Commentary

In the Crease: Looking for closers

Can Thomas, Luongo, Rinne, Fleury, Backstrom finish season on high note?

Updated: February 1, 2011, 11:07 AM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

The break for the NHL All-Star Game meant that there weren't as many contests to consider when adjusting fantasy rankings for the purposes of this column. But in taking a more long-term view of how January finished for several players -- and how these players have historically done as late winter turns to spring in February, March and April -- we can draw some additional conclusions.

For the season, Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas leads the league with a 1.81 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Thomas maintained the save percentage pace somewhat in his nine games played in January (.941), but there were four other NHL starters who posted a better mark for the month. As this ratio of shots saved to shots faced is sometimes viewed as the most important indicator of a goalie's performance, let's start our trip this week with this quartet.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: If we toss out Cedrick Desjardins (who was sent back to the AHL, possibly for the duration, after the Tampa Bay Lightning's acquisition of Dwayne Roloson) and Braden Holtby (who was recalled to Hershey for the AHL All-Star Game, and may not return to the Washington Capitals unless Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have a setback in their health), the leader in save percentage for January was Luongo. It's not surprising to see Luongo in that spot, but you may have to be cautiously optimistic for the remaining two months and change. Injuries limited Luongo to 14 starts down the stretch of 2006-07, and 15 in 2007-08. In 2008-09, Luongo was strong down the stretch, going 22-6-2, allowing 66 goals in 30 starts and posting a .922 save percentage. However, he struggled in the final three months of the 2009-10 regular season, going 11-8-2, allowing 63 goals in 21 starts with a very un-Luongo save percentage of .907 after winning gold with Team Canada at the Olympics. Luongo was bizarrely left off the All-Star roster this season, so perhaps he'll use that as motivation from here on out. Luongo's recent history concerns me a little, which is why he slides down to No. 2 in the rankings this week, albeit by a razor thin margin.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: In January, Rinne posted a save percentage just .001 off Luongo's mark, bested him by .02 in goals-against average and had two additional wins (8 to Luongo's 6) while being named the NHL's third star of the month. Rinne has been the No. 1 for the Preds -- or at least the primary option in the time-share -- down the stretch for the past two seasons, so I considered those numbers in my analysis. In both cases, Rinne's production in the final three calendar months was either in line with his seasonal work (as was the case in 2008-09) or it improved (2009-10). Rinne's ratios this season are well ahead of his career bests, but given how well he's closed the past two seasons, I don't think they'll slide back that far. I consider him a strong candidate to finish among the top 8 to 12 fantasy goalies for the remainder of the season.

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild: I went back and forth on including Backstrom here, inasmuch as he had only three January starts to his name, equal to Holtby. But given that Backstrom is the unquestioned starter for the Wild moving forward (as long as the hip injury that sidelined him for nine games doesn't recur), it makes sense to take a deeper look. Like Luongo, Backstrom was limited in 2007-08, though it is noteworthy that he posted a 1.72 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in March of that season. In the next two seasons, he continued his seasonal trends: For the last three months of 2008-09, his save percentage was .004 off his mark for the entire season, while his goals-against average was off by .01. Last season, Backstrom's ratios improved a touch down the stretch (though a 2.53 goals-against average and .908 save percentage aren't anything fantastic). As long as Backstrom stays healthy, he should at least maintain his level of production. He's currently No. 16 among goalies on the Player Rater, and he's a strong bet to improve on that as he'll get a greater share of the starts.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: After reprising his "24/7" shootout antics during the All-Star Skills competition, Fleury can get back to the business of helping the Penguins try to track down the Philadelphia Flyers in the standings. By any measure, "Flower" is having his best NHL season to date, and he's held the team together while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been out of the lineup recently, including a 25-save shutout of the New York Islanders last Tuesday. While one can debate the degree of difficulty in blanking the Isles, Fleury's overall value cannot be denied, and it's not surprising to see him in the No. 2 spot in the Player Rater for the season. In the past, he's generally maintained production consistent with his earlier season work. Though the 2009-10 campaign saw him register a .897 save percentage in 23 games played in February, March and April, this was only .008 off of his mark for the entire season. His .891 save percentage in the playoffs last spring isn't that surprising in comparison. With this in mind, I expect Fleury to remain amongst the elite, though a slight drop from his current ratios (2.19 goals-against average and .925 save percentage) wouldn't be shocking.

