In the Crease: Miller, Brodeur woes

Regardless of the format of your fantasy hockey league, Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur were likely off the draft board quite early. But the 2009-10 Vezina trophy winner and the No. 1 goalie of the modern era, according to a "Hockey Night in Canada" panel, are out to a rough start, both from a statistical and health standpoint. Even though it's generally been "The Year of the Goalie" to this point, certain elite netminders are struggling. So is it time to see what you can get in trade? Or should you hold tight and hope for improvement?

The answer is complex for both.

Brodeur is close to returning to action from an elbow bruise that knocked him out 25 minutes into the game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 3. He has been unable to practice since, and it might be Wednesday morning before we get another update -- prior to the New Jersey Devils' game against, appropriately enough for this column, the Buffalo Sabres. According to what Brodeur told the Newark Star-Ledger this week, it's a pain management issue, and thus he should be no worse for wear once the pain subsides.

Martin Brodeur stats

Through 11 starts in October (and one appearance in relief of Johan Hedberg), Brodeur has just three wins, a 2.78 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage while seeing 29.5 shots per game. But as seen in the chart above, he's no stranger to tough Octobers. The last time he's seen this much rubber was the first season after the lockout (2005-06), when players were still adjusting to the crackdown on certain defensive styles. By season's end, his numbers had rounded out to much tidier figures.

There weren't any sea changes to the rulebook prior to this season, but the Devils have been bitten quite hard by the injury bug while simultaneously working quite a bit of young blood into the lineup, especially on defense. With Bryce Salvador out since the preseason (and still on the shelf) and Anton Volchenkov knocked out during the second game of the season, the team has had three blue-liners make their NHL debuts thus far. In the only game played since Volchenkov's return, the Devils allowed only 20 shots on goal. That will be a hard pace to keep up, but you get the idea.

On offense, the Devils have been, by far, the NHL's most anemic: Their 25 goals in 15 games (1.67 average) is six fewer than the three teams tied for second-to-last, in two more games. The loss of Zach Parise won't help, but the number won't stay that low all season. As the goals come, so will the wins for Marty.

As for Brodeur's opportunity to start most of the remaining games (only a freak injury in 2008-09 kept him from continuing his trend of 70-plus starts per season), the Devils have gotten inconsistent play out of backup Johan Hedberg thus far, and it's unclear whether "The Moose" would get a ton of icetime even if he were playing lights out once Brodeur is healthy. Taking all of these factors into consideration, I'm not yet ready to write Brodeur off just yet; therefore, he is a good buy-low candidate for a trade if his owner in your league is freaking out. The only problem could be the name value attached to No. 30, which might drive up the asking price.

As for Miller, who also wears No. 30, this has been a slow start as well, with just three wins in 10 games started with a 2.71 GAA and .903 save percentage. The Sabres aren't scoring, either, with just 2.40 goals per game. And despite seeing a lighter load of shots than in previous seasons, Miller is allowing more of them to get behind him.

Ryan Miller stats

As seen in the chart, whether Miller gets off to a hot start (as in 2006-07, 2008-09 and 2009-10) or a bad one (2005-06 and 2007-08), his stats go in the opposite direction for the rest of the season, as the numbers seem to even out. So as long as he continues to get the starts, the improvement will come.

There are two factors involved there: Miller's health and the play of his backups. Regarding his "lower-body" injury (thought by some to be an issue with his knee), the Associated Press reported that Miller returned to practice on Monday, although Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff has already ruled him out for Wednesday's game in New Jersey and calls him a "long shot" to play against the New York Rangers on Friday. Saturday's game against the Washington Capitals is a possibility.

In Miller's absence, 22-year-old Jhonas Enroth and 36-year-old Patrick Lalime each got two starts. Although Lalime was not horrible, he didn't exactly inspire poetry either, and he's not much of a threat. The young Swede, however, showed off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a shootout win this past Saturday, making 23 saves in regulation and stopping four of five in the shootout to get the win. Then again, he lasted only a period against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 3, allowing three goals on 12 shots. At this point, it looks like the Sabres will stick with Lalime as the No. 2, since Enroth functioned as the third goalie in practice Monday, according to the Buffalo News.

