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Wednesday, February 29, 2012
In the Crease: Senators' situation

By Tim Kavanagh
Special to ESPN.com

The NHL's deadline day came and went without the blockbuster swap for which many were hoping -- seeing the Columbus Blue Jackets ship superstar Rick Nash somewhere … anywhere else -- and the top goalie who was rumored to be on the block, Evgeni Nabokov, remains with the New York Islanders. Furthermore, each of the young backup netminders tabbed as a "No. 1 in waiting" (Cory Schneider, Jonathan Bernier and Josh Harding) will continue to wait. That's not to say that all of the moves made won't have any impact on the goalies around the league (more on that in the sections below), and there was one trade from the weekend prior to the deadline that will have an immediate, direct impact on the playoff fortunes of both an NHL team and the fantasy owners who rely on that team's usual starter.

Let's jump back to last Wednesday night. A freak cutlery accident in the home of Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson resulted in the veteran suffering a laceration to his right (stick) hand -- specifically, tendon damage to his right pinkie finger, according to the Ottawa Citizen -- and he's out indefinitely as a result. Backup Alex Auld struggled Saturday while replacing Anderson, allowing four goals on 37 shots from the Boston Bruins a 5-3 loss (the B's closed the game out with an empty-netter).

On Sunday, the team traded a 2013 second-round pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Ben Bishop. Previously, Bishop was known best for his being the tallest goalie in the NHL -- he stands 6-foot-7 -- but his exploits in the AHL this season (a 24-14-0 record with a 2.26 goals-against average and .928 save percentage, and the MVP award in the recent All-Star Game) and his age (he won't turn 26 until Nov. 21) make him a perfect transition goalie for the Sens, who had the 30-year-old Anderson and 20-year-old Robin Lehner on the organizational depth chart already. With Lehner not believed to be ready to take on a full-time starting role, Bishop can serve as a temporary fill-in starter for Anderson and as his backup once the veteran is back.

Robin Lehner
Robin Lehner has made the most of his recent run as the Senators' starting goaltender.

Only problem with the plan: Someone forgot to tell Lehner that he's not ready to be the team's No. 1 goalie.

Lehner drew the start against the Islanders on Sunday, stopping 28 of 30 shots for the win. He followed that performance up with his first career shutout Tuesday, stopping 32 shots against the Bruins team that had dominated the Sens a few nights earlier. The defense in front of the Swede had a big hand -- well, entire body to be more anatomically correct -- in this one, blocking 18 shots. While Lehner was working his magic with the big club, Bishop made his debut for the organization's AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., stopping 41 shots on the way to a 5-1 victory over the St. John's IceCaps.

So where do we stand? "Do we play [Bishop] a couple of games in Binghamton or do we give him a game here?" Senators GM Bryan Murray wondered rhetorically earlier this week, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Both the NHL and AHL versions of the Sens are off until Friday night, when Ottawa will host the Chicago Blackhawks and Binghamton will travel to Syracuse to face the Crunch. It would figure that a decision will be made quickly as to Bishop's destination, though it might do both goalies some good to stick with the status quo for another few days: Bishop can continue to get acclimated while Lehner's trial run with the big boys continues. It's important to note that based upon their work in the AHL this season, there's really no question as to which man has been better: Bishop's stat line (as noted above) has been 24-14-10, with 2.26/.928 ratios, while Lehner has gone 8-16-1 with a 3.38/.905 split, a significant drop from last season's 10-8-2 mark with 2.70/.912 ratios. Of course, goalies don't play their contests in a vacuum (it'd have to be quite a large vacuum), and so it'll be interesting to see if Bishop can replicate that strong play behind the same defense with which Lehner has struggled. Obviously, the one-game sample is an encouraging one.

For right now, Lehner is a good pickup and start (owners in 2.9 percent of ESPN leagues have already done so as of Wednesday morning). Until the decision is made on Bishop's call-up, Lehner is clearly the Sens' best option in goal, and this is a team that is trending upward as the chase for playoff positioning continues. As for Bishop -- who was added in 2.8 percent of ESPN leagues in recent days -- it would be shocking if he is not promoted to the NHL roster in the very near future. And for the reasons cited above, he's the smarter option, both for Anderson owners needing a replacement and for anyone looking for goalie help in general right now. His work in the minors this season is an indication that he's ready to get his shot at being a No. 1 goalie at the NHL level, and while that was not going to happen in St. Louis, he has his window of opportunity in Ottawa in the coming weeks.

