Commentary

In the Crease: Backups to target

Updated: March 8, 2011, 4:58 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

As the NHL regular season winds down, some playoff-bound teams will give their No. 1 goalie breaks more often than earlier in the season, so as to keep him fresh for the playoffs. The reasoning behind this can best be demonstrated by the case of Jonathan Quick. Last season, the Los Angeles Kings netminder was a fundamental reason why the team returned to the playoffs; once there, however, he had a couple sharp performances but fell apart as the Vancouver Canucks won three straight to close the Kings out, with Quick generally appearing to be fatigued, leading to many snarky headlines about his last name not being all that applicable.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Bernier
US PresswireJonathan Bernier is getting hot at the right time to make an impact late in the season.

Prior to the start of the 2010-11 season, there was some thought that Quick's understudy Jonathan Bernier would earn close to an equal number of starts during the regular season to prevent a repeat. It was also thought that Bernier would eclipse Quick as the No. 1 at some point. That plan clearly was not shared with Kings coach Terry Murray, because through 66 games, Bernier has started only 18 of them. For the season, the differential in production is also pretty staggering: Quick is 28-17-2, with a 2.22 goals-against average and .918 save percentage while Bernier is 8-8-2 with a 2.56 and .908. Lately, though, as Quick has struggled a bit (19 goals allowed in the past six starts, with a .833 save percentage), Bernier has been on a relative hot streak (just 15 goals allowed in his past nine appearances, with a .930 save percentage), which is part of the reason behind a recent post by Dan Arritt of ESPN Los Angeles, wherein he wondered if we were "witnessing a changing of the guard" for the Kings in net. I wouldn't go that far, but Bernier -- and some other backups around the league -- will be able to provide some good value down the final stretch. Here are some others:

Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks (9.8 percent ESPN Fantasy ownership): Long rumored to be on the move to a new NHL city where he could develop as a No. 1, Schneider remained with the Canucks after the trade deadline. On the season, Schneider's workload has been similar to Bernier's, and he's also been hot as of late: Since the calendar flipped to 2011, Schneider has gone 6-3-0, with 17 goals allowed in those nine starts and a .933 save percentage. The Canucks are currently keeping the rest of the Western Conference at arm's length atop the standings, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Schneider continue to get some starts over the final month to keep Roberto Luongo fresh for the playoff run.

Jose Theodore, Minnesota Wild (8.4 percent): The situation with the Wild is a bit different from some of these other teams because Theodore's recent increase in work has coincided with a slump for No. 1 goalie Niklas Backstrom (and after I've been giving him so much love in the column ... the nerve!). In any case, as the Wild cling to playoff hopes, they can't really afford to let Backstrom play his way out of a slump as if it was mid-January. So, after replacing Backstrom for the final two periods of Wednesday's game against the New York Islanders, Theodore was given the nod in the two following games. Facing 74 shots in those two contests -- the Wild have clearly taken up the strategy that it's better to let the goalie see the shots coming his direction than getting in the way in an effort to block them -- Theodore allowed just four goals, good for a .946 save percentage. It's unclear what type of plan Wild coach Todd Richards will use in doling out the starts, but Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has reported that Backstrom will be in the crease Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche. How well he can hold his own against one of the NHL's bottom-dwellers may determine when Theo's next start will be. For both men, the impending return of Mikko Koivu (he was back at practice on Monday per Russo, though he's still having trouble gripping his stick) will be massive, considering the Wild captain's role at both ends of the ice and on special teams.

