Open Ice: Finding replacement goalies
In case you missed it, Roberto Luongo left Saturday's game after pulling his groin. As we all know by now, groin injuries can be tricky in a game that requires so much pillar strength, especially when you are making kick saves. We will find out about Luongo's prognosis shortly as a second MRI was scheduled for today.
It wasn't so long ago that I was writing about the possibility that an injury suffered by Martin Brodeur would keep him out longer than a few games, and now here we are waiting for word on Luongo. Those two players have to be included in any argument about the best goaltender in the NHL right now.
So, with the possibility that yet another top goaltender would need to take some time off to heal, I thought it prudent to go over some of the lesser-owned options in fantasy leagues that can help you in net. Some of the names have been mentioned in this space already, some haven't. Rest assured that all can help any fantasy owner; even those who've lost Brodeur or are at risk of losing Luongo (or, Gretzky help you, both).
Cory Schneider, G, Canucks: The natural beginning to this discussion has to be the man most likely to replace Luongo should the latter need an extended layoff. Schneider is one of the most talented young netminders in the game, who had the unfortunate position of being on the same depth chart as Luongo. This is very different from the situation in New Jersey when Brodeur went down. The Devils have a couple of journeymen they hope can fill the gap with no heir to the throne, whereas the Canucks have a budding All-Star chomping at the bit for a chance in the big league. Schneider is 10-1 this season in the AHL (10 straight wins before his recall) with a league-leading 1.37 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage. Curtis Sanford doesn't stand a chance at holding down the job with this kid behind him, so skip the middleman and just pick up Schneider. A pre-emptive strike might not be a bad idea; you can always drop him if it turns out Luongo is OK.
Ondrej Pavelec, G, Thrashers: The reason Schneider doesn't lead the AHL in save percentage is because Pavelec's nine starts still qualify him for the lead. Pavelec was an unceremonious 5-3-1 before being recalled, but his 1.54 goals-against average and league-leading .947 save percentage tell a different story. Kari Lehtonen had this season to shake the label of injury-prone underperformer, but considering his current IR status and terrible stats, the torch has been passed. Pavelec is the new franchise goaltender for Atlanta. It's now just a question of how long it takes for him to grab the reins for good. Johan Hedberg is still starting more games, but the longer Lehtonen is on the IR, the more frequently we should expect to see an improving Pavelec between the pipes. A great goaltender can still have strong fantasy numbers on a bad team (such as Luongo in his Florida Panthers days), and Pavelec has the skills to be a great goaltender. It's just a matter of realizing those skills now. Pick him up if you see any kind of momentum building for him.
Steve Mason, G, Blue Jackets: After shutting out Atlanta on Saturday, coach Ken Hitchcock has already tabbed Mason as Wednesday's starter against Phoenix. To get such a vote of confidence from Hitchcock, you would naturally picture Mason as a 35-year old veteran. Nope, this is just yet another 20-year old phenom. It's always worrisome to see a player -- especially a goaltender -- skip a phase of natural development in the AHL, but Mason is making a play to do just that as he steals more and more thunder from a pair of struggling and injured netminders in Columbus. Fredrik Norrena and Pascal Leclaire now have a combined record of 5-7-2 with a goals-against average of 3.40 and a save percentage of .876. Mason is 4-1-1 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. It's hard to argue with results, but if Leclaire were to find his form, it's easy to envision Mason going back to the AHL for regular work. Considering Leclaire's mercurial history and penchant for injury, though, grabbing Mason isn't a bad move.
