In The Crease: Hitchcock to the rescue
When asked how long it would take to fix the St. Louis Blues' impotent power play, newly-hired coach Ken Hitchcock replied, "One practice. We'll get that fixed quick," according to NHL.com
Will he be able to use his powers at the other end of the ice to break Jaroslav Halak out of the horrible funk with which the netminder has begun this season? Let's take a look at whether this wreckage -- a man that went drafted on average in the tenth round of ESPN 12-team leagues, and is still rostered in 66.2 percent of leagues -- is salvageable.
Through his first seven starts this season, Halak has just one win, with a 3.35 goals-against average and an astonishing .856 save percentage. This from the man for whom the Blues traded away a top prospect two summers ago and subsequently signed to a four-year, $15 million deal; a man just two seasons removed from winning 26 of 40 games with a 2.40 GAA and .924 save percentage for the Montreal Canadiens.
A goalie that's lost his confidence is in no position to succeed, and while that may not have been the whole problem for Halak over this initial stretch of the season, the fact that former coach Davis Payne had effectively set up a timeshare situation -- with Brian Elliott getting half the starts, and putting up considerably better performances, both quantitatively and qualitatively -- probably didn't help. To that end, Hitchcock has started off his tenure behind the Blues' bench with a public show of confidence in Halak, naming him the starter for Tuesday night's matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
From an on-ice performance standpoint, Hitchcock has a reputation for lording over teams that play responsible defensive hockey, and the statistics support this idea: in portions of four seasons coaching the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team was 14th, 28th, 24th and 21st in shots allowed per game (the lower the number, the better). In his three full seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers before that, the team was 22nd, 25th and 29th. These numbers are all the more impressive when considering that Hitchcock's teams were ordinarily in the bottom third of the league when it comes to blocked shots; in tandem, these facts support the notion that Hitchcock has created a sound, tight-checking defensive system, one that doesn't allow many quality scoring opportunities or odd-man rushes.
Due in no small part to this system, at all of Hitchcock's recent stops, he's been responsible for goaltenders experiencing a career-best season: this includes Steve Mason's Vezina Trophy-winning campaign in 2008-09 (33 wins in 61 starts, a 2.29 GAA and .916 SVP), Pascal Leclaire in 2007-08 (24 wins in 54 starts, a 2.25 GAA and .919 SVP), Robert Esche in 2003-04 (21 wins in 40 starts, 2.04 GAA and .915 SVP) and Roman Cechmanek in 2002-03 (33 wins in 58 starts, a 1.83 GAA and .925 SVP). In order for Halak to join them -- and hopefully find more long-term success -- the Blues will need to adapt to the Hitchcock system in quick fashion.
This adaptation may take some time to be fully enacted, and there may be some changes in personnel in the near future, as those who don't play the Hitchcock brand in will be shipped away for those that will. A league source indicated as much to ESPN.com's Craig Custance, confirming that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong is going to provide Hitchcock with the players who are willing to buy in to the coach's style of play. So while the results of the switch to Hitch may not be immediate, I'm quite optimistic on the prognosis for Halak for the duration of the season. This is an excellent opportunity to buy low in trade on a player that has the talent to be a Top 12 fantasy hockey option -- though I'm not certain he'll be quite that good, which is why he's a bit lower in the Top 40 rankings -- and he may have even been dropped to the waiver wire in your league, considering his ownership percentage. Again, keep him on the bench until we see the Hitchcock system take effect, but this is a chance to snag a very useful player at a bargain bin price.
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. Tomas Vokoun, Was (1)
2. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (2)
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (4)
4. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
5. Jimmy Howard, Det (6)
6. Ryan Miller, Buf (5)
7. Tim Thomas, Bos (7)
8. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (8)
9. Carey Price, Mon (9)
10. Jonathan Quick, LA (11)
11. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (12)
12. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (13)
13. Jonas Hiller, Ana (10)
14. Corey Crawford, Chi (14)
15. Antti Niemi, SJ (15)
16. Cam Ward, Car (16)
17. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (20)
18. Martin Brodeur, NJ (17)
19. Jaroslav Halak, StL (25)
20. Semyon Varlamov, Col (18)
21. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (22)
22. Dwayne Roloson, TB (27)
23. Niklas Backstrom, Min (19)
24. Craig Anderson, Ott (23)
25. Josh Harding, Min (NR)
26. James Reimer, Tor (21)
27. Al Montoya, NYI (24)
28. Jose Theodore, Fla (28)
29. Mike Smith, Pho (34)
30. Johan Hedberg, NJ (29)
31. Jhonas Enroth, Buf (38)
32. Tuukka Rask, Bos (35)
33. Brian Elliott, StL (36)
34. Mathieu Garon, TB (31)
35. Cory Schneider, Van (30)
36. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (32)
37. Jacob Markstrom, Fla (26)
38. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (33)
39. Michal Neuvirth, Was (37)
40. Ray Emery, Chi (39)
Rising and Falling
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (down three spots): After ripping off three straight wins to start the season -- and only allowing three goals on 73 shots in those three contests -- Hiller has been wildly inconsistent. If there's one thing we can't tolerate in those we own in fantasy leagues, it's inconsistency. Hopefully, this is not indicative of a return of his previous medical problems, but for now, it's best to let him sort things out from your bench.
Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers (up three spots): As noted here last week, Khabibulin's renaissance season is due to several factors, some of which are likely unsustainable. But, he should be good for some additional hot streaks (such as the one he's currently riding), and that will serve to balance out the inevitable downturn. Over the past week, the Oilers had just two games, with Khabibulin shutting out the Los Angeles Kings and Devan Dubnyk allowing three goals on 29 shots in a loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. It doesn't appear that Khabibulin is in any danger of losing his job at this point.
Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning (up five spots): Timeshare no more? Roloson got off to a brutal start this season, but has shown the visual indicators of turning things around in recent contests. It was no surprise, then, to see him earn a win in relief of Mathieu Garon on Sunday, stopping all 29 shots he faced from the Florida Panthers before besting Jose Theodore in the shootout. At his best, Roloson can carry a team on his back. But given the age of that back -- and our projections for him -- it's difficult to push him too high up the rankings list.
Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes (up five spots): I found it hard to believe the preseason analysis that Smith would be able to magically become a capable NHL starter now that he would be backstopping old friend Dave Tippett's team (the two had worked together in Dallas previously). Over the course of his two previous campaigns with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Smith's overall GAA was 3.02, while his SVP was .899, and he wasn't much better before then. The early returns supported this disbelief, as Smith allowed 14 goals on 137 shots through the first five games (a .898 SVP). In the five games since, however, he's posted a .939 SVP while the Coyotes have won four of those five. Is this the start of wonderful things to come? Smith's limited track record of excellence makes it hard to say so with any certainty, as unlike Halak, he hasn't shown the ability to dominate in seasons past. However, for the risk-takers in the audience, he may be worth investigating once the current hot streak subsides and his owner is looking to dump him.
Niklas Backstrom (97.6 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Josh Harding (60.2 percent), Minnesota Wild: Up until last week's column, Harding was a nice story: he'd started both of the Wild's games against the Detroit Red Wings to that point, earning a shutout in the second, played on Oct. 29. But since that column posted, Harding has started all three of the Wild's games, relenting just one goal apiece to the Red Wings, Canucks and Blues. For the season, his GAA stands at 1.18 while his SVP is .965. It would appear that Harding will have some value from here on out -- either as a partner in the Minnesota timeshare, or with his own gig elsewhere following a trade.
Al Montoya (51.4 percent), Evgeni Nabokov (9.7 percent) and Rick DiPietro (2.4 percent), New York Islanders: The three-headed goaltending monster lives! DiPietro was given the start for two straight games over the past week, stopping 23 of 25 shots against the Winnipeg Jets (but taking the hard-luck loss) and following that up with a 25-of-28 performance in a win over the Washington Capitals. Despite a lingering lower body injury, Nabokov was tapped for Monday night's game in Boston, and it got ugly pretty quickly: he was pulled 14 minutes in after allowing his third goal on 12 shots. In relief, Montoya stopped 22 of the 24 shots he faced for the duration of the contest, further proving that he is the most consistent option for the team. It's a tricky situation for the Isles -- given DiPietro's albatross of a contract and the idea that they'd like to get something in return for Nabokov, thus must showcase him from time to time -- but eventually, one would think they'll go with the man that gives them the best shot to win every night, and that's Montoya. Given that his last appearance before Monday night was on Oct. 20, he was dropped by a significant number of impatient fantasy owners. Check to see if he's now available, as he's been reliable when he gets the work.
Martin Brodeur (98.2 percent) and Johan Hedberg (42.6 percent), New Jersey Devils: Fantasy hockey owners sure are a reactive bunch. At this time last week, Hedberg was owned in 77.4 percent of ESPN leagues; following Brodeur's return to game action (a 21-save overtime win over the Jets on Saturday), he's back on the waiver wire in over half of our leagues. I wouldn't be so quick to drop him. Not only has he been playing well in his starts, including a 2.34 GAA and .920 SVP, but there's some belief that Devils head coach Peter DeBoer will lean on Hedberg for significant work even with Brodeur back in the mix. Now, this is a refrain we've heard for years regarding Brodeur's workload -- so take it as a possibility as opposed to a set plan -- but even as an occasional spot-starter, Hedberg retains considerable value. This is especially true in head-to-head leagues with daily lineup changes, where a couple good starts from a third option can swing the goalie categories.
The uncertainty regarding Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer continues, as he was not on the ice for practice Monday, and remains out for the "foreseeable future," according to TSN. Jonas Gustavsson and call-up Ben Scrivens have been picking up the work in Reimer's absence, but neither has done much to warrant consideration for fantasy purposes. ... "He's got a great future, and that's what we're all about," Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon said of Jacob Markstrom, who the team shipped back to the AHL on Monday. With Scott Clemmensen returning from knee surgery, the Panthers will stick with him and Jose Theodore as their tandem of backstops for the near future at least. This will give Markstrom the chance to continue honing his skills at the AHL level instead of getting limited action with the two veterans also in town. Those in shallow leagues can drop the prospect for now. Those in keeper leagues and with deeper rosters, feel free to hang on; by this time next season (if not sooner, if a trade is transacted), Markstrom will likely be the team's No. 1. ... After four starts, Tuukka Rask finally got his first victory, as the Bruins exploded for five regulation goals and one empty-netter against the Islanders on Monday night. Rask's ratios are not what they were in seasons past, but these stats belie his talent level; he'll continue to be a nice spot-start on the nights when Tim Thomas gets a rest. ... Sticking with the useful backup theme, the Buffalo Sabres have finally found one in Jhonas Enroth (owned in just 17.7 percent of ESPN leagues), and he started two straight contests this past week, winning both with a combined SVP of .944. There's no goaltender controversy in Buffalo -- Ryan Miller is the No. 1, and will be for seasons to come -- but the team can now feel confident in using Enroth more, and he'll continue to provide value to fantasy owners with each appearance.
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