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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
In the Crease: Can Jackets improve?

By Tim Kavanagh
Special to ESPN.com

On Monday, Scott Arniel became the seventh NHL head coach to lose his job this season, as the Columbus Blue Jackets decided that an 11-25-5 record was not going to cut it, especially after all the talent that was acquired last summer (Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vaclav Prospal, etc.). During Arniel's reign this season, the majority of players underperformed, including former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason, who has put up the worst stats of his young career. Currently, Mason has a 3.46 goals-against average and .882 save percentage -- good for the No. 44 spot in the league in both categories -- and a record of 5-16-2. The 16 losses are second most in the league, so the Jackets do have a player in range to be a league leader in something by season's end. Sunday night's outing for Mason was especially bad, as he allowed four goals in the first period to the league's No. 25 offense, and three of the four were sloppy.

Curtis Sanford
Curtis Sanford has emerged as the Blue Jackets' top goalie, but how will his role change with a new coach?

Mason's backup (or, more correctly, time-share mate), journeyman Curtis Sanford, has been better -- he sports a 2.49 GAA, .914 save percentage and a 6-8-3 record -- but is inconsistent. After posting a 1.68/.940 split in eight November appearances, he then had 3.76/.877 ratios over seven December contests before being shelved with a hip injury. Of the two Columbus backstops, Sanford has been more fantasy relevant by a long shot, but that's not to say that teams relying on him in any meaningful way are doing very well in their respective standings right now. It is noteworthy that two starts into his return, he's picked up a shutout win on 31 saves, and allowed only two goals on 39 shots in the other game (a loss).

Taking over for the second half of the Blue Jackets' season is Todd Richards, who was head coach of the Minnesota Wild in 2009-10 and 2010-11. For those unaware of Richards' exploits there, he attempted to bring more offense to the table, and while results in the offensive end were mixed, there were significant problems in the defensive zone, and Niklas Backstrom posted the worst numbers of his career: a 2.72 GAA and .903 save percentage in 2009-10 and a 2.66 GAA and .916 save percentage last season. With Mike Yeo in charge of the Wild this season -- and a version of the trap back in effect -- Backstrom is at 2.39 and .923.

For the two incumbent goaltenders, a change in coaching philosophy could be a good thing, and for Mason, things can't get too much worse. Perhaps this group of skaters will respond better to Richards than the Wild did the past two seasons. "I have a list of to-dos," Richards said Monday, according to the Columbus Dispatch. "I don't think it's big changes. It's little tweaks, little things here and there."

One of those "little tweaks" could be another option in goal for the team at the NHL level. An offseason signing for Columbus that flew under the radar was that of Mark Dekanich, a 25-year-old British Columbia native and a product of the Nashville Predators' goaltending machine. In 2010-11, Dekanich set franchise records for the Preds' AHL affiliate (the Milwaukee Admirals) in GAA (2.02) and save percentage (.931), which is notable considering that Tomas Vokoun, Pekka Rinne and Chris Mason are all alumni.

Dekanich was thought to be in line to be Mason's backup at the outset of the season, but a slew of lower-body injuries kept him on the shelf until this weekend. Though a little rusty in his debut for the AHL's Springfield Falcons, "Dex" picked up a shootout win for his efforts. To say that Dekanich will be fast-tracked up to the NHL is obviously speculative at this point, but it's not hard to connect the dots and think that he'll have a legitimate chance at significant playing time in the near future, given the rebuilding status of the organization.

During most seasons, there's a player who sees an uptick in starting frequency in the second half, either in an effort to spark a team toward the playoffs or as something upon which the team can build for the next campaign. Last season, James Reimer and Al Montoya fit that bill. Could Dekanich be this season's version? It's certainly worth monitoring in the coming weeks. As for the other two, Mason has no business being anywhere near a fantasy roster -- it's shocking that he's owned in 13.3 percent of ESPN leagues -- and Sanford has a chance to pick up some stats in the near future if Richards can draw some effort out of the skaters. Of the three, Sanford will provide the most bang for one's fantasy buck in the short-term, while Dekanich is the choice for those in keeper leagues and others willing to take a chance on a long shot.

