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In The Crease: Fast starters

1/23/2013

As this abbreviated NHL season moved closer to reality, one theory espoused by some analysts was that players who participated in professional leagues somewhere -- either the KHL or some other European league or the AHL here in North America -- would be at an advantage for quick starts. ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun mentioned this concept in analyzing the opening-night win for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This makes sense: While most modern hockey players stay in reasonably good shape during the offseason, there's nothing that can replace the speed of the game at this level.

We have a very small sample size thus far -- teams have played only two or three games, which is about 4 to 6 percent of their regular season schedule -- but we can make some initial conclusions about the hypothesis regarding activity during the lockout. What has been a trend is that many of the elite fantasy options who didn't play professionally during the lockout have gotten off to slow starts. More importantly, we can consider whether these early trends will be sustainable (which is more important in this shortened season).

The group of goalies who suited up in the AHL during the lockout includes Dan Ellis, Robin Lehner, Ben Bishop, Ben Scrivens and Braden Holtby. Ellis earned himself a spot with the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to his tryout in the minors -- including a 2.46 GAA and .922 SVP -- while Lehner and Bishop continued their battle to be Craig Anderson's primary backup, a battle that still rages. (For the record, the AHL results of the two weren't very close: Lehner had the edge in goals allowed by a 1.90 to 2.59 margin, and in save percentage, Lehner was better by .945 to .928). Holtby and Scrivens -- both of whom excelled during the lockout for their AHL clubs -- have taken divergent paths early on this season.

For Holtby, who came to international prominence during an impressive postseason run last spring, it's been rough thus far: he's allowed 10 goals on 73 shots over the course of the first two games, generating a close-your-eyes ugly ratio split of 5.03/.863; as you'd expect, he's lost both of those contests. Don't go crazy dropping him, but bench him for now while things get sorted out. Bear in mind that new Capitals coach Adam Oates has hinted at a timeshare this season with Michal Neuvirth; Holtby owners are hoping he was just being politically correct. As for Scrivens, he's picked up one win in two starts, allowing three goals in that span to generate a 1.53 GAA and .929 save percentage. His early work has him in the No. 9 spot on the Player Rater amongst goalies; while it would be shocking if he finished the season there, he's someone who can help most fantasy teams right now. Unless and until the Maple Leafs trade for Roberto Luongo, Scrivens appears to be the man for Toronto in net, and he's carried his excellent play over from the AHL level (in 94 appearances across three seasons for the Marlies, he's posted a 2.18/.923 ratios split).

As with Holtby and Scrivens, the gentlemen that played over in Europe have also tread different pathways as the young NHL season has gotten rolling. There was a group of five regular NHL 'tenders to land deals to play in the KHL during the lockout -- Pekka Rinne, Ilya Bryzgalov, Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Anton Khudobin -- and even amongst that group there's been a lot of disparity in terms of their performance back in the NHL. Rinne has posted a 2.31/.925 split in two starts, which is about where we expect him to land by season's end: the problem thus far has been that the Predators have lost both of those games and there are still a lot of players ahead of Rinne who will likely not be posting similar numbers throughout the campaign. Be patient.

Though everyone has some fun with Bryzgalov thanks to his otherworldly off-ice commentary, he hasn't been the main problem for the 0-3 Flyers thus far; sure, some of the goals can be traced back to questionable rebound control or a lack of communication with his defensemen, but it doesn't help when a team's allegedly high-powered offense has mustered only three goals total in the first trio of games. Bryz's contract means he's not going anywhere (for now), and once Claude Giroux and company wake up -- and his numbers regress towards his career levels -- he should have some value. The man the Flyers traded away, on the other hand, has been a revelation in net for the Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky has gone 1-0-1, saving 71 of 76 shots faced in two contests, giving him a 2.31/.934 split. And he could be 2-0-0 had he not been the victim of a ridiculous shootout goal by Damien Brunner on Monday night. No one's got any misconceptions about this Columbus team -- they're a workmanlike bunch that is going to have to eke out narrow victories -- but goalies with strong ratios (like Bob's) can be quite an asset in fantasy, even if the win total isn't great; after all, that's two out of the three fantasy categories in ESPN standard leagues.

While we haven't seen much of Khudobin yet (this has been Tuukka Rask's team thus far, but more on him in a bit), I still need to see more out of Varlamov to get a handle on what he'll do this season, as his first game was sloppy (four goals allowed to the Wild on 35 shots) but the second one superb (just one goal allowed to the Kings on 29 shots). Varly was one of the hottest goaltenders down the stretch in 2011-12 -- in his final 22 games, he notched 12 wins with a GAA of 1.87 and .934 SVP -- and he picked up where he left off in the KHL: in 16 games during the lockout, he went 8-4-3 with a 1.74/.943 ratio split. If that game against Minnesota proves to be the outlier (and I'm leaning in that direction), he's still on track to make a push into the ranks of the No. 1 fantasy goalies this season.

