The masked men are always sure to generate debate among fantasy hockey owners. While goaltenders usually represent less than 25 percent of the fantasy categories and an even smaller percentage of your roster, getting two good ones can be priceless. Do you draft them early? Late? When there is a run on them? Do you like a stars and scrubs combination? Like the closer role in baseball or the running-back position in football, the goaltenders are a group in which many can be valuable, but only an elite few that can be counted on from year-to-year.
So I though we'd take an early look at how the goaltending landscape is shaping up for the 2007-08 season. This week we'll look East, next week we'll look West.
New Jersey Devils: A lock for 75-plus games the past few seasons, Martin Brodeur might be getting more rest this season, at the age of 35. Not because he needs it -- Brodeur is as elite as ever -- but because the Devils have an adequate, proven backup for the first time in recent memory. Kevin Weekes is no slouch between the pipes, and the team can be confident in starting him as much as they need to. Besides, veteran backup or not, Brent Sutter is a team-oriented coach who will no doubt give Weekes more than the six games Scott Clemmensen played behind Brodeur last season. Even when he had a clear No. 1 goaltender in Red Deer, of the Western Hockey League, Sutter went with a 60/20 games split between his starter and backup. I still see Brodeur playing a lot of games, but 78 is out of the question. It will be closer to 65-to-70. That doesn't change the fact he should be among the first goalies drafted, but I think the gap between Brodeur and the rest of the crowd is narrow.
New York Islanders: One year down, fourteen to go. Rick DiPietro enters the second year of his ridiculous 15-year contract with a much weaker team in front of him. The loss of shot-blocking machine Sean Hill really hurts. The Isles don't look to win as many games this year either, which takes DiPietro off the list of goalies I'd accept as my No. 1 in fantasy. He has some upside as long as he is the second goalie you draft, but I think there are better options unless you are in a fairly deep league.
New York Rangers: There is a reason the Rangers were willing to go with a one-year contract with Henrik Lundqvist, and that reason's name is Al Montoya. The Blue-Shirts will probably go with stop-gap Stephen Valiquette or a cheap free-agent backup for Lundqvist this season to give Montoya one more year in the American Hockey League. But that's it. After this season, the Rangers will turn to Montoya. That also means that, should anything happen to Lundqvist for the long-term this season, Montoya is likely to take over. I think Lundqvist is in the lower half of the top-10.
Philadelphia Flyers: There is a lot of upside in Philly. Martin Biron gets first crack at being the team's No. 1 in net. That was worth a yawn and a ham sandwich last year, but the Flyers are a significantly upgraded squad this season. If Jason Smith, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Briere and Joffrey Lupul can gel with the leftovers from last season, Philadelphia could be a borderline playoff team. That means a lot of wins for a goaltender. Notice how I haven't given Biron my vote of confidence? If you have been a longtime reader you know how much I like Antero Niittymaki. I know Biron probably will take this team and run with it, but Niittymaki was dealing with hip problems all last season, and offseason surgery will have corrected the problem. I just can't (don't want to) write him off just yet. As hopeful as I am for Niittymaki, I'd still take Biron -- with confidence -- as my No. 2 goalie.
Boston Bruins: Manny Fernandez is leaving the organization he helped build for an organization that needs help rebuilding. The B's have some strong defensive defensemen but suffered significantly with Tim Thomas doing most of the work last season. Fernandez offers them a great alternative. He has to be dropped a few pegs over concerns that last year's injuries may linger, but he is still a borderline No. 1 goalie. The only thing I see lacking are wins. Hannu Toivonen should win backup duties. Don't forget that he, like Niittymaki, has extraordinary potential and if he can cut down his mental lapses, he would fill in nicely should Fernandez have injury woes.
Montreal Canadiens: Nowhere else in the world will you see the possibility that the starting goaltender is chosen by the fans and the media. There are going to be outright demands made in Montreal that Carey Price be brought in to start. From a development standpoint, he needs to go to the AHL for a year, but from a public-relations standpoint, he needs to be a Hab. There is no doubt in my mind that Cristobal Huet is a sound No. 1 goaltender and Jaroslav Halak a capable backup, but I still have visions of Price having a good training camp and landing the starting gig. Huet easily could be moved, as he has a very affordable contract for such a quality goaltender. This one will be sorted out in training camp, and hopefully your fantasy draft will be towards the end of it. If not, play it safe and assume Huet is starting the bulk of the Canadiens games this year and look at Price as a last-round sleeper.
Ottawa Senators: Ray Emery is making a bid to be included among the elite at this year's fantasy drafts, because as the undisputed No. 1 in Ottawa, he can be argued as a top goaltender in fantasy. Martin Gerber is now trade fodder for the Senators, but it's unlikely anyone will take on his salary.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Vesa Toskala should play 65 or more games for Toronto this season, and given the Leafs' strong defense, I'd take Toskala as my No. 1 goaltender if I was waiting until the middle rounds to take my anchor. I think he is definitely in the top-12 of goalies entering this season. Andrew Raycroft is on the trading block and still could end up salvaging himself somewhere, but it won't be in Toronto.
Atlanta Thrashers: The team got a little worse this offseason, and the defense won't be as imposing or sound as before the loss of Greg de Vries and Vitaly Vishnevski. I'd still take Kari Lehtonen as my No. 1 goalie on my fantasy team, but it wouldn't be until nine or 10 other goaltenders already had been taken.
Carolina Hurricanes: If you sport a save percentage below .900, you are officially on my personal "On Notice" board. Cam Ward was partly the victim of a weak team and partly the victim of his own mistakes, but I am still staying far away this season. The Hurricanes did little to improve upon last year's squad (if anything) and Ward will make a very decent No. 2 goaltender, but one that will be drafted too early for what he'll give you.
Florida Panthers: I have never had a problem with the defense in Florida. Roberto Luongo used to face a lot of shots, but if you watched closely, not a lot of those shots were quality scoring chances, rather, they were clean shots from the perimeter. Easy stuff. Tomas Vokoun gets knocked down a few pegs from his Nashville days because the wins won't be as plentiful in South Florida, but you also have to consider the fact that his save percentage will hold more weight due to the increase in shots he'll face. He was a top-5 goaltender heading into last season, I think he sits just barely outside the top-10 this season.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Last season, the Bolts came close to running an even split of the goaltending duties between Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis. They enter this season with the same less-than-fantastic duo. Holmqvist enters the season as the incumbent, but coach John Tortorella is as fickle as they come. I wouldn't be surprised to see them add another name to the mix before the season starts. For now, look at Holmqvist as a lower-tier No. 2 goalie in fantasy, but things could change.
Washington Capitals: Olaf Kolzig could have surprising value this year. With some key offseason additions, the Capitals seem like they might fight for a playoff berth for once. Kolzig is often an afterthought in fantasy leagues, but don't forget about him this year. I'll peg him right now for 30 wins, a goals-against average better than 3.00 and a save percentage north of .900. Those are strong No. 2 fantasy goaltender numbers.
Next week, we'll have a look at the West.
Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. He can be reached at alla_rino@TalentedMrRoto.com.