Commentary

In the Crease: Late opportunities

Updated: March 13, 2012, 3:50 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

We're running out of weeks in the fantasy hockey season, and in leagues where the playoff rounds have already begun, many an owner is now officially on the outside looking in. But for those still alive, we've obviously entered crunch time, when an adept waiver move can swing fortune one's way.

With that in mind, it's noteworthy that a couple real-life No. 1 starters have fallen into our collective laps thanks to injuries in recent days. Both men are widely available in ESPN fantasy leagues, and while one may fall into the "he is what we thought he was" file, the other is a hot young prospect whose debut we've been waiting for months.

[+] EnlargeDustin Tokarski
Greg Fiume/NHLI/Getty ImagesIt's taken a few years, but Dustin Tokarski has finally made his first NHL starts and may get more looks in the near future.

Let's start with the hot young prospect first. The gentleman's name is Dustin Tokarski and after guiding the WHL's Spokane Chiefs to the Memorial Cup championship in 2008, he was selected with a fifth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and was a member of Team Canada for the 2009 World Junior Championships. Though he had some issues during the early portions of that tournament, he started the final against Sweden, making 39 saves on 40 shots to help lead the Canadian side to a 5-1 win. Playing for the Lightning's AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, in the three seasons since, he's posted an overall goals-against average of 2.51 and a save percentage of .908. This season alone, he's gone 27-11-0, with 2.34/.907 ratios. With all of that qualitative and quantitative background in mind, the most important part of this paragraph is the fact that with usual Lightning starter Mathieu Garon out for 3-4 weeks with a torn groin muscle (per the team's website), Tokarski has quickly been elevated to the starting role.

The first two starts of Tokarski's NHL career did not go quite as well as he might've hoped, allowing three goals apiece in losses to the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. Nevertheless, the Lightning remain on the periphery of the playoff hunt, and the 22-year-old Saskatchewan native should be the one in net on most nights; in addition to the inconsistent Dwayne Roloson being the team's other option, the club will want to get a good look at Tokarski playing at this level as they plan their offseason strategy. Scouting reports from his work in the AHL are valuable, but nothing can replace a test run in the NHL to determine whether or not they need to target one of the big unrestricted free agent netminders this summer.

So, he's getting the starts in real life, but is he worth starting on a fantasy team, especially given the high stakes at this time of year? It depends on your situation. If you've been riding the current hot streaks of players like Jaroslav Halak, Ilya Bryzgalov, Marc-Andre Fleury or Ryan Miller, stick with them. Even if you've been getting inconsistent work from some of our usual favorites like Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas or Roberto Luongo, their track record is good enough to believe that a turnaround is on the way (though maybe not right away). However, for the fantasy owner that's still in the mix at the top of the standings (or in the playoffs) and has been skating by while playing the hot mid-level options, Tokarski could be a nice addition. The Lightning are always dangerous on the offensive end, so goal support shouldn't be a problem. And as Tokarski gets up to NHL speed, his confidence level will rise, which will lead to better play -- and most importantly for this column, better stats. Owned in just 1.1 percent of ESPN leagues, he's there for the taking.

My secondary subject this week is journeyman Curtis Sanford, although the reason for his elevation to starting status is a heartbreaker. After struggling throughout the 2011-12 season -- and really, for the entirety of the two seasons before that -- Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason had finally appeared to turn things around this March. He'd won all four of his starts this month, while allowing just five total goals over that stretch, good for a 1.42 GAA and .959 save percentage. Though the Blue Jackets aren't going anywhere this postseason, Mason was garnering some attention within the fantasy realm, as numbers like those are an upgrade for just about any team. However, during the second period of the March 8 contest against the Los Angeles Kings, teammate John Moore's skate cut into Mason's hand during a play around the cage, and the laceration required 15 stitches.

Enter Sanford. The 32-year-old vet made 13 saves to seal the win over the Kings, but his two starts in Mason's place have resulted in two straight losses against the St. Louis Blues, relenting six total goals in the two contests and generating ratios of 3.02/.891.

