In the Crease: Backups to watch

Updated: February 5, 2013, 2:26 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | ESPN.com

Hockey goaltenders are perhaps the most unique figures in professional sports, but there are some attributes that they share with other members of the paid athlete community. For instance, much as the backup QB can be the most popular man in some NFL towns, so can the backup netminder in some NHL hubs, especially when the starter is struggling.

In general, a struggling starter will regain his value at some point down the line. So when I see a player such as Cam Ward or Henrik Lundqvist stumble out of the gates, their spot on the rankings list (which indicates what they'll do from here until the end of the season) doesn't drop too precipitously. At some point, they'll return to where they should be, and this will include some performances on the better side of their career averages. Nevertheless, there is value in the understudies, for fantasy purposes, even if these backups don't really have any shot of overtaking the real-life starter. This concept is especially true in this lockout-shortened season, as each team is playing out a compressed schedule, potentially providing more days off for the starters. For the sake of this discussion, I'll avoid the goalies involved in a split (I'll hit them in the Timeshares section below), and focus on some true backups who have impressed thus far, and may retain fantasy value from here on out.

Hedberg
Hedberg

Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils (owned in 9.4 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues): Prior to the lockout, Hedberg and Martin Brodeur both signed on to continue to participate in the oldest goaltending tandem in the NHL, and while Brodeur has been serviceable as a fantasy asset this season, it's been primarily due to his win total: he's notched three victories, while posting a 2.75 GAA and .899 save percentage. Hedberg has a third of the wins in a third of the starts, while allowing just one goal on 50 shots, generating 0.48/.980 ratios. Obviously, that's not a sustainable trend, but in his two previous seasons as Brodeur's caddy, he's put up 2.30/.915 ratios while winning three out of every five starts. Clearly a good fit behind New Jersey's defensive system, Hedberg appears to be getting a start every four contests or so, providing value here and there for those with the roster space.

Greiss
Greiss

Thomas Greiss, San Jose Sharks (owned in 3.2 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues): Similar to the situation in New Jersey, there is a definite starter in San Jose (Antti Niemi, who currently sits third among goalies on the Player Rater), so Greiss merely gets the occasional call when the talented Finn needs a spot of rest. But in his two starts thus far this season, the German-born 27-year-old has shown that the Sharks need not worry when they go to their backup: He posted a 24-save shutout of the Colorado Avalanche and was a tough luck loser against the Anaheim Ducks, allowing just two goals on 32 shots. Greiss does not have as extensive a track record as Hedberg, so there's less statistical reasoning for adding him to a fantasy roster. However, he's steadily improved his ratios each season in the league thus far, and while his current numbers (1.01/.964) are likely to return to reality soon, he's got a chance to pick up a win every time out based on how dominant the Sharks have been.

Ellis
Ellis

Dan Ellis, Carolina Hurricanes (owned in 5.8 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues): Ellis has been mentioned a lot in this column during the 2012-13 campaign thus far, primarily because his story is such an intriguing one: A journeyman who catches on with a team by playing his guts out during the lockout for their minor league affiliate is the kind of underdog story we all cherish. Since the season started, Ellis has posted better numbers than starter Ward -- 1.99 to 3.43 in GAA, .939 to .895 in save percentage -- though this is a trend that could be reversing soon. The Flyers chased Ellis with four goals on just 12 shots this past Saturday, and Ward relented just one more on the same amount of shots faced for the duration of the contest. But this was never about Ellis superseding Ward; we knew that the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner would come around. Ellis has had his ups and downs during his career, so I wonder if the meltdown against Philly is the beginning of Ellis' comeback coming unraveled. He's worth a look, but be wary.

Fasth
Fasth

Viktor Fasth, Anaheim Ducks (owned in 8.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues): The concern regarding the two-time Honken Trophy winner (as the Swedish Elite League's top netminder) was that he'd have trouble adjusting to the speed and nature of the game on North American ice, as has been the case for some of his countrymen (hello there, Jonas Gustavsson). However, his talent has won out over this potential shortcoming, and based on what's transpired thus far in the Anaheim nets, it's quite possible that he'll push for more of Jonas Hiller's share of the workload. A 25-save win over the mighty Sharks on Monday gives him three victories in three starts (that's a pretty good winning percentage), while his ratios stand at 1.30 in GAA and .946 in save percentage. Behind the same team up front, Hiller has posted 3.54/.871 ratios in five starts. As we've seen with some other goalies coming over from Europe, a hot start can cool off quickly. But while he's on this roll, there's an opportunity to rack up some good starts for fantasy teams.

