Commentary

New coach, better results?

Updated: November 29, 2011, 8:25 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

As each NHL team has reached the quarter pole of the schedule, some have seized the opportunity to make some changes, especially those not performing up to expectations. The St. Louis Blues fired head coach Davis Payne on Nov. 6, replacing him with Ken Hitchcock, and the team promptly went 7-1-2 after the switch; in the process, he saved Jaroslav Halak's season (while Brian Elliott has continued his strong play). On Monday, two more men joined Payne amongst the ranks of former NHL head coaches, as the Washington Capitals relieved Bruce Boudreau of his duties and the Carolina Hurricanes moved on from Paul Maurice, replacing them with Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller, respectively.

Both Hunter and Muller have a number of memorable -- if not infamous, in some cases -- highlights as players, and impressive coaching pedigrees as well, though neither has been a head coach yet at the NHL level. As a result, we can't analyze their previous effect on goalies at this level. In spite of this, should we expect Halak-like turnarounds from the men tasked with patrolling the crease for the Caps and 'Canes?

Hunter is making the jump directly from coaching teens at the junior level (the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights) to the NHL, a path that has become slightly more regular in recent seasons, but which still presents a challenge. That being the case, as a veteran of 1,407 NHL games and five seasons as the Capitals' captain, he certainly has experience being a leader of men on the highest stage. A humble, hard worker, Hunter is also expected to demand accountability out of all of his players. "It won't be too hard to follow that guy," Caps forward Brooks Laich quipped on Monday.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin and Dale Hunter
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesDale Hunter, right, will coach his first NHL game tonight with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.

The big question on everyone's mind is how he'll deal with Alex Ovechkin, but he does inherit a bit of a tricky situation in goal as well. Tomas Vokoun is clearly the team's No. 1 netminder, and there were big expectations for him, both in a real-life and fantasy hockey sense, at the season's outset. Though Boudreau benched him for the season opener, Vokoun played well over the season's first month, posting a 6-2-0 record, 2.16 goals-against average and .932 save percentage as the team roared to a fast start. November, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disaster: The veteran backstop has a 4-4-0 record, 3.48 GAA and .875 save percentage as the team has crumbled.

Hunter might not be able to enact too many on-ice changes right away, but establishing his confidence in Vokoun as the team's unquestioned No. 1 could help the veteran break out of his current funk. Furthermore, the Caps had reportedly developed a bit of a country club attitude, and breaking those habits will certainly be near the top of the priority list for Hunter, a blue-collar NHLer if ever there was one. As a result, the sense of accountability that Hunter will bring to the team may also result in more responsible play in the defensive zone. From a long-range standpoint, I have not lost faith in Vokoun as a fantasy asset (hence his remaining near the top of the rankings list, which considers future production), and the coaching switch should only strengthen his performance from here on out. The Caps face Hitchcock's Blues on Tuesday, followed by a matchup with the hated Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, so we'll see how quickly Hunter is able to put his stamp on this group of players, and whether Vokoun will see the benefit of the change right away.

As with the Caps getting less than stellar play out of Ovechkin, so it's been with the Hurricanes and Eric Staal, who sits at an astounding minus-17 rating, and has just 11 points in 25 games (on pace for 36 for the season). But after the fact that the star player is struggling and both teams play in the Southeast Division, that's pretty much where the similarities end. The 'Canes are No. 27 in the league in payroll, according to CapGeek.com, and are also one of the league's youngest teams. As one would expect, their preseason projections were thus much lower than those of the Capitals. Even so, Cam Ward was thought to be a high end No. 2 fantasy option, but thus far, he's the No. 42 goalie in the league based on the three ESPN standard categories of wins, GAA and save percentage. Currently, Ward is 8-10-3, with a 3.10 GAA and .905 save percentage.

As a team, the 'Canes have had issues on defense, allowing the third-most goals, and the most at even strength. While one might be inclined to chalk this up to their being amongst the league leaders in shots allowed per contest, the team has been doing this for much of Ward's career, and he's still been a valuable fantasy stalwart. Just last season, for instance, the Hurricanes allowed the most shots on goal (33.2 per game), but Ward managed a 2.56 GAA and .923 save percentage. As with Vokoun, confidence could be a factor here; we know that Ward has the talent to perform at a very high level, but he's not managed to do so with any frequency in this current campaign.

