Commentary

Time to sell high on Kari Lehtonen?

Updated: October 21, 2011, 3:47 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Finnish-born netminder Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators finished the 2010-11 campaign third and second in the NHL, respectively, with a 2.12 goals-against average and .930 save percentage (SV%). Some expected him to be close to the league lead again this season, and he was one of the top goalies off the board in most fantasy drafts.

While that may still happen as the 2011-12 campaign rolls along, it's one of his countrymen -- Dallas Stars backstop Kari Lehtonen -- who has gotten off to the hot start, and he currently sits in fourth place among qualified goalies in GAA (1.48), second in SV% (.955) and is the league leader with four wins. In fact, Lehtonen's early exploits earned him the NHL's Third Star of the Week honors for the games through Oct. 16, and he hasn't been doing it against creampuff competition. He has held the four teams he has played to six goals (1.5 per game), and those teams have scored at a 3.18 goals-per-game pace in their other contests. He leads all players (not just goalies) on our ESPN Fantasy Player Rater. And all of this has come from a man about whom we collectively had quite modest preseason expectations: His average draft position in ESPN leagues was 140.2, which works out to the end of Round 14 in a 10-team league or Round 12 in a 12-teamer. So, what should we make of this razor-sharp start for the Helsinki native? I'm glad you asked.

One particularly sparkling portion of Lehtonen's campaign thus far has been his performance on the penalty kill. (The whole team has been good shorthanded, as Mark Stepneski of ESPNDallas.com wrote Monday.) Considering that a goaltender usually faces somewhere around 20 percent of his total shots while killing penalties, this is a pivotal consideration. Through four games, Lehtonen has saved 34 of 36 shots while on the penalty kill (PK), which works out to a .944 situational SV%. Though a PK SV% above .900 is not impossible -- last season, Tomas Vokoun (.925), Rinne (.912) and Jonathan Quick (.903) were the regular starters to pull off the feat -- it would be a massive improvement for Lehtonen. In his four previous seasons, his PK SV% has been .861, .877, .867 and .878.

In thinking about whether that .944 number will regress toward his career mean, it's instructive to consider what has changed in Big D, and whether these changed conditions will continue. Stepneski notes that the team's offseason additions of Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Sheldon Souray are partially responsible for the uptick in penalty-killing effectiveness. As long as everyone stays healthy, Lehtonen should continue to get strong play in front of him. On the other hand, unless the Stars have finally solved the mystery that has befuddled penalty-kill units for decades, opposing teams will figure out their system, and the goals against will increase as the season goes along. It seems that the second part will trump the first.

At even strength, Lehtonen has thus far allowed just four goals on 89 shots, giving him a .955 SV% in that situation. While this number is also inflated from his previous performances, it's not as stark a difference: His even-strength save percentages in his prior four seasons have been .928, .921, .923 and .925. A similar regression to the mean will occur here, though likely not as dramatically as on the PK.

Ultimately, Lehtonen could continue to play well and the Stars could keep winning; in my opinion, however, his ceiling is that of one of the better fantasy No. 2s. That's a nice return on the draft capital used to acquire him, and one cannot fault the conservative fantasy owner who holds on to him to enjoy the chance at continued modest success. But for those looking to make a bold move, it's time to sell. While Lehtonen and some others have put up strong numbers in the season's first handful of games, there have been some brutal performances from players we expected to be atop the goalie rankings. You're probably not going to be able to swindle Roberto Luongo or Carey Price away from his respective owner in your league, but Lehtonen can be used as an effective trade chip in shoring up your forward or defenseman ranks.

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

Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals (up one spot): Now we're talking. Last week's cover boy -- thanks to his season-opening atrocity -- recovered well in the other two games played last week, stopping 69 of the 72 shots the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators sent in his general direction. These are the kind of performances for which the Caps paid him the big bucks a reasonable salary, and it's why he was drafted so high in fantasy. Backup Michal Neuvirth is already hurt again -- though injuries are tough to predict, this has been a trend for the youngster -- so Vokoun will continue to draw the lion's share of starts.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up three spots): Hiller had one good game and one bad game to start the season in Scandinavia, but back on North American ice he has been sterling. After a 31-save shutout of the San Jose Sharks Friday night, he picked up another win on a 28-of-30 performance against the St. Louis Blues Sunday. He's clearly back to his pre-vertigo exploits, and the window of opportunity to trade for him is closing quickly.

Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings (up three spots): Within our preseason fantasy draft kit, I made note of the fact that Howard had put up 37 wins in both 2009-10 and 2010-11 but that his performance in the ratio categories had provided extraordinarily different results for his fantasy value. His 2.26 GAA and .924 SV% in the former season made him a top-five pick among goalies prior to 2010-11, but he finished 31st in the Player Rater at his position by season's end. Even with modest improvements on his 2.79 and .908 ratios from last season, Howard would be a very valuable asset, and thus far, he has been well ahead of that pace, clocking in at 1.63 and .930. The numbers won't stay that outstanding, but he'll continue to be on the cusp of fantasy No. 1 worthiness. To acquire him, you might try convincing his owner that last season was the norm, not the fluke. Good luck.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils (down two spots): Every season, the question is asked whether this will be Brodeur's final one. He has answered the bell again for 2011-12, but succumbed to an upper-body injury (a shoulder issue) after four periods of work. After winning Saturday's game in Nashville, the Devils have off until Friday, and Brodeur is expected to be back by then. However, Johan Hedberg has continued his 2010-11 exploits of ably filling in for the future Hall of Famer. This potential split of starting duties is something to monitor closely looking ahead and is the primary reason for the slight adjustment in Brodeur's rank. When he's healthy and starting, he's one of the best ever (if slightly diminished in what may be his final campaign). But he needs to be on the ice to help your fantasy team. On the flip side, Hedberg is one of the better real-life No. 2s to own, and he has been largely undervalued thus far in fantasy (owned in just 13.6 percent of ESPN leagues). See if he's available, whether you've rostered Brodeur or not.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche (up four spots): Another week, another four spots up for Varlamov, and based on our small sample size this season, the trade to acquire him (a 2012 first-round pick and a second-rounder in 2012 or 2013) doesn't look quite as bad as it did this summer. The longstanding knock on Varlamov has been his proclivity for injury, and he'll need to continue to stay on the ice to prove himself worthy of that high-draft-pick ransom. Likewise, it's that string of injuries in his recent past that prevents me from pushing him higher up the rankings list. Yes, he has been wonderful so far, but talent has never been the problem: He had a 2.23 GAA and .924 SV% last season, but appeared in only 27 games total. While he's healthy, he's a must-start, but be prepared with another option when the injury bug inevitably strikes again.

Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues (down six spots): Halak is undoubtedly skilled. But thus far he has failed to live up to even modest expectations in his second season as the Blues' unquestioned No. 1 netminder, posting a 3.05 GAA and an eye-poppingly poor .848 SV%. It's still quite early, and a few big games can get him back on track, but for right now, he needs to be benched.

Time Shares

Jonathan Quick (100.0 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Jonathan Bernier (5.7 percent), Los Angeles Kings: During the preseason, Kings coach Terry Murray indicated that he would go with the hot hand in goal throughout the season. Some took this as a sign that Bernier would begin to get his fair share of opportunities. Instead, it looks as if Quick has once again re-established himself as the real No. 1 option of the two. Quick is slated to get the start for Tuesday night's game against the Blues; if that comes to fruition, he'll have started four of the team's five games. I'm not completely writing Bernier off just yet, of course, because he might start to cycle into the picture a bit more, either in L.A. or otherwise (more on that in a bit). So don't go dropping him off your team, as it appears many have done in ESPN leagues (his ownership percentage was 12.5 a week ago).

Al Montoya (93.1 percent), Evgeni Nabokov (3.1 percent) and Rick DiPietro (0.7 percent), New York Islanders: The Isles' goaltending situation was the subject of debate for ESPN.com NHL scribes Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside on Oct. 14, especially the fate of DiPietro -- the man with nine years left on his contract. Of the three, DiPietro is by far the least relevant in fantasy until he can break his streak of bad health (a portion of which has been due to poor luck). With DiPietro out of the mix due to his current concussion issue, coach Jack Capuano has used Montoya for three starts and Nabokov for one. As LeBrun mentioned, that ratio may be altered in the near future if the Isles want to try to showcase Nabokov for a trade. And if that's the case, it's time to add the veteran to fantasy rosters. While it would be foolish to expect him to put up a .935 SV% in every outing, he's a skilled backstop playing behind a promising young offensive team with a steady defense. For a spot starter, one could do much worse.

Jose Theodore (80.2 percent), Scott Clemmensen (0.4 percent) and Jacob Markstrom (0.4 percent), Florida Panthers: Tuesday night will be a chance for us to glimpse into the future of Florida Panthers goaltending, as Markstrom is slated to get the nod. The Miami Herald reported during the weekend that the young Swede would start either Monday or Tuesday, and Theodore was in net for the wild 7-4 contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's not impossible that Markstrom will get another start before Clemmensen returns later this month, but he'll head to the AHL thereafter to continue his development. As for Theodore versus Clemmensen, don't be surprised if the latter gets more of the share as the former's performances come back down to earth (Theodore's .920 SV% is well ahead of projections).

Ice Chips

Last week on his Insider blog, Craig Custance considered the Columbus Blue Jackets' goaltending situation, particularly Steve Mason. Leading into this season, some believed that the Calder Trophy winner from 2008-09 was on his last shot, and it's been rough going in his first five starts of 2010-11, with an 0-4-1 record, 3.40 GAA and .889 SV%. Custance notes that the team may make a trade, nabbing one of the "No. 1s in waiting" like Cory Schneider or Jonathan Bernier. That's yet another reason to roster players that are in that situation. … Speaking of productive real-life No. 2s, Ray Emery's comeback train keeps rolling. He stopped 27 of 30 shots against the Winnipeg Jets for his first win of the season. I don't think we'll see him for more than 15-20 more starts, but he'll have a chance at a win each time out. … The Thomas Greiss era in San Jose may soon be coming to a close. Though he didn't look as sharp in his 2011-12 debut as the tail end of the 2010-11 regular season, Antti Niemi returned from a knee injury on Monday night. He'll be in net for the vast majority of games moving forward. … A surprise in the top 20 of the Player Rater: Nikolai Khabibulin. Two solid starts prove that he still has something left in the tank, but Devan Dubnyk is the better option in both the short and long term and will probably get around 50 of the remaining starts.

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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