First things first: Many thanks to colleague Sean Allen for heeding the call and wonderfully manning this column the past two weeks. Vacation time for yours truly is now over, and it's time to dive right back in.
The big news this week is that former San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has parted ways with his Kontinental Hockey League club (SKA St. Petersburg), citing "family reasons." In 22 games for SKA this season, Nabokov had mustered a 3.02 goals-against average and .888 save percentage.
Those rates aren't exceptional, so why should he be on our radars at all? In spite of the lack of interest amongst NHL teams this past offseason, Nabby was reliable as the Sharks' primary backstop throughout his career. This is especially true the past three seasons, when he averaged 70 starts and 43.67 wins, with goals-against averages of 2.14, 2.44 and 2.43 and save percentages of .910, .910 and .922. In other words, he can be an elite fantasy option in the right situation, as long as his skills have not fallen off precipitously since last spring (which is in question when looking at those crooked stats above).
So is he worth an add in fantasy? While Nabby's return to North America may be accompanied by a bit of a sense of defeat based on his performance in the KHL, there's a real chance he could land with a goalie-challenged team like the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning and have an opportunity to take over the lion's share of starts, which could be 40 or more by the time he's signed and ready to rock.
There's no guarantee that he'd deliver elite stats in that situation, but he's certainly worth a roster spot to find out and is currently owned in 5.3 percent of ESPN leagues. This is the type of player you've been saving that high waiver position for, so now's the time to use it. I've stuck him in the No. 31 spot for now while we wait to find out which team nabs him, and that number will be adjusted depending on where he lands.
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. Tim Thomas, Bos (2)
2. Ryan Miller, Buf (1)
3. Roberto Luongo, Van (4)
4. Carey Price, Mon (5)
5. Jimmy Howard, Det (3)
6. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
7. Jaroslav Halak, StL (6)
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (8)
9. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (9)
10. Martin Brodeur, NJ (10)
11. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (13)
12. Cam Ward, Car (15)
13. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (17)
14. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (12)
15. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (16)
16. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (11)
17. Niklas Backstrom, Min (14)
18. Craig Anderson, Col (18)
19. Jonas Hiller, Ana (21)
20. Semyon Varlamov, Was (19)
21. Michal Neuvirth, Was (20)
22. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (22)
23. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (23)
24. Anders Lindback, Nsh (32)
25. Brian Elliott, Ott (25)
26. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (24)
27. Steve Mason, Cls (26)
28. Mathieu Garon, Cls (27)
29. Corey Crawford, Chi (30)
30. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (39)
31. Evgeni Nabokov, FA (NR)
32. Tuukka Rask, Bos (28)
33. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (29)
34. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (40)
35. Dan Ellis, TB (31)
36. Chris Mason, Atl (33)
37. Brent Johnson, Pit (34)
38. Michael Leighton, Phi (35)
39. Peter Budaj, Col (36)
40. Scott Clemmensen, Fla (NR)
Rising and falling
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins (up one spot): Taking into account everything we've seen thus far this season and what I believe will happen the rest of the way, I gave a slight edge to Thomas over last week's No. 1 Ryan Miller. Thomas' stats took a dip in November -- 2.29 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in nine starts -- but they're back in the "ridiculous" zone again in December -- 1.35 and .962, respectively. While the Bruins' offensive support has improved (and will continue to do so long as Marc Savard gets his legs back after recovering from a concussion), the team is still allowing an uncomfortable number of odd-man rushes against Thomas from the action I've seen. However, this defensive issue is my only concern moving forward. I don't think Tuukka Rask is of much concern unless Thomas really starts to struggle.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins (up two spots): After a rough start to the season, to put it charitably, "Flower" has put together one of the best stretches of his career. Since understudy Brent Johnson allowed six goals on Nov. 10 (a game which I referred to as a turning point in the Pens' goaltending storyline in this space three weeks ago), Fleury has gone 13-0-1, including 11 straight wins. But this hasn't been a case of the Penguins winning scorefests. Fleury has allowed three or more goals twice, registering a .940 save percentage over his past 14 starts. To put his rough start in perspective, that .940 save percentage over the past month has raised his season number to .914. Looking at Fleury's career, he's never been a superstud when it comes to the ratios. As such, it's hard to see this trend continuing, though you can't argue with the current results. Given Fleury's name value and current hot streak, you might be able to trade him now for just about any other 'tender. Float the idea and see what kind of offers you can get.
Antero Niittymaki, San Jose Sharks (down five spots): Production for fantasy hockey goalies comes down to two fundamental factors: opportunity and what one does with that opportunity. To wit, from Oct. 21 through the end of November, Niittymaki started 13 of the Sharks' 19 games, finishing 8-3-2, with 31 goals allowed and a .908 save percentage. Those ratios aren't great, but they were better than what Antti Niemi had put up. In December, however, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan has given Niemi the nod in six of seven games, and four of those have been quality. This adjustment in the rankings has more to do with a decrease in Niitty's opportunity, as the Sharks appear to be going with more of an even split moving forward. The pendulum will probably shift back in Niittymaki's direction at some point, but his overall seasonal value takes a hit. He could soon find himself in the lower end of No. 2 fantasy goalies.
