In The Crease: Woes beyond Ward

The 2009-10 season has been pretty devastating so far with injuries to superstars, and we're not even a quarter of the way through. A solid team can usually absorb the loss, but things are about to go from terrible to even worse for the Carolina Hurricanes. While my colleague Victoria Matiash wrote on Wednesday that the team "will return to respectability eventually," ESPN NHL Insider E.J. Hradek wasn't so sure the Canes can "put the breaks on this slide" and I'm prone to siding with E.J. If nothing else, this goes to show what happens when you don't properly replace key defensemen: the team is largely the same from last season to this one, but Dennis Seidenberg is now with the Florida Panthers while Anton Babchuk headed to the KHL.

Add to all this the recent injury to Cam Ward -- which will keep him out of action for four weeks or more -- and there's not much good news for the runner-up in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Fortunately, this column is not a eulogy for the Hurricanes' season; instead, let's take a look at all the affected parties in fantasy land.

For Ward, he'll miss the next 15 games or so, if the four-week prognosis is accurate. While he's out, perhaps the Canes can figure out how to score; in five games in November, they've put the biscuit in the basket only seven times. An improved offense will give Ward the chance to get some W's, and by taking early leads in games, they can focus more on playing good defense in front of their 'tender. Discounting the game in which he was injured (he was only in for seven minutes), Ward has a steady .928 save percentage in the first period. That ratio drops to an ugly .852 in the second period, and he usually recovers in time for the third and OT, when his save percentage goes back to .912. Here's a stark stat: in Ward's starts, the Hurricanes have only been winning going into the third period once this entire season, and were either tied or losing in all of the rest. When the team in front of him has the extra pressure of just 20 minutes to equalize or win the game, the defense understandably falters. In that sense, Ward's .912 save percentage speaks volumes about his talent, which is on par with just about anyone. I'll revisit Cam when he's closer to returning, when we have a better idea if coach Paul Maurice has figured out how to generate some offense with this team, or if the team has brought in some reinforcements for the D.

As for his replacements, Michael Leighton and Manny Legace, it's tough to recommend either at this point, although the player once dubbed "Subaru" has already generated some pickups. But let's face facts here: Legace's glory years were backstopping the Red Wings, on teams that scored a lot and played sound defense. These Hurricanes do neither of those things. A better indication of what Legace can do now are last season's numbers in 29 games with the Blues (13-9-7, with a 3.18 GAA and .885 SVP) and what he's been up to this season with the AHL's Chicago Wolves (2-2-1 with a 3.21 GAA and .898 SVP). No thanks. After showing a reasonable level of reliability last season as occasional relief for Ward, Leighton has fallen off the cliff this season, and shouldn't be trusted, either.

Then there's the wild card of a trade (check NHL Rumor Central for the latest rumblings). But we'd be hard-pressed to think anyone aside from the very top echelon of goalies would be of any value on this team. After all, from a skill set standpoint, Ward is quite good; but there's only so much a goalie can do, and scoring isn't usually one of those things.

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. Ryan Miller, Buf (3)
2. Martin Brodeur, NJ (2)
3. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (1)
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (4)
5. Craig Anderson, Col (6)
6. Evgeni Nabokov, SJ (9)
7. Roberto Luongo, Van (5)
8. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (12)
9. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (8)
10. Tim Thomas, Bos (10)
11. Niklas Backstrom, Min (7)
12. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (13)
13. Jose Theodore, Was (11)
14. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (14)
15. Ray Emery, Phi (30)
16. Marty Turco, Dal (22)
17. Jonas Hiller, Ana (15)
18. Steve Mason, Cls (24)
19. Cam Ward, Car (16)
20. Cristobal Huet, Chi (17)
21. Semyon Varlamov, Was (28)
22. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (19)
23. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (26)
24. Jonathan Quick, LA (20)
25. Antero Niittymaki, TB (32)
26. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (21)
27. Jaroslav Halak, Mon (18)
28. Chris Mason, StL (29)
29. Carey Price, Mon (23)
30. Dan Ellis, Nsh (25)
31. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (27)
32. Ty Conklin, StL (31)
33. Chris Osgood, Det (33)
34. Antti Niemi, Chi (34)
35. Yann Danis, NJ (NR)
36. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ana (35)
37. Tuukka Rask, Bos (36)
38. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (38)
39. Martin Biron, NYI (39)
40. Brian Elliott, Ott (NR)

Rising and falling

Ryan Miller, Sabres (up two spots): After a bump in the road against Philly last week, Miller was back to his dominant ways on Wednesday night, relenting just one goal to the Oilers. Our concern at the season's onset was that the team wouldn't be able to score, but they're actually middle of the pack thus far. This has given Miller a chance to win every night, and he has won 10 of 13 starts. Unless something major happens from an injury standpoint, expect Miller to challenge for one of the top spots amongst fantasy goalies from here on out.

Evgeni Nabokov (up three spots): Nabby had only one start over the course of the past week, but it was a big one: a 27-save shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be fair, the Champs were without Evgeni Malkin, and in the six games they've played without No. 71, they've scored only 11 goals. But the shutout still counts for Nabby, and with the offense the Sharks trot out every night, more wins are on the way. Really, the only thing that can stop this team is the onset of the playoffs, which seems to psych them out every season; luckily that has precisely zero impact on us in fantasy.

