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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
In the Crease: Varlamov shining

By Tim Kavanagh
Special to ESPN.com

Less than a week after Dwayne Roloson was the main focus of the column, he's mercifully been shipped off to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a potential playoff run. There's more on Roloson -- and the two men he leaves behind with the New York Islanders, Rick DiPietro and Nathan Lawson -- below, but there was more going on between the NHL pipes recently than the situation in Long Island, so let's get to it.

Semyon Varlamov
Semyon Varlamov has gotten a lot more mainstream attention these days, but does that mean a higher fantasy value going forward?

The reason why Roloson was the featured goalie last week was that he was named the NHL's first star of the week for the period ending Dec. 26. There's another netminder at the top spot this week, the Washington Capitals' Semyon Varlamov (who co-stars in a new "This is Sportscenter" ad this week). That name should sound familiar to regular readers of this column, since he's been a frequent guest in the "Timeshares" section; last season, he split duties with Jose Theodore, this season it's been with Michal Neuvirth.

Roloson had a rough night in the game following his being touted as the league's first star of the week (seven goals allowed to the New York Rangers). Varlamov continued his impressive streak in his next game, which was Tuesday against the Lightning, who were debuting their new goalie, Roloson. How appropriate. The two men were perfect through 60 minutes, and it took a Martin St. Louis goal 2:54 into overtime to spoil Varlamov's night.

So, following a span in which he's allowed just six goals in five starts while compiling a 3-0-2 record and a .961 save percentage, has Varlamov taken over as the Caps' No. 1? Not exactly. Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun after the Winter Classic that the goalie battle may not be settled until the final 10 games of the regular season. If he sticks by that plan, it means that for the next 30 or so games, Varlamov's owners in daily lineup leagues will have to continue to monitor the newswire after every morning skate. (And the first goalie off the ice at the morning skate doesn't even guarantee anything, as Neuvirth was that man on Dec. 26, but Varlamov got the nod).

Given Varlamov's strong play over the past five games, as well as the high-profile stage on which he earned one of his recent wins -- that little matchup in front of 68,111 people on New Year's Day -- it might be a good time to float his name in your league as trade bait. This might sound a little counterintuitive at first, but given that Boudreau intends on shuffling his 'tenders for much of the rest of the season (and has done so in the past), I don't foresee Varlamov finishing in the elite tier in fantasy. But you might be able to sell him as such in exchange for someone who can provide production on a more consistent basis.

As for the Neuvirth owners in the audience, sit tight. Though the 22-year-old Czech has just two wins since Nov. 19, and hasn't started since Dec. 23, he'll get his opportunities in the weeks ahead.

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. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
2. Tim Thomas, Bos (1)
3. Carey Price, Mon (4)
4. Ryan Miller, Buf (2)
5. Jonathan Quick, LA (5)
6. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (6)
7. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (7)
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (8)
9. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (11)
10. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
11. Jonas Hiller, Ana (15)
12. Cam Ward, Car (12)
13. Jimmy Howard, Det (9)
14. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (14)
15. Martin Brodeur, NJ (13)
16. Niklas Backstrom, Min (16)
17. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (18)
18. Semyon Varlamov, Was (24)
19. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (17)
20. Corey Crawford, Chi (19)
21. Michal Neuvirth, Was (23)
22. Craig Anderson, Col (20)
23. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (21)
24. Dwayne Roloson, TB (38)
25. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (22)
26. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (27)
27. Antti Niemi, SJ (NR)
28. Brian Elliott, Ott (26)
29. Tuukka Rask, Bos (31)
30. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (28)
31. Anders Lindback, Nsh (25)
32. Mathieu Garon, Cls (29)
33. Brian Boucher, Phi (35)
34. Steve Mason, Cls (33)
35. Peter Budaj, Col (34)
36. Cory Schneider, Van (NR)
37. Evgeni Nabokov, FA (30)
38. Dan Ellis, TB (32)
39. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (36)
40. Scott Clemmensen, Fla (NR)

