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Tuesday, January 29, 2013
In the Crease: Reality check

By Tim Kavanagh
ESPN.com

Everyone's projected numbers are going to undergo some alterations in the early portion of this shortened season. Though teams have played just four to six games, that represents 8.3 to 12.5 percent of the 2013 season.

Going into this campaign, some believed that players who got off to a fast start may have an easier time carrying that momentum throughout and those who got off to a rough start could stay cold for a long stretch.

While it may be time to panic a bit for skaters on our fantasy teams, the goaltending position is different in this regard, as is the case in many situations. While it's getting close to the time to make decisions on key underperforming forwards -- as outlined by colleague Sean Allen in Monday's Front Line column -- goalies can get a little more leeway. Preseason No. 1 Jonathan Quick and No. 2 Henrik Lundqvist are No. 33 and No. 31 on the Player Rater after Monday's action, and I don't expect them to suddenly become widely available in fantasy leagues, with their owners picking up the likes of Jose Theodore and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Nevertheless, there are some intriguing factors to consider in assessing what to do with those who have done very poorly (or very well) in the early going.

Anderson
Anderson

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators: Anderson has been somewhat of a streaky performer in recent campaigns, and it wasn't until January of last season that he really got rolling. As noted in last week's column, maybe the late start to this season was like dropping him in to the middle of a movie; he was back to game speed considerably faster than a number of his peers. He is not going to finish the season with a 0.74 GAA and .975 save percentage, and one of the areas where he is certainly going to regress is his performance when Ottawa is killing penalties. He has a .920 save percentage in those situations, and that was his even-strength save percentage in 2011-12. Even with some regression, Anderson has earned the right to start in any fantasy format for the time being.
Verdict: Keep him active until further notice.

Crawford
Crawford

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: The No. 2 netminder on the Player Rater (Anderson being No. 1), Crawford has benefited from being on a team that has started 6-0 -- or maybe they've benefited from having him in net. Either way, the symbiosis is in effect in Chicago. While it's too early to say the Blackhawks' goaltending troubles are in the rearview mirror, those who took a risk on Crawford, and happened to have him in the active lineup over the first few starts, have been greatly rewarded. I fall into the bearish category on Crawford. Like Anderson, he has put up an absurd save percentage when the Blackhawks are killing penalties (.957), and as that comes back to a realistic level (.829 last season and .870 in 2010-11), it will have an effect on his overall ratios.
Verdict: Start him now, but have a contingency plan.

Kiprusoff
Kiprusoff

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames: In recent seasons, Kipper has been a productive player whose name doesn't inspire the oohs and aahs on draft day. In 2011-12, his 35 wins, 2.35 GAA and .921 save percentage put him No. 9 overall among goalies by season's end. But by the time this season's draft rolled around, he was being selected as the second (or sometimes third) goalie on fantasy rosters. The early returns have him generating even less value than that: One win in four starts, coupled with 3.45/.872 ratios, has his owners scrambling to get him out of the active lineup. "The game is another level you can't duplicate in practice," Flames goaltending coach (and former NHL netminder) Clint Malarchuk recently told NHL.com. "You try to, but you get 20,000 people in an arena, game atmosphere, the heart rate goes up and the adrenaline gets going and everyone is at a little higher pace, and that's what the goalies are dealing with right now. It's going to take a few games." The folks who own Malarchuk's pupil in fantasy leagues certainly hope it doesn't take much longer.
Verdict: Bench him until we see signs that he has woken up.

Ward
Ward

Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes were a popular pick to become an NHL contender this season. Not only did they show more signs of life as the season went on, but they also made some captivating additions to the roster -- especially at forward, with Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Instead, they have just two wins in five games and a minus-4 goal differential. Ward's slow start is certainly a factor. Starting four of the five contests for Kirk Muller's club, Ward has relented 15 goals, generating a 4.51 GAA and .861 save percentage. He has made some great-looking saves -- like his old-school stacking of the pads on a breakaway stop against Rich Peverley on Monday night -- but something's not clicking just yet, whether it's adjusting to the speed of the game or some issues with his defensemen. There is a reason to be encouraged that this ship can be righted, however: Just as Anderson and Crawford's wild success on the penalty kill is unlikely to be sustained, so is Ward's trouble. Ward has an .815 save percentage when Carolina is a man or two down, and in the past three campaigns, he posted penalty kill save percentage rates of .877, .895 and .883. It may not seem like a huge deal, but it kind of is: Ward has faced between 13 and 20 percent of his total shots on the PK during those past three seasons, and a big swing in either direction can have a big impact on his overall performance (in addition to the deflating feeling of giving up a power-play goal to the opposition versus the triumphant feeling of shutting them out).
Verdict: The Canes have given Dan Ellis a shot here and there this season, and Ward owners should too. But don't lose faith: Ward will be back before long.

