In the Crease: What's eating Mason?

Back in December, Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending coach Dave Rook described Steve Mason's sophomore slump to ESPN.com as follows: "Basically, he had trouble handling the success he had last year. Maybe it's not as easy as he thought it was."

No, it's not. It's also not easy for the fantasy owners who thought they were getting a rising star in the 2008-09 Calder Trophy winner but have suffered through a 3.24 goals-against average (compared to 2.29 last season) and an .892 save percentage (compared to .916 last season). To make matters worse, it's not as though Mason was a slow starter last season: His November marks included a 2.09 GAA and .919 SVP, and those improved in December to 1.41 and .950. To put it another way, we didn't foresee this disaster based on what happened during his debut campaign (and some had even pegged Mason as a "sleeper" candidate to become a fantasy superstar). This season, he was beginning to turn things around a bit in December (including two shutouts), but he hit another iceberg to start the 2010 calendar year, relenting nine goals in 93 minutes over his first two starts.

Is there hope for Mason? Of course. He's only 21 years old, and his track record from the OHL is encouraging. In other words, don't drop Mason (as if you were considering it anyway). He'll bounce back, but as we always say, let him prove it on your bench first.

This brings us to Mathieu Garon, the journeyman backstop who has taken over as a steadying influence between the pipes for the Jackets. There was a game this week in which St. Louis really gave Garon the Blues (three goals on just nine shots), but before that, he had allowed only nine goals in the previous six games. On the season, he's managed seven wins to go along with a 2.68 GAA and .905 SVP. Garon is not a flashy option, but rather a safe, known commodity, which is why Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock has been starting him frequently. Likewise, here in fantasyland, he's not a very exciting option either, but he is a reasonable stopgap if your usual starters are struggling.

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

Rising and falling

Cam Ward, Hurricanes (up six spots): Back when Ward sustained his leg injury, my feeling was that while the man was in recovery, his team needed to make vast improvements to get him back into the upper echelon of fantasy goalies. The Canes haven't vastly improved, but they are better, and Ward's been the beneficiary. To wit, in 15 Ward starts in October and November, the team won only two games. In the 15 starts since his return, they've won seven. That's still sub-.500, but it's an improvement nevertheless. Ward's also quietly been picking his own game up: Going back to the 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 31, he's given up just 11 goals in six starts and has a .945 save percentage. Don't go mortgaging the house, but do see whether his owner in your league has picked up on this streak yet. We have enough data on Ward to suggest that he's both durable and reliable, and maybe someday the Hurricanes will start giving him more goal support.

Jimmy Howard, Red Wings (up four spots): Let's be crystal clear: Chris Osgood is not coming back to take away this job, no matter how upset he is. So, for the 36.3 percent of leagues in which Howard is not owned, get with the program. Howard is getting up to the plateau where he won't be having many more big increases on the rankings, but that's a good thing: He's now getting close to No. 1-goalie territory in fantasy. Really the only thing holding him back at this point is the Red Wings' offense: The team is currently the No. 27 offense in the league, with just 2.49 goals per game. Compare that to last season (No. 1: 3.52 GF/G) and the season before (No. 3: 3.07). There's two schools of thought: Either you believe the Red Wings will turn it around on offense and Howard will start piling up wins in bunches, or you believe that they'll continue to be cellar-dwellers, scoring-wise, and that he'll be good only for his ratios (currently No. 8 in GAA and No. 5 in SVP). Even if the scoring doesn't pick up (and I'm in the former group of optimists who believe it will), those ratios are good enough to start on just about any fantasy team.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Coyotes (down two spots): It's unwise to play the role of Chicken Little when players hit a bump in the road in the fantasy sports with longer seasons (hockey, baseball, basketball), so Bryzgalov isn't taking a huge nosedive this week. But he's been brutal the past four starts, giving up 15 goals, including four to the Islanders in just 29 minutes in his most recent outing. The one positive about Bryzgalov's chances at continued glory is that backup Jason LaBarbera won't provide much competition. The negative? I think we're going to see a correction over the second half of the season in Ilya's stats, and he'll probably wind up closer to his career averages (2.56 GAA and .913 SVP) than his current numbers (2.21 GAA and .921 SVP), as Bryzy has a history of rough patches diluting his otherwise elite numbers. He'll be one of the better goalies when we look at the season overall, but there will be some more bumps from here on out.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins (up one spot): Fleury has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for fantasy owners this season. Last week, I noted that the remaining January games are against some teams with G-SD (goal-scoring dysfunction), and Fleury did pick up two wins over the past week with six goals-against in three starts. The reason why I've moved Fleury up a spot is that he tends to catch fire in spurts during the second half. Last season, for instance, here are Fleury's ratios for the last four calendar months: January (2.55 GAA and .920 SVP), February (3.14 GAA and .900 SVP), March (1.87 GAA and .930 SVP) and April (2.61 GAA and .912 SVP). He's had a rough start to the calendar year thus far, but I'm confident that last season's performance is a good harbinger of things to come this season.


