Commentary

In the Crease: Holiday bargains

Giguere, Neuvirth, Harding, Garon among top performers still available in many leagues

Updated: December 28, 2011, 3:46 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

As malls are jammed across the continent this week, with shoppers exchanging unwanted gifts and eyeballing all the items on clearance, it is a good opportunity for fantasy hockey owners to take a step back and see if there are any such "clearance" players: Those still available on the waiver wire in a sizable portion of ESPN leagues, but producing up to a level better than those currently rostered in larger numbers. That Nikolai Khabibulin model that seemed like the perfect gift back in October for the puckhead who has everything? It's been draining the household supply of D batteries -- and required several fixes -- in the time since. Time to see if the store will take opened returns.

Giguere
Giguere

Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Colorado Avalanche. Equivalent gift: a sharp, vintage jacket found at the secondhand store. In last week's column, Giguere was owned in just 10.4 percent of ESPN leagues. On the morning of Dec. 28, that number has shot up to 72.4 percent, so this is really an "Act now!" situation. Though Giguere has not officially been named the Avs' No. 1 goaltender, a quick glance at his stats compared with those of Semyon Varlamov paints a pretty stark picture. Even after an off night against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday (allowing four goals on 26 shots), Giguere's seasonal goals-against average is 1.95 and his save percentage is .928, third and sixth, respectively, leaguewide. Meanwhile, Varlamov has posted a 3.09 GAA and .896 save percentage. Moreover, the Avs have won eight of Giguere's 13 starts and just 11 of Varlamov's 25. In addition, the veteran's save percentage doesn't seem to be inflated by artificially high situational play: His save percentage on the penalty kill is .868, meaning there's actually some room for improvement. Generally, a legitimate No. 1 goalie is not available on the waiver wire in late December -- and I'm not completely percent certain that he's been given that title in Denver -- but he's probably playing better than one of the options on your roster right now. Though Giguere has not been a reliable fantasy option since the 2007-08 season, perhaps we've got ourselves a case of a late-career renaissance going on. It's certainly worth a waiver claim to find out.

Neuvirth
Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals. Equivalent gift: a bag of candy, with high short-term reward but questionable long-term nutritional value. Like Giguere, Neuvirth was his team's No. 2 goaltender at the season's outset, and he's provided some stability recently, outplaying the man who was acquired this offseason to be the No. 1 (in the Capitals' case, Tomas Vokoun). But that's about where the similarities end. In spite of a recent hot streak -- in his five appearances prior to Monday's debacle (three goals on six shots), he'd posted a .939 save percentage -- Neuvirth does not have the same track record of success over portions of his career as Giguere, and is known for such volatility (which obviously swings both directions). So why should anyone consider adding him? For one thing, two of three of Monday's goals against were somewhat defensible from Neuvirth's perspective: one came on a 2-on-1 after a badly timed line change, and another on a shot directly off a faceoff. He barely got his engine started before being shut down for the night. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that new head coach Dale Hunter has not seemed particularly tied down to starting Vokoun, in spite of the preseason expectations of Vokoun being the team's clear No. 1. Instead, Hunter's going with the hot hand, and that means that even when Neuvirth's current streak ends, another will be coming down the road. As with any player with volatile performance, it's important to monitor what Neuvirth is currently doing, but he's worth consideration right now and is only owned in 28.8 percent of ESPN leagues.

Harding
Harding

Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild. Equivalent gift: a set of martini glasses, which can be used on occasion, but may not be the most durable. No stranger around these parts, Harding made his return from a neck injury this past week, stopping 28 of 30 shots he faced in a tough-luck loss to the Calgary Flames. For the season, Harding sits in the No. 6 spot in GAA (2.13) and No. 4 for save percentage (.932), though the work of teammate Niklas Backstrom (right behind him at 2.31 and .925) means that this isn't a situation ripe for a goalie change, unlike the ones mentioned above. Nevertheless, a real-life No. 2 can have substantial value in the fantasy realm -- especially in leagues that allow daily lineup changes -- and Harding is one of the best this season, which is why it's a little surprising that his ownership percentage has dropped to 22.9 in ESPN leagues. Given Backstrom's relative struggles as of late -- he's allowed four goals in each of his past three starts, all losses -- Wild coach Mike Yeo may tap Harding for a spell here to get his team back on track. Even if Harding is only getting one start out of every three games, at his level of play that's better than what can be said for a number of full-time No. 1s.

