In The Crease: Gaga for Garon

I'll often make reference to the ESPN Player Rater, which provides a snapshot of an NHLer's value relative to the rest of the league in the standard ESPN fantasy settings. Sometimes a hot streak can artificially, if only temporarily, buttress a player, which is why the system should not be viewed in a vacuum; there are other real-world aspects to consider when picking up and dropping players.

But one player who has surprisingly shot up the chart this season is Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Mathieu Garon, currently in the No. 4 position amongst goalies. Garon lags well behind his fellow goalies in the wins department, but that's more of a function of lack of opportunity thus far, as he's won five of his six starts. Heading into Tuesday night's games, he's the league leader in both ratios (1.08 in goals-against average and .960 in save percentage), and has three shutouts in his past four games. Garon's miserly GAA has helped the Jackets earn the league's third-lowest team mark in that category at 2.32, trailing only the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. He's outpacing his career averages in both categories (2.79 and .906, respectively), and is also well ahead of what he did just a season ago in 35 appearances for Columbus (2.81, .903). In other words, if you claim to have forecasted this strong start for Garon, you're either a bold-faced liar possess extraordinary psychic powers.

It's too early to draw any significant conclusion off his hot start, but since no major personnel additions were made this offseason, some of the credit has to go to first-year coach Scott Arniel. The Jackets have tightened up the discipline, and their propensity for allowing opposing power plays has gone down (they had the fourth-most shorthanded situations in 2009-10, but have the twelfth fewest this season), while the penalty kill has also improved. Obviously, limiting opposing power plays is a good way to lower shots and goals against.

But while Garon has been putting up those gaudy stats, he hasn't been doing this work without some healthy competition from 22-year-old Steve Mason, the former Calder Trophy winner who is ostensibly the No. 1 goalie for the Blue Jackets. Mason has won his past three starts following a rough outing against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 12, where he allowed five goals on 29 shots. In those three wins, Mason has stopped 107 of 113 shots, a .947 save percentage that has raised his seasonal mark to .909. Needless to say, his season didn't begin so well.

For those who have been burned by Mason in the past, it might be hard to forgive and forget. In fact, it could be the case that Mason will continue to run hot and cold, since his Calder in 2008-09 appears to have been earned largely on the strength of two phenomenal months: November and December of that season (as pointed out by colleague Sean Allen in the Fantasy Forecaster column earlier this month). Across that 20-game stretch, he allowed a total of 34 goals, racking up a .938 save percentage. The duration of that season saw him allow 106 goals in 41 starts, with a .905 save percentage. In 2009-10, he looked strong for brief stretches in February and April, but his 3.05 GAA and .901 save percentage on the season were not met with joy and adulation by those fantasy owners who expended a high draft pick on him.

Taking all of this into account, Mason doesn't appear to be in any danger of losing his chances to start on a relatively frequent basis. In spite of the discrepancy in ratios, Arniel will continue to give Mason opportunities as long as the team is winning his starts. But even with the lesser role, Garon retains value, especially in daily lineup leagues. And should the wheels start to come off for Mason (and the team start losing more of his starts), this timeshare could reverse, and become similar to what we saw with the Boston Bruins in 2009-10 -- where the early season No. 1 gave way to his backup, although the experience levels were reversed with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask. Just as Rask was able to finish that campaign in the No. 2 spot amongst goalies on our Player Rater (in spite of just 22 wins), so Garon may be capable of doing the same if he can sustain this level of production with increased opportunity.

That last clause is certainly a leap of faith, given what we've seen out of Garon in the past. But if you're willing to take the risk, he's widely available (owned in just 32.5 percent of ESPN leagues).

