The Philadelphia Flyers' situation in net has been ever evolving. When the season began, playoff hero Michael Leighton was on the shelf, pushing the relatively unknown Sergei Bobrovsky into the spotlight, with Brian Boucher in a backup role.
As Leighton returned to the team following back surgery, it presented an awkward situation of having three NHL-caliber goalies on the roster. This has been especially hard on Leighton, who can't get the same practice time in as the others. The No. 1 and No. 2 take over the creases during those sessions, so Leighton has been forced to get his work in before or after practice.
While that's been going on, Boucher recently has been getting more starts than Bobrovsky, and for good reason. Since Nov. 22, Boucher has gone 5-0-1 in six starts (all quality starts), allowing eight goals total and racking up a .954 save percentage. (He also stopped the bleeding during Monday's loss to the Florida Panthers, allowing just one goal on 12 shots in relief of Bobrovsky.)
Comparatively, Bobrovsky has not been too stellar over that same timeframe. His record in eight starts (just four of them four quality starts) is 4-2-2, but he's allowed 21 goals with a save percentage of .908. That's not an awful figure, but it's a significant drop-off from his earlier work.
The most compelling piece of evidence in support of Boucher has been Flyers coach Peter Laviolette's preferences: Boucher has started four times over the past six games. The veteran makes for a decent roster addition in fantasy right now -- his ownership percentage in ESPN leagues has shot up to 20.0 percent over the past week -- though I don't think this pace will be sustainable, judging by what we've seen out of Boucher in the past. On a similar Flyers team last season, he made 26 starts, going 9-18-3 with a 2.76 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. I'm not saying his numbers will drop to that level, but it's hard to imagine him finishing fifth in the league in goals-against average (his current position).
My feeling on Bobrovsky goes relatively unchanged in spite of the recent struggles. Any player will go through ebbs and flows, and rookies seem to be especially susceptible. He might not hit the 60-start echelon this season, but he has a good shot to be impactful in 30 or more starts, and his production should level back out soon enough.
Leighton's case requires the most faith right now: After being drafted in most leagues, he's yet to make a start, so the return on that investment has yet to be realized. However, with ongoing speculation that either he or Boucher will be on the move following the NHL's roster freeze, he'll start to have a bigger role, either in Philly or elsewhere. If Boucher is out of the picture, Leighton's fantasy value will spike: This is an elite team, with a usually stout defense (though that was clearly not the case Monday, as the Flyers seemed to have already begun vacation mentally, and playing without Chris Pronger doesn't help). He'll have to split time with Bobrovsky, but he could wind up as the preferred option with a hot streak of his own.
If Leighton is traded, it would be to a team that's struggling in goal (such as the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning), and he could very well end up as its clear No. 1. If you can sacrifice the roster spot for a while on a player that has yet to log any minutes this season, he's a nice buy-low candidate, and is widely available.
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 (1)
2. Ryan Miller, Buf (2)
3. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
4. Carey Price, Mon (4)
5. Jonathan Quick, LA (6)
6. Jimmy Howard, Det (5)
7. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (13)
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (8)
9. Jaroslav Halak, StL (7)
10. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (9)
11. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (11)
12. Cam Ward, Car (12)
13. Martin Brodeur, NJ (10)
14. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (15)
15. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (14)
16. Jonas Hiller, Ana (19)
17. Niklas Backstrom, Min (17)
18. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (16)
19. Craig Anderson, Col (18)
20. Anders Lindback, Nsh (24)
21. Corey Crawford, Chi (29)
22. Semyon Varlamov, Was (20)
23. Michal Neuvirth, Was (21)
24. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (23)
25. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (22)
26. Brian Elliott, Ott (25)
27. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (34)
28. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (26)
29. Mathieu Garon, Cls (28)
30. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (30)
31. Evgeni Nabokov, FA (31)
32. Tuukka Rask, Bos (32)
33. Steve Mason, Cls (27)
34. Brian Boucher, Phi (NR)
35. Dan Ellis, TB (35)
36. Michael Leighton, Phi (38)
37. Chris Mason, Atl (36)
38. Brent Johnson, Pit (37)
39. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (33)
40. Peter Budaj, Col (39)
Rising and falling
Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers (up six spots): There are several reasons for this momentous jump, in addition to the fact that he's now No. 3 on Hockey Prospectus' Player Power Rankings. We know that fantasy goaltending value is all about opportunity and performance. Of the 24 games the Thrashers have played in November and December, Pavelec has taken just four nights off, and he trails only Tim Thomas in goals-against average and save percentage for the season. He's gotten the chance to be a legit No. 1 goaltender, and he's proved that he deserves it. Additionally, these Thrashers are not a league doormat. Sure, some goalies can provide fantasy value all by themselves, but it helps to play behind the league's No. 4 offense and a re-tooled defensive group that is tied for sixth in fewest power plays allowed. After flashes of brilliance in 2009-10, Pavelec's start to the season has convinced me that he can hang with the top 10 fantasy goalies. I expect the trend to continue.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils (down three spots): On Dec. 10, Brodeur returned after missing eight games because of an elbow injury, but it was more of the same: another loss for the Devils. Brodeur had one great game over the past week (a shutout of the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday) and one putrid one (four goals allowed on just 15 Thrashers shots before being pulled Saturday). It's not his recent play that drops his ranking; rather, it's the fact that it's becoming increasingly likely that there is no light at the end of the tunnel for this team. While that might sound overly dramatic, the results this season have been stark. Unless the Devils can turn things around (possible, though unlikely given what we've seen under rookie coach John MacLean) or Brodeur is traded (an almost laughable concept prior to the season that has nevertheless gained steam in recent weeks), it's tough to keep him as a clear-cut No. 1 anymore. He still has the capacity to be an elite netminder (as Wednesday's result showed), but the consistent production hasn't been there and might not be for the rest of the season.