Looking ahead, Ward will see some benefit from the coaching switch, playing with a little more verve than the listless bunch that's taken the ice in recent weeks, and Muller may be able to sort out any lingering mental issues for his goalie as well. Another unresolved factor on which to keep an eye is the starting split. After the 'Canes added veteran backstop Brian Boucher this past offseason, there was some thought that Ward's workload would thus be lessened. Under Maurice, however, that idea was thrown out the window, with Ward getting the nod in 21 of the team's first 25 games. It's possible -- though it's hard to say how likely -- that Muller will prefer to give Ward a little more time off. Ward has established himself as one of the NHL's true workhorse netminders over the past few seasons, so while a reduction in his starting percentage would hurt his fantasy value a bit (moreso in leagues where volume stats are counted), perhaps the extra rest would yield an improvement in his production when he is on the ice.

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

Rising and Falling

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins (up three spots): It appears we've all been hoodwinked once again by preseason rumors that the Bruins would be operating a somewhat even split between Thomas and Tuukka Rask. To this point, Thomas has 15 starts to Rask's 7, and is once again amongst the league leaders in GAA (1.86) and save percentage (.937). And while the sense of impending regression permeates the stat lines of players like Brian Elliott, Curtis Sanford and Jean-Sebastien Giguere like the acrid stench of a pair of well-used skates in a closet, we all saw what Thomas did throughout the regular season and playoffs last season. Therefore, a repeat performance with a very similar Bruins roster would be about as surprising as another head coach being fired within the next two weeks. Unless there's a significant injury in Thomas' future, expect elite production from here on out, and it doesn't appear that Rask's workload will be an issue.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars (down three spots): With ESPNDallas.com's Mark Stepneski reporting that Lehtonen will miss at least three weeks (meaning at least eight games), the goalie's value for the duration of the season takes a small bump. Lehtonen had a reputation for being injury-prone prior to his trade to Dallas, but was good for 68 starts a season ago. I'm not too concerned about his performance after recovery either, especially given Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan's remarks that it is a minor groin injury. In the meantime, Andrew Raycroft will take over as the starter, with prospect Richard Bachman getting the call-up from the AHL. Raycroft's stats have been pretty brutal thus far, but all five of his starts have come on the second night of back-to-back games, so he's been playing behind a tired bunch. Monday was Raycroft's first start following Lehtonen's injury, and he stopped 35 of 36 shots the Colorado Avalanche could muster. He's a decent temporary fill-in, but I don't expect he'll play up to the level that fantasy owners had been getting out of Lehtonen. As for the new backup, it'll be interesting to see how much Gulutzan leans on Bachman, a potential future No. 1. Given that the coach was in charge of the AHL team last season, he's quite familiar with the 24-year-old and vice versa.

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes (up six spots): The fact that the Coyotes targeted Smith this offseason, as opposed to a more accomplished free agent netminder such as Vokoun, or at least a more experienced one such as Jose Theodore, was a mild surprise until considering that Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett had spent time with the 29-year-old when both were with the Dallas Stars organization. Clearly Tippett felt that Smith could be a success in his system, and at the quarter-pole of the 2011-12 season, his premonition has been spot-on: Through 18 starts, Smith has an 11-4-3 record, with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. One of the typical indicators on "unsustainability," however, is this: Smith's save percentage on the penalty kill is .936, a rate that is sure to fall. It should also be noted that the backstop's stats in recent seasons does not provide a ton of confidence. But perhaps Smith is a bit of a late bloomer, and just needed the right coach and the right system in front of him to blossom. Given the possibility of continued success, I'd hold on to Smith for a bit longer instead of trying to sell high just yet.

