Commentary

In The Crease: Niklas Backstrom's back

Updated: November 16, 2010, 5:51 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Comparing preseason rankings to end-of-season results, no one ever nails their list. There are many internal and external factors that weigh on how things shake out, some of which are hard to foresee during (or before) training camp when these lists are compiled and published.

Although some of my preseason rankings were a bit off-kilter -- hi there, Tuukka Rask -- one player I felt confident about then (and still feel confident about now) is Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who I put in the No. 9 spot prior to the season, which was higher than many others had him. As noted then, the Wild had some issues in 2009-10 with the new system instilled by Todd Richards, which was a departure from the defensive-minded approach of Jacques Lemaire. The biggest detriment to this paradigm shift fell on Backstrom, who was seeing lesser total shots but a higher percentage of quality scoring opportunities against him. It didn't help that he took a puck off the throat.

As the chart displays, the Wild's coaching change didn't have a positive effect on the scoresheet in 2009-10 (jettisoning the injury-prone yet incendiary Marian Gaborik didn't help matters), and Backstrom's numbers were down across the board, including his percentage of quality starts. For those who are new around here, quality starts (while not an official fantasy stat) was developed by the Puck Prospectus folks and is a useful tool to assess how well a goalie is playing. As with the relevant statistic for starting pitchers in baseball, it generally means that a goaltender has put his team in position to win, and as you can see from the chart there's a reasonably strong correlation, especially when considering shifts from season to season.

The early results for Backstrom this season are encouraging, and it's no fluke. According to what Richards told the Minneapolis Star Tribune earlier this month, assistant coach Rick Wilson has worked with the Wild skaters to channel shots to the outside and clear lanes in front of Backstrom, so that the goalie can actually see the shots heading his direction (what a concept!). In this way, Backstrom has been able to limit rebounds, which was an issue in 2009-10. Obviously, the strategy has worked.

Unless the Wild can find a scoring touch, however, Backstrom will need to continue his miserly ways in net for the team to have any chance of winning on a nightly basis. As a result, his fantasy value takes a bit of a hit since wins -- though not wholly dependent on him -- are one third of a goalie's stock. As for the ratios, looking back over what he's accomplished in his career, it seems feasible for the 32-year-old to keep pace in the NHL's Top 5 of each. With all of this in mind, I expect Backstrom to maintain a spot in the top 10 of fantasy goalies and to threaten the top 5 the rest of the way. While I wouldn't recommend completely mortgaging other areas of your team to nab him, it's worthwhile to find out what his owner wants in trade.

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

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up eight spots): Hiller and his team got off to a disappointing start this season, as he relented 19 goals in his first five starts and the team was 1-3-1. Since then, the Ducks have won seven of Hiller's 10 starts, and his ratios have consistently improved. The big change for the team has been the addition of veteran blueliner Andreas Lilja, whose first game coincides with the start of Hiller's strong run. If this proves to be more than a 10-game trend -- and there's a good chance it might -- Hiller will be a solid No. 2 option the rest of the way, and perhaps even better. There's certainly no pressure from below on the depth chart.

Brian Elliott, Ottawa Senators (back on the list at No. 23): As mentioned above, sometimes you get good wood on predictions and sometimes you whiff. Looks like I whiffed a bit on Elliott a few weeks back, as I didn't think he'd be able to maintain a consistently high level of play given the streakiness we'd seen in the past. As it stands now, there is no goalie controversy in Ottawa: Elliott is the No. 1 and Pascal Leclaire is the No. 2, in spite of the latter's recent return from a groin injury (allowing six goals this past Thursday doesn't help Leclaire's cause, of course). In five starts this month, Elliott has allowed seven goals total, backstopping wins for the Senators on each occasion. For now, he's a surefire starter in any format, but I'm a bit skeptical on his long-term prospects, which is why he's still in the 20's when it comes to projecting the remainder of the season. If you're in the same camp, the time to move Elliott is now, as his current value may not get any higher (he's No. 13 amongst goalies on the ESPN Player Rater).

Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers (down six spots): A strong start by the Oilers this season had folks comparing them to last season's Colorado Avalanche: a bevy of promising young players, with key veterans sprinkled in and strong goaltending. The bottom has fallen out, however, and while the debate rages as to the cause of the team's slide in general (ESPN.com's Scott Burnside argued Monday that it's a lack of leadership), Khabibulin's play has simultaneously fallen off a cliff. To wit, he has two quality starts in his past 12 outings (going 2-9-1 in the process), after allowing just two goals on 65 shots in the first two games of the season, both wins. Needless to say, Khabibulin is not worth starting in any format at this point, and that recommendation doesn't appear set to change any time soon.

Timeshares

Marc-Andre Fleury (86.4 percent) and Brent Johnson (71.6 percent), Pittsburgh Penguins: After an extremely disappointing start to the 2010-11 campaign for Fleury and an equally impressive opening set of starts for Johnson, things appeared to change directions over the past week. Slowed by an illness that forced him to miss practices early last week, Johnson looked out of his element on Wednesday night, allowing six goals to the Boston Bruins. Fleury got the nod for the next three games, allowing six total goals and backstopping two wins and an overtime loss. Is this a turning point? Perhaps. As has been well-documented, a goalie's confidence, though intangible, can play a massive role in his performance, and stringing together a few solid outings buttresses that confidence. As for who's getting the starts moving forward, head coach Dan Bylsma said after the win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday that Fleury has looked more like himself recently. Drawing a logical conclusion from those remarks, it stands to reason that Fleury may start getting the No. 1 goalie's share of starts. As for his season-long projection, Fleury has never sustained elite ratios for a full season, but he should rack up plenty of wins, thanks to the Pens' offense.

Sergei Bobrovsky (96.7 percent) and Michael Leighton (12.9 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: The latest report on Leighton's health, courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is that he should be cleared to practice this week in his return from back surgery. A rehab stint in the AHL could follow thereafter, and the Flyers will be faced with a two-part problem. First, who out of Bobrovsky, Leighton and Brian Boucher will be shown the door? Second, how will the starts be doled out to the men remaining in Philly? Frank Seravelli of the Philadelphia Daily News had an interesting theory in a column published Monday. Namely, given Leighton's poor reaction to demotions in the past -- he was traded on the eve of the 2005-06 season after losing the Chicago Blackhawks' backup job to Craig Anderson, and the trade was reportedly in part because of his displeasure with the lineup decision -- he could actually be the odd man out of the three. While speculation on that front will continue, what's clear is this: "Bob" should continue to get the majority of the starts, no matter who's backing him up. Should this continue in spite of Leighton's return, Bobrovsky's spot on the projection rankings will see a bump accordingly. At this point, the uncertainty is holding him back in the rankings.

Steve Mason (38.7 percent) and Mathieu Garon (31.7 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: Mason continued his streak of an on-night followed by an off-night this past week, holding the St. Louis Blues to one goal on Wednesday before allowing five on 29 shots to the Avalanche on Friday. A disturbing trend has emerged early on this season: All four of the team's blowout losses have come in games that Mason has started. In comments to the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday, Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel contended that the team hasn't been playing differently with Mason in net as opposed to Garon, yet the numbers don't lie. It's clear that Arniel will continue to let Mason try and sort himself out in live action, but he's simply not reliable enough to start in fantasy. With Garon, it makes sense to pick him up now, start him when he gets the nod and be patient. If current trends continue (Garon is ahead 1.28 to 3.24 in goals-against average and .951 to .895 in save percentage), Garon will start getting the No. 1 goalie's share of the workload sometime in the near future.

Michal Neuvirth (99.3 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (51.4 percent), Washington Capitals: Varlamov made his first conditioning start for the Caps' AHL affiliate (the Hershey Bears) on Sunday, but it doesn't appear as though he's being fast-tracked back to the NHL. "I think my plan is to stay here," the goalie said following the game Sunday, according to the Patriot-News. "After the next week, we'll see what's going to happen." In the meantime, Neuvirth continues to prove himself worthy of starting the vast majority of games for the Capitals. As for a long-term projection, Neuvirth's ceiling is akin to what Jonathan Quick provided in 2009-10 (lots of wins, pedestrian ratios). Of course if Caps coach Bruce Boudreau goes with a split once Varlamov is back, that potential shrinks accordingly, but given Varlamov's difficulties in staying healthy that split could wind up being nothing more than a hypothetical. Even so, he is worth a pickup now if you've got the space, since he appears close to getting his first NHL start of the season.

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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