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

Rising and Falling

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins (down three spots): The Pens -- and how their latest rash of injuries to key players will affect them going forward -- were a popular topic on Monday on ESPN.com. My fellow fantasy hockey scribe Sean Allen discussed which forwards might have more value in the fantasy realm as fill-ins, while NHL Insider Craig Custance examined whether the Pens would do some dealing prior to the trade deadline given the uncertain returns of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal and James Neal. As it relates to Fleury, all of these injuries have forced him to play behind a team on which former third- and fourth-liners are getting Top 6 minutes, and the team is starting to resemble the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton "Baby Penguins" more than the juggernaut that we saw for a short spell earlier this season. Fleury has done his part to try and keep the Pens competitive, as he's allowed more than three goals only once this season (Nov. 29), and has not been yanked once. From a ratios perspective, it's hard to argue with a 2.31/.912 split. But the wins could be tough to come by until the team gets healthier or trades for some pieces.

Another quick note: It's somewhat uncanny, but Fleury has been notably worse in the month of February for the past few seasons. It's unclear whether this is nervousness around the Valentine's Day holiday or disdain for the month that has fewer days than all the rest, but it's pretty stark. In 32 February appearances over the past three seasons, Fleury has produced a 3.07 GAA and .899 save percentage; in 162 appearances in the other months in the past three campaigns, he's put up a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage. Not saying to automatically bench the Flower next month, but keep another option ready just in case we have another case of wilting.

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild (down five spots): I gave Backstrom the benefit of the doubt for a while there -- and I think he might be able to right the ship within the near future -- but the Finn has allowed at least three goals in each game since a Dec. 17 tilt against the New York Islanders. There have been no reports of an injury, so there's every reason to think he'll have a chance to play his way out of this slump. In the short term, however, we may see a bit more of Josh Harding than Backstrom owners would like.

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators (up five spots): The NHL's Third Star for the week ending on Sunday, Anderson has been putting in steady performances well before then. Since Dec. 20, Anderson has gone 7-1-2 with a 2.35 GAA and .924 save percentage. For those in leagues that use the counting stats as categories, Anderson has now logged the most appearances (38), faced the most shots (1,120) and made the most saves (1,010) of any NHL goalie this season. (Not surprisingly, he's also allowed the most goals, 110). This is more like the performance that I'd expected to see from a ratios perspective at season's outset -- after his 2.05/.939 split in 18 appearances for Ottawa last season -- and the fact he's been picking up so many wins is a nice bonus. Perhaps he used the fact Ottawa fans "forgot" to stuff the All-Star ballot box for him as motivation. No matter the reason, he's playing with confidence right now, and fantasy owners should feel the same about keeping him active in their lineup.

Time-shares

Brian Elliott (100 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Jaroslav Halak (95.9 percent), St. Louis Blues: Shamelessly thieving a tried and true column technique from ESPN Fantasy guru Matthew Berry, let's do a blind taste test here. Player A has started nine games for the Blues in December and January, with a 5-4-0 record, 2.01 GAA and .925 save percentage. Player B has started eight games in those two months, with a 5-0-3 record, 2.06 GAA and .927 save percentage. Looks pretty even, eh? In spite of this relative equality, Player B (Halak) may be gaining a bit of an edge in the Blues' time-share over Player A (Elliott). With Halak reportedly starting Tuesday night's contest in Montreal, that'll be five out of the past eight for the Czech. I don't believe Ken Hitchcock is close to deciding on a permanent fixture in the crease just yet, so don't go dropping or trading Elliott, but we could be witnessing the start of a new trend, especially if Halak continues to perform well.