Jhonas Enroth, Buffalo Sabres (0.3 percent): When it comes to Enroth, you're going to have to pick and choose your spots. For those playing with weekly lineup settings, he's obviously not worth your time. But for the daily-lineup set, he can be a good spot-start when Sabres coach Lindy Ruff chooses to give Ryan Miller a breather. This usually happens on one end or another of a back-to-back, and there are six such occasions remaining on the Sabres' schedule. So, he has a chance to potentially start six more games this season, but should he be active on a fantasy roster for those contests? His two most recent starts -- a shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens and an overtime win Sunday against the Wild -- suggest that he should. In those two games, he's stopped a total of 56 of 60 shots, good for a .933 save percentage.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins (56.7 percent): Rask's performance this season wouldn't have been that disappointing were it not for what he was able to accomplish in 2009-10. With that performance in mind, the young Finn was a relatively high draft pick -- his ADP was 52.2 in ESPN leagues -- so his early-season struggles played out under a massive spotlight. He's won his past four starts, which would be impressive until you realize he has beaten the Ottawa Senators twice and the Edmonton Oilers twice. During the span of those games (and after), Rask's overstudy -- not sure that's a real word, but you catch my drift -- Tim Thomas started against four teams that appear to be playoff-bound: the Canucks, Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. From this small sample, it looks like Bruins coach Claude Julien may give Thomas a breather when the team is facing a lesser opponent, and this could be the opportunity to strike with Rask (if he's available on your waiver wire). In April, the B's will face off against the Senators and Atlanta Thrashers, but before then, the reeling Columbus Blue Jackets are on the docket. Games against the Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs -- two teams currently outside of the playoff hunt -- are also upcoming, but both of those teams have been winning (and scoring) as of late. Rask gets a bump over some other options because of the logo on his chest, but it doesn't appear as though he's the best one available.

This brings us back to Bernier, and I think out of all the backups, he may be the best bet for some value down the stretch (despite allowing four goals Monday). Owned in just 7.3 percent of ESPN leagues, he's a smart option for Quick owners and non-owners alike.

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 (3)
2. Roberto Luongo, Van (1)
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (4)
4. Carey Price, Mon (6)
5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (5)
6. Martin Brodeur, NJ (9)
7. Jonathan Quick, LA (2)
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (7)
9. Niklas Backstrom, Min (8)
10. Ryan Miller, Buf (13)
11. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (15)
12. Corey Crawford, Chi (17)
13. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (10)
14. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (11)
15. Jimmy Howard, Det (12)
16. Al Montoya, NYI (27)
17. Antti Niemi, SJ (16)
18. Cam Ward, Car (18)
19. Craig Anderson, Ott (20)
20. Dwayne Roloson, TB (19)
21. James Reimer, Tor (21)
22. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (26)
23. Jonas Hiller, Ana (14)
24. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (22)
25. Semyon Varlamov, Was (24)
26. Michal Neuvirth, Was (28)
27. Jaroslav Halak, StL (23)
28. Dan Ellis, Ana (33)
29. Brian Boucher, Phi (31)
30. Johan Hedberg, NJ (25)
31. Steve Mason, Cls (29)
32. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (30)
33. Tuukka Rask, Bos (32)
34. Jonathan Bernier, LA (35)
35. Cory Schneider, Van (36)
36. Scott Clemmensen, Fla (37)
37. Brian Elliott, Col (34)
38. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (39)
39. Ray Emery, Ana (40)
40. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (NR)

Rising and falling

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames (up three spots): Another week, another three-spot jump for Kiprusoff, who's making it harder to keep him out of the class of the elite for the stretch run, especially given that Flames coach Brent Sutter seems to have dismissed any idea of letting Henrik Karlsson get a start here and there. "Nothing's going to change," Sutter said recently, per the Calgary Herald. "We're in a mode of playoff hockey obviously. We're riding our No. 1 guy." For those who stuck it out with Kipper as he endured a rough start to the season, you're finally seeing some reward on your investment and patience. Barring a truly shocking injury -- looking over Kipper's career, you can see that he's been astoundingly durable -- I'd expect this run to continue.