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up three spots): Prior to the season, Hiller was poised to make the leap to elite status, or at least get close to that level. But as the team ahead of him found tough sledding, so did the 28-year-old Swiss netminder. The past seven starts, however, have been a welcome change: Hiller has gone 5-2-0 in those starts (he's also made two relief appearances), with just 12 goals allowed and a .951 save percentage. Hiller is probably still undervalued -- and his owners might be desperate for help -- so he's a nice trade target. Try to avoid overpaying though, as the Ducks are still working out their issues up front.
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks (up eight spots): As the starts pile up for Crawford, the idea that benching Marty Turco was a motivational tool to get him jump-started has lost much of its credibility (it was somewhat of a flimsy theory to begin with). As Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com wrote Sunday, Blackhawks fans are seeing a young goalie grow up in front of their eyes for the second straight season. So what's the fantasy take? It's almost certainly too late to grab him off the waiver wire. If he's a free agent in your league, stop what you're doing and put in a claim immediately; even if you don't need him on your team, he's a solid trade chip. As for that trade value, the uncertainty in him based on his inexperience is fading quickly. The window to get him at a good price could be closing, and his value will continue to trend upward.
Brian Elliott (30.6 percent) and Pascal Leclaire (36.7 percent), Ottawa Senators: It was more of the same for the Sens' goaltending duo over the past week: Leclaire was hurt (again) and Elliott's struggles continue. To wit, in the ESPN Player Rater, Elliott is dead last among goalies over the past 15 days. Leclaire hurt himself while warming up prior to Friday's game against the Colorado Avalanche, forcing Elliott to make an unexpected start, and that went about as well as you'd think (the Avs scored six goals). Leclaire is officially considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury, with some speculating that it's another groin issue. As they say in the statistical community, injury avoidance is a skill, and Leclaire is clearly unskilled in that area looking back over his career. This situation is a stay-away for the foreseeable future.
Michal Neuvirth (60.3 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (88.2 percent), Washington Capitals: The "24/7" series airing on HBO is shining a spotlight on the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals in advance of their Winter Classic showdown, and I think folks watching the show may have factored in to the ownership percentage drop for both of the Caps netminders. That and the fact the team had lost eight in a row before Sunday's win over the Senators, with neither of the two youngsters playing very well. On the season, Neuvirth has posted a 2.66 goals-against average and .906 save percentage, while Varlamov is at 2.54 and .908. It's hard to predict a big shift in the ratios for either goalie. However, if the Caps' offense can turn things around -- not a certainty, given the increased emphasis on defensive responsibility coach Bruce Boudreau is trying to instill, but likely, given the talent assembled -- the wins will pile up. You should know the drill by now, pair these guys (because it seems like you'll have to own both to get the benefits) with a goalie that does well in ratios but lacks for wins.
Antero Niittymaki (61.7 percent) and Antti Niemi (46.3 percent), San Jose Sharks: The month of December started off well for Niemi from both a playing time and production standpoint: He started seven of the team's first eight contests and put up a 2.26 goals-against average and .922 save percentage (only three wins, unfortunately). Consistency has been an issue, and Sharks coach Todd McClellan plans to keep the competition with Niittymaki open. "I'm sure it will be that way all year," McClellan told the San Jose Mercury News. "I'd like to keep the two-man option available to our club all year and that includes playoffs if we're fortunate enough to be competing in that tournament." The Sharks' gain is our loss in the fantasy world. Though Niittymaki has earned a spot just outside the NHL's top 10 in GAA (2.38), and has won 64.7 percent of his starts (the seventh-best mark in the league), the split will continue, placing a ceiling on his value. When he gets the starts, Niitty can be amongst the top fantasy netminders; but as part of a split, he can't be relied upon as your No. 1.
Dan Ellis (44.8 percent) and Mike Smith (4.4 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: Going right back to the win-percentage well, there are two interesting figures near the top of the league (though small sample size is an issue): the Blackhawks' Crawford and the Lightning's Smith, who have each won 10 of 15 starts. Smith's percentage will remain static for up to two more weeks, as he sustained a bizarre injury in practice Monday. As Lightning forward Simon Gagne skated around the cage, he apparently clipped Smith, and though the injury is not considered serious, Smith will be out for that approximate two-week period. Ellis will get the bulk (if not all) of the starts in Smith's absence, and he got off to a solid start Monday, stopping 21 of 22 against the Hurricanes. The specter of a potential Evgeni Nabokov acquisition looms over this duo, and it'll take more than one good start by Ellis to erase that speculation. Though it sounds strange, it may be that of all three, Nabokov is the most valuable given his potential; after all, we know what we're getting from Smith and Ellis by now.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com