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. Jimmy Howard, Det (1)
2. Ryan Miller, Buf (2)
3. Tim Thomas, Bos (6)
4. Jaroslav Halak, StL (4)
5. Roberto Luongo, Van (5)
6. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
7. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
8. Niklas Backstrom, Min (9)
9. Carey Price, Mon (11)
10. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (8)
11. Martin Brodeur, NJ (10)
12. Antero Niittymaki, SJ (14)
13. Cam Ward, Car (12)
14. Michal Neuvirth, Was (13)
15. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (15)
16. Craig Anderson, Col (18)
17. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (16)
18. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (17)
19. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (20)
20. Jonas Hiller, Ana (19)
21. Mathieu Garon, Cls (26)
22. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (22)
23. Brent Johnson, Pit (21)
24. Brian Elliott, Ott (23)
25. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl (38)
26. Tuukka Rask, Bos (27)
27. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tor (25)
28. Peter Budaj, Col (30)
29. Dan Ellis, TB (24)
30. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (28)
31. Chris Mason, Atl (29)
32. Michael Leighton, Phi (31)
33. Steve Mason, Cls (37)
34. Marty Turco, Chi (33)
35. Anders Lindback, Nsh (34)
36. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (NR)
37. Semyon Varlamov, Was (36)
38. Martin Biron, NYR (NR)
39. Jonathan Bernier, LA (35)
40. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (NR)

Rising and falling

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers (down four spots): "Hank" has gotten the benefit of the doubt until now, in spite of an alarmingly bad start to the 2010-11 season. Even with his drop this week, he's still at No. 7 on my list, in light of the fact that I think the goalie who's been elite over the past several seasons will be able to turn it around at some point. It's been a wild ride recently, though. Following a 37-save overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 15, Lundqvist appeared out of sorts in allowing the eventual game-winner against the Bruins on a soft goal (Lundqvist actually called it "terrible," according to ESPNNewYork.com) , before being lifted Friday after allowing three questionable goals against the Avalanche. In spite of all this, Lundqvist will likely be allowed to play his way out of his current funk, and is a great buy-low candidate in trade.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (up two spots): In no uncertain terms, Price is one of the hottest goalies in the world right now. He's shot up the Puck Prospectus player power rankings, now sitting at No. 2 behind Thomas, and got some love over the past week from ESPN.com columnists Pierre LeBrun and E.J. Hradek (amongst many others). The reason for all these accolades is simple: Price has won five of his past seven starts (including three shutouts), allowing just nine goals on 245 shots (a .963 save percentage). Those numbers look nice and pretty, and here's more: the Canadiens have allowed the fourth-most opposing power plays this season (87), but have the best penalty kill percentage (90.8). While some of that has to do with tightening up when down a man, a team's No. 1 penalty killer is the man between the pipes, and Price has managed a .917 save percentage in those situations. For reference, his number was .866, .843 and .885 the three seasons prior to this one.

I speculated earlier this season that the British Columbia native feeds off of positive reinforcement -- as opposed to the intense vitriol he faced in the past in the sporting world's hottest pressure cooker -- and it's tough to find a negative word written on the fellow as of late. While some earlier recommendations have been to sell high by trading the 23-year-old, he should be stashed in the "untouchable" section of fantasy rosters until further notice.

Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Re-appearing at No. 36): "The Monster" began the season in the Top 40 before relinquishing the lead role for the Leafs to Jean-Sebastien Giguere. However, Jiggy pulled himself off the ice during the third period of the Leafs' win over the Nashville Predators this past Tuesday, and Gustavsson has lived up to his nickname in the time since: after holding off the Preds' third period attack, he's allowed just four goals on 91 shots in the three starts since. Giguere is out for at least another week with his groin injury, and may be eased back in thereafter. Moreover, given the potential Gustavsson is believed to possess, Leafs coach Ron Wilson may begin handing him a larger proportion of starts over the course of the season.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks (Drops off): Not only has Antero Niittymaki been solid this season, but Niemi has failed to deliver when his number is called by head coach Todd McClellan. Unless one of those two situations reverses itself, Niemi is not worth a roster spot.


Marc-Andre Fleury (94.8 percent) and Brent Johnson (43.1 percent), Pittsburgh Penguins: A week ago, I mentioned that Fleury may have hit a turning point in his season, after an illness for Johnson afforded Fleury the opportunity to string some starts together. Johnson was supposed to return to action Monday against the Florida Panthers, but illness once again prevented him from so doing. Since Johnson's last start (a six-goals-against disaster against the Bruins on Nov. 10), Fleury has looked like his old self again: he's 5-0-1 in six starts, with 13 goals against (a .922 save percentage). Those numbers aren't world-beating, but Fleury never has been a ratios stud and may never be in the future. What's important is that first number, as he can be a great source of wins when the Pens' offense is finding a way to score. I don't think Johnson is cooked just yet, but given the timing of Fleury's hot streak, it will be harder for the veteran to regain a bigger role when he's over his illness.

