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In The Crease: Monster not out of woods

In the Crease: Monster awakening?

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke made two big splashes this offseason: he traded for Boston Bruins sniper Phil Kessel and he signed Jonas Gustavsson, a player whose hype was at a feverish level following a record-breaking season in the Swedish Elite League. While Kessel has been a bit behind his pace from last season following an injury-postponed start to his campaign, Gustavsson has been a work in progress as he adjusts to the NHL.

Generally, we're not interested in "works in progress"; when it comes to goaltenders, the name of the game is consistency, so Gustavsson's slow development was a little frustrating for anyone that was relying on him as part of a fantasy goalie rotation. Through the first two months of the season, Gustavsson would show occasional flashes of greatness, but in 13 games started over that span, he managed only four quality starts. However, since relieving Vesa Toskala in the second period of a Leafs' loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 18, he has shown a little more consistency in spite of nabbing just one victory. In his past four starts -- beginning with the game on Dec. 19 against the Bruins -- Gustavsson has given up eight goals total, saving 92 of the 100 pucks sent his way.

So has "The Monster" turned the corner? Can we expect a 2.00 GAA and .920 save percentage from here on out? I'm not buying just yet, and I've been on the bandwagon since before the season began. Those last four starts came against three teams in the bottom third of the league in scoring, and one team that's barely above that threshold. His three goals allowed to the Canadiens and Sabres are more than those teams are scoring on an average night, and two goals given up to the punchless Islanders should count for more if we're grading on a curve. The Maple Leafs' schedule for the first half of January features matchups against teams who are all in the top half of the league's scoring rankings (aside from one game against the Panthers), so this will be a good test of the Monster's mettle. If he can show some consistency through that gauntlet, he'll be ready to climb up to No. 2 status this season, with a bright future ahead. For now, though, it's best to let him hang out on your bench while he goes through this test.

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

Rising and falling

Jimmy Howard, Red Wings (up four spots): With 21 starts in the books for Howard, he's put up pretty solid ratios (2.26 GAA and .921 save percentage), and the only thing keeping him out of the top tier of fantasy 'tenders has been offensive support. But more vital to his value going forward, what was at one point a timeshare has turned almost entirely into the Jimmy show. "The Jimmy Show" has been quite a hit in December: in 10 starts this month, he's allowed 19 goals total. Even more impressive: if you throw out two four goals-against outings, in the remaining eight starts, he's allowed only 11 goals. Since I don't live inside Mike Babcock's head, I can't for certain say whether Howard will continue to get the majority of the starts for the duration of the season or whether they'll go back to Chris Osgood in preparation for a playoff run, but the Howard train is one that everyone needs to get on, pronto.

Michael Leighton, Flyers (debuting at No. 33): With all the trade rumors indicating that the Flyers were going after Jaroslav Halak, Dan Ellis or Martin Biron, no one batted an eye when the team claimed Leighton off of waivers earlier in December; after all, his career save percentage is below .900 and career GAA is over 3.00. But, in his past four starts with the rejuvenated Flyers, Leighton has surrendered only six goals, including a shutout of the drain-circling Rangers on Wednesday night. Leighton's worth a short-term pickup while he's hot, but I don't see him maintaining his grip on the job once Ray Emery returns.

Ondrej Pavelec, Thrashers (off): Just as I apologized last time for under-rating Miikka Kiprusoff in the preseason, so I'll apologize this week for overrating Pavelec for the past month or so. What can I say, I got a little carried away when he made that save after his mask fell off. In all seriousness, if you haven't done so already, Pavelec should be kicked to the curb. When he does play, he's been awful, and that ice time will continue to decline in favor of Johan Hedberg. While Hedberg hasn't been outstanding, he's been serviceable, so if you must own a Thrashers' netminder, he'd be the guy. But I'm not sure any of us should have to live in a world where people are forced to own Thrashers' netminders .

