In the Crease: Crawford on the rise
Within last week's column, I analyzed some potential trades involving goaltenders and how this would have an impact in the fantasy world. One team that some believed could be bolstered by adding another option in net is the Chicago Blackhawks, whose early-season success had been replaced by a lengthy losing streak. Many had laid the blame for this streak at the feet of netminders Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, and for good reason: As of last week's edition of the column, their GAA/save percentage numbers for calendar year 2012 had been 3.49/.881 and 3.32/.889, respectively. Those numbers won't cut it for a bottom-feeding NHL club, much less one fighting for its playoff life. Furthermore, it wasn't just the numbers that were bad; both men had become prone to giving up soft goals in recent weeks, the ultimate deflator for the men playing in front of them.
However, something remarkable has happened since we last met here in this space: In four starts, Crawford has played some of his best hockey of the season.
A 4-2 win on Thursday over the New York Rangers ended a nine-game losing streak. This was followed by a dominant 6-1 victory over the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets, then division wins against the St. Louis Blues (3-1) and Detroit Red Wings (2-1). In the four-game span, Crawford stopped 115 of the 120 shots he faced, posting a 1.25 goals-against average and .958 save percentage.
And now, the billion-dollar question: Can he maintain this run, or is he headed for an equally sharp downturn?
Earlier this season, Crawford had another strong quartet of performances. During the contests played Dec. 21, 26, 28 and 30, he racked up three wins, posting 1.52/.952 ratios. For his next trick, he followed that with the statistical atrocity noted above. So it's no guarantee that we're entirely out of the woods. Then again, Crawford has looked more confident in the crease through these last four contests, telling reporters that he's taken to reacting to situations more than being too aggressive. Another factor has been improved play from the Blackhawks in the defensive zone. With the Hawks going up 3-2 early in the third period of Tuesday's game, they allowed just seven total shots in that frame, and the Wings got nary a quality scoring chance.
Looking ahead, both of these factors are sustainable. Whether it's the inspiration of staring their dwindling playoff hopes in the eye or an actual strategic shift, the Blackhawks' defense has been notably better as of late. This is a trend that can continue, whether or not they make any additions to the group prior to the trade deadline. As for Crawford's mental state, we've seen goaltenders get hot down the stretch run into the playoffs many times in seasons past. For a young netminder in particular, stretching together four quality wins like this can be a cure for what ails him from a psychological standpoint. It's somewhat cliché to note, but so much of a young goalie's performance is a result of his mental well-being; when things are on a roll, that confidence continues to grow.
As for the impact of this within the fantasy realm, Crawford had likely been benched in many leagues following his run of horrifying starts. Although it's not a complete certainty that he'll be this good for the entire stretch run, he's safe to throw back into an active slot. As for Emery, feel free to drop him now if that roster spot is needed for help elsewhere.
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. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (2)
3. Jimmy Howard, Det (4)
4. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
5. Jonathan Quick, LA (6)
6. Mike Smith, Pho (9)
7. Tim Thomas, Bos (5)
8. Martin Brodeur, NJ (12)
9. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (8)
10. Jaroslav Halak, StL (7)
11. Antti Niemi, SJ (10)
12. Jonas Hiller, Ana (16)
13. Tomas Vokoun, Was (11)
14. Ryan Miller, Buf (13)
15. Craig Anderson, Ott (17)
16. Carey Price, Mon (15)
17. Brian Elliott, StL (20)
18. Cam Ward, Car (14)
19. Niklas Backstrom, Min (18)
20. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (19)
21. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (23)
22. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (21)
23. Corey Crawford, Chi (33)
24. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (26)
25. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (24)
26. Jose Theodore, Fla (27)
27. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (25)
28. Tuukka Rask, Bos (22)
29. James Reimer, Tor (28)
30. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (29)
31. Joey MacDonald, Det (34)
32. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (30)
33. Semyon Varlamov, Col (31)
34. Cory Schneider, Van (35)
35. Scott Clemmensen, Fla (36)
36. Ray Emery, Chi (32)
37. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (38)
38. Josh Harding, Min (39)
39. Al Montoya, NYI (37)
40. Jonathan Bernier, LA (40)
Rising and Falling
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins (down two spots): Something stinks in Boston and it's not the wharf smells coming in from the harbor. Over the first three months of the season, Thomas put up stellar 1.94/.939 ratios and had a 16-6-0 record, further entrenching himself as one of the NHL's elite. Since the calendar flipped to 2012, however, those ratios have taken a nosedive -- he's been good for a 2.63/.911 pace in games played since Jan. 1 -- and his record has been just 8-6-0. Don't get me wrong; that's not the fantasy hockey equivalent of a bunker buster to one's goaltending numbers, but it's also far from what we've all come to expect. If there's a bright side to all of this, it's that backup Tuukka Rask has not taken the minor slump from Thomas as his opportunity to steal the job away. Over the same time frame (games played in January and February), Rask has eight starts, going 3-4-1 with a 2.94 GAA and .899 save percentage. So no matter what the B's wind up doing at the trade deadline -- and they could very well do nothing -- Thomas will be the one in goal to try and get their momentum swung back in a positive direction before the playoffs begin. Given his track record, I'd keep him active in all formats.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils (up four spots): So much for Brodeur being on his last legs. Not only has he been stellar on the stats sheet -- a 6-1-0 record over the last seven starts, with 1.56/.945 ratios -- but he's made some individual saves that will certainly make his career highlight reel. And that's saying something given what's transpired over the previous 17 seasons. Prior to this current streak, Brodeur had struggled with inconsistency this season, but it appears he's found his groove and is among the best options in fantasy from here on out.