Rising and falling

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks (up two spots to No. 1): The Top 40 list in the box to the right is a reflection of what I expect each goalie's performance to be in the remaining games. Though it's influenced by the results thus far in the season, some prognostication of the games remaining also takes place (I put on a fancy hat in order to see into the future). When considering what I believe will happen in Vancouver and Boston over the remaining half of the season, I have a growing sense that Thomas will see Tuukka Rask take more of his starts, while Luongo's starting percentage will remain somewhat the same, if not increase. With Claude Julien behind the bench, Thomas' high in games started is 55 (in the 2007-08 season); a season later, he started 54 games and won the Vezina trophy. At this point, he's already started 27 of the Bruins' 38 games, and there's been talk of using him less frequently over the remaining 44 in order to keep him spry. The Bruins do have last season's surprise fantasy darling (Rask) as a backup, and he'll need work to stay in the swing of things in case an injury befalls Thomas later this season. As for Luongo, he's no stranger to a 70-plus-start season, and though it may be unlikely he'll hit that number again (he'd have to start all but three of the 44 games remaining for the Canucks), my belief is that we'll see more of him than Thomas. Though there is a gap in the season-long stats of the two elite 'tenders, I expect that gap to close a bit; thus, Luongo gets a slight edge.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up four spots): According to the ESPN Fantasy Hockey Player Rater, Bruins ace Thomas is still in the top spot overall for the season. But if one sorts by the Last 7, Last 15 or Last 30 days, Hiller is the man in that spot. For the season, Hiller is fourth in the league in save percentage (.925) and 16th in goals-against average (2.56); however, those numbers have been helped by the month of December, in which he posted a .937 and 2.12, respectively, in 12 starts, and a 39-save win to kick off the new calendar year. As ESPN Insider E.J. Hradek noted Monday, Hiller has faced the most shots in the league this season, and more shots means more chances to make saves (if you're a glass-half-full kind of person, especially in leagues where saves are a category). One area of concern for the Ducks is their proclivity towards taking penalties, as they're tied for third in the league with 166 short-handed situations. As with any goalie, Hiller's save percentage dips when his team is a man down, in his case a drop of .052. Bottom line: Hiller's season-long stats are close to his career averages. If you can convince someone that he'll continue the pace from December, he's a viable trade chip. Otherwise, just enjoy the ride.

Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche (down two spots): Avalanche coach Joe Sacco remains firmly committed to Anderson as his real-life No. 1 goalie, telling Terry Frei of the Denver Post in December that "there's no gray, no controversy here. Craig is the No. 1 goalie." Anderson was expected to be a No. 1 goalie for fantasy purposes this season, too, following last year's finish in the No. 11 spot on the Player Rater among netminders. But after winning 38 games and posting a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 71 starts in 2009-10, Anderson is on pace for far fewer wins, while his ratios have dropped to 3.13 and .901. Though Anderson has suffered through a couple minor injuries, the problem seems unrelated to that; as such, it's hard to say whether he'll be able to regain the performance level of a season ago. The one saving grace for Anderson is that backup Peter Budaj has not been much better: 10 wins in 18 starts with a 3.03 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. So, as Sacco pledges to not waver from Anderson as his No. 1, it's not like Budaj is making it a tough choice. Those who own Anderson shouldn't give up now, as there's a chance he'll turn things around; however, hopefully you've bolstered your bench with other viable options while he works his way out of the funk. Likewise, for the risk-takers, Anderson is a superb buy-low candidate in trade on the outside chance that he does return to last season's form.

Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning (up 14 spots): A week ago, I recommended adding Roloson only if you had the roster flexibility, as he wasn't a great option while playing for the Isles. Now that he's joined the Lightning (though still had his Islanders-colored pads and mask on Tuesday), he should be considered for a pickup in every format. Now, don't get too jazzed up, I don't think Roloson will be a No. 1 fantasy netminder for the duration of the season. But he will be somewhere in the realm of the "solid No. 2's," with his limitation primarily being head coach Guy Boucher's plan to keep him fresh for the playoff run in the spring. And let's face it, with the way Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have been playing, whichever one of them sticks around as the real-life No. 2 won't be getting a ton of work. Roloson's available in about 65 percent of ESPN leagues right now. It's a no-brainer.

Looking North to Long Island, DiPietro is hurt again, as he was pulled from Monday's win over the Calgary Flames with what Newsday reported as a groin injury. DiPietro's past issues have been with his hip and knee, but groin injuries can be tough to overcome for a goalie. In spite of the fact that the team is going to give him every chance to prove himself worthy of that infamous long-term deal, he's not trustworthy as a fantasy option. Given his ownership percentage (4.6 percent), it seems I'm not quite alone in this opinion.

As for Lawson, the Calgary native stopped all but one of 29 shots the Flames mustered in getting the win in relief on Monday. Lawson's NHL experience offers us a very small sample size (2.42 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in two appearances), and his production in 10 games for the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers will not inspire any sonnets. The Isles chose not to claim Michael Leighton off waivers this week, so apparently they have faith in these two. But that doesn't mean that you need to as a fantasy owner.

Timeshares

Antero Niittymaki (69.8 percent) and Antti Niemi (51.7 percent), San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have won 12 of Niittymaki's 19 starts compared to 9 of 21 for Niemi. Niittymaki also has an edge in goals-against average for the season (2.44 versus 2.97). In spite of this, Niemi continues to get starts, including five of the past six. One reason is that Niittymaki started a higher percentage of games earlier this season and there's a concerted effort to keep both goalies active. Another reason is that in comparing their December splits, Niemi has been statistically better, with a 2.38 goals-against average and .919 save percentage compared to 2.76 and .889 for Niittymaki. Realistically, this timeshare doesn't seem to be coming to an end until late this season, so this is another situation to avoid if you're in a weekly lineup league, as I've said all along. But for daily lineup folks, Niemi makes a decent pickup to see if he can continue his strong work from the final calendar month of 2010.

Sergei Bobrovsky (79.2 percent), Brian Boucher (27.6 percent) and Michael Leighton (19.3 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Leighton was placed on waivers this week, and to the surprise of some, cleared them. He's now off to play for the AHL's Adirondack Phantoms, which may actually be good for his rehabilitation and trade value. However, for fantasy purposes, he's not worth a roster spot with his future still in question. As for the other two, it's been a pretty even split as of late, though Bobrovsky's stats have gone into a tailspin: a 3.48 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in seven December starts. This slide has occurred simultaneously to Boucher's renaissance: a 2.02 and .936 in five December starts. I expect both of those ratios to even out a bit going forward, but each man is worth owning while the timeshare continues.

Mathieu Garon (17.1 percent) and Steve Mason (39.5 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: Consistency is important in fantasy sports. Moreso in head-to-head leagues, but it's true in any format. And consistency is exactly what both Garon and Mason have lacked this season. As a result, when one man appears to be inching ahead in the battle, he follows that up with a streak of poor outings. To wit, Garon played well enough through the season's first two months to become the de facto No. 1 and start nine of the team's first 13 games in December. But it's towards the tail end of that month that Garon's problems started -- six goals allowed to the Canucks, followed by four to the Chicago Blackhawks -- and his first January start was just as rough, relenting four goals to the Phoenix Coyotes. Meanwhile, the previously spotty Mason put together a three-game win streak, during which he posted a .920 save percentage. Then, as expected, the other shoe dropped, and the Nashville Predators put four pucks past him on Sunday. Of the two, Mason has the higher profile as the past winner of NHL hardware (2008-09's Calder trophy); however, judging by this season, Garon is a more worthwhile fantasy option based upon his ratios.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com