Ty Conklin, G, Red Wings: I do still ultimately feel Jimmy Howard will answer the bell sooner than later in Detroit, but Conklin is the immediate answer to the question of what to do with a struggling Chris Osgood. The difference was quite striking this last week with back-to-back games against the Oilers in which Conklin backstopped a 4-0 win and Osgood a 4-3 win. Conklin was back in net for his second start in three games Saturday, and led the team 5-2 over Calgary. The winds of change may be light, but they are certainly blowing. The Red Wings aren't playing the same stifling game they were last season, and a more open concept means Osgood (or whoever) has to face more shots. Osgood was never a save percentage guy and the extra peppering means a sub-.900 save percentage might be here to stay. Conklin should start seeing more time in the Detroit net over the coming weeks and already has the stats to justify a speculative pickup in deeper leagues.
Erik Ersberg, G, Kings: You can call him a seat warmer for Jonathan Bernier's eventual ascension to the Kings' throne, but I see a former Elitserien MVP in Sweden learning the nuances of the NHL in his second North American season and he is starting to look very good. It's been nine starts now and Ersberg has allowed more than two goals only twice and never more than three. Five out of nine wins may be a tad high for what you expected from this L.A. squad, but knowing the Kings are keeping the puck out of their net means you can adjust that outlook. Drew Doughty, Tom Preissing, Denis Gauthier and the surprising Kyle Quincey lead a formidable defense that has allowed the fewest shots on goal in the NHL this season by a wide margin. There is no reason Ersberg can't continue his mild success and play a role as a No. 2 goaltender for many fantasy squads this season.
A few guys to mention off the top here who have been featured already this season, and aren't getting the love they deserve. Milan Lucic is now playing first-line minutes with Boston and is still owned in only 41 percent of ESPN leagues. Jiri Hudler is on fire, with limited ice time, and still owned in just 15 percent of leagues. Matt Stajan has done everything he can to prove he is first-line material in Toronto, but is owned in only 23 percent of ESPN leagues. Kris Versteeg couldn't get much more pimping from my colleagues in the Fantasy Hockey Blog, yet Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's partner in crime is owned in only 41 percent of ESPN leagues.
Bryan McCabe, D, Panthers: Still available in about 20 percent of ESPN leagues, McCabe has his shot working for him again. He needed two games to get his legs back after missing time with a back injury, but in six games since then, he has eight points. He's the power-play leader for the Panthers now, so look for continued production.
Chuck Kobasew, RW, Bruins: This looks like a short-term value boost, but one to pay attention to on the red-hot Bruins. Kobasew has settled into Marco Sturm's spot on the second line and in three games without Sturm, Kobasew has four points. So long as he is playing well, look for the Bruins to make him useful for fantasy owners. He's streaky though, and can be dropped at the first sign of cooling.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D, Sharks: The points just come by osmosis on this Sharks team and Vlasic has been a big beneficiary as a member of the team's second pairing. With 12 points on the season and a plus-8, Vlasic is looking better than a lot of teams' No. 1 defenseman. Add him and enjoy the great production from a lesser-known name.
Cam Barker, D, Blackhawks: Even after going cold the past three games, Barker is still an attractive addition to any fantasy blue line. In the eight games prior to his recent slump, Barker had nine points. He is averaging a decent 20 minutes of ice time for the Blackhawks and will play a decent second fiddle to Brian Campbell there. If rumors of him being traded bear fruit, he could even improve on his numbers as the No. 1 defenseman somewhere else.
Tomas Plekanec, C, Canadiens: Anyone else getting sick of the completely absent production of Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexei Kovalev? It's been seven games without a single point for Plekanec and he needs to be sent to the bench until further notice. This line could get hot again, so if you have the bench room, you should store him for later. But there is no way you should be wasting game starts on Plekanec or his linemates right now.
Brent Burns, D, Wild: Burns has been off the first power-play unit of late and his production has really tanked because of it. Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marek Zidlicky lead the Wild in power-play time since Burns returned from a four-game injury hiatus. Burns has just one assist in his past five contests and five points in 14 games on the season. With more options on the blue line this season, Minnesota has even been experimenting with Burns as a forward. Clearly he is out of his element thus far into the campaign and can probably be dropped in all but the deepest of leagues.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.