Sanford's overall stats this season (2.64/.911) aren't too bad -- especially considering some of the problems the Blue Jackets have had on defense -- but much of his best work appears to be in the rear-view mirror. Furthermore, while the exact date of Mason's return is unknown, it's noteworthy that he is traveling with the team on their current sojourn out to Western Canada. It's likely he'll be unavailable for Wednesday's contest against the Edmonton Oilers, but a return during one of the games this weekend (against the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames) is possible. With that cap in place on Sanford's stranglehold on the starting gig, he's not really worth considering for our purposes, in spite of his near universal availability. As for Mason, who is owned in just 18.3 percent of ESPN leagues, I'd like to see another good start with his repaired hand before making that move.

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. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (2)
2. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
3. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (1)
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (7)
5. Ryan Miller, Buf (9)
6. Jonathan Quick, LA (3)
7. Mike Smith, Pho (5)
8. Martin Brodeur, NJ (11)
9. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (16)
10. Tim Thomas, Bos (4)
11. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (13)
12. Roberto Luongo, Van (6)
13. Jimmy Howard, Det (8)
14. Jonas Hiller, Ana (12)
15. Semyon Varlamov, Col (22)
16. Antti Niemi, SJ (14)
17. Tomas Vokoun, Was (20)
18. Ben Bishop, Ott (23)
19. Cam Ward, Car (18)
20. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (19)
21. Brian Elliott, StL (17)
22. Michal Neuvirth, Was (21)
23. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (15)
24. Ray Emery, Chi (27)
25. Jose Theodore, Fla (24)
26. Carey Price, Mon (25)
27. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (28)
28. Matt Hackett, Min (31)
29. Niklas Backstrom, Min (26)
30. Craig Anderson, Ott (29)
31. Joey MacDonald, Det (36)
32. Dustin Tokarski, TB (NR)
33. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (30)
34. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (33)
35. Cory Schneider, Van (39)
36. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (37)
37. Josh Harding, Min (35)
38. Steve Mason, Cls (NR)
39. Corey Crawford, Chi (32)
40. Marty Turco, Bos (NR)

Rising and Falling

With a handful of games left for NHL teams, the positioning of goalies on the Top 40 list -- which is, as a reminder, meant to reflect my projections for the players' performance for the games remaining on the schedule -- will fluctuate quite a bit more than they have previously; a hot streak now is going to have a bigger effect than it would midseason. But while there are some interesting swings going on near the top of the ranks -- cue the New York Rangers fans in the audience exasperated that Lundqvist has fallen to No. 3 -- there's more value in illuminating some things going on with players that have a lower ownership percentage, as these are the personnel on whom pickup decisions must be made in the final weeks.

Ben Bishop, Ottawa Senators (up five spots): At this time last week, Bishop was owned in just 0.6 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues. But as news of his promotion from the AHL spread, the stampede to fantasy waiver wires began; a week later, his ownership percentage is up to 46.5. As with Tokarski, Bishop is taking over the crease for the foreseeable future. But unlike Tokarski, Bishop dominated at the AHL level prior to his trade to Ottawa, and while he hasn't been perfect, he's gone 2-0-1 in his first three games with the Sens, posting a 2.27 GAA and .926 save percentage. We talk a lot about confidence when it comes to goaltenders, and Bishop's will continue to increase with each solid performance, producing more good outings. It's a vicious cycle. And it's one you should be a part of if you have any need whatsoever in net right now.

Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders (down eight spots): Nabokov's saga has been an intriguing one starting with the Isles' waiver claim on him last spring, and that has continued into the 2011-12 campaign. As the season got going, he was rumored to be on the trading block -- and some thought the only reason the veteran was starting over Al Montoya was to showcase him for a trade -- an idea that persisted up until the deadline last month. In the meantime, Nabokov became one of the more reliable fantasy No. 2 goalies. In the months of December, January and February, Nabby went 14-10-1, with a 2.21 GAA and .925 save percentage over that time-frame. March, on the other hand, has not been so great: he's allowed 16 goals in four outings, good for a 3.94 GAA and .866 save percentage. Just as a goalie riding a hot streak can carry a team to fantasy glory in the final weeks, so can a netminder who has gone cold ruin everything. So for the owners in 57.5 percent of ESPN leagues where Nabokov is on a roster, it's time to move on.

Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks (up three spots): In the span of two weeks, Emery's ownership percentage in ESPN leagues has gone from 8.9 percent to 58.3. So should you join the growing masses that count him as one of the men on their fantasy roster? On the plus side, Emery is now -- seemingly without much question -- the Blackhawks' No. 1 goalie, and he's looked strong in recent days: Though the team lost in a shootout on Sunday, Emery kept them in the game throughout, and including keeping the Kings out of the net on the first five shootout attempts. Since taking over for Corey Crawford in a game on Feb. 25 -- and also snatching the No. 1 reins from his young teammate -- Emery has gone 4-2-1, with a 2.20/.926 split. On the negative side, we've seen strong runs like this from him before, only to come crashing back to mediocrity afterwards. Even so, at this point in the season, if you need goaltending help, a player with Emery's upside can be a difference-maker. There's a chance he's still hanging out on your league's waiver wire, and he's worth a shot for the final few weeks of the season..

Timeshares

Tomas Vokoun (99.8 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (28.4 percent), Washington Capitals: In the six games preceding last week's column, Neuvirth had played in six straight games for the Caps -- starting five -- and posted a ratios split of 2.02/.923 while winning three. But after a rough outing for Neuvirth against the Hurricanes on Tuesday -- four goals allowed on 36 shots in an OT loss -- and Vokoun's recovery from his latest injury, the veteran got the nod in two straight, posting a 2.42 GAA and .915 save percentage in the two wins. To further confuse matters, Neuvirth was back in on Sunday, posting a 23-save shutout over the Toronto Maple Leafs. I don't have a strong feeling on either man necessarily winning the No. 1 job right now. Conventional wisdom might indicate that the Caps would go with Vokoun based upon his track record, but Neuvirth's recent stellar play can't be ignored, especially with the team fighting for a playoff spot. From a fantasy perspective, it's worth your while to see if Neuvirth is available on your waiver wire; even if he only starts half the games, he's been posting good enough stats to make a difference for most fantasy teams.

Josh Harding (11.1 percent) and Matt Hackett (12.4 percent), Minnesota Wild: "The usual small sample size warning applies, but the fact remains that Hackett has posted a 0.96 GAA and .971 save percentage in his six appearances in 2011-12." That came from last week's edition, and Hackett became the latest example of a cautionary tale: his three appearances since those words were first published went pretty poorly: though he gets credit for the win over the Phoenix Coyotes on March 8, he stopped 15 of 17 shots in relief of Harding, which works out to a .882 save percentage. In his other two appearances, he allowed four goals apiece (an .833 save percentage over the two contests). Harding acted as Hackett's backup for the game on Sunday, but it's unclear if he's ready to make a return to starting just yet. So in the meantime, Hackett will get a chance to play his way out of the current funk. For fantasy owners, it's better to keep both men out of the active lineup right now, but Hackett is worth stocking on your bench; if he can get another hot streak going in his next couple starts, he'll be valuable for the final stretch whether the Wild are winning or losing.

Ice Chips

With Ben Bishop appearing steady thus far (as noted above), there's no rush for the Sens to get Craig Anderson back in the mix. However, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Anderson did test the hand on Monday, taking shots from assistant coaches before the players on the team that didn't slice their hand open in a freak kitchen accident practiced. The Citizen adds that a return to an actual practice this week is not out of the question, though a return to game action remains uncertain. … For the Jimmy Howard owners that have been understandably concerned with his latest ailment, it appears that he's ready to return. MLive.com reports that Howard practiced on Monday and is on track to start Tuesday night's contest against the Los Angeles Kings. However, if you did pick up Joey MacDonald in the interim (or during Howard's previous injury), it's worthwhile to hang on to him in case there's another setback. … Because of the jam-packed nature of the final few weeks of the season, we may be seeing backup goalies more often than usual. This is of particular interest in Boston, where the Bruins signed Marty Turco to be Tim Thomas' understudy following the injury to Tuukka Rask. There was some question as to how game-ready Turco would be after spending the season playing in Austria -- and given how out of sorts he looked in his time with Chicago last season -- but Sunday's relief performance was encouraging. The 36-year-old stopped 20 of 22 shots he faced, including one for the highlight reel on Jordan Staal. I wouldn't pick him up just yet, but keep him on the radar and be prepared to make a move if he has another good outing. There's value to be had in backups getting occasional work on good teams.

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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