Steve Mason, Blue Jackets (up five spots): Mason has been destroying the hopes and dreams of Blue Jackets' fans as well as his fantasy owners this season. After a celebrated rookie season, he was taken as a No. 1 goalie by some, and certainly was universally-owned following an average draft position of 59.9. 12.4 percent of his owners have already given up hope entirely, which means now is the time to pounce. As December wound down, Mason started to show signs of life, and his last two starts were brilliant: 34 saves in an overtime shutout of the Red Wings and 24 saves in a one goal-against shutout loss to the Islanders (take that second one with a grain of salt, of course). With career backup Mathieu Garon as his only competition, Mason isn't under the pressure being felt elsewhere around the league, and a return to last season's form is well within reason. Great buy-low candidate.

Time-shares

Jose Theodore (26.2 percent), Michal Neuvirth (1.6 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (91.5 percent), Capitals: Varlamov is on the cusp of returning from a groin injury, as the Washington Post reports that he was assigned to Hershey for some conditioning (and perhaps some sampling of the latest innovations in chocolate?) this week. In the meantime, Theodore gave up five goals to Carolina on Monday night, a bad sign given the fact that the Hurricanes have been more like a calm breeze this season, averaging just 2.46 goals per game. Neuvirth matched that five goals-against performance against the Sharks on Wednesday, although two things to note: the Sharks have more offensive bite than the 'Canes, and two of those five goals came on penalty shots. During his three starts prior to that -- all wins -- Neuvirth gave up only five goals total, and he's the better option until Varlamov makes his return. Expect another few starts from Neuvirth before he himself gets sent back down to Hershey.

Pekka Rinne (97.5 percent) and Dan Ellis (5.1 percent), Predators: Another two weeks in the books and we're still no closer to a decision on which of these guys is going to be the No. 1 goalie moving forward. Rinne seemed to catch fire for a bit there, but he's had a December to forget: in eight starts this month, he's given up 26 goals, put up a .886 save percentage, and only one of those eight was a quality start. Believe it or not, those numbers could have been even worse, because he was pulled after giving up two goals in four shots against the Oilers two weeks ago. Ellis has been slightly more serviceable, with a .901 save percentage, but he's allowed 12 goals over his last three starts. Rinne is a decent buy-low candidate right now in trade; maybe getting snubbed from Team Finland's Olympic contingent will spark him to take control of this situation. If you've already got him rostered, though, you would be best leaving him benched until some consistency is shown.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere (10.8 percent) and Jonas Hiller (92.6 percent), Ducks: Whatever momentum Jiggy was building as November turned to December, the brakes appear to have been slammed. In the past two weeks, Giguere has appeared in three games (two of them starts) and given up 10 goals, including one in just eight minutes of work against the Coyotes on Dec. 23. On the other hand, his counterpart Hiller has finally shown some consistency after two very rough outings to begin December. In the six starts since, Hiller's allowed just 12 goals total while posting a .940 save percentage. For those of you that play with shutouts as a category, you'll do better elsewhere, but for standard-leaguers, it would appear Hiller's starting to re-capture some of that magic from the tail end of last season and the playoffs. Float a trade offer and see if his owner hasn't figured that out yet.

Carey Price (91.9 percent) and Jaroslav Halak (25.5 percent), Canadiens: With the trade rumors swirling around him, Halak became the starter of choice for Jacques Martin recently, a streak of five straight games with No. 41 between the pipes. Over the course of the five, Halak went 4-1-0, with three starts of the quality variety, and he was named the NHL's First Star of the week this past Monday. Price came back on Wednesday night, making 34 saves in a one goal-against win over the Lightning in his first action in 13 days. Those who picked up Halak during the past month based on the trade rumors have been rewarded greatly, but there are still plenty of leagues where he can be had for free. Given the fluid nature of the Habs' goaltending time-share, he's definitely worth an add, and he could become even more valuable if any of those rumors come to fruition. For what it's worth, in a blog entry this week, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun thinks the smart move for the Canadiens is to keep both guys as insurance for one another. Good for the Habs, bad for fantasy owners.

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