Niklas Backstrom, Wild (down four spots): At the press conference to introduce Wild coach Todd Richards in June, he pledged to get away from the trap game, and to instill a more up-tempo style that would lead to more scoring for the team. There was much rejoicing in the Land of a Thousand Lakes. So, how's that workin' out for ya? The Wild are currently No. 26 in the league in scoring, with just 2.35 goals per game, down from 2.61 last season; meanwhile, they're allowing 28.3 shots per game, down from 30.7 in Jacques Lemaire's trap system. Both of those numbers seem to defy Richards' claim. Either way, Backstrom's ratios are off from his career marks thus far, and until the team can figure out how to score in front of him, he's going to be on the threshold between the No. 1 and No. 2 tiers in fantasy.

Ray Emery, Flyers (up 15 spots): Just as Emery has been a bit schizophrenic in streaks this season, I too have been schizophrenic with his ranking. "Razor" took a month or so to get his NHL sea legs back, but his past four games have been brilliant: just six goals against and a .951 save percentage. Going back a little further, he's actually won six of his past seven starts, and with a Philly team that can score with anyone in the league, he has a chance to win every night. Furthermore, Flyers coach John Stevens has given backup Brian Boucher only one start to this point, and there's no reason to think that the time-share ratio will change considerably going forward. I'm still not convinced Emery won't have some more bumps in the road, but enjoy the good times while they last.


Jose Theodore (35.4 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (87.6 percent), Capitals: With Alex Ovechkin poised to resume play within a week or so, this goalie battle is back on the front burner. Theodore had a meltdown against the Islanders this past week, letting in more shots than he saved before being pulled with the Caps down by three. The start before that he was bailed out by his offense after stopping just 24 of 28 shots by the Panthers. Meanwhile, Varlamov came on in that game against the Isles and allowed just one goal before backstopping a win in an 11-round shootout. As the time-share continues, one must look to the ratios, and Varlamov has overtaken Theodore in both, although his sample size is smaller so it's easier to make jumps. More importantly, in Theodore's 11 starts prior to last night's debacle, the Caps were scoring 3.27 goals per game for him while they have scored 4.00 per game in front of Varlamov in his six starts. Varlamov is on his way to winning this battle.

Jaroslav Halak (17.6 percent) and Carey Price (89.7 percent), Canadiens: In his first start since Halloween, Halak let in just one goal to the Flames, but wound up the hard-luck loser to Miikka Kiprusoff. While Halak was taking a breather, Monsieur Carey started three games and the Price was wrong: nine goals against in those three, although his 42-save performance in a win over the Bruins reminded everyone that on certain nights, he's as good as they come. I'm still of the opinion that Price and the Habs both need a clean break, it's just a matter of the team finding a trade partner that will pony up a reasonable package. As I noted last week, such a trade would benefit both goalies' value considerably, as Price could find his game in a city with less media scrutiny, and Halak would get his starts without another legit starter breathing down his neck for ice time. As is, both men are rosterable, Halak the greater in current value and Price the greater in potential.

Dwayne Roloson (74.5 percent), Martin Biron (5.6 percent) and Rick DiPietro(4.3 percent), Islanders: No real change here, except that it appears that DiPietro is still at least two weeks away from beginning a rehab stint with Bridgeport in the AHL. The Isles are now also without Radek Martinek for the duration of the season after the defenseman tore his ACL. In the two games since his injury, they've allowed 75 shots on goal, up from their season average by about four per contest. That's not a good sign for a team that is only scoring 2.61 goals per game. At this point, it might be worthwhile to see if you can float a trade with Roloson and sell high. If and when DiPietro gets back, he'll be the No. 1, which will send Roloson's value plummeting; after all, backups on low-scoring teams are relatively worthless. With the trade rumors still swirling about Biron being sent to greener pastures -- he'd be in line for another time-share in Detroit while he'd be a clear second fiddle in Buffalo -- he might actually have the greater potential.


In spite of fewer starts to work with, these backups have established some value when they are called upon. To be clear, none of these guys are a huge threat to overtake the current starter, but they are worth rostering -- if you've got the space -- for those rainy days when you might not have a better option and they happen to be in the lineup.

Yann Danis, Devils (0.5 percent): Martin Brodeur is a true ironman, and so Danis has a ceiling of 15 starts by season's end, and it'll probably end up being less. Even so, both of his starts have been wins, relenting only one goal in each, and looking at last year's stats, Danis was the league leader in quality start percentage. The QS metric has been developed by the folks over at Puck Prospectus, and the cutoffs were .912 save percentage or better with fewer than three goals allowed. Of Danis' 21 starts last season with the Islanders, 16 of them were quality. That fact and the Devils' emphasis on defense means that Danis is a great play whenever the team elects to give Marty a break, even though the team is still amongst the bottom 10 in scoring.

Ty Conklin, Blues (44.5 percent): Everyone's a little less sure on the reliability of Chris Mason compared to Brodeur, ergo the higher percent ownership of Conklin. Using the same quality start metric, three of Conklin's five starts have been above the threshold. The Blues are actually tied with the Devils right now in scoring average, which affects the potential for wins, but Conklin has the "stuff" -- to borrow a pitching term -- to shut other teams out: he has one already this season, and had six last season with the Red Wings.

Tuukka Rask, Bruins (20.4 percent): Rask had a tough start to the 2009-10 season: seven goals against in two games, with a .870 save percentage. His past two starts, on the other hand, have shown that Rask can live up to the hype that surrounds the young Finn: just two goals against on 49 shots, good for a .959 save percentage. Unfortunately for Rask, Tim Thomas has also turned it around as of late, so the starts will be few and far between. Still, he's a great option for a spot-start when you know he's getting the call.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com