In The Crease: Fleury's hot start

With NHL teams through about one-tenth of their schedule, it's hard to make any definitive statements yet as to who the best fantasy 'tenders will be by season's end. In all likelihood, the law of averages will bring some early overachievers back to reality, which is why some players haven't shot all the way up the rankings list in spite of dominant early-season work. After all, right now there are three men who are their team's unquestioned starter and who have goals-against averages under 2.00. The last time anyone finished under that threshold was Niklas Backstrom in 2006-07 (1.97), and the last time three men did it was during the final season of clutch-and-grab in 2003-04.

To take a high-profile example, Pittsburgh Penguins backstop Marc-Andre Fleury has been stupid-good so far. An 8-0 record (which happens to be a franchise record for wins in October), coupled with a 1.96 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, has him third overall in the ESPN Player Rater, and second behind Ilya Bryzgalov among goalies. Is it possible that he finishes the season in the same spot? Yes, it's possible; he was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003, so the pedigree for greatness is there. On the other hand, he won't win every single game (most likely), and the ratios could drift back closer to where they were last season: 2.67 goals against and .912 save percentage, which along with his 35 wins had him as the No. 15 goalie in ESPN Fantasy for 2008-09. So is he a legit No. 1 fantasy goalie this season? Absolutely, and he'll continue to go up the rankings list here as he continues to confirm his consistency.

What are his chances of maintaining this consistency, you may ask? Well, the Pens are currently fourth-best in the league at limiting their opponents' shots on goal, lowering their average shots-against per game by about four from last season. Fewer shots means fewer goals, but it also means fewer saves to help the all important "SVP" column. Unfortunately for Fleury, the team lost Sergei Gonchar for up to six weeks with a broken wrist this week. The good news is that we've been here before: Gonchar missed a large chunk of last season with a shoulder injury, prompting youngsters Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to learn on the fly. In spite of the growing pains then -- remember that the eventual Cup champions were fighting to stay on the cusp of playoff eligibility -- those two are now better-equipped to handle the load this season, and the contrast with Gonchar out won't be as sharp as it was then. In other words, there will be a slight dip at some point that will drag Fleury back to the pack, but barring another major injury up front for the Pens, the wins should keep him in the top echelon of 'tenders.

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

Rising and falling

Tim Thomas, Bruins (down five spots): The Tim Thomas apologists have consistently barked that his slow start had to do with his unorthodox style and that he'll come around. He still looked shaky against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night; only the league's lowest-scoring team, averaging 1.38 goals per game. In addition to the slow start for Thomas, this week the B's lost power forward Milan Lucic and one of the game's top playmakers Marc Savard, and both will be out four to six weeks. The only fortunate thing for the 35-year-old Thomas at this point is that Tuukka Rask has struggled in both of his appearances thus far, keeping the pressure off of Thomas as the No. 1. Thomas will get better, but missing those key players takes his value down a notch for the season.

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (up six spots): As our preseason No. 1 'tender slides down a few notches, another Original Six netminder shoots up to take his place. Head coach John Tortorella was brought in late last season with the idea that he could open up the Rangers' offense. His philosophy, plus the addition of Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal, have the Blueshirts tied atop the league with 3.89 goals per game, a night-and-day improvement from 2008-09 when they finished third-to-last with just 2.44 goals per game. Meanwhile, King Henrik has maintained a GAA commensurate with his career average, and actually increased his SVP to this point, owing to a youthful-yet-stout corps of defensemen. Lundqvist has started 70 or more games the past three seasons, while putting up ratio stats that are eerily consistent. If the Rangers' scorefest continues, and given his workhorse mentality, Hank has a realistic shot at taking down Martin Brodeur's single-season wins record of 48 from 2006-07, a fact that will certainly amp up the trash-talking on the banks of the Hudson River as the season progresses. So until the inevitable Gaborik injury puts the brakes on this offense, the King will likely maintain his throne.

Cristobal Huet, Blackhawks (down eight spots): Huet must think the current slate of October horror movies isn't scary enough, because he is absolutely frightening both his fantasy owners and all the fans in Chicago right now with his play. His current SVP of .844 is ahead of only Vesa Toskala on the "qualified" goaltenders stats sheet -- and the term "qualified" is used in the statistical significance sense, clearly not the qualitative one -- and one wouldn't wish Toskala upon their worst enemy's fantasy team. Meanwhile, coach Joel Quenneville is not exactly inspiring confidence in his alleged No. 1 'tender with his recent comments to ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers: Quenneville essentially said that he would make his goaltending decisions on a game-by-game basis. But until Huet can stop letting in goals like this one, the feeling will persist that there's a better option out there for the Hawks, who have high expectations to make a deep run into the playoffs. As for his fantasy owners, there's no other option but to bench Huet right now, and see if he can turn things around; his trade value is close to zero.