Given what we've seen out of Miller in past seasons, and the lack of worthwhile offers you're likely to receive, it's best to hold on to him as he attempts to turn his season around. In order to finish with the numbers that had been projected for him, he'll need a hot stretch here and there, and you'll be kicking yourself if you cut bait and trade him away at this early juncture. That said, just like with Brodeur, if Miller's owner in your league is struggling in the goalie categories, it would behoove you to make an offer.

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. Jimmy Howard, Det (2)
2. Ryan Miller, Buf (1)
3. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (5)
4. Jaroslav Halak, StL (6)
5. Roberto Luongo, Van (4)
6. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (3)
7. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
8. Martin Brodeur, NJ (8)
9. Tim Thomas, Bos (11)
10. Niklas Backstrom, Min (13)
11. Cam Ward, Car (9)
12. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (10)
13. Carey Price, Mon (14)
14. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (12)
15. Michal Neuvirth, Was (16)
16. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (22)
17. Craig Anderson, Col (19)
18. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (18)
19. Brent Johnson, Pit (21)
20. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (15)
21. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (20)
22. Dan Ellis, TB (23)
23. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (32)
24. Tuukka Rask, Bos (24)
25. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (25)
26. Nikolai Khabibulin, Edm (17)
27. Chris Mason, Atl (26)
28. Jonas Hiller, Ana (27)
29. Mathieu Garon, Cls (NR)
30. Marty Turco, Chi (28)
31. Anders Lindback, Nsh (29)
32. Steve Mason, Cls (30)
33. Jonathan Bernier, LA (31)
34. Peter Budaj, Col (40)
35. Semyon Varlamov, Was (33)
36. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (34)
37. Antti Niemi, SJ (35)
38. Rick DiPietro, NYI (36)
39. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (37)
40. Mike Smith, TB (38)

Rising and falling

Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers (down three spots): Like Miller and Brodeur, Vokoun was drafted very high, with an average draft position of 47.4 in ESPN leagues. Thus far, he's No. 31 on the ESPN Player Rater among goaltenders and was pulled this past Friday after surrendering two goals on seven shots to the Carolina Hurricanes in just 10 minutes. There's no real goalie controversy in Florida right now, but we've seen what Scott Clemmensen is capable of when given an opportunity. With that secondary option available, Panthers coach Peter DeBoer may start to throw Clemmensen out there a bit more, and with every missed start, Vokoun's hold on a spot amongst the elite fantasy goaltenders will slip. I don't see him finishing outside the top 10 by season's end, but the inconsistency early on is troubling.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia Flyers (up nine spots): The Flyers have been included in the timeshares section of this column throughout the season. As it turns out, I might've been too kind to Brian Boucher. "Bob" has gotten the nod in the Flyers' past seven games, going 6-0-1, allowing 13 goals with a .939 save percentage. At this rate, it's going to be a tough sell to get Michael Leighton much action upon his return. And let's face it, Leighton didn't exactly have the pedigree of an elite goalie coming into this season, having provided strong ratios but poor qualitative performance during the 2009-10 regular season and through the playoffs. I'd expect that the Flyers will give Leighton an opportunity when he returns later this month, but he won't have a long leash if he falters, given what they've seen from Bobrovsky.

Antero Niittymaki, San Jose Sharks (up six spots): Niitty's rise up the rankings continues, as both his continued consistency (which, frankly, has been one of the surprises of the young season) and the Sharks' declining usage of Antti Niemi provide the two catalysts for fantasy goalie superstardom: production and opportunity. Niity sits in sixth place for GAA (1.78) and seventh in save percentage (.932), playing behind an offense that likely will improve on their current scoring pace. My only concern is that he's never shown this kind of consistent performance in the past, and as noted last week, it feels like the other shoe is going to drop at some point. If you've got him rostered, and are in this cautious school of thought, it's time to sell him off to the highest bidder.