Furthermore, for those playing in keeper leagues, the relative contract statuses of Bishop and Lehner give us a strong hint as to how the competition to be Anderson's backup in 2012-13 will play out. After the trade was completed, the Sens extended Bishop's contract by one season, but the deal became a one-way contract; this means that to be sent down (or brought up) next season, he'll have to clear waivers, which will be difficult given the general need for talented young netminders within every NHL organization. Lehner, on the other hand, will still be on a two-way contract, meaning he can be sent down without having to clear waivers. This would lead one to believe that Bishop has the inside track to being the No. 2 next season, and if Anderson falters he could be the new No. 1.

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

Rising and Falling

Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings (up two spots): In recent weeks, the Kings were one of the frontrunners to acquire Nash. Instead they landed the Blue Jackets' other highly paid forward in Jeff Carter, and in theory this should be of great benefit to the team's playoff hopes at large and to Quick's fantasy value. In spite of a win total that lags behind many of the other elite options, Quick sits in the No. 2 position on the ESPN Player Rater this season, thanks to the NHL's third-best goals against average and fourth-highest save percentage. And dig this: Of the 29 times Quick has taken a loss or an OT loss this season, he's allowed two or fewer goals on 12 occasions. In February alone, he's been a 1-0 loser three times. An offense that scores just 2.09 goals per game (the NHL's worst this season) will do that to you. Bear in mind that Carter has yet to score in his first two games with Los Angeles, but this impotence will be temporary, and Quick's win total should be boosted, in part, because of this added firepower.

Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes (up five spots): The first player I'll mention who will benefit from very little movement by his team at the deadline, Ward was back in action on Tuesday night after missing three games with a lower-body injury, stopping 26 of 29 shots for the win over the Nashville Predators. And don't get too alarmed, but the Carolina franchise has put the rest of the league on Hurricane watch as of late. (Sorry, had to do it.) In the 11 Hurricanes contests played in February, the Canes got at least a point in 10 (six wins and four overtime/shootout losses). Though the playoffs remain somewhat of a dream -- they have to make up eight points and jump over five teams to get to the No. 8 seed -- this is a club that is competing hard every game, and the fact that the front office kept the roster largely intact at the deadline should inspire this trend to continue. As for Ward, his early-season struggles have largely been forgotten, thanks to 2.06/.936 ratios in January and February. He's a safe bet for excellence down the stretch and should be reactivated if you haven't done so already.

Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders (up six spots): A report last week indicated that the Isles were working on an extension for Nabokov, and as of Monday, Katie Strang of ESPNNewYork.com had reported that the offer had been put on the table by the team, and is currently being mulled by the Nabokov camp. The fact that Nabby was not dealt -- and the Isles' deals did not involve any vital players -- should serve as a confidence booster for the Kazakhstan native. That's the theory, at least. The first game following the deadline was a bit of a shocker for everyone involved: After turning away every shot from the Washington Capitals for the first 56:30 of Tuesday night's contest, Nabokov allowed two goals in the final stretch to allow the Caps to tie the score, then he allowed an OT goal to take the loss. Although his overall stats for the game were pretty good (stopping 31 of 34 shots, good for a .912 save percentage), this one could be tough to shake. Nevertheless, I'm confident in a bounce-back for Nabokov, and in the event he's sitting there on your league's waiver wire he's a worthwhile pickup for the final weeks of the season.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks (down three spots): After a strong run of starts leading up to last week's column earned the 27-year-old a boost in the Top 40 rankings, he had a rough night against the Dallas Stars on Thursday -- the three pucks put past him were all deflections, one of which was off Blackhawks D-man Brent Seabrook's skate -- followed by another classic meltdown against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. In the contest against the Kings, he lasted just 26:49 after surrendering four goals on just 10 shots. Ray Emery played fine in relief of Crawford on Saturday and put in a strong effort in stopping 35 of 38 shots in a loss Sunday, but it's not expected that there will be another changing of the guard in net for now. The silver lining of all of this is that the Blackhawks did make a move on Monday to shore up their defense, landing blueliner Johnny Oduya from the Winnipeg jets. Oduya will help the defensive effort at even strength and on the penalty kill, though it remains to be seen how big a boost that will produce.