Ondrej Pavelec, Thrashers (non-ranked, now 25): Pavelec is off to a nice start for the surprising Thrashers: His 2.37 GAA and .929 SVP are both significantly better than the numbers he's put up in spot duty over the past two seasons, and they have him ranked tenth and fifth, respectively, leaguewide. The thought was that the two-time QMJHL All Star would serve as a gap-filler for Atlanta while Kari Lehtonen was on the mend, but NHL Rumor Central had word this week that perhaps Lehtonen will be shipped off once he's healthy. As Sean Allen mentioned in this week's Open Ice, you need to be thinking a couple steps ahead in order to land the midseason sleeper goalies, and if the Lehtonen rumor proves true, Pavelec (currently owned in just 21.9 percent of ESPN leagues) will be one of this year's sleepers in spite of the low expectations at the season's onset.


Pekka Rinne (93.4 percent) and Dan Ellis (13.5 percent), Predators: With the way the Preds are scoring this season, this goaltending split has a chance of becoming moot: Wins are worth one-third of a goalie's value, and they are definitely hard to come by when a team is scoring less than a goal and a half per contest. As for the other two standard categories, Ellis is outperforming Rinne in both, but Rinne's potential continues to keep him owned in nearly all ESPN leagues while Ellis is still widely available. While coach Barry Trotz continues to deliberate between the two, it's best to find better options for active duty.

Vesa Toskala (2.4 percent), Joey MacDonald (0.3 percent) and Jonas Gustavsson (61.8 percent), Maple Leafs: The word from the Toronto Sun is that while MacDonald will get the start Saturday, Gustavsson could return to the lineup for Monday's matchup against the Anaheim Ducks, and there's an interesting wrinkle in play for that game. Leafs GM Brian Burke has been openly complaining about the injuries to his goaltending unit, and rumors have been flying about his interest in trading for Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who led Anaheim to a Stanley Cup while Burke was the GM in Orange County. There's some cap finagling on the part of Toronto that must occur for that swap to go down, but the move would be quite a boon for the Leafs' goaltending consistency: Taking away last season because of Jiggy's off-ice challenges, in the six seasons prior he started over 50 games, with very consistent ratios. As we know, such a move would probably shove both Toskala and MacDonald back to the AHL.

Semyon Varlamov (87.6 percent), Jose Theodore (27.2 percent), Capitals: With Theodore being forced out of the Oct. 15 game against the San Jose Sharks with back spasms, Varlamov came on in relief and pitched a shutout for two periods, nabbing the win. Varlamov then got the start against the lowly Predators on Saturday, earning the shootout win on 22 saves. The Washington Post has word that Varlamov will get the start against Pavelec and the Thrashers on Thursday, but after that it's anyone's guess. Theodore has had the better ratios by far, but you can't play goalie with back spasms.

A little help?

Switching format a little bit this week, I'm featuring the teams who aren't providing proper offensive support to their backstops. The wins category in fantasy hockey is just as maddening as it is in fantasy baseball if you've got quality guys on suspect teams, so these are situations of which you'll want to steer clear until the offense gets their, ahem, act together. We already discussed the Maple Leafs and Preds above, but here are some additional goalies currently being plagued by a dearth of offensive firepower for their sides:

Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, Canadiens: "Les Habitants" brought in a big-name free agent at each of the forward positions this offseason in Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, yet the team has failed to score more than three times in a game in regulation to this point of the season. Obviously the loss of Andrei Markov hurts the offense -- especially the once-vaunted power play -- but those three have yet to make a huge impact. Price's ratios should come back toward his career marks, but the wins will be hard to come by until the team in front of him can find a spark.

Tomas Vokoun, Panthers: Vokoun is a habitual slow-starter, so his ratio stats aren't too bothersome right now. What should worry everyone is that in spite of being ballyhooed as a team to eye for improvement based on their hot run to juuuust miss the playoffs last season, the Panthers have continued to have trouble hitting the twine, and their per-game average for goals (2.14) has actually gone down from last year (2.82). In five of seven games this season, the Panthers have scored two or fewer goals. As you remember from the intro, it's exceedingly rare for a goalie to maintain a GAA under 2, and it doesn't help matters that the team lost Jay Bouwmeester this offseason, and gained Jordan Leopold. Perhaps some line shakeups by coach Peter DeBoer this season can have a similar effect as they did last season; otherwise, Vokoun's fantasy value takes a major hit with this anemic offense.

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