In The Crease: Change in Toronto
With a handful of games left on the schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs made the switch for which some had been calling for weeks (if not months), firing head coach Ron Wilson in favor of Randy Carlyle, himself fired as head coach of the Anaheim Ducks earlier this season. It's notable that Carlyle and Leafs general manager Brian Burke won a Stanley Cup together with the Ducks back in 2006-07. While the coaching change is meant to inspire the entire team to get their respective acts together, it's the Leafs' goaltending that has perhaps been the biggest weak spot all season. So does this move make either Jonas Gustavsson or James Reimer worthy of a roster spot in fantasy, given some of the alternatives still widely available?
The low value for Gustavsson and Reimer is not something new. Even with the team winning consistently early in the season, it was in spite of what it was getting out of the goalies, not because of it. Furthermore, this was distressing to those fantasy owners who'd invested in Reimer based on his strong performance in the second half of the 2010-11 campaign. The pair combined for a 7-3-1 record in the first month of the season, but merging their stats produced a 3.16 goals-against average and .899 save percentage for "Jonames Gustavmer." That type of single-category wealth is not worth the heartache caused by those ratios. Things improved a little for Gustavsson in November (Reimer was out with a concussion by this point), as the Swede improved his ratio stats to 2.82/.907 while posting five more wins. December was a rough month for "Gustavmer," as this amalgam of the two Leafs netminders went 4-6-3, with a 3.29/.895 split.
Reimer was given just one start in January, and that was Gustavsson's strongest month of the season -- 7-3-1 with a 2.08 GAA and .926 SV% -- and second strongest in his NHL career (he went 7-1-0 with a 2.06/.923 in March of his 2009-10 rookie campaign). Of course, he followed that up with a 3.76/.880 February, going winless in the process. Reimer was not much better, picking up just four wins in 10 starts, with mediocre marks of 3.19 and .901.
Following the coaching change, Gustavsson was given the nod in the team's first win of the Carlyle era, and though his final stats looked good -- stopping 21 of 22 shots (.955 SV%), backstopping a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens -- he looked a little shaky out there from a qualitative standpoint, including on the lone goal he surrendered. The rebound control is not where it needs to be, and it seems as though Gustavsson still does not have the crease presence that confidence will bring, something that Reimer showed during his strong run last season.
As ESPN's Craig Custance explained in an Insider blog post on Monday, the Leafs are not getting a new "system" with Carlyle but rather a new "program," one that demands accountability and physicality (dare I say truculence?). In theory, that sounds like something that will help the goalies, and one area in which there's much room for improvement in that regard is on the penalty kill. Toronto currently ranks second to last in the NHL with a 76.7 percent kill rate; only the tattered Columbus Blue Jackets are worse. Carlyle's Ducks teams weren't tops in the league in this regard -- they finished at a 79.7, 79.3 and 81.3 percent the past three seasons -- but a middle-of-the-road PK is better than one in the NHL's basement. Perhaps more important, Carlyle's demanding nature should -- repeat: should -- help cut down on the Leafs' penchant for turnovers. As it stands, only the Edmonton Oilers have more giveaways this season (798) than Toronto (758), and giveaways tend to lead to odd-man rushes the other way, which don't always lead to goals, but often lead to scoring chances. Thus, cutting down on those turnovers will be a boost to the netminders.
Ultimately, fantasy owners must decide if these changes make Gustavsson (currently owned in 15.7 percent of ESPN leagues, and apparently the first man up for the Carlyle regime) worth the risk: Will he be able to recapture his form from January, or will the on-ice shakiness continue, and with it, his lackluster stats? If Gustavsson isn't the answer, is Reimer (44.8 percent ownership), the man who had two straight shutouts to begin February but followed by allowing 18 goals in his next five starts?
This is the time of the fantasy season that catching a hot goalie on his rise can lead to glory -- more so, of course, in head-to-head leagues than roto-style -- so taking a risk on Gustavsson or Reimer may be under consideration for some folks out there. However, there are some better options right now, including Michael Neuvirth (available in 70.1 percent of ESPN leagues) and Matt Hackett (unowned in 91.8 percent). Though each of these two has a tenuous hold on his depth-chart position, at least they're consistently putting up performances that do more good than harm at this point. The same cannot be said for the Leafs' 'tenders.
