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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
In the Crease: Midseason review

By Tim Kavanagh
Special to ESPN.com

For those who read Sean Allen's Front Line column on Monday, you know what to expect here; for the rest, it's midseason review time! For one week only, we're taking a look back at the top performers, pleasant surprises and, well, not so pleasant surprises of the first half of the NHL season from our vantage point in the fantasy realm. Regularly scheduled programming will resume next week.

The goaltending ranks present the widest span of player performance in fantasy hockey. Ten of the top 50 players on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater are goalies, including No. 1 overall Tim Thomas, but the final lucky 13 spots on the rankings are all goalies (some of whose names are frustratingly recognizable, at least if they've spent time on our active rosters).

In coming up with the players I thought belonged in the various categories for this column, I compared where I had them in my personal preseason rankings to their current spot among goalies on the Player Rater, as well as each player's average draft position in ESPN.com leagues to his overall spot. In this way, both my preseason picks and those of the ESPN fantasy hockey-loving public were taken into account. On the other hand -- for those who are new to the column -- the Top 40 rankings you see today still represents how I see things shaking out in the second half and is only partially influenced by the first half; therefore, although Ryan Miller has been a bit of a disappointment (more on him later), he still gets one of the top spots in the ranks.

Now that we're all on the same page, let's get to it.

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

Top performers

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins: An easy choice here, as Thomas is first in the league in both goals-against average (1.84) and save percentage (.944) and tied for sixth in wins (18) despite having the fewest starts of anyone in the top 10 (and nine fewer starts than 21-game winner Carey Price). Given what we saw last season out of the Bruins' netminders, both fantasy prognosticators and fans had Thomas ranked pretty low heading into the season. He was in the coveted 33-spot on my rankings and had an average draft position of 178.8, the No. 25 'tender off the board. I foresee Thomas taking on a slightly reduced workload for the second half -- the B's have the playoffs to worry about, after all -- which is why he's not quite at the top of the rankings. But even though I don't see his second-half numbers being the most productive in the league, his first half was so good that he'll likely wind up in the top spot at season's end anyway.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks: After a slow start to the season, Hiller has risen to fantasy prominence of late. His monthly goals-against average splits are jarring: 3.13 in October, 2.67 in November, 2.12 in December and a ridiculous 0.75 in four January starts. Granted, the Ducks' improved play in their own end has helped this effort, but that's a trend going in the right direction. Hiller didn't exactly come out of nowhere: He finished 16th amongst goalies on the Player Rater for 2009-10 and was drafted a bit higher than Thomas. Not only that, but the VUKOTA system of Puck Prospectus foresaw him as the seventh-best goalie this season (a system that takes into account other aspects that fantasy owners don't necessarily care about, but you catch my drift). Hiller is on pace to get nine more starts than last season, and if his ratios hold up, they'll be the best of his career since becoming the unquestioned No. 1 in Anaheim. I expect a bit of a drop-off in the second half, but he'll still be a reliable piece of any team's fantasy pie.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: It's not a typical Luongo campaign just yet (he's only seventh among goalies on the Player Rater), but he has proved his worth in the past month, having not lost a game in regulation since Dec. 5 and allowing 22 goals in those 11 starts with a .932 save percentage. For those who expended a draft pick in the top two rounds on him, your investment hasn't quite shown proper return just yet; then again, it's better than having drafted Ilya Kovalchuk or Zach Parise. As for the second half, I expect a higher starting percentage and continued dominance in the ratios. He is No. 1 on my Top 40, after all, and I didn't just put him there because I like the way his name sounds when spoken out loud.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: It's been a long, challenging road for Price to please the critical Canadiens faithful, but this season has been a revelation; to wit, he's started more games than anyone thus far (Hiller has played in more games total thanks to two relief appearances) and has maintained top-10 marks in goals-against average (2.31) and save percentage (.921). By the way, starting all those games has its perks, as he's tied for second in wins. At least for this season, he's going to be directly compared to Jaroslav Halak, the man who many felt should've had the Canadiens' top job following his remarkable run in last season's playoffs but was shipped to the St. Louis Blues in the offseason instead. Turns out, Price is ahead in all three ESPN standard fantasy categories, and the Habs are in playoff position in the East while the Blues are currently outside the circle in the West. So far, so good. Projecting Price's second half is tricky. He's on pace to start 74 games, which would be 25 more than his career high. He's also well ahead of his career bests in the ratios. Has his situation changed that much to the point that he'll continue to be a stud for the duration? I'm cautiously optimistic. No matter what, he's clear No. 1 material until further notice.

Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings: The knock on Quick for fantasy purposes in 2009-10 was that he was a one-category stud. Sure, he racked up 39 wins (sixth-most in the league), but his ratios lagged behind: his 2.54 goals-against average was 14th and his .907 save percentage was tied for 26th. This season, he's still starting (and winning) a lot, but his ratios are much improved at 2.18 and .920; moreover, the expected time-share with prodigy Jonathan Bernier never came to pass, both because of Bernier's struggles and Quick's excellence. Not to sell Quick short, but the continued development of the young blue-line talent in the organization has paid clearly dividends. For the second half, we may see a bit more of Bernier, as Quick certainly showed signs of fatigue in last season's first-round playoff exit (exemplified by 21 goals against in six games), so more rest may be in the plans. But for those who rely on him in fantasy, worry not: He'll still be in the tier of No. 1 goalies from here on out.

Just missed: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers; Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes; Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers.

Surprises

Philadelphia Flyers goalies not named Michael Leighton: For the purposes of this review, we're not including players whose disappointing performances have been injury-related, so Leighton gets a pass even though he was drafted in a great many leagues. But flipping over to the positive side of things, the other two Flyers netminders have traded hot streaks: Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky went from relatively unknown Russian dude with a blue-collar nickname (Bob) to early Calder Trophy candidate (though he's since fallen off his early pace), while veteran Brian Boucher is playing some of the best hockey of his lengthy and circuitous career in the cage. If Boucher's ratios (2.23 and .921) hold, it'll be the best save percentage of his career (in seasons when he started more than three games) and his third-best goals-against average. Both men went largely undrafted, so keen waiver-wire moves were the keys here. With Leighton in limbo with the AHL's Adirondack Phantoms until further notice, it appears one of these men will be the one to lead the Flyers into another playoff run. But given the streakiness and usage rates, it's best to own both if you happen to own either.

Ondrej Pavelec
Ondrej Pavelec had a scary collapse at the start of the season, but now he's become the unquestioned No. 1 for the Thrashers.

Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers: Another player who went mostly undrafted in fantasy leagues, in his case because the Thrashers acquired Chris Mason (who started 61 games in 2009-10), Pavelec underwent a scary medical mishap in the first week of the season, but has since recovered. And has he ever: His goals-against average this season is almost an entire goal less than 2009-10, and his .930 save percentage is second only to Thomas. He's fifth among goalies on the Player Rater and No. 17 overall, rendering Mason an afterthought. We've seen only glimpses of this out of Pavelec in the past, so it's hard to definitively say that it will continue; on the other hand, the team in front of him is much improved over past seasons. A recent relative cold spell notwithstanding, he should be a solid No. 1 option for the second half.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: "Flower" was the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, so his success both in the real-world and fantasy realms is not surprising in that sense. But the reason he's been a surprise this season is his production in the ratio categories. His 2.31 goals-against average is nearly a half-goal better than his career average, while his .919 save percentage thus far is better than all but one of his past campaigns. This is all the more impressive when you consider the man's well-publicized sluggish start to the season. In 2009-10, Fleury was in the same boat as Quick: a fantasy goalie whose value was largely dependent on his win total. Just as Quick has improved his ratios this season, so has Fleury. The return of two-way forward Jordan Staal should, in theory, help Fleury out, although you wouldn't know it by the 10 goals he's allowed in four starts since Staal's return. It would not be a shock to see Fleury in the top 10 among goalies on the Player Rater by season's end.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: As with Pavelec, there was a veteran free agent brought in by Crawford's team that was supposed to carry a sizable portion of the goaltending load. In this case, it was Marty Turco. That was the plan, anyway, but Crawford has started 13 of the team's 17 games in December and January (so far). It isn't just because of the alliteration in his name, either: Crawford is well ahead in both goals-against average (2.23 to 3.02) and save percentage (.917 to .899) while the team has won 14 of his 21 starts compared to nine of 23 for Turco. Crawford has five NHL starts to his name before this season, so as with any of the young players, predicting how he'll react to a heavy workload is difficult. The key will be getting a read on what coach Joel Quenneville plans to do with Turco in the second half. But given that Crawford was likely scooped up for free off the waiver wire in most leagues, a performance worthy of the tier of No. 2 fantasy goalies is a nice reward.