Garon
Garon

Mathieu Garon, Tampa Bay Lightning. Equivalent gift: a dozen roses purchased at the last minute at a convenience store, which may wilt before long. Garon is currently rostered in a mere 8.7 percent of ESPN leagues, which isn't altogether surprising given his relative standing in the categories we use to assess netminder performance. His nine wins put him in a tie for the No. 25 slot, and his ratios (2.75 in GAA, .906 in save percentage) have him in even worse shape in those categories. But there's a little bit of value here, and it's perhaps best demonstrated by what transpired Tuesday (a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in which the Quebec native made 31 saves). Playing against the league's second most proficient scoring team, Garon was able to weather the storm, including a stop on a Scott Hartnell breakaway and stoning Danny Briere on a 2-on-1. Performances like this one aren't the norm for Garon -- for example, he looked overwhelmed by the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 21, allowing three goals in the first 6:21 -- but he's got the ability to put up a great start from time to time. In terms of determining when those will come (for those risk-takers who are ready to take him for a spin), looking over the situational stats, it seems clear that he's someone who should be started for home games but benched on the road. In eight home games, he's posted a 1.89 GAA and .924 save percentage, while his away marks are 3.21 and .898. He must like those new home sweaters a whole lot (or have a bad allergy to hotel soap). From what we've seen out of Dwayne Roloson this season, Garon isn't under too much pressure at the NHL level, though Dustin Tokarski, the 22-year-old at their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, may be a factor later this season.

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

Rising and Falling

Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues (up two spots): Elliott's promotion here is not an indication that the Blues' timeshare situation has come to an end; I expect Ken Hitchcock to continue trotting out Jaroslav Halak as well. But in spite of the pressure of having another starting-caliber goalie on the roster -- or perhaps because of it -- Elliott has been phenomenal, which is not exactly a news flash for those who've been paying attention this season. But his consistently high level of performance is among the most shocking developments of the season thus far, given the streakiness we saw in his previous stops. Though skeptical at first, I now have no reason to believe that Elliott will be anything but fantasy gold from here on out.

Tomas Vokoun, Washington Capitals (down four spots): As mentioned above, Dale Hunter is not afraid to go with his gut when it comes to his goaltending decision, and the gut in question has instructed him to go with Neuvirth over Vokoun for the past five starts. This isn't necessarily the end of Vokoun -- and he'll likely get a starting streak of his own at some point -- but it is indicative of the fact that there's no definitive order between the two netminders. That reduces my confidence level that Vokoun will be able to turn this ship around, ergo the drop down the rankings list for the games remaining. Hopefully, he'll be able to use this latest snub (of sorts) to get back on track in the future, as he certainly seems upset. "I can't really tell you," he responded on Monday when asked why he thought he hadn't played since Dec. 13, according to the Washington Times. "I don't know what I did wrong to be in this spot. I'm a professional hockey player and I don't make decisions who plays, who doesn't. That's not a question for me. All I can answer is where I play, how I play and how I felt I did out there and stuff like that. That's pretty much all I can tell you about." Oh boy.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets (up two spots): Pavelec has flown under the proverbial radar for many this season -- he's not even listed as an option on the All-Star Game ballot (though, then again, neither is Elliott, which gives us a good idea of how spot-on that ballot is), and is sitting on the waiver wire of 13 percent of ESPN leagues. But after a slow start to the season -- he went 3-4-1, posting a 3.62 GAA and .885 save percentage in October -- he's found his game as of late. In 10 starts this month, he's gone 6-3-1, with a 1.95 GAA and .940 save percentage. A potential problem to keep in mind as the season goes along is his workload. Currently, he's played in the fifth-most games and faced the third-most shots. Pavelec was put under similar duress in 2010-11, and fell apart in the latter months of the season. This is not to say that one should avoid him, but be ready to cut him loose if a similar swoon occurs later on in this campaign.