The injury bug has begun to bite players at every position around the league, so roster space is becoming more scarce. In that sense, it's more of a luxury that one can afford to use some of that space on a player who is destined to only play one game per week or so. Nevertheless, if you can manage to keep one of these players rostered, they could well be more valuable than a player who is designated as the starter in real life on another club.

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 2012-13season is indicated in parentheses.

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

Rising and Falling

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins (up two spots to No. 1): As is the case with the rankings every week, there are players who move up or down based partially on their own merits, but partially due to others around them sliding or getting hot. In the case of Rask, he's had just a couple of blips in an otherwise excellent season thus far, and the players ahead of him as of last week (Jonathan Quick and Lundqvist) still appear to be trying to get their engines in gear. The Bruins haven't been scoring at quite the pace of the Blackhawks or Sharks, but Rask is more talented than Corey Crawford and Niemi. And as you'll recall, the Bruins' defensive system is a reasonably good setting for a netminder to rack up ratios at or near the league lead, as we saw with Tim Thomas in recent seasons.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (up eight spots to No. 2): Another case of a player catching fire while those above him have continued to struggle, Price combines six wins (tied for the league lead) with the fifth-highest rate in GAA (1.70) and save percentage (.938), while playing all but 60 minutes of the season for the Habs thus far. Price played well on a lackluster Canadiens team last season, and in 2010-11, he was one of fantasy hockey's best goalies, with 38 wins, a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage. The point of all that is that he's good enough to maintain a pace similar to the one off to which he's gotten so far.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres (down six spots to No. 10): Miller's starts this season break down into neat four-game packages. In the first quartet, he gave up eight total goals, resulting in 2.01/.941 ratios; in the next four, he's given up 16 total, and those rates slipped to 4.28 and .867. You may be wondering at this point where promising backup Jhonas Enroth has been during this time; unfortunately, Enroth's time between the pipes has resembled those second four starts of Miller's. I believe that Miller's seasonal totals will more closely resemble the first four outings, so it's not time to panic. But keep him on the bench until things get sorted out.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks (up eight spots to No. 12): The Blackhawks continue to run roughshod over the rest of the Western Conference, and Crawford continues to be a big reason why: He still hasn't lost in regulation (going 5-0-2 in seven starts), and in allowing 12 total goals on 181 shots, that's generated a GAA of 1.66 and a save percentage of .934. Two seasons ago, Crawford was a fantasy darling, posting 33 wins with 2.30/.917 ratios; perhaps last season was the anomaly, and what we're seeing again this season is what we can expect for the future. Keeper league owners, take note.

James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs (back in the Top 40 at No. 29): Reimer was one of the players nipping at the heels of the players near the bottom of the published ranking list, and he pushes the door open this week. Let's not get too carried away here: I'm still very skeptical, but it appears that Leafs coach Randy Carlyle is sold. "I think he's comfortable," Carlyle recently told the National Post. "[Goaltending coach] Rick St. Croix has had a measured amount of change with him and that's not throwing anybody under the bus that was previously here. It's just a different approach in some things. & He looks confident. It looks like a lot of pucks are hitting him, because he's in the right position. We've tried to make him a little more aggressive in certain situations. All those things are a culmination of a player coming into camp in the best shape he's been in and in the right frame of mind." The reference to the individual who was previously there is to former goaltending coach Francois Allaire, the famed butterfly aficionado who has brought the best out of some the sport's elite netminders. Whatever the reason, Reimer has looked the part of a real No. 1 goalie, and Carlyle has tapped him to start six of the Leafs' past seven contests. While the 2.71 GAA leaves much to be desired, his .917 save percentage is certainly acceptable. The Leafs seem to have fallen out of the rumor mill when it comes to potentially acquiring Roberto Luongo, and Reimer appears to be a big reason why that is. He makes a nice addition to a fantasy roster's bench, but as noted above, I'm not entirely sold on him as a surefire starter.

Timeshares

Sergei Bobrovsky (owned in 59.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Steve Mason (0.5 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: Heading into the 2012-13 season, the No. 1 goaltending job in Columbus appeared to be Bobrovsky's to lose, as Mason had been a disappointment every season since capturing the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie following the 2008-09 season. However, after five appearances per man, Mason has posted a better GAA (2.76 to 2.97) and only a slightly lower save percentage (.906 to .907). Interestingly enough, Mason's superior numbers have come against better competition: Mason's four starts have come against Phoenix, Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit, compared to Bobrovsky's against Nashville, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit and St. Louis, and he was yanked in the game against the Blues. Based on their previous work (and the unsustainability of Mason's .958 save percentage on the penalty kill), I'd consider Bobrovsky a much better investment, but the results thus far indicate that it's a lot closer than anyone -- aside from, perhaps, Mason -- expected.