Just missed: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators; Brent Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins; Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals; Mathieu Garon, Columbus Blue Jackets; Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars.

Disappointments

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: Well, just as Sean's list of disappointments had Kovalchuk front and center, the man playing behind Kovy also sits on the list of underperforming goalies. I had Brodeur ranked fourth in the preseason; he's No. 72 among goalies on the Player Rater. Drafted somewhere in the first two or three rounds in the majority of leagues (ADP of 23.4), he's in the coveted No. 852 spot overall on the Player Rater. A 6-18-1 record, a 3.05 goals-against average, a .887 save percentage and a short-lived goaltender controversy will do that. Unlike Sean's recommendation on Kovy, I don't think Brodeur should be dropped. If you've come this far -- and aren't completely out of contention -- it make sense to keep him in a bench slot to see if more performances like Sunday's win over the Tampa Bay Lightning are on the way. He wasn't perfect, allowing three goals, but those three came on 36 shots (yielding a .917 save percentage for the game). Couple that with 44 minutes of shutout hockey against the Flyers on Saturday, and there appears to be a spark in northern New Jersey. Whether you believe that spark will ignite into a roaring fire or be snuffed out by whatever seems to be plaguing the Devils this season will dictate your choice.

Tuukka Rask
Tuukka Rask's was one of last season's biggest surprises, but this time he's been trumped by Tim Thomas, the guy he displaced last season.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: Rask was nothing short of electrifying in 2009-10, forcing defending Vezina Trophy winner Thomas to the bench. Although he started only 39 games a season ago, his league-leading ratios (1.97 and 2.31) carried him to the No. 2 spot among 'tenders from a seasonal perspective. Rask was ranked high this preseason (No. 8 for me) and drafted thusly (ADP of 52.2 in ESPN leagues). All indications were that he was going to be the No. 1 in Boston or at least the more dominant member of the time-share and thus more valuable in fantasy. However, it's been Thomas who has stolen back the gig during the first half. There have been some indications that the time-share will revert to more of an even split in the weeks ahead, including a report from ESPNBoston.com's Joe MacDonald, who quoted Bruins coach Claude Julien as saying, "We're going to need both guys going. We can rely on both of them right now." If that's the case, it's an uptick in value for Rask and a slight downgrade for Thomas. My inclination is that the Bruins will retain a weighted time-share with Thomas getting a much larger slice than his Finnish counterpart.

Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche were a pleasant surprise in 2009-10, and one aspect of their breakout campaign was the strong work in net by Anderson, who finished the season ranked as the No. 11 goalie on the Player Rater. Based partially on this, I put Anderson in the No. 12 spot in my preseason rankings, and the masses generally concurred, as he was the 12th netminder off the board on average. But although the Avs are in the playoff mix in the West, Anderson has not delivered fantasy glory to those who believed in him (or settled on him, as the case may have been) on draft day. With a goals-against average on the wrong side of 3.00 and a save percentage teetering close to the precipice of .900, Anderson's saving grace may be the fact that backup Peter Budaj has been slightly worse. Avs coach Joe Sacco has reiterated that he does not have a goalie controversy on his hands, and he's right, if considering only these two. At this point, Anderson will continue to get the opportunity to produce; whether he will is the question.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres: Although he's not experiencing as jarring a drop-off as Mr. Brodeur's, Miller's 2010-11 campaign has been bumpy. A 2.62 goals-against average and .913 save percentage aren't terrible, and his 16 wins are tied for 11th in the league. But let's face it, if you drafted Miller, it was very likely that you used your first overall pick on him, and he hasn't put up that kind of a season at the halfway point. In fact, unless you got a little lucky later on during the draft or made a sharp early-season waiver pickup, you may be lagging behind in the goalie categories even though you used a first-rounder on the position. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. As noted above, I'm projecting Miller to be a top-tier goalie for the second half. I don't believe his skills have dropped off from a season ago, and although the team has struggled thus far, many of the key contributors are still on the roster.

Just missed: Chris Mason, Atlanta Thrashers; Marty Turco, Chicago Blackhawks; Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings; Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks; Dan Ellis, Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com