Goaltending. When all is said and done, your fantasy hockey team will live and die by your goalies. If you have a championship team, you likely got there with the help of your goalies. If you missed out on the playoffs, you probably can saddle much of the blame on your netminders.
It's for that reason that we have a dedicated column each and every week of the season dealing strictly with goaltending. My colleague Tim Kavanagh focuses on all things puck stopping in In The Crease on Thursdays. But those two active roster spots in your league that make up at least 30 percent of the standings are just so darn important, we are going to have a look at some backup goalies here in Open Ice this week.
You might say, "But Sean, I have Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury." That's fine; you can skip this part of the program. But if you aren't so lucky as to own two of the top goaltenders to begin the season, let's talk about how you have to work the waiver wire to acquire goaltending categories in fantasy hockey.
With skaters, there is a lot of fluidity. You see a player put up a three-point contest, realize he has done it twice in four games and scoop him up. You see a player get injured on the top line of a team and grab his likely replacement. It doesn't work that way with goaltenders. You have to be ahead of the curve to catch that lightning in a bottle. Steve Mason was on a team in many fantasy leagues before he played a game last season. You have to be speculative and a little lucky to get a backup goaltender who steps up and grabs a starting role.
First, do you need to be using a roster spot on a backup goaltender? Good question. Some owners don't need more than the two goalies they start, while some need four or five goalies as they try to land one who can help them climb the standings. Here's a quick calculation to figure out how much effort you should be putting into upgrading your goaltenders. Add up your rotisserie points in the goalie categories and figure out the maximum you could achieve in them with your two current goalies. If you have 65 percent of the maximum, you probably can roll with only two goaltenders. If you are between 40 and 65 percent of the maximum, you need to carry three goaltenders and use one of those roster spots to mine for gold. If you are at less than 40 percent, you need to use four roster spots to look for goaltending help. Head-to-head leagues can use the same benchmarks by looking at their winning percentage in the goaltending categories for the season. The caveat here is that those owners suffering through the mediocre starts by Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas can relax: They'll both come around.
Now, I feel the need to clarify the difference between good backup goaltenders and good goaltenders who are backups. Ty Conklin and Scott Clemmensen are two examples of the latter; they are good goaltenders, but they are strictly backups. Neither will ascend to the starting role without the aid of a debilitating injury befalling the No. 1 goalie ahead of him. As such, both Conklin and Clemmensen are wastes of space on fantasy rosters. Even though they will put up good statistics, it's not worth using the space to wait for their three starts a month, the timing of which you might not be able to predict anyway.
In order to be worth your while as a fantasy owner, a goalie has to have at least a little element of competition for the team's starting role in net. Even an inkling will do. Hoping for an injury isn't quite enough. You have to know the backup goalie you are investing in has at least a chance -- as slim as it might be -- to take over the No. 1 spot simply through good goaltending. Andrew Raycroft could post a shutout in every start he gets this season, and he still won't unseat Luongo as the Vancouver Canucks' starter. No, Raycroft is not the type of goalie we are after here.
So who are we after? The following is a list of the top backup goalies, in order of preference, who are owned in less than 50 percent of ESPN leagues (which is why we're going to skip past the 63 percent-owned Jonas Gustavsson) and whom you should be putting on your bench as lottery tickets.
Antti Niemi, G, Blackhawks (owned in 12.6 percent of ESPN leagues): No question that the Chicago Blackhawks have invested a lot in Cristobal Huet, but this is a playoff-bound team that hopes to do more than just make the Western Conference finals this season. The Hawks need performance in net, and they can't stand around all season hoping that Huet finds his 2007-08 form. In six starts, Huet's save percentage is .844. That is atrocious. Niemi quietly has put together a solid start to the season. With three wins and only two starts, he has one shutout and a 1.73 goals-against average. This battle isn't over, and Huet owners can remain somewhat confident in their investment, but if there is one goaltender who looks like he could steal a gig right now, it's Niemi.
Brian Elliott, G, Senators (12.1): If we are talking about talent alone for backups, Elliott would have to be in the argument for tops in the league. As a rookie, he helped carry a subpar Ottawa Senators team down the stretch last season, but he was unseated by Pascal Leclaire. Now, one could make the case that it would be tough for Leclaire to lose his job to Elliott by getting outplayed, as Leclaire can be just as good as Elliott, but consider Leclaire's injury history, and suddenly it looks like it's only a matter of time before Elliott will be called on to carry the Sens once again.
Antero Niittymaki, G, Lightning (36.2): Niitty's huge potential as an NHL goaltender seemed to disappear when both his hips required surgery over the past few years. It was his mobility that helped him have a coming-out party as Finland's goalie at the 2006 Olympics. After years of not being able to seize the starting role for the Philadelphia Flyers, Niittymaki has a fresh start with the Tampa Bay Lightning. We know two things at this point: Mike Smith is no more proven than Niittymaki when it comes to being an NHL starter, and coach Rick Tocchet has openly declared this a competition (although he did favor Smith in his comments). Still, after Smith allowed seven goals to the Senators in his only start last week, you have to think the leash is getting much shorter.