Corey Crawford (100 percent) and Ray Emery (19.0 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: Another round of blind player taste test on a cold winter's day? Why not? Going back nine appearances for both Player A and Player B, A has gone 4-3-2, with a 2.85 GAA and .908 save percentage, while B has posted a 6-2-0 record, with a 2.26 GAA and .923 save percentage. For Blackhawks fans and those with one of the two on their fantasy roster, it's not surprising to reveal that A is Crawford and B is Emery. After a rough outing for Emery on Thursday -- allowing five goals on 46 shots in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers -- Crawford was tapped for two consecutive starts, allowing seven total goals on 49 shots (a save percentage of .857). The big question, of course, as the trade deadline approaches: Is there a Player C that could enter the picture? In the opinion of ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, it's not likely, at least not from a trade. Down on the farm for the Rockford Ice Hogs, neither Alec Richards nor Alexander Salak has exactly been lighting it up, so that doesn't seem like a possibility either. Instead, it appears the team will continue to ride with the Crawford-Emery duo until one establishes himself as the best option beyond a reasonable doubt. That could take a little while longer, so each retains fantasy value until then; after all, in spite of some bumps on the road, they are backstopping one of the elite teams in the Western Conference, and wins can pile up even on shaky nights.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere (64.2 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (73.1 percent), Colorado Avalanche: The Avs coaches and management have consistently referred to Varlamov as the team's franchise present and future cornerstone this season, and Giguere has maintained the humble title of "backup" whenever he's asked about his role compared to that of his young teammate. However, this has been as much of a platoon as exists in the league right now: Over the past 14 games, Varlamov has gotten seven starts and Giguere has gotten seven starts. The difference between this one and some of the other seen around the league is that Avs coach Joe Sacco has tended to go with the hot hand, allowing two or three starts in a row for one of the two. Looking over this 14-game span, Varlamov has gone 5-2-0, with a 2.38 GAA and .918 save percentage while Giguere has also gone 5-2-0, but with a 2.24 GAA and .925 save percentage. One would think that given the organization's investment in Varlamov, he has the inside track to become the full-fledged starter at some point, but until that day, both retain a fair amount of value.

Ice Chips

Another young goaltender making his debut this season is Iiro Tarkki of the Anaheim Ducks. The 26-year-old was called up for Sunday's contest against the Blue Jackets after Dan Ellis injured his groin Saturday (he'll be out for about four weeks), but was supposed to remain planted on the bench. However, toward the end of the first period, starter Jonas Hiller sustained a lower-body injury while making a save, so it was up to Tarkki to hold down the fort. It was a little bit of rough sailing -- he allowed three goals on nine shots -- but we'll give him a mulligan given the circumstances. Looking ahead, the team is taking things day to day with Hiller, which means we could see Tarkki get his first NHL start this week, with games slated for Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. … Toronto Maple Leafs backstop James Reimer finished as the second-highest vote getter amongst goaltenders on the fan ballot for the All-Star Game, but is he being overtaken as the starter on his own team? After six straight starts -- over which he posted a 2-2-2 record with a 3.08 GAA and .912 save percentage -- he's seen Jonas Gustavsson get the nod for the past three (all wins) and put up a 2.01/.932 split. Tuesday night's game against Buffalo will be another start for Gustavsson, and one has to wonder about Reimer's mindset moving forward. So much of goaltending at a high level is confidence, and the young Manitoba native might not be feeling so much of it right now. Keep an eye on this situation. … There's good news and bad news on last week's trio of coverboys from the Florida Panthers. Bad news first? OK. Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen revealed after Monday's big win over the Vancouver Canucks that future franchise goaltender Jacob Markstrom's season is in peril, as the 21-year-old is facing another knee surgery. His value may reside only in keeper leagues if that is the case. The good news is that Jose Theodore is expected to make his return to practice at some point this week, which means he could be back on the ice soon thereafter if all goes well. Meanwhile, Scott Clemmensen has played effectively in his stead, including stopping 25 of 26 shots against the high-powered Nucks on Monday. For now, hold on to Clemmensen, and get ready to re-activate Theodore -- both should have some value as part of a time-share from here on out.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.