Anders Lindback, Nashville Predators (up eight spots): According to the Tennessean, Preds goalie Pekka Rinne underwent surgery on his ailing knee Friday and is expected to miss anywhere from two to four weeks. With Rinne out, Lindback will get the majority (if not all) of the starts, and he's currently on a 121:33 shutout streak, after beguiling the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders in the past two games. Rinne's health upon his return will determine how valuable Lindback will be from a season-long perspective, however as we're accustomed to seeing with this franchise a switch from the clear preseason No. 1 to an up-and-coming player is the norm in Nashville. So if Rinne shows any signs of underperforming, coach Barry Trotz may shift the timeshare in Lindback's direction. Obviously, pounce now and make an adjustment later.
Dan Ellis, Tampa Bay Lightning (down four spots): Things have gone from bad to worse recently for Ellis, and his ratios continue to slip. In five October starts he posted a 2.37 goals-against average and .914 save percentage and followed that up with a 3.17 and .880 in eight November starts and has thus far racked up an eye-popping 4.33 and .817 in four December starts. Sure he gets the occasional win, but that's just one-third of the puzzle. Not only that, but with the chances of Nabokov landing in Tampa, Ellis' value could sink even further, as he would clearly take a back seat to the more accomplished Nabby. Somehow, Ellis is still owned in 47.2 percent of ESPN leagues, and it'd be interesting to see how those owners are doing right now in the standings.
Sergei Bobrovsky (99.2 percent), Brian Boucher (3.9 percent) and Michael Leighton (14.5 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Leighton is on the cusp of his first start of the 2010-11 season, which affects Boucher more than it does Bobrovsky. It appears that Bobrovsky's role will continue somewhat as the clear No. 1, with Boucher and Leighton battling it out to be the insurance policy. While playing behind one of the league's top defenses is a boon to any goalie's stats, the "loser" of this battle could be shipped elsewhere prior to the trade deadline, and his value would increase if he lands in the right spot.
Brian Elliott (38.0 percent) and Pascal Leclaire (35.0 percent), Ottawa Senators: Elliott seemed to have a stranglehold on the No. 1 job in Canada's capital a few weeks ago. In his first five November starts, he allowed seven goals total and was a perfect 5-0-0. Since then, he's allowed 25 goals in eight starts, going 1-5-2. The save percentage differential is staggering: .955 in the first five November starts, .891 thereafter. Meanwhile, the story on Leclaire is the same one we've been hearing throughout his career. After returning from an injury and showing some spark in the second half of November and early December, he sustained another injury over the weekend. This current malady is not considered serious, but it does provide concern for those who are relying on Leclaire for any sort of production. Elliott is the safer option (I don't think he'll continue struggling, especially if the Sens' new defensive pairings click) for the short and long term.
Michal Neuvirth (69.9 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (97.3 percent), Washington Capitals: Since my last column (on Nov. 23), the ownership values for the Caps' young netminders have reversed, as Neuvirth was near universal ownership then and Varly was rostered in about half of ESPN leagues. Five total goals allowed in a four-game span will do that, but the Russian has "rewarded" his new owners by allowing 13 goals in the past three games, including seven to the New York Rangers on Sunday night (potentially swaying the result in weekly head-to-head matchups with that debacle). Not to worry, though, as Neuvirth hasn't done much to wrangle control of the position away from him, going four straight starts without a win. The Caps are struggling as a team generally, and as they find their mojo this will have a positive effect on the young 'tenders. Both are worth a roster spot, but be careful starting them until things start to turn around.
Steve Mason (47.2 percent) and Mathieu Garon (21.5 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: As the calendar flipped to December, Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel has turned his goaltending situation into a nearly even timeshare. But a funny thing happened once Garon began getting more starts: His play seemed to hit a wall. His save percentage through seven games in October and November was .950, with a goals-against average well under 2.00. In December, when he's started three of the team's seven games (and came on in relief in two others), those ratios have dipped to .884 and 2.92. One reason for the team's recent struggles is it has become careless at taking penalties. In November, it tied for the league's second-fewest short-handed situations (40 in 12 games); this month, it has already been short-handed 30 times in just seven contests (second most in the NHL). An opposing power play doesn't always equal a goal, but it doesn't help. As for Mason, he's had some brief flashes of excellence this season but hasn't been consistent enough to recommend as anything more than a low-end No. 2. Garon has a chance to regain his standing, but neither one of these gents is a great option right now.
Niklas Backstrom (99.8 percent), Jose Theodore (1.9 percent), Minnesota Wild: I'm as big a believer in Backstrom as you'll find, but it appears that when I took a break from this column he took a break from delivering anything worthwhile to his fantasy owners. Two straight two-goal outings were sandwiched between starts in which he allowed five, six, seven and six goals. This has put Wild coach Todd Richards into a bind, so he has given Theodore starts in five of the past nine games. Theodore isn't a fantasy stud, but he did prove last season that he can be a decent option if the team in front of him is scoring. That's the issue right now, of course. In spite of Richards' intentions to build an up-tempo, offensive juggernaut, the Wild are No. 26 in scoring with 2.45 goals per game. Though Richards may not stay long for Minnesota (if the rumors on his firing come to fruition), it seems like it will take a major philosophical change for Backstrom or Theodore to have much value. For now, hold on to Backstrom but wait until this ship is righted to deploy him back on your active roster.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com