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. Jonathan Quick, LA (3)
4. Tim Thomas, Bos (7)
5. Mike Smith, Pho (4)
6. Roberto Luongo, Van (5)
7. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (8)
8. Jimmy Howard, Det (6)
9. Ryan Miller, Buf (12)
10. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
11. Martin Brodeur, NJ (9)
12. Jonas Hiller, Ana (11)
13. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (21)
14. Antti Niemi, SJ (14)
15. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (15)
16. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (22)
17. Brian Elliott, StL (16)
18. Cam Ward, Car (13)
19. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (19)
20. Tomas Vokoun, Was (17)
21. Michal Neuvirth, Was (31)
22. Semyon Varlamov, Col (25)
23. Ben Bishop, Ott (30)
24. Jose Theodore, Fla (27)
25. Carey Price, Mon (20)
26. Niklas Backstrom, Min (18)
27. Ray Emery, Chi (38)
28. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (24)
29. Craig Anderson, Ott (23)
30. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (28)
31. Matt Hackett, Min (NR)
32. Corey Crawford, Chi (26)
33. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (40)
34. James Reimer, Tor (33)
35. Josh Harding, Min (41)
36. Joey MacDonald, Det (34)
37. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (32)
38. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (35)
39. Cory Schneider, Van (36)
40. Johan Hedberg, NJ (NR)
Rising and Falling
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins (up three spots): This is not so much a move based upon Thomas' own performance -- he's actually been inconsistent over the past several starts stretching back to Feb. 8 -- but the fact that Tuukka Rask is reportedly going to miss the next four to six weeks with a lower abdomen/groin strain, and there are only four to six weeks left in the regular season. With Marty Turco brought in as Thomas' new understudy, expect the reigning Vezina Trophy winner to start an even bigger portion of the Bruins' contests from here on out, with the requisite uptick in fantasy value as a result.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres (up three spots): Miller's yo-yo season appears to be headed back up on another recoil: After not allowing a goal on the Sabres' recent California trip -- 43 shots against the Ducks and 39 off the sticks of the San Jose Sharks -- he finally gave up one to the Vancouver Canucks' David Booth 15:37 into the second period of another win on Saturday. For his efforts, he was awarded the NHL's first star for the week ending with Sunday's games. Monday night's contest saw a clearly fatigued Buffalo team bested by a hungry Winnipeg Jets club, and the game winner came on a third-period breakaway, a play that is typically not the fault of the netminder who ends up with the mark against him. The Sabres play the vast majority of their remaining contests against teams in playoff position or fighting for playoff position, and this puts a lot of pressure on Miller. Fortunately, he feeds off this kind of pressure, and that means he should be a reliable source of production over the final few weeks.
Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars (up eight spots): A 7-1-2 tear over the past 10 games has the Stars in first place in the Pacific Division (though the Sharks, just two points behind, have two games in hand), and Lehtonen has been a big part of the drive; he's been the man in net for all but one of those tilts, posting a 1.73/.937 split in the process. While there's no guarantee that such statistical dominance will continue, Lehtonen's continued deployment as the Stars' workhorse is all but certain. "If you look at our schedule down the road, we'll probably rely on Kari quite extensively for a lot of the time," Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan confirmed Monday, according to ESPNDallas.com. I know that Lehtonen may not have been the first goalie that you drafted last fall, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be starting over all but the most elite options at this point.
Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks (up 11 spots): Here we go again. After teammate Corey Crawford strung together four straight wins (allowing just five goals in the process, good for a 1.25 GAA and .958 SV%), his ship crashed violently into the rocks; he was pulled 26:49 into the contest on Feb. 25 after allowing four goals on 10 shots, and 20 minutes into the game on Feb. 29 after three goals on 10 shots. Enter Emery, who was a perfect 20-for-20 in that first relief outing (though the team still lost) and stopped 23 of 24 as the Blackhawks rallied for a win in the second. The veteran has started the ensuing two games -- both wins -- allowing just one goal in each while posting a SV% of .960. So is Emery the Blackhawks' No. 1 goalie? Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville is not a man obsessed with titles, so he hasn't made a firm declaration on the matter, but the reality is that this is Emery's job (at least for now). Owned in just 25.4 percent of ESPN leagues (a number that has risen 16.5 points over the past week), he's a man on whom a risk is worth taking right now.