Sergei Bobrovsky (96.8 percent), Brian Boucher (1.9 percent) and Michael Leighton (14.1 percent), Philadelphia Flyers: Leighton was cleared medically and began practicing with the Flyers over the past week. The plan now, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, is for Leighton to start a rehab schedule with the Adirondack Phantoms for two to three games, after which time he'll return to Philly. When that time comes, hard decisions will have to be made regarding this triumvirate. Bobrovsky has been one of the season's early surprises and is in the mix for the Calder; in other words, he's going nowhere, though his workload may decrease once Leighton is back. As for the other two, we brought up an intriguing hypothetical last week where Leighton would wind up on the trading block, however that may not happen until after he's given a chance for some starts for the team he took to the Stanley Cup finals last season. That will leave Boucher on the outside looking in. "Boosh" was tapped for two consecutive starts recently, though he did not look particularly stout in earning two wins. Leighton is worth a pickup right now, given the uncertainty.

Ondrej Pavelec (28.7 percent) and Chris Mason (66.6 percent), Atlanta Thrashers: In addition to some deft trades this offseason, the big personnel move for the Thrashers was the signing of Mason, who had been a reliable backstop for the St. Louis Blues the two seasons prior. However, Mason has started just three games this month, and was pulled early from the most recent two. At the other end of the spectrum is Pavelec, who showed promise last season, but not enough to convince the front office to keep their mitts off Mason. After returning from an early season on-ice collapse, Pavelec has been sterling, though he has just three wins to show for it. But in those 10 appearances (including the two in relief of Mason), Pavelec has allowed just 18 goals, with a .935 save percentage. Even though he has just nine starts this season, he's up to the No. 8 spot on the Player Rater amongst goalies. He's certainly playing as well as anyone on the Thrashers right now, and his value will only go up as his opportunity to start increases.

Michal Neuvirth (98.1 percent) and Semyon Varlamov (51.3 percent), Washington Capitals: Varlamov was promoted to the big club for Monday night's game against the New Jersey Devils, but was late to the Prudential Center (the traffic around Newark can be a beast). Neuvirth was slated to get the start, but "tweaked something" in warmups according to the Washington Post, so he kept Varly's seat at the end of the bench warm until the latter's arrival. In Neuvirth's place, Braden Holtby was besieged by the ungracious hosts to the tune of five goals against. Varlamov is not believed to be game-ready yet, according to what head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Post, so unless Neuvirth's "tweak" of "something" is serious, he'll continue to get the starts in the near future. Even when Varlamov was healthy last season, he didn't put up performances that were much better than what Neuvirth has been doing this season; as a result, I'd expect this timeshare to continue pretty evenly until late in the season. With that in mind, however, Varlamov is a nice target for a pickup or trade, since the Caps afford their 'tenders a good opportunity to pick up a win in each start.

Dan Ellis (69.7 percent) and Mike Smith (4.8 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: After coming on in relief of Ellis during Scorefest 2010 on Thursday (an 8-7 Lightning win over the Flyers), Smith put together back-to-back solid starts on Saturday and Monday. Smith allowed just one goal in each of the games, and yet his season-long ratios improved to just 3.17 and .887, which shows how brutal they've been otherwise. The Lightning have the league's leading scorer in Steven Stamkos, are sixth overall in team goals-per-game and have the fourth-best power play. With double digit starts on the books for both goalies, we can believe some of the trends being exhibited, and those trends don't bode well for either. That said, just as with the Caps' dynamic duo, we know wins shouldn't be a huge problem for either Ellis or Smith. Given the latter's ownership percentage in ESPN leagues, he's a worthy risk for folks that need the wins and can withstand the ratio hit.