Timeshares

Jonas Gustavsson (17.1 percent) and James Reimer (56.1 percent), Toronto Maple Leafs: As Gustavsson and Reimer struggled in recent weeks, there continued to be conflicting rumors as to the Leafs' intentions at the trade deadline, specifically regarding their possible pursuit of a goaltender. During an appearance last Wednesday night on TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto, Leafs GM Brian Burke indicated that the team would see what was out there in terms of goaltenders on the trading block. After several tense days of potential movement -- and really, we were all left waiting until hours after the deadline to be really sure the team hadn't pulled something off -- the Leafs elected to stand by their men. From a real-world standpoint, the inaction could be second-guessed if the Leafs miss the playoffs this season. For fantasy purposes, we can get back to focusing on whether Gustavsson or Reimer is worthy of consideration. After Gustavsson suffered mental gaffes in a loss to the New Jersey Devils last week, he's ridden the bench for the Leafs' past three games. Has Reimer performed well enough to believe he'll be the unquestioned No. 1 for the duration? Not exactly. Reimer's three-game run started off in promising fashion -- two goals allowed on 25 shots in a loss to the San Jose Sharks -- but he relented four under heavy fire from the Capitals on Saturday before a defensive meltdown on Tuesday resulted in five pucks going behind him. While Reimer shouldn't take all of the blame for allowing goals on odd-man rushes (or when Dion Phaneuf falls on him, as was the case on goal No. 5 Tuesday), the fact remains that after the three-start stretch, Reimer's GAA was 3.78 and his save percentage was .869. This is a team that is lost right now -- seeing as it has won only once in the past 10 games -- and neither goalie is worthy of a start right now as the fantasy playoffs approach in head-to-head leagues and game limits in rotisserie leagues become more of a factor.

Semyon Varlamov (74.4 percent) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (47.2 percent), Colorado Avalanche: Another week, another swing of the pendulum. By now, the story of Varlamov has become familiar to anyone paying even mild attention: He's talented enough to play as well as any at the NHL level, but his inconsistency (and penchant for injury) has continued to plague him in his first season in an Avs sweater. If we cherry-pick the best seven outings Varlmamov has had in the past two months (out of 12 total), he's been all-world: 6-0-0 (one appearance was in relief), with 0.74/.974 ratios. Those other five, though? All losses (one in OT), while registering a 4.18 GAA and .861 save percentage. This is the same man, playing behind largely the same team, and the numbers have been night and day. Giguere, on the other hand, has been the reliable veteran: The highs haven't been as high, but the lows haven't been as low, either. Starting with Thursday's contest, the Avs play 16 games in the next 30 days, so we should continue to see the two netminders split time. While that's not the answer for which some of you may be looking, the action to take based on this reality is that Giguere is a strong option to add right now. Though the potential reward may not be as high, the risk is not, either. And based upon those ownership percentages, it's clearly more likely that he's on your waiver wire right now as opposed to his young apprentice.

Ice Chips

Varlamov's teammate in recent seasons Michal Neuvirth appears to be Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter's netminder of choice as of late. After replacing Tomas Vokoun in two straight contests (Feb. 20 against Carolina and Feb. 22 against Ottawa), Neuvirth has gotten the nod in the three past games for Washington. All three have been wins for the Caps, and he's posted a 1.66 GAA and .941 save percentage in the trio of starts. I don't believe that this is a permanent changing of the guard in net, but there is an opportunity here for fantasy owners: Neuvirth is owned in just 10.4 percent of ESPN leagues. If he's available, add him now and strike while the proverbial iron is red-hot. … The Montreal Canadiens stood relatively pat at the trading deadline, shipping off some assets (Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn) to the Nashville Predators for picks and prospects, and -- to borrow a phrase from a coach from another sport -- the 2011-12 Habs are who we thought they were: as in, a mediocre team playing out the stretch. With the playoffs a distant fantasy, it can be difficult for players to be inspired, and that will be the challenge for Carey Price and his teammates in the final weeks of the season. Price hasn't been horrible as of late, but he's picked up just one win in his past seven starts and posted a ratio of 2.98/.897. That's not the Price with whom we all fell in love last season, as he finished the fifth-best goalie on the Player Rater. And for now, he's not deserving of an active roster spot, either.

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