Four other notable netminders who made their way to Europe for some action during the lockout were Rask, Neuvirth and Ondrej Pavelec (who played in the Czech league) as well as Anders Lindback (who geared up in Finland). In eight games for Plzen HC, Rask had sterling ratios of 1.85 GAA and .936 SV%; after two outings against the best competition in the world, he's been even better, with a 0.96/.958 split and two wins. Don't forget, this is the same man who led the league in the two ratio categories back in 2009-10 (only to be replaced by Tim Thomas the following season). With many of the other elite netminders off to a slow start -- seriously, look at the names at the bottom of the Player Rater when you've got a chance -- this could be Rask's season to re-establish himself as one of the best.

Meanwhile, Pavelec's time playing overseas has thus far reversed his home/away trend from last season. In 2011-12, in 36 games played at home, he went 19-12-4, with a 2.47/.917 split; his 32 appearances on the road produced a 10-16-5 record with a 3.42/.895 split. This season, he had a rough outing in the home opener (four goals allowed on 37 shots in a loss), but he has only allowed three goals on 61 shots since (going 1-0-1 in those games). Pavelec has the talent to play with the best at the position, though inconsistency (geography-based or not) has kept him from making the jump thus far. I remain tentative in pushing him much beyond his current spot in the rankings (among the No. 2s).

Finally, Lindback was the man the Lightning tabbed as their next entrant in the "Who wants to be our franchise goalie?" competition this past offseason, and the first two games haven't been a great argument in his favor, allowing seven goals on 74 shots to yield a 3.51 GAA and .905 SVP. In fact, journeyman backup Mathieu Garon looked better during his spot-start on Tuesday, stopping 35 of 36 against Carolina.

However, with Lindback and the rest of the goalies off to a tough start -- including the elite guys like Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard and Cory Schneider -- it's not time to panic. This is the time to see whether your backups can deliver something and perhaps take a shot on someone like Scrivens, who's widely available.

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. The ranking at the start of the 2013 season is indicated in parentheses.

1. Jonathan Quick, LA (1)
2. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (2)
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (3)
4. Tuukka Rask, Bos (6)
5. Ryan Miller, Buf (8)
6. Jimmy Howard, Det (4)
7. Mike Smith, Pho (5)
8. Cam Ward, Car (7)
9. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (11)
10. Jaroslav Halak, StL (10)
11. Cory Schneider, Van (9)
12. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (14)
13. Carey Price, Mon (15)
14. Roberto Luongo, Van (13)
15. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (16)
16. Semyon Varlamov, Col (18)
17. Martin Brodeur, NJ (21)
18. Craig Anderson, Ott (19)
19. Braden Holtby, Was (12)
20. Niklas Backstrom, Min (17)
21. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (23)
22. Corey Crawford, Chi (29)
23. Antti Niemi, SJ (24)
24. Brian Elliott, StL (22)
25. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (25)
26. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (30)
27. Jonas Hiller, Ana (28)
28. Josh Harding, Min (27)
29. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (20)
30. Ben Scrivens, Tor (NR)
31. Anders Lindback, TB (26)
32. Jose Theodore, Fla (34)
33. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (32)
34. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (33)
35. Robin Lehner, Ott (43)
36. Richard Bachman, Dal (35)
37. Jhonas Enroth, Buf (36)
38. Ben Bishop, Ott (37)
39. Johan Hedberg, NJ (38)
40. Dan Ellis, Car (39)

Rising and Falling

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres (up three spots to No. 5): Aside from Rask, Miller is the only member of the "elite" section of fantasy goalies who's off to a good start. I'm not ready to have the likes of Quick and Lundqvist tumble down the rankings yet -- remember, the rankings are based on what I believe will happen from now until the end of the season and are not solely based upon what's transpired thus far. Nevertheless, we've seen Miller play at a high level before (namely, the 2009-10 season), so his 2-0-0 start -- with a 1.50 GAA and .953 SV% -- isn't completely out of the blue. I can't say with 100 percent certainty that he'll finish the season as a top-five fantasy goalie, but he's a good option for whom to trade if his owner in your league isn't convinced; he's clearly gotten off to a better start than his peers.

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators (up one spot to No. 18): Reversing a trend from the past two seasons, Anderson has started off hot in 2012-13. Then again, maybe it's just the fact that the season is starting in January, which is the month during which he finally came alive in 2011-12: in his final 29 appearances of that season, he went 16-10-3, with a 2.39/.931 split. Thus far, he's only allowed one goal on 59 total shots in his two starts (both wins). He won't finish the season at 0.50 and .983, but he will continue to be a reliable secondary option on fantasy teams; if he's sitting on your bench right now and you've got a struggling No. 1, give him a tryout on the active roster for the time being.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks (up seven spots to No. 22): The evil "I's" -- injury and inconsistency -- plagued Crawford in 2011-12, and despite racking up 30 wins, he finished in the coveted No. 47 spot on the Player Rater by season's end, owing to his woeful ratios (2.72 and .903). Across our small sample size in 2012-13, he's been much improved: he's looked more confident in net, and he's improved his ratios to 2.00 and .927, respectively, while winning both of his starts. He's not likely to continue at that pace -- the GAA would be 0.30 better and the SV% .010 better than his career bests -- but he's put himself back in the conversation as someone with the potential to be a steady No. 2 in fantasy. Color me intrigued, though I'm not quite ready to go all-in, given what we witnessed last season.