As hinted above, you're not going to get me to tell you to drop Quick, Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Jimmy Howard or their ilk based upon just a few starts. However, there are some targets widely available that have been quite productive in the early going, and that's why we've been bestowed with bench slots on our rosters. Find yourself a Dan Ellis (owned in 1.4 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues), Jose Theodore (37.1 percent) or Sergei Bobrovsky (60.2 percent) for the time being, and let your highly drafted players carry you later on.

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Jonathan Quick, LA (1)
2. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (2)
3. Tuukka Rask, Bos (4)
4. Ryan Miller, Buf (5)
5. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (3)
6. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
7. Jimmy Howard, Det (6)
8. Mike Smith, Pho (7)
9. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (12)
10. Carey Price, Mon (13)
11. Cory Schneider, Van (11)
12. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (9)
13. Cam Ward, Car (8)
14. Craig Anderson, Ott (18)
15. Martin Brodeur, NJ (17)
16. Semyon Varlamov, Col (16)
17. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (25)
18. Roberto Luongo, Van (14)
19. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (15)
20. Corey Crawford, Chi (22)
21. Antti Niemi, SJ (23)
22. Niklas Backstrom, Min (20)
23. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (21)
24. Braden Holtby, Was (19)
25. Brian Elliott, StL (24)
26. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (26)
27. Anders Lindback, TB (31)
28. Jose Theodore, Fla (32)
29. Jonas Hiller, Ana (27)
30. Josh Harding, Min (28)
31. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (29)
32. Ben Scrivens, Tor (30)
33. Dan Ellis, Car (40)
34. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (33)
35. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (34)
36. Robin Lehner, Ott (35)
37. Richard Bachman, Dal (36)
38. Jhonas Enroth, Buf (37)
39. Ben Bishop, Ott (38)
40. Johan Hedberg, NJ (39)

Rising and Falling

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes (down one spot to No. 8): I don't typically include an "Infirmary" section in the column, as significant goalie injuries are usually not as widespread as they are in the forward or defenseman ranks. However, Smith's lower body issue has lingered long enough that it bears mentioning and may have a bit of an impact on what he is able to produce from here on out. Smith was not off to the greatest start this season -- allowing 10 goals on 61 shots in 129:53 of work, yielding ratios of 4.62 and .836 -- and while there was some thought he would be able to return for Monday's game, that was not the case. The Coyotes have games on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this week, and he may make his return in one of those contests. I'll be paying extra attention in his return to see whether he is still feeling any lingering effects from the issue, as this could be something he'll deal with in the weeks ahead. If that's the case, he may drop out of the ranks of the elite fantasy netminders in the near future.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars (up three spots to No. 9): The old adage when it comes to fantasy goaltenders is that one wants a goalie who faces a lot of bad shots; he'll generate a lot of saves (and a high save percentage) but not a lot of goals that would come from odd-man rushes, screens and the like. This season, the league leader in shots against is Lehtonen (151), and though the league's stat recorders don't add the qualitative indicator of whether it was a good shot or a bad shot, the fact that Lehtonen has allowed only nine goals is a credit to both his talent and the defensive system being run by Glen Gulutzan and his staff. This kind of per-game workload shouldn't be an issue for Lehtonen, as 30.2 shots faced per appearance is in line with his recent campaigns (29.5, 29.6 and 29.2 the previous three seasons). The lone concern is Lehtonen remaining on the ice, as he has had injury issues throughout his career. If he can stay healthy, he'll stick in the top 10.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (up three spots to No. 10): The bump here is twofold. First off, Price has been pretty great so far, with three wins in four starts, a 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentage. Secondly, Price's defensive zone pal P.K. Subban came to an agreement with the Habs on Monday night, and he'll be back patrolling the ice for 24 minutes a game soon. Looking at Price's splits, he actually falls into the Cam Ward cohort from above, as his .846 PK save percentage is significantly worse than it's been in previous campaigns.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers (up eight spots to No. 17): Maybe it just took an off-kilter season, a star turn on a reality show, a failed stint in the KHL and a cool new mask to get Bryz back in gear, but this season has been a revelation so far. Though he has won just two of his five starts, that has been more of an issue with the Flyers' offensive outage. Bryz has allowed just 11 goals in those five contests, generating a 2.22 GAA and .923 save percentage. He has never had a GAA that low in any season where he started more than one game, and the save percentage is his career-best. Six of the goals he allowed have come on the penalty kill, and his .793 save percentage in that situation should improve as the season moves along. Don't go bonkers trying to acquire Bryz, but he is a good trade target. Not only does he look more confident in net, but bear in mind that the Flyers are a team that will be active prior to the NHL's trading deadline if the offense doesn't get rolling.

Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers (down four spots to No. 19): If we cherry pick a bit on Dubnyk's stats, we see that in his three wins he posted 1.29/.959 ratios, while in two losses it's been 7.68/.808. The fact that there is a split isn't shocking -- and the extent of the split will be reduced as there is a bigger sample size in each category -- but the thing that's a little disconcerting is that he has been inconsistent. Though there's no signs that the coaches are losing faith in him -- they went right back to him after the meltdown against San Jose -- it's inconsistency like that that will keep him out of the ranks of the reliable No. 1s in fantasy. If he can put forth more reliable production, on the other hand, his stock will rise. I'll be paying close attention to the next few weeks to see which direction he goes.

Timeshares

Niklas Backstrom (owned in 100 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Josh Harding (53.2 percent), Minnesota Wild: After a five-game sample, it appears this timeshare is going to continue in earnest. It's hard to tell too much from just a pair of starts for Harding and three for Backstrom, but the ostensible backup has been significantly better than the starter. Harding has posted 2.56/.902 ratios compared to Backstrom's 3.31/.885. There hasn't been a full-on upheaval at the position -- and there's always the possibility that the alternating schedule will continue throughout the 48-game slate -- but Backstrom owners need to give themselves another option in case the production trend continues.

Jaroslav Halak (owned in 100 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Brian Elliott (95.6 percent), St. Louis Blues: After Elliott led the league in GAA and save percentage in 2011-12, many suspected his numbers would tumble back to his career percentages this season, and he has not gotten off to a very good start (2.74 GAA, .875 save percentage). Given his track record, this is not very encouraging, especially considering that the Blues have another option on hand with Halak (who's gone 1.69/.902). The early trend seems to be that the Blues aren't allowing a lot of shots on either netminder, and if that continues, it can have a negative impact on save percentage potential as the number in the denominator is reduced. As for the timeshare continuing, Elliott needs to get on track soon or there may not be a timeshare any longer. While Elliott's fantasy owners shouldn't drop him, it's time to consider some other options on the chances that this cut needs to be made in future weeks.

Cory Schneider (owned in 100 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (99 percent), Vancouver Canucks: Schneider's nightmarish opening night outing against Anaheim aside, he has actually been superb this season. In his three other starts, he has posted a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage. In other words, worries have been eased somewhat. Perhaps more importantly, the Canucks have stood behind Schneider after the early foibles and will stick with him as their No. 1. As for Luongo, he has had a couple nice outings that ultimately ended in shootout losses for Vancouver and has butterflied his way to 2.20/.917 ratios. Nevertheless, with every week that he's not traded, that potential value of being a starter somewhere else slips away.

Braden Holtby (owned in 81.6 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (13.1 percent), Washington Capitals: Of all the teams expected to be contenders in their division (if not for the Stanley Cup), Washington's goaltending situation is the most disastrous. As detailed in last week's column, Holtby has not performed well this season, unlike some of the other goalies who played in professional leagues during the lockout. Accordingly, the Caps have gone with Neuvirth as their starter in the past three games, and the Washington Post reported Monday that Neuvirth will get the call again Tuesday. Let's be clear: This isn't as much a product of Neuvirth being great (1-1-1, with 2.92/.889 ratios) as it is Holtby having struggled so much in his first two games. So what is a fantasy owner to do? Neuvirth has had some good runs in the past, so he is worth consideration as a spot starter in the near future, depending on the matchup. As for Holtby, sit tight: He can occupy a bench spot for now and be reactivated once he's back on track.

Quick Takes

I don't wish to alarm you, but there was a Rick DiPietro sighting on the TD Garden ice in Boston on Friday night. After allowing four goals on 27 shots to the host Bruins, I wouldn't expect a ton more work for the man with the legendary contract. Spot starts here and there for the Islanders don't exactly push the needle in terms of fantasy value. … In other backup goaltender news, Anton Khudobin got his first start of the season Monday evening and pulled out a win over Carolina, allowing three goals on 32 shots. The key takeaway I got from this performance was how Khudobin was able to shake off two quick goals allowed late in the second period and keep a clean sheet in the final frame. Considering the important psychological aspect of playing goalie, this was a great sign for the Boston Bruins that they have an able understudy to Tuukka Rask. From the fantasy angle, Khudobin looks like a good option for a spot start whenever he gets the nod in real life. … Aside from an uneven performance on opening night, Ondrej Pavelec has been solid for Winnipeg. Nevertheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that the other shoe is going to drop at some point. If you have him targeted for a trade, don't let his owner overinflate the strong run. Pavelec has been very streaky in his NHL career, and I don't believe that has necessarily changed yet. … As recently as last week, it looked as if Ben Scrivens could be the answer for Toronto in goal, but five goals allowed on 25 shots to the Islanders changed that opinion pretty quickly. James Reimer stepped in to finish that contest and drew the start Saturday night against the Rangers. Though some of the Blueshirts' offensive onslaught was thanks to slick playmaking, there are clearly some deficiencies in Reimer's game. Of the two, Scrivens still seems like a better option for fantasy purposes, though the two may have some company before the NHL's trade deadline.