Tuukka Rask, G, Bruins (24.0): You might be thinking, "Hey! I though you said earlier that Tim Thomas will be fine!" Don't worry; I do think he'll be fine. In fact, I'm 90 percent sure he'll manage to be among the top three goalies in fantasy hockey this season. But there is that nagging 10 percent uncertainty, as Rask is trailing Thomas only 2-1 when it comes to solid games played this season. The interesting part of the equation for potential Rask owners is that if he does somehow earn more starts, he is spectacular enough to earn even more of them. Again, Thomas owners are likely just fine, but like I said, it's all about taking chances with talented backups, and Rask is an extremely talented backup.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, G, Ducks (12.0): Does it look at all like Jonas Hiller is going to start ceding the starting role back to Giguere? No. But trade rumors abound, and how many backups come with a resume like Giguere's? A Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing effort at the Stanley Cup finals to go with a Stanley Cup of his own a few years later. He has four 30-win seasons and a career save percentage of .914. It's not like he's been put out to pasture, either, as he is only 32 years old. If there is any backup goalie in the league with a track record of stealing games, it's Giguere. His stats haven't even been that bad this season, as he took the Minnesota Wild to overtime in a 4-3 loss, managed to allow only two goals against the powerhouse New York Rangers and then let in a couple of goals in junk time during a blowout at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.
Curtis Sanford, G, Canadiens (0.1): That's right. When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens' goaltending situation, I'm skipping right past NHL backup Jaroslav Halak and going to AHL starter Sanford. Both Carey Price and Halak have records worse than .500, goals-against averages worse than 3.30 and save percentages worse than .890. The pressure will be relentless in Montreal should Price be unable to find his ground in the Habs' net, and Halak is unlikely to be the answer should Price fail to deliver. Sanford is a bit older at 30 and has been kicked around the curb as an NHL part-timer since 2002. If there is one important thing goalies learn as they mature, it's the mettle to withstand pressure situations and just play their game. Sanford has opened the season for the Hamilton Bulldogs with a 1.62 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. The most likely scenario will see Price turn things around, but Sanford is waiting in the wings if he doesn't.
Let's see which skaters caught my eye this week and need to be on your fantasy radar.
Brendan Morrison, C, Capitals (8.8): Don't spend time asking why, and rush out to pick up Morrison right now. OK, now the why. He has centered Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Knuble for the past three games for the Washington Capitals. Morrison has experience centering one of the top lines in the NHL from his days with the Canucks between Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. He has assisted on three of Ovechkin's past four goals.
Cody McLeod, LW, Avalanche (1.4): The Colorado Avalanche's third line is proving to have some scoring punch. McLeod, along with David Jones and Ryan O'Reilly, have combined for five goals and eight assists in their past four games. It's McLeod who has the bonus value from penalty minutes, though. He finished last season with 162 and is well on his way there this season with two fighting majors already. His points will come in waves, but the PIMs will be consistent.
Tyler Myers, D, Sabres (4.1): The 6-foot-8 rookie is a constant on the Sabres' first power-play unit and makes up the team's top pairing with Henrik Tallinder. What's that combination we love so much again? Talent and opportunity? Well, the Sabres first-rounder from 2008 has loads of talent and is getting tons of opportunity.
Brandon Prust, C, Flames (0.4): At least the Calgary Flames have found one line that works. Prust, Brian McGrattan and Dustin Boyd seem to be mixing quite well as the team's checking line. Boyd is a talented prospect still looking for an expanded role in the team's offense, McGrattan is pure fists and Prust is a healthy mix of the two. Another protégé of the Dale Hunter London Knights, Prust actually plays a bit like Hunter, although he is not as talented offensively. Still, Prust could very well be a 30-point, 200-penalty-minute player. And don't look now, but he is plus-5.
Cory Stillman, LW, Panthers (52.9): After managing just one assist through six games, Stillman has been demoted to the Florida Panthers' third line. It's quite clear that hopes of Stillman regaining his 70-point glory days have gone out the window. Feel free to make some roster room at his expense.
Shawn Horcoff, C, Oilers (36.1): One goal and one assist through seven games. Yeah, it appears the new coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Pat Quinn, isn't a fan of Horcoff (or vice versa, or maybe the feeling is mutual). If there was potential for a decent plus/minus rating or penalty minutes with Horcoff, I'd say keep him. But if he isn't scoring, he is doing nothing for you.
Gilbert Brule has seven points in seven games as the former first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets finds his game with the Oilers. He'll need to increase his ice time from the current 13 minutes a game to be relevant in most leagues, though. Right there with Brule is Dustin Penner. As we hoped in the preseason, Penner is benefitting from Quinn's being behind the bench and has nine points in seven games. Owners in 47 percent of ESPN leagues need a kick in the pants. Drop Brendan Shanahan already! Ales Kotalik continues to benefit from the Rangers' red-hot power play. He has four power-play points in his past four games, with six of his seven points this season on the man advantage. No Sheldon Souray seems to be a positive thing for Ladislav Smid. The Oilers defenseman is a plus-7 in the four games with Souray out of the lineup. As expected, many Bolts are proving to be trouble for plus/minus conscious owners. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Vincent Lecavalier were a combined minus-19 over the past week.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.