With the NHL season wrapping up within the week, rotisserie-style fantasy leagues will reach the finish line soon, while head-to-head leagues have either already gotten there or will also do so at that time. At this point, final lineups may have already been set; if not, there's only so much that a late pickup or start/sit can accomplish. You'll find some advice for the final week at the tail end of this column, but otherwise, continue to use the tools we've been discussing all season in making those final calls.
Instead of the usual column this week, our fantasy hockey crew is developing our initial preseason rankings for 2013-14. Though some things will change over the course of the ensuing months -- free agents and trade targets may find new homes, coaching adjustments will alter outlooks for certain clubs and playoff performances may alter the ranks to some degree -- this is an early outlook for those looking to get a head-start on their draft prep for the upcoming campaign.
We'll be back during the offseason to update the rankings list when events alter the landscape, and there will be a full set of projections well ahead of draft days.
Top of the list
1. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to fantasy goaltending's elite players, and Lundqvist certainly fits the bill: he's finished in the top 10 of the NHL for save percentage the past four seasons, and in 2008-09, he was No. 11 (at .916). In fact, his low for seasonal save percentage during his eight-season career has been .912. Even though he had some struggles at times during this season, he's currently at 2.08/.927 with a few games to go. There may be some tweaks to the Rangers' roster this offseason, but the one thing that won't change: Lundqvist will be backstopping this team on the vast majority of nights in 2013-14, and doing a great job of it.
2. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: The major question on Rask leading into this season was whether he could shoulder the full load as the Bruins' primary starter. Unfortunately, thanks to the lockout, that question remains unanswered somewhat, but by appearing in 32 games for Boston this season, Rask did display reasonable durability, albeit in a small sample size. No reason to believe that the Bruins will fall from the ranks of the contenders next season, and no reason to bump Rask out of the realm of the elites in fantasy, either.
3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: This was certainly an off season for Rinne, and the Predators in general. After an exciting run in the playoffs following the 2011-12 season, they lost Ryan Suter (and some other components), and never got rolling in 2012-13. Rinne's 2.42 GAA and .911 save percentage were close or equal to the worst ratios of his career as the Predators' primary starter, but I expect a considerable bounceback next season, as well as many more wins. And if 2.42/.911 is his "floor," then the risk in using a high pick on him isn't as great as it is on others.
4. Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks: The expectation is that the Canucks will find a suitor for Roberto Luongo at some point this offseason, and even as that whole situation hung above Schneider this season, he delivered fantasy excellence: As of this writing, he's the No. 7 goalie on ESPN's fantasy hockey Player Rater, and that's despite some real stinkers early on during the campaign. The Vancouver machine will keep roaring in 2013-14, and Schneider will be the man keeping things locked down in the defensive zone.
5. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators: An injury sapped more than a month of Anderson's season, but he's going to finish as the most valuable fantasy goalie in ESPN standard leagues, and remains ahead by a healthy margin in both GAA (1.71) and save percentage (.941). He'll turn 32 on May 21, but has two seasons left on his deal with Ottawa; clearly, there's more work to be done. Don't forget, this is a team that will welcome back a (presumably) healthy Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson into the mix for next season, joining the group that earned a playoff berth this season despite their absences.
Two steps forward
Top 40 Goalies for 2013-14
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 from last week is indicated in parentheses.
1. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (1)
2. Tuukka Rask, Bos (3)
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (16)
4. Cory Schneider, Van (5)
5. Craig Anderson, Ott (12)
6. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (4)
7. Carey Price, Mon (7)
8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (6)
9. Jonathan Quick, LA (18)
10. Corey Crawford, Chi (10)
11. Jonas Hiller, Ana (8)
12. Antti Niemi, SJ (2)
13. Braden Holtby, Was (13)
14. Jimmy Howard, Det (9)
15. James Reimer, Tor (11)
16. Jaroslav Halak, StL (41)
17. Mike Smith, Pho (21)
18. Ryan Miller, Buf (25)
19. Cam Ward, Car (NR)
20. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (19)
21. Niklas Backstrom, Min (17)
22. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (20)
23. Ben Bishop, TB (32)
24. Viktor Fasth, Ana (29)
25. Ray Emery, Chi (15)
26. Roberto Luongo, Van (24)
27. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (27)
28. Martin Brodeur, NJ (31)
29. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (28)
30. Jacob Markstrom, Fla (30)
31. Brian Elliott, StL (14)
32. Semyon Varlamov, Col (38)
33. Steve Mason, Phi (NR)
34. Jonathan Bernier, LA (26)
35. Robin Lehner, Ott (43)
36. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (23)
37. Jhonas Enroth, Buf (33)
38. Jake Allen, StL (34)
39. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (NR)
40. Tim Thomas, NYI (NR)
6. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets: One of the most fun stories to follow this season (unless you're a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers) has been the renaissance of Bobrovsky playing for the ascendant Blue Jackets. For those who paid attention to the European results during the lockout, Bobrovsky's work this season in the NHL isn't a surprise: Playing against some the best players in the world in 24 games for St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL, he posted a 1.94 GAA and .932 save percentage. After an inconsistent start to the NHL season, he went on an absolute tear: In 24 games through March and April, he's posted a 1.65 GAA and .945 save percentage, pushing the Blue Jackets into playoff position and himself into the No. 3 spot on the Player Rater among goalies. Re-opened under new management, the Blue Jackets figure to improve again in 2013-14, and Bobrovsky will be there leading the charge.
13. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: Holtby was a popular guy in Washington after his playoff heroics following last season, but he wasn't handed the starter's reins immediately upon the hiring of a new coaching staff. Through the first several weeks of the season, things didn't look great for Holtby or the Caps, as they lingered among the basement-dwellers of the Eastern Conference, and Holtby slogged along at a 3.31/.899 ratios pace through the first 13 games of the season. Thereafter, the Caps have charged ahead to the top spot on the Southeast Division, while he's put up 2.21/.932 numbers in his latest 21 games. Expectations were somewhat high for Holtby this season, but he's delivered. With a full offseason of work under the new coaching staff, the Caps should look more like this late edition, and that is good news for Holtby.
15. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: With a concussion (officially designated as an "upper-body injury") ruining Reimer's 2011-12 campaign, expectations were low for him entering this season. Furthermore, despite some success as the season went along, there were trade rumors swirling around the Maple Leafs' potentially acquiring Miikka Kiprusoff or Roberto Luongo right up until trade-deadline day. In the face of all this, Reimer just kept performing: barring something unforeseen in the final week, he'll finish with career bests in GAA and save percentage, and he's single-handedly kept the Leafs in playoff contention even as they've been playing the majority of their games in their own defensive zone over the past several weeks -- to wit, their shots for/against differential is minus-5.8 on the season, and minus-11.3 in the month of April. For some goalies, facing such an unrelenting barrage of shots actually keeps them focused, and that could be the case for Reimer. In any event, the Leafs may be active again this offseason, but the core group will be returning, lending credence to the idea that Reimer will again be effective as a fantasy option in 2013-14.
Three steps back
9. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have clinched a playoff berth already, but in contrast to last season -- when Quick was a fundamental reason for their success -- they've done so this season despite the struggles of their No. 1 netminder. His fantasy owners, on the other hand, may not have been so lucky: Considering that Quick was being taken in the first or second round of fantasy drafts, not only were his results disappointing, but those owners missed out on getting someone else who was probably way more productive. I'll be keeping watch on Quick during the postseason, as his performance there will have an influence on where he's ranked next preseason.
17. Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes: As with Quick, Smith was another netminder who parlayed a long playoff run into a high average draft position (29.2 in ESPN leagues) before this season. And, as with Quick, he let his owners down for the most part, as injuries and inconsistency ruled the day for the 31-year-old. Smith is hitting free agency this offseason, and with the ownership situation in Phoenix still unresolved, it's not clear that he'll necessarily be back. Smith has played well in Dave Tippett's system; outside of it, he struggled mightily (in 2010-11, he posted a 2.89 GAA and .899 save percentage for the Tampa Bay Lightning). If he's back with Tippett in Phoenix again, he's a candidate for a bounceback campaign; if not, he may not be all that relevant for us in the fantasy realm next season.
32. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche: During his time with the Washington Capitals, Varlamov was strong when healthy, but that was the problem: He was constantly getting dinged up, and couldn't be trusted as a primary fantasy option. Things changed in 2011-12 in Colorado, and it looked like the Avalanche had found their franchise goalie, especially during the final 22 games. During that much-cited stretch, he posted a 1.87 GAA and .934 save percentage. Based off that, Varly was drafted as a No. 2 fantasy option (with an ADP of 125.4); unfortunately, things fell apart for him, and his ratios currently sit at 3.06/.901 with a few games left. He'll be a high risk-high reward guy next season.
OFF. Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers (for now): When it was announced that the NHL's new CBA would offer amnesty buyout clauses for teams, there were two men mentioned more than anyone else: Ilya Bryzgalov and Rick DiPietro. This isn't a good thing for Bryz, as he was once labeled the potential answer in net for Philly, and now is being categorized along with a player whose contract has been described as the worst in the history of professional sports. Bryzgalov is currently in the "coveted" position of No. 68 among goalies on the Player Rater thanks to his 2.84 GAA, .898 save percentage and just 18 wins in 39 appearances. On top of that, his demeanor appears to be wearing thin among teammates and the fans in Philly. A fresh start somewhere else could rejuvenate his career, but until we know where that will be, it's hard to position him in the rankings.
16. Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues: Blues coach Ken Hitchcock continued his goaltending carousel this season, and it included a new option in Jake Allen, thanks to injuries to Halak and Brian Elliott. Halak hasn't played since injuring his groin on April 1, and he's battled issues throughout his time in St. Louis. Nevertheless, when he is healthy, he's been a solid addition to any fantasy roster, and that will continue next season, even as the time-share is all but certain to continue, as well.
19. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: Prior to the injury that effectively ended his season, Ward wasn't playing all that well in 2012-13: his 2.83 GAA is his worst since 2006-07, and his .908 save percentage is his worst since 2007-08. The good news is that Ward is still considered the undisputed No. 1 in the Hurricanes' net, and the club has a promising young nucleus along with key productive veterans also in place. I wouldn't label Ward a "sleeper" -- given his past fantasy glory -- but he may be under the radar a bit heading into next season's fantasy drafts, and should return to his formerly productive self.
Looking for work
20. Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders: Lost amid the feel-good story that is the Isles' return to relevance this season is the fact the man who's backstopped them on the vast majority of nights is unsigned after this campaign. Nabokov was seen as a temporary solution for a team that was left looking for answers after the DiPietro debacle, and he's been solid in his two seasons: In 81 appearances overall during the past two seasons, he's posted a 2.54 GAA and .911 save percentage. This season, his 2.53 GAA has been good enough to rack up 23 wins in 39 games. If he's back with the Isles, those ratios will limit his effectiveness as an all-around strong option, but the wins should continue to pile up, as they are a team that should only improve. If he lands elsewhere, the picture is obviously more cloudy.
21. Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild: Backstrom's ratio numbers took a tumble in 2012-13 -- down to 2.50 and .908 -- but thanks to an improved roster ahead of him, he picked up 22 wins in 39 appearances. (It took him 51 appearances to get 22 wins in 2010-11). While the future is bright for Minnesota based upon its collection of young talent, the situation in net is a tricky one: backup Josh Harding is dealing with multiple sclerosis, and it's unknown what the future holds for him. It's possible that the Wild will bring back the 35-year-old Backstrom on a short-term pact. If not, we'll re-examine his value later on this offseason.
25. Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks: Unlike the two gents mentioned previously, Emery played out the 2012-13 campaign as a member of a time-share, and so his return to his incumbent team is a bit more of a mystery. While the win total may decrease if he lands elsewhere, Emery has been a useful fantasy asset in a number of different NHL outposts based upon his ratios, a trend that would be expected to continue. The best-case scenario, however, is that he returns to Chicago and his time-share with Corey Crawford (though Crawford's owners in keeper leagues might disagree).
Here's the definition of a "rookie" player as defined by the NHL: "To be considered a rookie, a player must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons. Any player at least 26 years of age (by Sept. 15 of that season) is not considered a rookie."
So technically, the Ducks' Viktor Fasth doesn't qualify (he began his NHL career this season at age 30), but his performance this season was noteworthy. The Ducks' time-share took some twists and turns this season, and it'll be an exciting one to watch as 2013-14 dawns. As for the actual rookies from this season:
30. Jacob Markstrom, Florida Panthers: The Panthers' future franchise netminder finally got a longish-term look this season following the injury to Jose Theodore, and the results were promising, if inconsistent. Even when playing against the same opponent, it was difficult to know what we'd get out of the 23-year-old on a night-to-night basis. But that's a trait that's been exhibited by many a young NHL netminder who went on real-life (and fantasy) stardom thereafter. Theodore is hitting free agency this offseason, so the job of backstopping this young team on the rise is Markstrom's to lose.
35. Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators: As some expected, the Senators moved the "middle man" in their goaltending triumvirate -- Ben Bishop -- at the trading deadline, leaving veteran Craig Anderson and rising star Robin Lehner to return for 2013-14. We've been hearing for some time that Lehner is a pretty special prospect, and he put that on display during his 11-game stint for Ottawa this season: a 4-3-4 record belies his excellent ratios of 2.22 and .936. He won't be the primary starter for Ottawa next season, but is certainly in line for at least 20-25 starts, and remember that the Sens will have Spezza and Karlsson back for 2013-14. Lehner may wind up being one of the best backups in fantasy next campaign.
37. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues: Allen sure had an exciting run there for a bit, eh? Unfortunately, a five-game winning streak does not an entire season make, and with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott both returning for the Blues in 2013-14, Allen's path to more starts in his sophomore campaign is thus blocked, barring a trade this offseason or injuries next season. Nevertheless, keep his name in mind for that reason.
2014 prospect watch
By the definition above, Allen and Lehner will actually be eligible to be rookies again in 2013-14, but, as noted there, both would need some external events to take place to be able to have a real shot at the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie next season. One young prospect who is technically ineligible as a rookie (due to playing in six or more games in two prior seasons, and four thus far this season) is Kevin Poulin of the New York Islanders. With the fate of veterans Evgeni Nabokov, Rick DiPietro and Tim Thomas (who is technically the Isles' property) up in the air, it's possible Poulin could break camp as the starting netminder for this ascendant club. We'll loop back on this once more is known about Nabokov, DiPietro and Thomas.
Final week of this season
Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues: It's been feast or famine with Elliott this season, as he struggled mightily throughout much of the campaign prior to his recent string of wins. He did have a stinker on Sunday -- allowing four goals and being pulled in a loss to the lowly Avalanche -- but even including that, his April splits have been 1.37 and .947. The Blues have a rematch against Colorado, followed by Calgary and Chicago to close out the season.
Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers: The trade sending Mason to Philly may prove to be a worthwhile development for all parties involved, as the former Calder Trophy winner seemed to be stuck in a rut in Columbus. During his audition to be the Flyers' No. 1 starter for 2013-14, he's actually done pretty well for himself: he's gone 2-2-0 in four starts, with a 2.09 GAA and .931 save percentage. All three of the Flyers' remaining games are against playoff competitors, but that may not be a huge problem: he had 38 saves en route to a recent win over the likely playoff-bound Rangers. Mason is owned in just 7.2 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues, and those in keeper leagues should give him extra consideration, as there's a reasonable chance that he'll be Philly's No. 1 next season.