Al Montoya, New York Islanders (up two spots): It's my opinion that Montoya is the best that the Isles have at the position, regardless of who is and isn't healthy, and head coach Jack Capuano agreed in part, at least for a back-to-back set against the New Jersey Devils this weekend. Montoya started both contests, allowing just three total goals in the process and picking up one win. Given the Isles' continued dearth of scoring prowess, Montoya will need to be just as stellar in order to generate wins, but his production in the ratio categories appears to be right on the same track as it was the second half of last season. Given the chances that Capuano will trot out Evgeni Nabokov once the vet is healthy, there's a ceiling on Montoya's value. However, if and when Nabokov is out of the mix, Montoya should regain his status as a solid No. 2 option for fantasy purposes.

Timeshares

Roberto Luongo (100 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Cory Schneider (63.5 percent), Vancouver Canucks: After going 3-0-0, allowing just two goals total over the past week, Schneider was named the NHL's second star of the week on Monday, and has been tapped to get the start on Tuesday as well, with head coach Alain Vigneault citing the backup's figurative hot hand. Vigneault has continued to indicate that Luongo remains his No. 1, but the speculation has been flying as to how much longer that will be. The rumor mill has been churning out trade possibilities for Schneider for quite some time now, and his recent play certainly supports the idea that he can be a starter for someone. Interestingly enough, E.J. Hradek of the NHL Network recently suggested that Luongo could be the one sent packing, though it's hard to imagine another team taking on that contract. In any case, Schneider remains one of the top fantasy performers among the real-life No. 2s, and is more valuable than some real-life No. 1's. As for Luongo, if you've lasted this far, keep holding on. His time will come again.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Roloson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaFantasy owners, it's time to cut Dwayne Roloson.

Dwayne Roloson (61.1 percent) and Mathieu Garon (15.3 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: With the way that Guy Boucher has been doling out the starts as of late, it's hard to slot this tidbit into the "Timeshares" section: Garon has gotten the nod in the Lightning's past three games, as well as acting as a plumber in replacing a leaky Roloson in the game prior to the past trio of starts. The knock on Garon during his career has been his streakiness, and that hasn't changed this season. However, considering he's riding a hot streak right now, he's a worthy add in the short term. It remains to be seen whether what we've seen from Roloson thus far -- including a 3.36 GAA and .887 save percentage -- is just early-season struggles or a sign that the end is nigh for the 42-year-old. One thing is certain, though: There's no reason for him to be on a fantasy roster right now. Surely there are better options on your waiver wire.

Jaroslav Halak (87.9 percent) and Brian Elliott (97.7 percent), St. Louis Blues: Elliott joined Schneider in being awarded as one of the NHL's three stars this past week, with three wins, a 0.98 GAA and .963 save percentage. Meanwhile, Halak sat on the bench as the supposed No. 2 was tapped for all three outings. Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock has already announced that Halak will be back in goal Tuesday night, and with four sets of back-to-back contests in December, both men will have their fair share of work over the next month. But while the coach made it clear after his hire that Halak was his No. 1, that idea is getting significantly fuzzier. From a fantasy perspective, both of the two remain quite valuable -- the Blues have played wonderfully at both ends of the ice since Hitchcock's hire -- though for those in weekly lineup leagues, the value is diminished somewhat as the rotation continues.

Ice Chips

After one start he'd most likely rather soon forget -- five goals allowed to the Lightning on Saturday night -- Jacob Markstrom was sent back to the AHL by the Florida Panthers. He remains the future at the position for the team, but until they make a move with one of the two veterans, he's not worth a roster spot for our purposes. … There's some good news and some bad news on Ryan Miller. The good news is that the team officially placed him on IR on Saturday, so if you needed to free up a roster spot (and have an empty IR position), you can now do so. The bad news is that while Miller was able to take some shots before practice Monday, he left the ice before the rest of the players started the official practice, according to the Buffalo News. Additionally, there remains no timetable for his return from the concussion he sustained back on Nov. 12. … The news is a bit better on fellow concussee James Reimer, who has returned to practice with the Maple Leafs. Despite the return to practice, Reimer remains several days away from a return, given that he must continue to get his conditioning level back and the team must be confident that his concussion-related symptoms have subsided. … Curtis Sanford's insertion as the Blue Jackets' starter has coincided with a heightened performance for the team in general. Though his career stats don't bode well for his keeping up the current pace of 1.39 GAA and .947 save percentage, he's making a good case to retain his starting mantle even after Steve Mason returns from injury. Add him now while he's playing well.

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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