Timeshares

Niklas Backstrom (100.0 percent owned in ESPN fantasy leagues) and Josh Harding (60.2 percent), Minnesota Wild: Heading into this season, the Wild were a team on everyone's radar -- they signed both of this past offseason's big free agents (Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) -- and that feeling hasn't lessened after the lockout concluded. And just like the St. Louis Blues were able to ride a goalie timeshare into the postseason in 2011-12, the Wild may perform a similar trick this time around. While Backstrom is talented, he's been increasingly bothered by health problems; furthermore, Harding has proven a capable understudy, and is good enough to be a starter in his own right. Thus far this season, Backstrom has managed a 2.52/.906 split over two starts, while Harding posted a shutout in his lone appearance. While the fact that they could be rotating extensively does diminish their value in leagues that focus on counting stats (saves, minutes, etc.), we learned last season with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott that both members of a timeshare can be quite valuable under the right circumstances. In other words, Backstrom owners shouldn't be afraid, and Harding is a name to keep in mind for those with goaltending deficiency here in the early going.

Jaroslav Halak (100.0 percent owned in ESPN fantasy leagues) and Brian Elliott (95.7 percent), St. Louis Blues: Speaking of the Blues' timeshare, it continues, despite previous speculation to the contrary based upon Elliott's fall from grace last postseason. The trend over the season's first few days is that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock isn't married to either option: Halak had a 14-save shutout of the Red Wings in the opener but was pulled midway through the second game after allowing three goals on 11 shots to Nashville. Subbing in, Elliott stopped all 13 shots he faced (including both shootout attempts) and got the win in relief. In his first start of the season, Elliott allowed three goals, but the first two were somewhat unlucky: the first came when the Blackhawks had a three-on-zero rush against him, and the second deflected in off a skate. The general rule of thumb from last season for Halak and Elliott owners will apply here again: owners in daily leagues will have to keep an eye on their news feed to decide whether to start their option while those in weekly lineup leagues should just activate Halak or Elliott and hope for the best. To reiterate the point from above: even if it's only a start or two per week, that can make a huge difference based upon what we've seen these two do.

Cory Schneider (100.0 percent owned in ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (100.0 percent), Vancouver Canucks: Inconsiderate. That's the only way to describe what Schneider unleashed upon his fantasy owners on opening night, as the five goals allowed on 14 shots had him yanked from action in favor of Luongo, the man he allegedly pushed out of the picture last spring. In four and a half periods of work (plus one OT), Luongo has been serviceable: he's managed a 2.44 GAA and .909 SV%. Compared to Schneider -- and some of the other elite guys -- that's sparkling. The big mystery is whether Luongo will be moved, but until that actually happens (and the latest buzz is that it could happen this week, next week, next month or this offseason), it's diminished returns for both he and Schneider. Schneider has been tabbed for the start on Wednesday night against Calgary, but beyond that, nothing is certain, and fantasy owners must continue to hang on to both until the situation clarifies itself (either on the ice or off of it).

Quick Takes

I was surprised that anyone was surprised that Evgeni Nabokov -- and not Rick DiPietro -- has drawn the starts for the Islanders' first two contests. Nevertheless, unless DiPietro manages to get himself hurt off the ice over the next several days, expect to see him in action at some point soon: starting on Thursday, the Isles play four games in six days thanks to the compressed schedule. Whether this turns into a true timeshare or continues on with Nabokov/DiPietro in the traditional starter/backup alignment will be partially determined by what the latter brings to the table when he does get between the pipes. ... Bit of a shocking result for Devan Dubnyk owners in the game against San Jose on Tuesday night: Dubnyk was pulled after allowing six goals on 17 first-period shots. Three of those came on the power play, and that was something of an anomaly; I'm not too concerned that he'll be able to bounce back. ... Speaking of that San Jose-Edmonton tilt, Antti Niemi stopped 26 of 29 shots for the win, and two of his goals against came with the Oilers on the power play. Niemi wasn't a "sexy" pick this season, and he's not the kind of player that will finish the season among the top 10 goalies, but he's a decent option for those who like consistency. ... While we await the next destination for Luongo, one of the rumored teams (Florida) has been trotting out Jose Theodore as their No. 1 again this season. Theodore was strong in the season-opener (just one goal allowed on 42 shots) but fell apart in game No. 2, relenting four goals on 37 shots in a loss to Ottawa. Owned in just 26.5 percent of ESPN leagues, the netminder for the defending Southeast division champs deserves consideration for those owners whose top options can't get their engines into gear in the early going.