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up four spots): Yet another netminder for whom it's been a tale of two calendar years. In this season's first three months, Hiller posted a 3.18 GAA and .897 save percentage, a 9-16-6 record, with some thinking that perhaps he was not fully over the vertigo problems that ended his 2010-11 campaign. Over the course of January and February, however, he's gone 13-4-4 with a 1.85 GAA and .929 save percentage, leading the team back from the depths of the Western Conference basement to within six points of the No. 8 seed. Some fantasy leagues have not hit the trading deadline yet, and Hiller owners within those leagues must make a quick decision on whether to try to sell high or keep him, with the hope that he can maintain this elite level of play. Based on what we saw out of the pre-vertigo Hiller last season -- when he was consistently dominant -- it would take a monster offer (a top-level forward and a reasonable replacement netminder) to lure him off the roster of one of my teams.
Jaroslav Halak (100.0 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Brian Elliott (100.0 percent), St. Louis Blues: In January, the Blues' goaltending pendulum swung well in the direction of Halak, as the slightly younger of the two 26-year-olds started eight games to Elliott's three. Perhaps more importantly, the team won seven of those eight games Halak started, including three shutouts. However, as February has carried on, they're back to essentially an even split: five starts for Halak, six for Elliott. Furthermore, both men are performing quite well: Halak has gone 3-2-0, with 1.57/.945 ratios; Elliott has gone 5-1-0, with 1.06/.953 ratios. And they say these things are supposed to sort themselves out by the stretch run. Looks as if Ken Hitchcock and his associates will keep us guessing through the final weeks of the season, and both Halak's and Elliott's value will have a ceiling until a decision is made on which man is the No. 1.
Jonas Gustavsson (23.1 percent) and James Reimer (64.5 percent), Toronto Maple Leafs: It's still unclear whether either of these two will step up and become the Leafs' true No. 1 as they battle for a playoff spot, or if Toronto's front office will go against earlier hints that it would not be trading for a goaltending upgrade this season. Since we last met in this space, it's been a mixed bag for each man. Reimer stopped 29 of 32 shots to pick up an encouraging 4-3 overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 15, then went back to the shaky version of himself on Saturday night in Vancouver; in just over 31 minutes of work, he allowed four goals on 18 shots. As for his Swedish counterpart, Gustavsson offered up a Valentine's Day present to Calgary by allowing five goals on 34 shots, before serving mop-up duty against the Canucks on Saturday. That brought us to Tuesday; goals No. 3 and 4 allowed by "the Monster" on the way to an OT loss were truly ghastly: On the first, Gustavsson had a full view of Alexei Ponikarovsky sliding into the slot, but could not keep the puck from dribbling through his 5-hole. On the OT winner, a seemingly harmless point shot from Mark Fayne knuckled in the general direction of the Leafs' net, caromed off Gustavsson's pads and into the net. The Leafs cannot be confident playing in front of either man right now, and that's a problem. It's hard to figure which of the two will emerge as the top option for the stretch run, but neither is worthy of a spot in an active fantasy lineup as this battle of awful starts continues.
Last week a couple of starting goaltenders returned from illness (Tomas Vokoun) and injury (Jose Theodore). As the ebb and flow of NHL injuries continue, we've got some additional key players whose contributions may be limited in the near future. In Colorado, Jean-Sebastien Giguere is hampered by a groin injury, and though he'll reportedly be back in the active lineup as Semyon Varlamov's backup on Wednesday night, logic would dictate that he'll be eased back into his role. Keep him on the bench until he gets his legs back under him. Carolina Hurricanes ironman Cam Ward was knocked out of Saturday's contest against the New York Islanders with a lower-body injury and was scratched for Monday's win over Washington. Depending on the actual nature of the injury, it could be another few games before he's ready to shoulder his usual burden again. With three games remaining in February's final week, Justin Peters could be a nice short-term pickup (he shut the Caps out on 17 saves Monday). New York Islanders veteran backstop Evgeni Nabokov has been slowed by a flu bug recently, though he may be available for the team's next contest, Friday against the New York Rangers. Perhaps more importantly, it now appears that he's firmly off the trading block. Chris Botta of Islanders Point Blank has reported that the team has offered Nabokov his choice of a one- or two-year contract extension to remain with the club. While it's possible that a trade to a contending team in need of a goalie upgrade would have upped Nabokov's fantasy value, his performance with the Islanders this season -- 2.24/.925 ratios, with a 14-14-0 record -- is nothing at which to scoff. In fact, removing the instability of a potential trade may make him even more confident down the stretch.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.
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