Al Montoya, New York Islanders (up 11 spots): This is a big jump in the rankings, for sure, but with only a few weeks left, big swings may be the norm from here on out. Besides, Montoya continues to play with a vengeance unseen since that of his distant relative Inigo Montoya of "The Princess Bride" fame. In eight starts (and two relief appearances) since joining the team, Montoya is 5-2-2, with a 1.98 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. With just 15 games left on the Isles' schedule, Montoya will not have the opportunity to become "qualified" when it comes to the NHL's statistical leaderboard (the cutoff is 27 games played for the season), but those ratios would put him second to Tim Thomas in both categories had he played the requisite number of games. Sometimes folks get a little too agitated over a small sample size, but I don't think that's the case here: The Isles are playing inspired hockey -- they led the league in goals per game (and melees against the Penguins) in February, and aren't far off that pace in March -- and though Montoya does not have the NHL résumé to make us sleep better at night as his fantasy owners, he was considered an elite enough prospect to be taken sixth overall. Owned in just 12.6 percent of ESPN leagues as of this writing, he's a no-brainer pickup for the duration.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (down nine spots): Another week of confusion when it comes to the recovery of Hiller, but given the nature of his injury, this isn't too surprising. The Orange County Register has reported that Hiller went to see a specialist for his vertigo issues, and though he was back on the ice before practice on Saturday, his official status hasn't changed. Hiller is already down to 82.8 percent ownership after being one of the most dominant netminders through the All-Star Game, and that number will continue to drop. My recommendation? It's time to cut him loose if you haven't already. Even if he can be cleared for a return within the coming week or two, there's no certainty that his physical condition will allow him to play to the level he was at earlier this season. At this point of the fantasy season, you can't waste a roster spot on hope.

Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils (down five spots): The other skate seems to have dropped for Hedberg's magical campaign, one which included being named one of the NHL's three stars for the month of February. With Martin Brodeur back healthy, the future Hall of Famer has started four games in a row, and according to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, he appears on track to start his fifth straight on Tuesday. This is not particularly surprising, given Brodeur's track record and the fact that the Devils are fighting to earn a playoff berth. Though Hedberg has played some of the best hockey of his career, Brodeur is the man who gives the team the better chance to win on a nightly basis. It doesn't appear as though "Moose" will have a ton of value down the last stretch, so he can be dropped if the roster spot is needed.

Timeshares

Sergei Bobrovsky (93.8 percent) and Brian Boucher (38.8 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Colleague Sean Allen touched on the Flyers' recent struggles in this week's edition of "Front Line," and while the offense has sputtered, the dubious duo has been extra gregarious to opposing shooters as of late. Both were on display in a nationally televised game from Madison Square Garden on Sunday, as the pair combined to allow the New York Rangers to score seven goals. Over his past six appearances, Bobrovsky has just one win, with a .893 save percentage. Boucher has been better over his past half dozen, going 4-2-0 while posting a .915 save percentage. The momentum seemed to be gathering behind Bobrovsky to be the team's No. 1 heading into the playoffs until this recent spell when Boucher appeared to overtake him; but then Sunday happened, and all bets are off. It's pretty easy to see why the decision is going to be a tough one for Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and his assistants this spring. For us in the fantasy world, neither man is a great option based on the immediate past. But if the team can turn things around generally, this will have a positive effect on both netminders, both in the intangible realm of confidence, as well as the tangible realm of the win column.

Semyon Varlamov (69.5 percent), Michal Neuvirth (79.9 percent), Washington Capitals: First, a medical update: Varlamov could be on track for a return within the next week, as his latest knee injury appears close to subsiding (at least well enough for him to play). As for Neuvirth, an unlucky shot dismantled his mask during the first period Monday, and Braden Holtby had to come in to work the final two periods, overtime and a shootout. Unless the mishap causes any long-term effects, expect Neuvirth to continue to get the starts while Varlamov is out, and he appears to have the inside track on earning the full-time gig for the duration. The race is not over just yet, so don't go dropping Varlamov for no reason, but if you've got a better option (such as Montoya or James Reimer) there's not much of an argument to be made for continuing to hold him while he's on the shelf.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst and Rumor Central contributor 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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