Jose Theodore (22.2 percent), Michal Neuvirth (2.8 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (89.3 percent), Capitals: The latest injury update on Varlamov comes from the Washington Post, which notes that he was set to begin skating this past weekend and could be ready to come back by next week. The Caps have four games in six days starting with Sunday's hosting of the Flyers, so perhaps we'll see him then. As for the other two, Neuvirth was superb against the Thrashers on Friday, stopping all but one of the 39 shots he faced, but had meltdowns Tuesday and Wednesday, giving up a quartet of goals each night before being pulled in favor of Theodore. Jose didn't play great against the Lightning on Tuesday but held down the fort Wednesday, saving all 15 shots fired in his direction, and might've earned another start based on that. That doesn't mean you need to risk starting him, though, as he hasn't been consistent enough to trust from a fantasy perspective.

Pekka Rinne (97.1 percent) and Dan Ellis (5.3 percent), Predators: Last week, I referred to a quote from Preds coach Barry Trotz, who insinuated that he would base whom he started every night on which of his two goalies had a better showing in past performances against each opponent. This led me to believe that he'd go with Rinne against the Canucks and Ellis against the Oilers and Flames. Trotz went the exact opposite, but both goalies picked up a win. Meanwhile, GM David Poile tells the Nashville Tennessean that he's unlikely to trade either before the deadline. I don't see this battle being won until much later in the season, and the news that neither man is going to be traded comes with a downgrade in the value of both. The good news is that the Preds are cramming 14 games between now and the Olympic break, so each guy will probably get, oh, seven more starts in that time. I still think the ownership percentages are a bit out of whack given the evenness of the battle.

Ray Emery (74.5 percent), Michael Leighton (8.5 percent) and Brian Boucher (3.5 percent), Flyers: Leighton keeps on trucking for the Flyers, but Emery is now back and (allegedly) completely healthy, dressing as the backup to Leighton on Tuesday night while Boucher was a healthy scratch. With the stats Leighton's been putting up, as well as the emotional lift he seems to give the team -- "When he makes big saves early, the team responds" goalie coach Jeff Reese told the Philadelphia Daily News -- the smart move for the Flyers would be to continue riding the hot hand. But that is up to coach Peter Laviolette and his staff, and remember that Rayzor was pretty sick early on this season. For the next few weeks before the Olympic break (the Flyers will be busier than the Preds, with 15 games jammed into that span), daily lineup leagues should keep their eyes on the Philly media outlets for updates on who'll start that night, while weekly lineup folk might want to find a more reliable option while this battle shakes out.

Carey Price (91.0 percent) and Jaroslav Halak (33.6 percent), Canadiens: For those with a vested interest in this goalie battle -- and a love equal to mine for statistics -- might I suggest heading over to the Eyes on the Prize blog, where Chris Boyle does an exhaustive breakdown of Price versus Halak. His verdict? They've both been great this season. Well played, sir. One interesting factor he notes is how strength of opponent (based on win percentage) seems to influence each goalie: Halak dominates against teams with a win percentage less than .500, while Price drops his level of play. But against winning teams, Price tends to perform better. In trying to forecast starting trends for the duration before the Olympic break, it doesn't really matter whether coach Jacques Martin is hip to this trend: Of the remaining 16 games in that span, only the Lightning are below .500, and the Blues are at .500. Martin has been giving his goalies starts in bunches, but with five sets of back-to-back nights coming up in the next month, expect to see a lot of both guys. Regarding all the trade rumors, one potential suitor we might hear more about is the Edmonton Oilers, who found out this week that Nikolai Khabibulin will have back surgery and will miss 12 weeks, putting his regular-season return (and his return in general, given that he's 37 years old) in jeopardy. As we know, any trade would be good, since that would bring both guys closer to becoming full-time starters.