only the goodwill he built up during the 2008-09 playoff run that has earned him any currency, because he's been on the ice for only a total of 28 games since. Varlamov came on to replace Neuvirth due to the latter's illness during the first half of a home-and-home series against the Boston Bruins last week, but the undisclosed injury is concerning, especially to anyone who used a high draft pick on Varly. In his stead, Neuvirth has earned five wins in seven starts, with a 2.53 GAA and .919 save percentage. Those ratios are good for the No. 17 and No. 19 spots in the league, respectively; however, as we saw last season, even a player with downright bad ratios can be a fantasy asset given the Caps' scoring prowess. As of now, Neuvirth seems like the safer bet among Capitals goalies.

Chris Mason, Atlanta Thrashers (down five spots): Mason didn't make the Bottom Five list above comparing draft status to 2010-11 performance; nevertheless, he's been a big disappointment so far after finishing in the No. 14 spot in the Player Rater for the 2009-10 campaign. Part of it has to do with adjusting to a new team and defensive system. It hasn't helped his cause that the Thrashers have allowed seven more shots per game than the Blues did last season in front of Mason. If his current production weren't troubling enough, Ondrej Pavelec was activated from injured reserve on Monday. With Pavelec on the way back, it's possible the Thrashers will become more of a time-share once he's back in the swing of things, and this will continue to drive Mason's value down.

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets (down three spots): Former Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft may want to give Mason a call to offer up some advice, because it appears as though his career may offer a glimpse of what's to come for the Blue Jackets' netminder. Though it's just a six-game taste, Mason has actually put up worse stats than he did in 2009-10, which was generally considered a "sophomore slump" season after his splendid rookie breakout. Add to that the fact that backup Mathieu Garon has been a reliable alternative both last season and in his two starts thus far, and there's trouble brewing in central Ohio. At this point, Mason is worth a bench spot, to see if he can turn his fortunes around; however, don't let him anywhere near your active lineup for the time being.

Time-shares

Antti Niemi (84.9 percent) and Antero Niittymaki (37.3 percent), San Jose Sharks: Last week, I mentioned that things might start to shake out a bit in this time-share, as the Sharks had four games on the docket over the next seven days. Little did I know the goalie battle in San Jose would make like the Shake Weight. Niemi started the bookends -- last Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes and Sunday against the Calgary Flames -- and was knocked around in the first (five goals allowed) and knocked out of the second (three goals allowed in just over eight minutes). Meanwhile, Niittymaki allowed just three goals total in the two sandwiched games, and just one goal against in relief against Calgary on Sunday. "I think things are going well in San Jose," Niemi told the Edmonton Sun this past week. Maybe when his counterpart is on the ice. For now, keep Niemi away from your active lineup.

Marc-Andre Fleury (97.9 percent) and Brent Johnson (56.2 percent), Pittsburgh Penguins: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma continues to reiterate that Fleury is his franchise netminder, and there's no reason not to believe him. On the other hand, the difference between what Johnson and Fleury have done thus far in the season is staggering: The Pens are 4-0-1 in Johnson's starts, and he's leading the league in GAA (1.39) and save percentage (.951) for 'tenders with five or more starts. For comparison, the Pens are 1-3-0 with Fleury as the backstop, and "the Flower" has a 3.25 GAA and .859 save percentage. With a typically busy schedule -- including four back-to-backs -- from now until the end of November, expect to see plenty of both. But as we always caution, just because a guy's playing doesn't mean he has to be active for your fantasy team. Lastly, for the 43.8 percent of folks out there in a league where Johnson is available, what else do you need to see?

Sergei Bobrovsky (39.3 percent) and Brian Boucher (4.4 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Before we hit the time-share analysis, word from the Philadelphia Inquirer is that Michael Leighton (owned in 12.4 percent of ESPN leagues) received a good prognosis from doctors over the weekend, and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren says that he's right on schedule to make his return as early as late November. In the meantime, it's the "Bob" and "Boosh" show. After four starts for each, neither man has stuck out as the better option for the Flyers or as a fantasy option. Bobrovsky has one more victory and an advantage in save percentage (.901 to .898), while Boucher is significantly ahead in GAA, 2.26 to 2.78. If seeing those figures makes you think that the Flyers are allowing more shots on Bobrovsky than Boucher, you're on to something: The 22-year-old is seeing 27.75 shots per start while the vet has been getting 22 pucks sent in his direction per outing. Due to the unresolved situation, and the fact that the Flyers are in the No. 22 spot in scoring as of this writing, it's hard to recommend either man strongly.

Pekka Rinne (100.0 percent) and Anders Lindback (4.8 percent), Nashville Predators: Last week, Lindback made the column in the "Rising and Falling" section due to his hot start in the place of the injured Rinne. Rinne was back as of last Tuesday, but as we know, Preds coach Barry Trotz has little hesitancy in running a time-share, regardless of the history of the two men in question. Obviously, you won't be able to get your hands on Rinne, but Lindback is a great option for those in need of a spot start here and there, as it appears the youngster could get between 15 and 20 more starts at the minimum from here on out.

Dan Ellis (56.8 percent) and Mike Smith (7.4 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: Last week I cautioned that Smith could be a plentiful source of wins this season, but it would come at the expense of some severe ratio sabotage. The 28-year-old actually improved his ratios while picking up his fourth win on Friday against the Atlanta Thrashers, although his seasonal marks of 3.12 GAA and .884 save percentage are still lagging behind what one likes to see on one's active roster. Of course, Smith's career marks are significantly better in both of the ratios (2.70 and .906), so perhaps he'll regress toward those numbers now that the Lightning have gotten more entrenched in new head coach Guy Boucher's system. It'll also help to get veteran rearguard Mattias Ohlund back, as the defenseman has missed the team's first eight games, but should be back this week, according to the Tampa Tribune. Speaking of Boucher, the coach's comments throughout the duration of the season haven't given any indication that one 'tender is starting to earn dibs on the No. 1 gig. This means that Ellis will have a chance to right his own ship. For now, it's a risk to start either man, but if you can handle the hit in the ratios, this is the league's top scoring offense (3.38 goals per game), so there's a chance for a win every night.

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.

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