This brings us back to Thomas, who had an injury and a demotion sack his production in 2007-08 and 2009-10, respectively. Thomas' Vezina Trophy-winning season in between, however, is cause for celebration on the part of his current fantasy owners, as he closed out that regular season with a .934 save percentage in his last 23 starts, and a goals-against average well under 2.00. If he's able to keep his save percentage that high for the remainder of the schedule, he'll break the NHL record for seasonal save percentage, a .937 mark set by Dominik Hasek in 1998-99.

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

Rising and falling

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (down two spots): Price allowed seven goals in the final two starts before the All-Star break. I don't see him completely falling off in the remaining games -- he's still in my top 6, after all -- but a slight downgrade here. He'll have a chance to get back on the horse right away, as the Canadiens face the Capitals on Tuesday.

Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers (down two spots): His monthly ratios have headed in the wrong direction from November to December to January (he had a 3.24 GAA and .908 save percentage in the first month of 2011). Dominance earlier this season has given way to inconsistency as of late. Pavelec riddled the Capitals with a 36-save shutout in the final game prior to the All-Star break, but was pulled 25 minutes into the prior game, after allowing three goals on 19 shots to the Lightning. This wild inconsistency wasn't just a two-game trend, either; his save percentages for the other January games were .935, .935, .950, .750, .886, .882, .792, .943 and .940. Given the limited sample we have on Pavelec in the NHL, he's risky in the months ahead. You might try to float him in a trade offer for someone that can provide steadier production, and hope that the other owner doesn't look too closely at how Pavelec has generated his top-3 save percentage.

Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning (up four spots): We now have a 10-game sample on Roloson as the Bolts' backstop, and it's generally been what we thought we'd get following his trade from the Islanders. Even though he's had three hiccups -- five goals allowed to the Penguins in 27 minutes, four in 15 to the New Jersey Devils and five to the Carolina Hurricanes in a full game's work -- he's won all seven of the other games, and provided a 2.25 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in his time in Tampa. Roloson may well wind up in the mid-teens by season's end, though I'm a little wary of those three "hiccups," thus the cautious ranking for now.

Timeshares

With the truncated pre-All-Star break schedule, not much has changed in the league's goaltending timeshares over the past week. As a result, let's just take a look at two of the more important situations as the stretch run begins.

Sergei Bobrovsky (94.3 percent) and Brian Boucher (35.7 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Bobrovksy was one of the league's hottest goalies heading into the All-Star break, allowing two or fewer goals in all six of his January starts (all wins). However, the Flyers likely won't deviate from their timeshare until later this season, as Boucher has been almost as good. When a system is working, there's little incentive to make a change, and that appears to be the case in Philly. As the timeshare continues, so does the value for Boucher, who is vastly underowned.

Semyon Varlamov (95.5 percent), Michal Neuvirth (50.4 percent) and Braden Holtby (14.8 percent), Washington Capitals: As mentioned above, Holtby was returned to the Hershey Bears in order to take part in the AHL's All-Star game, and his future status is dependent on the health of Neuvirth and Varlamov. Varlamov looked excellent in his first game back since taking a few games off, stopping all but one of the Thrashers' 24 shots in taking a hard-luck loss last Wednesday. As for Neuvirth, he returned to practice Monday and indicated afterwards that he felt okay, according to the Washington Post. With four games over the next week, we could see Neuvirth back in action at some point. As for resolving who is the real No. 1, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com earlier this season that he envisions sticking with his rotation until late in the regular season. Depending on how Neuvirth looks in his return, he may be worth a pickup. If his health issues linger, Holtby becomes a valuable pickup, as he showed he was dependable in his three-game stint in January.

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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