Tomas Vokoun (96.8 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (29.9 percent), Washington Capitals: The Tomas Vokoun experience seemed like a great plan on paper this past offseason: a talented veteran brought in on a cheap contract to solidify the net for a team poised to make another run at Stanley Cup glory. On the fantasy side, given what Vokoun had been able to accomplish as the backstop for the Florida Panthers, great things were expected now that he'd be getting significantly more goal support, and he was ranked among the top fantasy goalie options in the preseason. It's tough to pinpoint exactly when things went awry, but despite some fine work here and there (including four shutouts, two of which came in February), it hasn't been the total success that we'd imagined. Lately, Vokoun has been bothered by a lower-body injury -- his last work included giving up four goals on 11 shots in 32:08 against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 22 -- and Neuvirth has simultaneously excelled. Aside from a dud against the New Jersey Devils this past Friday, the Czech youngster has been quite strong since replacing Vokoun on that fateful night. During the course of those six appearances, he's generated a 2.02 GAA and .923 SV%, and bear in mind that this includes that 15-for-20 nightmare against the Devils. Of the five games Neuvirth has started, the Caps have won three, and they lost Sunday night's game by a 1-0 margin. Though Vokoun practiced Monday and may be able to play in the next few days, that doesn't mean that his job is necessarily waiting for him.
Josh Harding (18.0 percent) and Matt Hackett (8.9 percent), Minnesota Wild: Niklas Backstrom was knocked out of last Thursday's contest during the first period, unable to put pressure on his left leg. On Friday, the Wild's official website confirmed that the netminder has a groin injury and will miss two to four weeks. At the short end of that estimate, Backstrom would be ready to return by the March 17 tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes, and if he started every contest from then on out, it'd be an additional 12 games. At the longer end of the estimate, he'd be able to play in the final five contests. Given the nagging nature of groin injuries -- and the importance of that particular body part to playing goalie at a high level -- it's difficult to put too much faith in Backstrom to return to his top-flight level for the rest of the fantasy season. If it's down to Harding (himself quite injury-prone this season) and Hackett, the play of the former as of late has left much to be desired while the latter has been a nice surprise in all of his action this season. The usual small sample size warning applies, but the fact remains that Hackett has posted a 0.96 GAA and .971 SV% in his six appearances in 2011-12. As noted above, this is the time in the fantasy season when riding a hot player can have great rewards (especially in head-to-head leagues, as the playoffs approach). Hackett has been sharp thus far, and with Backstrom's injury and Harding's inconsistency, he now has the opportunity. He's worth a shot.
Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson indicated this past week that he's not sure when he'll be back in action, according to The Associated Press, so the team continues its fight for a playoff berth without him. After two straight wins for recent call-up Robin Lehner, the young Swede was in net for two subsequent losses this past week, allowing two goals on 39 shots to the Blackhawks and four on 28 to the Panthers. The Sens, of course, just traded for Ben Bishop, and on Monday they promoted the 6-foot-7 Colorado native from their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, sending Lehner back in his stead. Owned in just 0.6 percent of ESPN leagues, it's time to make the addition. A little bit of concern for Jimmy Howard's fantasy owners (and Red Wings fans), as he was knocked out of Sunday's loss to the Blackhawks with a lower-body injury and will not be with the team for Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia. Though the netminder might return as soon as Friday, his absence might be longer, depending upon the exact nature of the malady. Joey MacDonald -- who has been excellent in his work this season, with a 7-2-1 record, 1.69 GAA and .933 SV%, and is available in 65.5 percent of ESPN leagues -- replaced Howard on Sunday and will continue to man the crease until the All Star's return.
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.
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