Timeshares

Kari Lehtonen (99.6 percent ownership in ESPN leagues), Richard Bachman (45.3 percent) and Andrew Raycroft (0.9 percent), Dallas Stars: With Lehtonen poised to return to the ice, the Stars elected to put the veteran Raycroft on waivers instead of simply sending Bachman back to the AHL. The team will know by Thursday at 11 a.m. whether Raycroft has cleared, but the move isn't too surprising given what we witnessed during Lehtonen's absence. The 24-year-old Bachman started the team's last eight games, and while he didn't maintain his strong early pace, he showed enough for the team to keep him as Lehtonen's primary backup. "We've looked at the body of work over the last three weeks and we think he's done a lot of good things," general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said of Bachman, according to ESPNDallas.com. "I know he's let in some goals he shouldn't have lately, but he's compact for a smaller goaltender and he is good with his rebounds. I think those goals that have gone in lately are correctable mistakes." It remains to be seen how often Bachman will be working on correcting those mistakes in games, of course. Prior to his injury, Lehtonen was as good as he's ever been: He allowed more than two goals in only five of his 18 starts, and in spite of missing a month, he's still the No. 10 goalie on the ESPN Player Rater for the season, on the strength of 13 wins, a 2.34 GAA and .926 save percentage. But based on what Bachman has shown, a 60-40 split would not be surprising to see, which means the youngster will maintain some value. As for Raycroft, he didn't have much value for our purposes to begin with, and that will be completely nullified if he clears waivers and gets sent to the AHL. However, if a team that is desperate for help in the crease claims him, there may some value in the future; even so, it's not worth picking him up until we find out who this hypothetical team actually is.

Corey Crawford (98.4 percent) and Ray Emery (88.1 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: Bit of a reversal in Chi-town over the past week. After Emery started six straight games, head coach Joel Quenneville went back to Crawford for two over the past week. It wouldn't seem that Emery's break was due to performance issues: The team won five of those six games, while the netminder posted a 2.11 GAA and .927 save percentage in that span. But regardless of the reason, Crawford's work in those two starts may be a harbinger of good things. He stopped 57 of the 59 shots faced, and while the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets are among the bottom third of the league in terms of scoring, it's encouraging nevertheless. Friday night will be the first of three times the Hawks take on the rival Detroit Red Wings in a span of the next eight games, and Quenneville's choice in that contest may give us a sign as to whom he trusts more for the rest of the season. For now, we're stuck checking the newswire to see who gets the start in each respective game, and it may be worth checking to see if you can find a more steady source of production on the trade market.

Ice Chips

From a long-range standpoint, Calgary Flames goalie Leland Irving is worth watching. Miikka Kiprusoff is the franchise's workhorse No. 1 of the present and near future, but eventually he'll need a successor, and Irving appears to be the heir to the valtaistuin (that's Finnish for throne). Irving has stopped 58 of the first 61 NHL shots he's faced, and though opposing teams will start to figure him out now that they've got some film on him, the Alberta native may be in competition to be the No. 1 as soon as next training camp. And if one of the rumored trades involving Kiprusoff actually comes to fruition, we may be talking about that possibility even sooner. … The battle of attrition continues in goal for the New York Islanders, with Evgeni Nabokov being the beneficiary of the poor health of Al Montoya (concussion) and Rick DiPietro (groin). Don't sustain an injury yourself racing to the waiver wire, however. Though Nabokov will continue to get the majority of starts in the near future, he hasn't exactly been too stellar lately -- 2.65 GAA and .909 save percentage in four appearances this month -- or in general this season, with a 2.76 GAA and .910 save percentage to go with his 2-8-0 record. … The latest example of the NHL's disconcerting trend of concussions sustained by star players is Nashville Predators franchise defenseman Shea Weber. The team does not believe he'll miss extended time -- and could play this Friday, according to what coach Barry Trotz told the Tennessean -- but there will be an on-ice impact for however long he's shelved, and that includes the production of goaltender Pekka Rinne. We'll get our first taste of Weber-less Predators hockey on Wednesday night against the Wild.

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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