In The Crease: Early look at 2011-12

Here's hoping all of your fantasy hockey teams out there wildly outperformed your preseason expectations. Moreover, we trust that you found the columns this season helpful -- in finding some diamonds in the rough or cutting dead weight -- and entertaining. With just a few games left on the docket for each team, the Final Fantasy Forecaster becomes the advice column on which those who are still in the hunt can lean.

For the rest, it's time to look ahead to 2011-12. This column will be important for those in keeper leagues, as it will help you determine which players will be retaining the most value; for those in yearly leagues, it's a very early look at draft stock for the fall. There will certainly be some movement as the offseason progresses, but for now, this is how I see the values lining up for next season. Players' performance in 2010-11 plays a role in these assessments, but this is more than just an ordered rundown of the NHL's goalies on the Player Rater at season's end.

In addition to the players I believe will rise to -- or remain at -- the elite level, I've included players that took steps forward or steps back this season, and their prognosis for 2011-12. The "Bouncing Back?" section outlines players that lost significant time to injury this season, with analysis of how well they'll be once healthy. I also offer some thoughts on impending free agents, without speculating too much on exactly where they'll land, and look at how this season's uncharacteristically strong crop of rookies will fare as sophomores. In the final section, next season's potential rookie stars are examined.

Best of luck with the rest of your season, and as always, thanks for reading.

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues in the 2011-12 season. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage.

1. Roberto Luongo, Van
2. Tim Thomas, Bos
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh
4. Carey Price, Mon
5. Ryan Miller, Buf
6. Martin Brodeur, NJ
7. Jonathan Quick, LA
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR
9. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit
10. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho
11. Tomas Vokoun, Fla
12. Craig Anderson, Ott
13. Jimmy Howard, Det
14. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi
15. Antti Niemi, SJ
16. Corey Crawford, Chi
17. Jonas Hiller, Ana
18. Jaroslav Halak, StL
19. Cam Ward, Car
20. James Reimer, Tor
21. Niklas Backstrom, Min
22. Michal Neuvirth, Was
23. Braden Holtby, Was
24. Al Montoya, NYI
25. Kari Lehtonen, Dal
26. Ondrej Pavelec, Atl
27. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy
28. Ray Emery, Ana
29. Dwayne Roloson, TB
30. Steve Mason, Cls
31. Jonathan Bernier, LA
32. Dan Ellis, Ana
33. Semyon Varlamov, Was
34. Devan Dubnyk, Edm
35. Brian Elliott, Col
36. Tuukka Rask, Bos
37. Brian Boucher, Phi
38. Cory Schneider, Van
39. Scott Clemmensen, Fla
40. Jacob Markstrom, Fla

Top of the List

1. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: As consistent as they come, Luongo finished the 2010-11 campaign second amongst goalies on the Player Rater. The Canucks must decide what to do with promising backup Cory Schneider this offseason, however Luongo's value would only increase with a potential trade of his stellar backup.

2. Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins: An historic campaign for Thomas in 2010-11, as he'll set a new NHL record for seasonal save percentage. I'm only a little concerned about Thomas' age as he certainly didn't look 36-years-old this season. The bigger question will be what the Bruins elect to do with Tuukka Rask, but Rask's presence didn't slow Thomas down much this season.

3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: The latest in a line of netminders to find success in Barry Trotz's system, Rinne is signed through 2011-12. The big question heading into next season is whether this campaign's marks (2.13 goals-against average and .929 save percentage) were a fluke or a sign of things to come. At 28-years-old, the Finn is hitting his prime, so I tend to lean towards the optimism of the latter route.

4. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: Had we known at this time one year ago -- or even last summer -- that Price would wind up as one of the top goalies in 2010-11, there would not have been anywhere near the shock when the Habs chose him over Jaroslav Halak, sending the playoff hero packing. The Canadiens have four veteran defensemen hitting free agency this offseason -- Andrei Markov, Hal Gill, James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik -- so either re-signing them or restocking with others will be paramount to Price's continued success.

5. Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres: Miller was a bit of a disappointment over the past season, given where he was selected in drafts (an average draft position of 9.4 in ESPN leagues), but that was more the result of inflated value heading into 2010-11. His 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 2009-10 were career bests by a significant margin (and his heroism in the Olympics for Team USA may have inflated his stock a bit as well). The Sabres will have some moving parts this offseason, but Miller will continue to be a reliable anchor for fantasy purposes.

6. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: Brodeur -- and the Devils in general -- are one of the toughest situations on which to get a read for 2011-12. It's hard to argue against the idea that the return of head coach Jacques Lemaire set this team on fire through the second half of the season, but Lemaire's future beyond this month is unknown at this point. Though Brodeur will finish this season with a save percentage below .910 for the first time since 2001-02, that rate has been .923 since the calendar flipped to January. Things will change between now and the fall, but I expect Brodeur to remain a No. 1 fantasy option no matter what.

7. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings: After Quick burst onto the scene in 2009-10 as a wins-oriented fantasy option, there was some speculation this past preseason that a time-share would take hold in L.A., with hot prospect Jonathan Bernier possibly overtaking Quick. Though the younger Jonathan has been getting more starts down the stretch of 2010-11, Quick appears to remain the top option in the crease, and he was a boost to all three ESPN standard categories for his owners this season. It's a very fluid situation in net for the Kings this upcoming offseason, so this rank is likely to change.

8. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: For a few seasons now, Lundqvist has consistently outperformed his preseason ranking. Heading into 2011-12, I can't put him any higher than this -- I'm not sold that the Rangers' scoring woes have been permanently addressed -- but like Luongo, Lundqvist has proven to be an extraordinarily reliable source of fantasy production over the past few seasons. For those who don't like drafting a goaltender early, Lundqvist could be a great pick and will be No. 1-worthy in fantasy once again.

Two Steps Forward

15. Antii Niemi, San Jose Sharks: After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, Niemi had his value set at $2.75 million by an arbitrator last summer, and was released by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks, who had planned on rolling with a tandem of Antero Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss, inked him in September, and after some early foibles, Niemi was a three-category stud once again, with 33 wins, a 2.40 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. Any talk that his remarkable rookie campaign was a fluke has certainly softened, and with a four-year contract extension in hand, the 27-year-old Niemi will continue to provide productive seasons for the Sharks and his fantasy owners as he enters his prime.

26. Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers: In the "what have you done for me lately?" world of fantasy sports, it's easy to forget what Pavelec accomplished earlier this season, and how remarkable it was given a mysterious health scare in the season's first month. After missing most of October, Pavelec put up a .928 save percentage for the ensuing three months, and was considered an elite option for our purposes during that stretch. He'll turn 24 years old just before the 2011-12 season gets going, and his best seasons are ahead, though the inconsistency issues will need to be resolved for him to hit his true potential. Even so, he is the Thrashers' best option for next season, and a name to stash away for the middle rounds of fantasy drafts next fall.

37. Brian Boucher, Philadelphia Flyers: Low expectations prior to the season meant that Boucher's finish on the Player Rater (he's currently in the No. 27 spot amongst goalies) was thoroughly enjoyed by those who took a flier on him with an early season waiver claim. Boucher earned himself a nice chunk of change with his performance this season, and he'll hit unrestricted free agency with a number of teams (including the Flyers, of course) in need of a steadying veteran presence in net. His value in the rankings later this offseason, therefore, will be tied directly to the opportunity in this new city. Without going too speculative, it would seem that the Flyers would be more likely to roll with rising sophomore Sergei Bobrovsky as the No. 1, with Michael Leighton as the backup given that Leighton still has a year left on his contract.

Three Steps Back

13. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings: After filling all three of the standard categories with fantasy goodness as a rookie in 2009-10, Howard became a one-category specialist in 2010-11, and it's the category that has more to do with a goaltender's team than the others: wins. Howard obviously has value as one of the league leaders in this realm, but an increase in goals-against average by 0.50, and a drop in save percentage by .015 did not inspire any of his fantasy owners to bake him a cake. So should we expect the 2009-10 all-around stud or the 2010-11 specialist next season? There's too much uncertainty to rank him amongst the elite (as he was on nearly every preseason list last fall). But you know what that means: he could wind up as one of next year's draft-day steals if he returns to his form from a season ago.

18. Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues: Halak's 2009-10 regular season stats were pretty sharp -- 26 wins, 2.40 goals-against average and .924 save percentage -- but it was his run through the playoffs last spring that truly had us licking our collective chops when he was traded to St. Louis and would be the unquestioned starter. Things started out well enough, but injuries and inconsistent play saw him decline significantly in both ratios, and he'll finish with about the same number of wins despite the increased opportunity. Halak is young, he'll be just 26 years old by the start of the next season, so a return to form is possible. And if he does, you will get production at a No. 1 fantasy level at a No. 2 price.

36. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: The tables have turned since the preseason, when Rask was touted as one of the top options in fantasy, and a banged-up Tim Thomas was nearly left for dead. It's difficult to get a read on whether the Bruins will consider moving Rask this offseason, and if they do retain him, what the time-share will be with Thomas in 2011-12. But it's clear that he took a major hit this past season.

Bouncing Back?

17. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks: Hiller's case of vertigo-like symptoms is well known around these parts, and after a brief attempted return, it appears he's back to square one. "I can't make myself see the puck if I don't feel comfortable," the goalie said after a recent morning skate, according to the Los Angeles Times. But, let's not forget that Hiller was better than any other goalie not named Tim Thomas until the mysterious ailment took hold. As for his future prospects, much is unknown about his condition. I noted in this space on March 2 that the most recent example is a disheartening one: vertigo-like symptoms effectively ended the career of Jeff Hackett. We really won't know until Hiller is able to face live game action whether the condition is still affecting him, so any ranking of him at this point is just guesswork.

NR. Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders: DiPietro found himself on the shelf for extended periods of time again this season, as has been the trend. This time, though, a sharp new youngster pushed his way into the picture, and as of this point, it appears that Al Montoya is, in fact, the Isles' most reliable option moving forward. I'm not ruling anything out, and the franchise has had to be faithful to DiPietro given the contract, but it's tough to see him being too relevant for our purposes next season.

NR. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Toronto Maple Leafs: Like DiPietro, Giguere suffered through an injury-riddled campaign and was overtaken by a hotshot young netminder by season's end (James Reimer). But unlike DiPietro, Giguere is hitting free agency, and may find himself in a nice situation next season where he'll at least be part of a time-share. At 33-years-old, it's not out of the realm of possibility that there's another stellar season left in the former Conn Smythe winner.

Looking for Work

10. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes: Amongst those looking for an NHL job this summer, Bryzgalov is amongst the most prized, possibly behind only Brad Richards. The ownership uncertainty in Phoenix means that Bryzgalov and the team have not been able to get too far in contract talks, though it would appear that the Coyotes are interested in re-signing him. No matter what, Bryzgalov will be a No. 1 goalie in a real world sense in 2011-12. The question is: Will he also continue to be a No. 1 in a fantasy sense? If he sticks in Phoenix, it would appear so; anywhere else, and there are a number of nuances to consider.

11. Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers: Unable to move Vokoun prior to the trade deadline, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon faces a difficult question this offseason: lay out the considerable cash necessary to retain stalwart Vokoun, or enter the 2011-12 season with Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom as the top two options. Vokoun has been a stud in fantasy hockey for years based on his ratios, and that can continue based upon the defensive system where he winds up. And with a more consistent level of scoring ahead of him, he should be more of an asset in the wins column. This is a key offseason domino.

28. Ray Emery, Anaheim Ducks: As Hiller's season drifted away, the Ducks first tried Curtis McElhinney as their starter, and then Dan Ellis. But after signing Emery on Feb. 7, and having him work his way back through the minors, the Ducks put the mantle of starting netminder on the 28-year-old in early March, and in eight starts, he's gone 6-2-0 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. The playoffs, and developments on the Hiller health front, will have a large impact on whether the Ducks elect to re-sign Emery. If they do, that could mean that Hiller's prognosis is not good, meaning Emery would be in line to be the starter in Anaheim next fall. If they don't, he may get another opportunity to be a No. 1 elsewhere. Health will be a concern for Emery as well, but it's been so far so good thus far.

Other intriguing potential free agents include: Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning; Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders (his status is still unclear, and may be resolved in a courtroom this offseason); Jose Theodore, Minnesota Wild; Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils.