Peter Budaj, Colorado Avalanche (up six spots): I wasn't sold on Budaj as a suitable fantasy option as of a week ago, and my overall opinion on his prognosis for the season hasn't changed much. On the other hand, he's had some strong performances since taking over for the injured Craig Anderson, including a shutout of the Dallas Stars (the NHL's No. 4 offense) on Saturday. But consistency has eluded Budaj, as he allowed nine goals in two games at the tail end of October. So, while Anderson is still on the shelf -- which could be as little as a week or two more, according to the Denver Post -- Budaj remains an option for those who want to take the risk; however, just because he's an option doesn't make him a good option, and his value will decline sharply once Anderson is back.


Marc-Andre Fleury (81.3 percent) and Brent Johnson (86.8 percent), Pittsburgh Penguins: Johnson's continued quest to be the next thirtysomething goalie to put together a solid season seemingly out of nowhere has officially hit a turning point: He's now owned in more ESPN fantasy leagues than former No. 1 overall draft pick Fleury. Fleury still has the support of his teammates -- including captain Sidney Crosby, who told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Fleury needs "four or five" starts in a row to get out of his funk -- although coach Dan Bylsma has questioned the goalie's confidence and work ethic. From a fantasy perspective, Johnson remains a must start, but with a sky-high value, he's not worth investigating in trade. Conversely, Fleury's trade value may never be this low, and while he's never had an "elite" season statistically, he'll have every chance to improve given what the franchise has invested in him, and could be a viable No. 2 in fantasy. As such, he's a tremendous buy-low trade option right now, especially if his owner is lagging in the goalie categories.

Dwayne Roloson (9.1 percent) and Rick DiPietro (2.3 percent), New York Islanders: A week ago, I wrote the following: "Perhaps the Isles feel that while DiPietro is actually healthy -- a rare occurrence, as we know -- they might as well get their money's worth." That trend continued this week, as DiPietro got another start ... and laid another egg, with seven goals surrendered on 32 shots. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Given the disparity in the two Islanders goalies' stats thus far, it would be a bit insane to keep skating DiPietro out there. Either way, given the Islanders' continued lack of scoring, neither man is worth your time.

Steve Mason (38.7 percent) and Mathieu Garon (27.2 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: Two weeks ago, I cautioned to keep Mason away from your active lineup, as his sophomore slump had extended into season No. 3. Since then, Mason has had one good start (two regulation goals allowed on 27 shots in a shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers) and one horrible one (pulled midway through the second period after allowing four goals on 19 shots to the Avalanche). Over that same timeframe, Garon has allowed just four goals on 90 shots (including two shutouts), and two of those four goals were through screens while the Blue Jackets were (unsuccessfully) trying to kill a penalty. It's pretty obvious who's off to a better start, the question is whether the two diverging trends will be sustained. But for now, Garon needs to be added and active in every format. Meanwhile, I'm not quite ready to pull the plug entirely on Mason, but it's getting close to that point.

Dan Ellis (71.4 percent) and Mike Smith (6.1 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning have yet to officially crown Ellis as the No. 1 goalie, although the trends dictate that this will happen sooner than later. Ellis has been considerately better from both a quantitative and qualitative standpoint, while Smith had been earning ugly wins. That trend reversed itself Thursday, as Smith allowed just one goal to the Los Angeles Kings, but took the loss as the Lightning failed to score. Given Ellis' ratios, and the Lightning's top-10 offense, he's a solid No. 2 option once his anointing as the top dog occurs.

Pekka Rinne (94.7 percent) and Anders Lindback (8.5 percent), Nashville Predators: Rinne is the holder of the big contract, as well as the edge in starts this season by an 8-5 margin. However, following a rough start against the Kings on Saturday -- four goals on 22 shots --Predators coach Barry Trotz pulled Rinne in favor of the youngster. Trotz has a history of rolling with whichever of his goalies is playing better, no matter who has the title of No. 1. If that's any indication for his 2010-11 strategy, Lindback will continue to get starts, given his advantage in both ratio categories (even after allowing five goals to the Anaheim Ducks) and the win column. The bottom line in fantasy: Rinne will not be an elite netminder while mired in a timeshare, and Lindback is criminally underowned.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com