Commentary

In the Crease: Rinne still rising

Updated: December 20, 2011, 3:46 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

Yet another NHL head coach was fired over the course of the past week in what's continued to be a chilling trend. But before I get to the ramifications of what's happened in Montreal, let's focus down south on a team whose head coach has the second longest tenure in the league, the Nashville Predators.

[+] EnlargePekka Rinne
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesPekka Rinne is eighth among goaltenders on the Player Rater, but was the fifth goalie taken on average in drafts.

Barry Trotz is the only head coach that the Predators franchise has known, taking the reins back on Aug. 6, 1997, and refusing to relent them since. Lindy Ruff, currently the longest-tenured bench boss, took his post with the Buffalo Sabres 16 days prior. Like Ruff -- who's had the benefit of helming teams backstopped by elite goalies like Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller -- Trotz and the Predators have had a string of impressive goaltenders to man the crease, beginning with Tomas Vokoun, moving through the Chris Mason and Dan Ellis days, and now into the reign of Pekka Rinne. Though Vokoun has had some success in other locales (more on his current, nausea-inducing season in a bit), Mason and Ellis had their best work while playing for Trotz and the Preds. That's not to say that Trotz's defensive system is the sole reason for the success of the netminders, but it certainly doesn't hurt the cause to have one of the league's best groups of blue-liners working in their defensive end.

To be clear, though, Rinne is truly one of the NHL's elite at the position any way you want to slice it: He has a large frame but moves with great agility, exhibits excellent rebound control, and has his own website where you can check out his best James Bond pose (and a comprehensive gallery of his masks). All sartorial splendor aside, there's reason to believe that Rinne's fantasy stock is set to climb a little higher in the coming weeks and months based on the current numbers he's posted in the ratio categories.

A big part of Rinne's fantasy value in ESPN standard leagues thus far has been his 15 wins, good for fourth in the league. As any Craig Anderson owner will tell you, though, this category can be filled even if the ratio stats are suspect. Rinne's ratios have been fine -- a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage are close to his career numbers -- but they lag significantly behind last season's production. There's no guarantee that the 2.12 and .930 of 2010-11 will be replicated, but I expect some improvement over the rest of the season that will manifest itself in a move up the ranks of the league leaders in each category (he's currently No. 21 in GAA and No. 13 in save percentage).

How will this happen? One of the reasons why Rinne was so spectacular during 2010-11 was that his performance in away games (2.23 GAA and .926 save percentage) was not vastly different from what he accomplished at the Bridgestone Arena (2.03 GAA and .933 save percentage). During the current campaign, however, there's been a stark difference in his home and away splits; in Nashville, Rinne has posted a 2.20 GAA and .932 save percentage, while those numbers have dipped to 2.79 and .914, respectively, on the road. Unless there's an unresolvable roommate issue -- or he simply misses the home cooking when stuck at a remote NHL outpost -- expect that gap to be close significantly in the future.

Sitting in the No. 8 spot on the ESPN Player Rater amongst goalies, this is not some wildly undervalued commodity about which I speak. And in order to pry Rinne away from his current owner will certainly take a creative offer. But given the expectations I have for the 29-year-old, he'll be as valuable as any backstop from here on out, and can be targeted with that idea in mind.

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

Rising and Falling

Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals (down four spots): The decision to fire Bruce Boudreau and switch to Dale Hunter has not had the kind of instantaneous effect the Caps were expecting. In the nine games since the switch was made official on Nov. 28, the team has gone 4-5-0. There is no full-on goalie controversy yet, but while Vokoun's play has settled down a bit since the switch (a save percentage of .912 in the five games after the move, .870 in the 10 games prior), Hunter has elected to start backup Michal Neuvirth four times already in December. A goalie timeshare in D.C. isn't shocking news to anyone that's been following the team the past few seasons, but this season was supposed to be different, with an elite talent being signed to end all of those woes. The entire team got a clean slate with the coaching switch, and this may mean we have to adjust expectations for Vokoun, who was expected to be among the best fantasy netminders this season.

As for Neuvirth, some believe that he's actually not even the best goaltending prospect in the organization. That honor belongs to Braden Holtby, currently playing for the AHL's Hershey Bears. Neuvirth had a reasonably sweet stat line in 2010-11 -- a 27-12-4 record, with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage -- but there's a reason why the team acquired Vokoun this summer. As an occasional spot start, Neuvirth is fine, but he is not the long-term answer for the team, and thus his value is limited in fantasy this season. For those that need a quick fix in the short-term, however, he's worth a look.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (down one spot): A warning shot was fired to both Jacques Martin and the Canadiens players with the Oct. 26 firing of Martin's close friend and assistant coach Perry Pearn. After a brief turnaround, the losing ways continued for the Habs, and Martin was given his walking papers on Saturday. Part of the problem seemed to be that Martin was no longer getting the necessary buy-in from the players in his defensive-oriented system; it didn't help the cause that some of the team's scorers have been slumping. (Looking at you, Michael Cammelleri). New head coach Randy Cunneyworth is not expected to alter things dramatically, but sometimes a new voice -- even if that voice doesn't speak French -- can be a boost. In the short-term, this hasn't proven to be the case, as the Habs have lost the first two games of the Cunneyworth era, and Price was not at the top of his game in either contest, allowing five goals to the visiting New Jersey Devils on Saturday and three in Boston on Monday. In the long-term, it'll be interesting to see whether the Canadiens open things up more (like their high-flying dynasty teams from the 1970s), and what kind of an effect this has on Price. From a fantasy perspective, his stock takes a bit of a hit while the team figures out its new identity, but that could turn around in the coming weeks. Keep running him out there, since he has the talent to produce elite numbers regardless of the system in front of him.

Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks (up 15 spots): At the time that last week's column was published, Emery was owned in 30.6 of ESPN leagues, which was up from close to zero the week before. I hope you got in on that bandwagon while you could, because there's not much room left: peering at the numbers, Emery is now owned in 88.7 percent of ESPN leagues, and looking at his recent stats, it's not hard to figure out why. In his December seven appearances (six starts and one in relief of Corey Crawford), Emery has stopped 173 of 185 shots (a .935 save percentage), won six games and recorded a GAA of 1.74. The debate rages as to what Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville plans to do in net from a long-term standpoint (ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Craig Custance had a lively discussion on the matter on Dec. 15), but we know that Emery has the ability to be a legitimate force in the fantasy realm, given his brief work in Anaheim last season and his pre-injury performance with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. Nevertheless, given the fairly good chances that Crawford will get another shot in the future, he might be the man to target in trade right now. As for Emery, enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (down six spots): It's no surprise that goalies wind up with better stats in wins that in losses; aside from the obvious benefit to the goal differential, seeing their netminder in the figurative "zone" while stationed in the literal defensive zone can have an inspirational effect on teammates. They'll play harder at both ends of the ice for a backstop that is carrying them. In any case, Hiller's splits in wins versus losses have been disconcerting: in eight wins this season, Hiller's posted a 1.49 GAA and .946 save percentage. In the games that the team has lost, Hiller has had a 3.87 GAA and .880 save percentage. To put it another way: When he's good, he's very, very good, but when he's bad, he's very, very bad. That kind of uncertainty is good for neither the heart nor the fantasy hockey roster. There's no pressure on the depth chart, so if there's going to be a turnaround in net (and for the team in general), it will come with the Switzerland native between the pipes. That being the case, he's worth a bench spot if you can afford it while he attempts to get back on track, but don't feel bad dropping him if you need the space for help elsewhere on the roster.

Timeshares

Brian Elliott (100.0 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Jaroslav Halak (92.1 percent), St. Louis Blues: Strange week for the Blues, as they had four days off before playing three games in four days. While the reason behind that scheduling decision remains shrouded in mystery, one thing is less mysterious: The Elliott-Halak timeshare is a hit. Elliott's work this season has been an absolute revelation, as you'll see his name atop the league leaderboard in both GAA (1.43) and save percentage (.948). Halak's seasonal numbers are well behind those of his teammate, but since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock on Nov. 6, Halak has posted a 1.75 GAA and .931 save percentage. Bottom line: Both guys will continue to hold value until the coach makes his final decision on which will be his No. 1 in the postseason, and that could continue until April. As I've mentioned previously regarding other players involved in timeshares, in spite of the downgrade in the volume of starts, the quality of each Halak or Elliott start make them more valuable than many goalies who have a stranglehold on the No. 1 job for their respective team.

Niklas Backstrom (100 percent) and Josh Harding (25.2 percent), Minnesota Wild: Potential future No. 1 'tender Matt Hackett -- nephew of long-time NHL netminder Jeff Hackett -- had his fun in two recent starts (two wins, stopping 76 of 78 total shots), but he's been sent back to the AHL's Houston Aeros following Harding's return from a neck injury. With both Harding and Backstrom healthy, we now wait to see whether Wild coach Mike Yeo goes back to a rotation, or taps the senior of the two backstops (that'd be Backstrom) for the majority of the games. Either way, it's certainly worth re-adding Harding if you dropped him -- or adding him for the first time if he was dropped in your league. The simple fact is that we don't know what kind of rotation Yeo will use, and even one start per week from Harding (if he's back to his formerly dominant self) is worthy of a roster spot. The Wild have six more games left in December, so it's likely we'll see a healthy dose of Harding in the near future.

Semyon Varlamov (43.9 percent) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (16.5 percent), Colorado Avalanche: The idea to start Varlamov in both of the Avs' games against the San Jose Sharks last week was a mixed bag. The almond (the hero of a mixed bag of nuts) was on Tuesday, when Varly stopped 27 of 30 regulation shots -- and four of five in the shootout -- for the win. The cashew (which should be discarded immediately from any such bag) occurred Thursday, as the Sharks put five pucks past Varlamov in their second chance at him. As for Giguere, he continues to plug along, vastly outplaying the man 11 years his junior: two starts this past week, two wins, with a 1.44 GAA and .949 save percentage. There's no guarantee that Jiggy will earn the No. 1 mantle anytime soon -- and that's not the organization's long-term plan anyway -- but he's a very useful fantasy player in the meantime. And given that ownership percentage, he's probably just sitting lonely on your waiver wire right now.

Ice Chips

After last week's mention of Dallas Stars rookie Richard Bachman, his ownership percentage shot up 42.4 percent in ESPN leagues over the past week, though it may be a case of correlation as opposed to causation: In four starts since last week's edition was posted, Bachman picked up three wins, and though he had a rough outing against a New Jersey Devils team inspired by the retirement of Scott Niedermayer's jersey that evening, he rebounded well against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday. With Kari Lehtonen returning at some point within the next few weeks, don't be surprised if the Stars elect to find another place for Andrew Raycroft, and keep Bachman up with the big boys. … Ondrej Pavelec -- still available in 19.6 percent of ESPN leagues -- continues to be a force as the winter weather sets in. In six December starts, Pavelec has posted a 2.12 GAA and .936 save percentage, picking up four wins along the way. If we take away the one aberrant start in the middle (a Dec. 10 nightmare in which he allowed seven goals to the Detroit Red Wings), those numbers jump to a 1.00 GAA and .969 save percentage. Pavelec is still developing, and durability was and is a concern, but he could be ready to make a push into the lower realm of the fantasy No. 1's by the end of this season.

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.

ALSO SEE