Future Sophomores

14. Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia Flyers: Late season swoon aside, "Bob" had a very impressive debut this season, and given the team he plays for, I believe he'll be the strongest of this rookie class heading into 2011-12. That said, there's a major caveat: if Boucher comes back, we could see Bobrovsky enter into a time-share again, and the same situation could befall him if Leighton is in the picture as well. But if he is named the legit No. 1 in real life, he should be quite a valuable commodity in fantasy as well next season.

16. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: The highest-rated of any rookie netminder on the Player Rater for this season, Crawford provided steady production across the three categories, and will be the unquestioned starter all offseason, with Marty Turco's contract expiring. It's been a long road to relevancy for Crawford, but he proved this season that he can handle the rigors of starting for one of the league's most high-profile franchises. Barring something unforeseen, he'll be a reliable contributor in 2011-12 as well.

20. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: Compared to other products of the Canadian junior hockey system, Reimer got a late start, as he did not start playing organized hockey until age 12. But with the way he took over the Toronto cage this season, he's got a bright future. Giguere is likely out of the picture next season, and Jonas Gustavsson is struggling to maintain a foothold, so Reimer appears likely to be the team's No. 1 by the team the puck drops on the 2011-12 season. It's tough to say whether he can handle that pressure for a full campaign, but his 30-plus game sample during the second half of this season has been promising.

22, 23. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: If recent seasons are any indication, it's going to be another frustrating campaign for owners of any Caps goalie in 2011-12 (the third man in the mix, Semyon Varlamov, is No. 33 on the rankings list). The playoff run this spring may give us a hint as to who has the lead for next fall, but then again, Varlamov had a nice run in the 2008-09 playoffs, only to be put right back in a time-share the next season. As a result, the offseason developments and training camp battle will do much to determine how we feel about these guys right before the season, but there's no certainty that anyone will get the lion's share of starts.

24. Al Montoya, New York Islanders: Montoya was one of the more interesting stories of the season's second half. Acquired in a desperation move as the Islanders' goalies were dropping like flies, the former first-round pick got into an impressive groove for the team, earning a one-year contract extension in the process. In theory, DiPietro is the franchise goalie, but we all know how that's been going over the past few seasons. And given what Montoya did during his time with the Isles this season -- including a 2.37 goals-against average and .921 save percentage -- he might be the preferred option even if DiPietro is uncharacteristically healthy.

2011-12 Calder Hopefuls

40. Jacob Markstrom, Florida Panthers: With Vokoun likely out of the way, the Panthers' goalie of the future may get his call-up to the big club for good as the 2011-12 season begins. Markstrom spent the past season minding the cage for the Rochester Americans in the AHL, but led the Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) in 2009-10 in both goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.927). With a season of playing in the North American game complete, he will challenge Clemmensen for the starting gig in Florida, and has as good a chance of any rising rookie 'tender of being fantasy-relevant.

NR. Cedrick Desjardins and Dustin Tokarski, Tampa Bay Lightning: Amongst the Lightning's top four netminders in the system, only Tokarski remains under contract for 2011-12, though given what Desjardins was able to do in the AHL this season (and a cup of coffee with Tampa), it would appear logical that the Lightning will extend him. The veterans currently on the roster are another story. The team may let Mike Smith walk after an inconsistent campaign, and though 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson provided a steadying influence for the team this season, it's unclear whether he'll be back. One scenario has Roloson occupying one slot, with the winner of a training camp battle between Tokarski and Desjardins in the other. At some point, the ageless Roloson will begin to slip, and thus this is a very fertile opportunity for the two youngsters.

NR. Leland Irving, Calgary Flames: At some point, Miikka Kiprusoff is going to need a replacement. The Flames set themselves up with Henrik Karlsson to fill that potential void this season, but Karlsson's deal is set to expire this offseason. Enter Irving, who has posted a 2.34 goals-against average and .912 save percentage for the AHL's Abbotsford Heat this season. Irving's potential is tied directly to the traffic in front of him in the organization; should Kipper finally start to wear down, it could bring about a nice opportunity for the Alberta native.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst and Rumor Central contributor for ESPN.com