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The men in the fiberglass masks

9/21/2011

Hockey goalies are a singular breed of professional athlete, and the vocation attracts a particular kind of person. They spend large portions of each contest alone at one end of the rink when the action is at the opposite end and are then expected to perform miracles even when -- especially when -- the five skaters in front of them have failed in their defensive duties. A mistake by a skater leads to a missed scoring opportunity or an odd-man rush the opposite way. A mistake by a goalie means a goal for the other team. Hockey goaltenders are also unique in the world of sports in that they are instantly identifiable by their uniform and pads; they are shielded by a great deal more equipment than their cohorts on offense and defense, but this makes sense as the expectations of an entire fan base are largely upon them.

Within the realm of fantasy hockey, goalies are no less important to a team's success. In ESPN standard settings, there are 17 slots in an active lineup, a mere two of which are filled by netminders. Meanwhile, of the 10 categories used in these leagues, three of them are determined by the men patrolling the crease. Some quick arithmetic tells us that less than 12 percent of a team's starting roster is responsible for 30 percent of the team output. It's no surprise then that the elite fantasy goaltenders are usually off the board after the first few rounds. As a service to both fantasy hockey newbies and grizzled vets, let's take a look at the three goalie-specific categories in ESPN standard leagues and go over some roster strategies for the position.

Fantasy goaltending stats

There are a number of interesting ways to assess a goaltender's performance, but the three we use in ESPN standard leagues are goals-against average (GAA), save percentage (SVP) and wins.

Projected GAA

If you're familiar with baseball statistics and how a pitcher's earned-run average is calculated, then GAA will be a snap. Whereas with ERA one multiplies the earned runs by nine, then divides by the innings pitched, in hockey we multiply the goals scored by 60 and divide by minutes played. However, this is not EGAA (earned-goals-against average), and defensive shortcomings on the part of a goaltender's teammates can thus be transferred to him. As a result, it's logical to avoid the netminders playing behind suspect defenses. This can be somewhat tricky to forecast with all of the free-agent and coaching movement each offseason, but teams such as the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks have been particularly stout on the back end in recent campaigns.

Projected SVP

On the other hand, when a defensive system is too effective at preventing the goaltender from facing many shots, this can have an adverse effect on save percentage, which is a simple calculation of saves made divided by shots faced. In the 2010-11 campaign, Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas set an NHL record in save percentage, with a .938 mark. Not surprisingly, the Bruins allowed the second-most shots per game this past season (32.7), behind only the Carolina Hurricanes (33.2), whose primary backstop, Cam Ward, was eighth in the league in save percentage on the season among qualified goalies. On the flip side, the Devils and the St. Louis Blues were the two stingiest teams in terms of relenting shots on their net. Martin Brodeur and Jaroslav Halak -- the primary backstops in those outposts -- finished in the No. 33 and No. 30 spots, respectively, in save percentage. The status of the Bruins as a top defensive team that also gives up a lot of shots might sound counter-intuitive at first, but it's important to note that there is no designation for quality shots in calculating SVP, and many of the shots Thomas faced were readily savable for a 'tender of his caliber. The opposite end of the spectrum is Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers, who faced the third-most shots per game among qualified goalies but was 21st in save percentage. The Oilers' suspect defense was giving up a lot of quality scoring opportunities, which can be confirmed by anyone who watched the team on a regular basis last season.

Projected Wins

Finally, the category that can be the most frustrating of all: wins. Goalies can carry their team to some degree, but the players in front of them need to provide scoring support on the opposite end. Conversely, some of the league's best netminders in the two ratio columns will languish behind in this category due to playing behind an impotent offense, and if an owner chooses to start such a player, one must complement this choice with a goalie who racks up wins. To this end, workhorse goalies with underwhelming ratios can be targeted for the role, and they don't usually require high draft picks to secure. The two examples of this archetype from last season are Jimmy Howard and Miikka Kiprusoff (though Howard was drafted well higher, based upon expectations from the previous season). Both had 37 wins but had ratios that were a heavy burden to their fantasy owners.

In summation, finding a "diamond in the rough" fantasy hockey goalie is all about looking at the ones who play behind a defense that gives up a lot of shots -- but mostly easy ones -- and that scores quite readily at the other end. There are a few surprises that break through each season, and many times they share those characteristics.

Drafting and Roster Strategies

The elite tier of goalies will be off the board in the first five rounds, if not sooner. There's a deep crop at the top of the board, based upon our projections for this season: There's the super-elite "Big 3" of Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist and Tomas Vokoun, followed by the second group of Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price, Ilya Bryzgalov and Antti Niemi. Jonas Hiller, if recovered from his vertigo symptoms of last spring, would be included among these top 8 (making it a top 9, naturally), but he's a big risk until we see that he's back to his former self on the ice. All of these options are worthy of occupying the G1 spot on a fantasy roster, and it shouldn't be too hard to bag one of them. Next is a group that is very good but not dominant for our purposes. This includes Corey Crawford, Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of these 13, it would be wise to have at least one on your team, so be prepared to use at least one high draft pick on the position. If you've drafted two of them, you're in fantastic shape, although the rest of your roster may be deficient.

There are 30 NHL teams, but 53 goalies played in 20 or more games in the 2010-11 season. Obviously, most teams do not possess a top-flight workhorse netminder who can start 70 games out of the 82-game season. In fact, a number of teams in recent seasons have employed a timeshare strategy until late in the campaign whereby two (or more) goalies alternate starts, or something close to it. It's not the worst thing in the world to have one of these timeshare participants on one's fantasy roster -- 34 games out of Brian Boucher was better in most respects last season than 58 out of Ondrej Pavelec, for example -- but it can be a burden if you elect to carry both members of the split on your team. Because of injuries, bench spots are at a premium, and with a timeshare duo, you might be getting the production of just one man while wasting the extra spot. Though rosters have yet to be finalized, these teams are a good bet to employ the timeshare strategy to some extent this season: the Anaheim Ducks (depending on the health of Hiller), Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and New York Islanders.

A final note on injuries and finding replacements. The fantasy hockey owner who is a veteran of playing fantasy football is well aware of the concept of "handcuffs," or securing the primary backup to a stud starting running back in case of injury. But in fantasy hockey, given the premium on roster spots (as mentioned above), it doesn't make sense to waste a spot on a player who will rarely hit the ice unless an injury befalls the No. 1. With that in mind, a smart fantasy owner merely makes him or herself familiar with the identity of the men backing up their starting 'tenders. The prime example of this in 2010-11 was James Reimer's ascension from relative unknown -- biding his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate -- to the player who was as responsible as anyone for the team's late-season contention for a playoff spot, after injuries and inconsistency on the part of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson provided an opportunity. At the time of his first start on Jan. 1, 2011, he was almost universally unowned in fantasy leagues. By season's end, he was on a roster in about every fantasy league. Those who pay attention to the news wires -- and, ahem, our columns here on ESPN.com -- have the best chance to strike gold with one of these midseason replacements. Sometimes a player such as Reimer can make a huge difference down the stretch.

The owner who wins the goaltending categories in a fantasy league sometimes overloads on the elite options in the draft, but many times it's a combination of finding undervalued assets on draft day, along with making shrewd moves on the waiver wire and via trades throughout the season. Whichever strategy you choose, be sure to check in on my weekly rundown of everything you need to know about fantasy goalies by reading "In the Crease." There you'll find updated projected rankings for the rest of the season, discussions on timeshares around the league and some extra tidbits to help dominate the three goaltending categories.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy analyst and Rumor Central contributor for ESPN.com.