Marc-Andre Fleury (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Tomas Vokoun (63.9 percent), Pittsburgh Penguins: Interesting drama playing out in western Pennsylvania this season. Following Fleury's absolute meltdown in the Pens' quick exit last postseason, the club set about to bring in a player that could be counted on as a reliable understudy, as well as to give him a little pressure to perform. After playing well for a dozen seasons in Nashville and Florida, Vokoun was inconsistent in his one campaign for the Capitals, making him readily available. For the 36-year-old, it's been new outfit, new results: In five appearances, he's gone 3-1-0, with a 2.09 GAA and .927 save percentage. Meanwhile, the erstwhile unquestioned starter, Fleury, has also racked up three wins, but done so with 2.53/.897 ratios, and he's had some rough outings (five goals allowed to the Maple Leafs, four to the Islanders). Fleury's inconsistency will continue to afford Vokoun chances to start, and he's clearly worth adding in fantasy leagues where he's sitting on the waiver wire. I don't believe that the franchise netminder's job is in trouble, but his value to fantasy owners will continue to be diminished until he gets straightened out.

Cory Schneider (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (100.0 percent), Vancouver Canucks: In three starts since we last met here in this space, Luongo has allowed just three total goals on 77 shots, good for a 0.95 GAA and .961 save percentage. For his efforts, he earned the NHL's third star of the week. Not too shabby for a guy who's technically the backup on his own team. Meanwhile, Schneider hasn't played since Jan. 27, and that outing didn't go so well: He allowed four goals on 27 shots, dropping his ratios to 3.13 and .897 on the season. For fantasy owners of Luongo, now is the time to sell high in a trade. If he's not moved in real life, he's not going to maintain his current pace, and if he is traded, he may land in a much less desirable situation. As for the Schneider owners, sit tight. That's far too small of a sample size to give up on a player that will at some point be the primary starter on a top Cup contender.

Braden Holtby (owned in 58.5 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (16.6 percent), Washington Capitals: After an encouraging outing against the Flyers on Friday, the Holtby ship crashed into the rocks again on Sunday afternoon, as he allowed six goals to the visiting Penguins on only 26 shots. As for Neuvirth, he hasn't been great, but he hasn't been terrible either -- posting a 2.97 GAA and .899 save percentage -- and that consistent mediocrity can better serve a team sometimes than the up-and-down play Holtby has given the Caps this season. There was a bit of intrigue in the American capital on Sunday afternoon, as Canucks GM Mike Gillis and assistant GM Laurence Gilman were in attendance at the Caps-Pens tilt, igniting a wildfire of speculation that Washington was the "mystery team" getting involved in the Luongo trade talks. That rumor was debunked quickly, but one wonders how much longer Washington will wait to address their situation in the crease. That will be a disappointment to fantasy owners who took a shot with Holtby this season, but he hasn't been providing much value thus far anyways. Neither of these 'tenders is deemed a surefire starter for fantasy purposes currently.

Quick Takes

St. Louis Blues No. 1A goalie Jaroslav Halak takes a significant tumble in the rankings this week (seven spots) based upon a new injury. It's not so much that the injury is a severe one -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock speculated that Halak could recover as soon as this weekend -- but the nature of the malady is disconcerting: It's a groin strain, and this muscle group is of particular importance to goalies. Even after Halak has recovered from the strain, it may take some time to get back into his groove. & Very quietly -- and perhaps that's how it works best for him -- Ilya Bryzgalov has been having an effective campaign for the otherwise underachieving Philadelphia Flyers this season. Some see the Flyers languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and assume that it's been Bryz's fault (he was a popular target last season, too), but the bigger problem has been the lack of scoring: The team is putting pucks in the net at a 2.33 goals-per-game clip, tied for No. 22 in the league. Meanwhile, Bryzgalov has a 2.40 GAA and a .920 save percentage, both improvements over 2011-12. This is a classic buy-low opportunity, as the Flyers' scoring output is likely to ramp up, and Bryz's win total will accordingly rise. & Apparently, Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley is concerned about Miikka Kiprusoff's streak of 70-appearance seasons ending in 2012-13: No other Flames goalie has played thus far this season. To be fair, Calgary has played only six games thus far due to a scheduling quirk, and there are 19 other NHL goalies with more appearances than Kipper, but it's an interesting fact. Unfortunately for Kiprusoff, Hartley and all of the netminder's fantasy owners, the results thus far have been miserable: he's allowed 21 goals on 149 shots, which works out to a 3.42 GAA and .859 save percentage. Clearly, he has no business being in an active fantasy lineup right now, but keep him on the bench in case he wakes up.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.

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