Two of the no-brainer top five fantasy goaltenders coming into this season -- Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick -- are currently rehabbing on the injured reserve as their draft-day-afterthought backups excel in their stead. It is creating a somewhat uncomfortable situation for fantasy owners as they watch the understudies, especially if said understudies are on someone else's fantasy roster. With both of these goaltenders due back in as little as three weeks, it's best we have a closer look at how to approach them moving forward. You may be surprised with one of the conclusions we can draw.
Pekka Rinne and Marek Mazanec, G, Nashville Predators: Following an MRI on Thursday, it was announced that Rinne will remain off ice for another two weeks to rehab his hip. It'll then be at least a week, maybe two, before he is ready to return to action. That gives Mazanec close to 10 more games to man the crease for the Predators and fantasy owners. Now owned in 75 percent of ESPN leagues thanks to a run of eight consecutive games with two or fewer goals allowed, Mazanec may be a little fatigued of late. This week, he allowed three goals to the Vancouver Canucks and then four goals to the Carolina Hurricanes before he was pulled in the second period. That kind of blowup doesn't hurt Mazanec's overall usefulness to fantasy owners, but it is evidence that he is too inexperienced to be implicitly trusted in head-to-head fantasy leagues. He has, however, shown enough poise that he can be trusted when the Preds have a favorable schedule.
That said, the Predators do not have a favorable schedule ahead. Many of their 11 games left in December are against tough opponents, including a run of three games against the high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning (though, not as scary without Steven Stamkos). We may have already experienced the highlight run of Mazanec's season. But it is good to know that we will be a reliable option should something befall Rinne again. In longer-term keeper leagues, do not forget that Magnus Hellberg is the favored heir apparent. In the meantime, check to see if you play in one of 25 percent of the ESPN leagues where somebody has dropped Rinne and pick him up now before he resumes his role as the Preds' unquestioned starter.
Jonathan Quick and Ben Scrivens, G, Los Angeles Kings: Out with a groin injury, Quick is said to be eyeing up a return in late December or early January. In his place, Scrivens has been absolutely killing it. With exactly zero games where he has allowed more than two goals since Quick got hurt, Scrivens leads the NHL in save percentage and trails only Josh Harding in goals-against average. Here's the rub: Scrivens numbers wouldn't normally be a big deal or concern for Quick's fantasy owners, but they should be this season. Over the past few seasons, it's been no secret that Quick featured impressive numbers in goal mainly due to the defensive abilities of the Kings as a whole. But if the goaltender's numbers are a product of his team's defensive awareness, then why are Scrivens numbers light years ahead of Quick's this season? In his 16 starts this season, Quick has allowed almost a full goal more per game than Scrivens has in his 12 starts. It's a 1.56 GAA for Scrivens versus a 2.35 GAA for Quick. That is a huge discrepancy – especially when the better stat does not belong to the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender which was first off the board in fantasy this season.
The first question we must ponder is whether Quick's poor numbers were a result of a nagging injury that he tried to play through it until November? It's possible, would explain a lot and would mean there's a good chance he is back to his old self upon his return. That would be the ideal turn of events for Quick owners, who need Scrivens out of the picture ASAP. But that is not likely the case. Scrivens is a perfect fit for the Kings crease, as the team works hard to not allow odd-man rushes and tries to keep opponents shooting from the perimeter. For a goaltender with good angles and excellent control of rebounds, he is in a perfect situation to thrive. No, unlike Rinne, Quick will not simply return to be the undisputed starter; this situation has timeshare written all over it. Only a complete about-face in Scrivens numbers between now and Quick's return will prevent some kind of fantasy-unfriendly rotation in the Kings crease. It's very similar to the situation that played out in Minnesota with Josh Harding supplanting Niklas Backstrom; when a backup goaltender plays decently in absence of the starter it's one thing, but when a backup goaltender puts up incredible numbers like Scrivens or Harding have done this season, it forces the team's hand to take some kind of action.
One thing that could become telling in the next few weeks is how Martin Jones performs as Scrivens' backup. Already with a win under his belt in his NHL debut, if we see more of Jones playing just as well as Scrivens, it will be mounting evidence that Quick may have been hurting from the get-go this season. The argument would be that if Scrivens and Jones -- two players on nobody's radar before the season -- can put up monster stats in the Kings crease, any goaltender could. If that is the case, we have to assume that a goaltender with Quick's résumé must have had another issue to start the season. If Jones struggles in net, then maybe it'ss just that Scrivens is really that good and Quick owners need to worry. The Kings have a pair of back-to-back games this week, so maybe we'll get to see a bit more of Jones and start to get a handle on the situation.
One more quick injured goaltender note: Of course, there is no harm in deeper leagues of scooping up Curtis McElhinney while Sergei Bobrovsky is out for about a month. That said, don't expect much. Bobrovsky has struggled this season to keep the puck out of the Blue Jackets net, so it should be expected that McElhinney will have an even more difficult time. McElhinney's backup, Mike McKenna, may be a bit more interesting as his ratios led the AHL at the time of his call-up, albeit in about half the minutes of the other leading netminders. The journeyman's numbers have been better as he edged closer to 30 years old, but he has also played for stronger AHL teams in recent seasons. Frankly, neither goaltender should be causing you to run to the waiver wire.
Looking for offense
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have four games on tap next week and for the first time this season are showing signs of the offense they have on paper. With Claude Giroux back up to his old tricks on the top line, a second line has emerged to score some goals as well. Sean Couturier, Steve Downie and Matt Read are heating up for the Flyers and caught fire during Wednesday's beat down of the Red Wings. Downie's importance in making some room for the skilled wingers on the ice should not be undersold, but it's Couturier and Read that will put up the offensive numbers. The Flyers get an O:7 rating on the Forecaster, with both Read an Couturier likely available in your league. Also, don't lose your patience with Jakub Voracek. Although he is not a part of the scoring lately with the Flyers, he rarely leaves Giroux's side. The offense will come.
Dallas Stars: Tyler Seguin is back from his concussion issues and just in time for a week in which the Stars have an O:10 on the Forecaster. While Valeri Nichushkin has been removed from the top line in recent games, he is still the better pick of the Stars that will be available in your league. Rich Peverley and Erik Cole are consistent in not being a factor when on the top line with Seguin and Jamie Benn. Nichushkin should be back riding high soon enough. Also, don't look now, but Segei Gonchar might be alive, with 40 percent of his shots on goal this season coming in the past four games alone. The Stars still lack a power-play quarterback with any kind of effectiveness, maybe Gonchar is coming around after all. If you are worried about his plus/minus, note that he only has one game with a terrible hiccup since the start of November. He is only minus-1 in all other games since the end of October.
Looking for goaltending
Jonas Gustavsson, G, Detroit Red Wings: Full-blown controversy in Detroit's crease? By no means. The possibility of one looking on the horizon? For sure. Gustavsson's lack of success in the NHL has always been a bit of a mystery, but it would not be shocking for him to catch on suddenly. Certainly his 7-0-1 record and .929 save percentage are nothing to sneeze a, especially considering Jimmy Howard has fewer wins in more than twice as many starts. Howard as history on his side, but if Gustavsson has truly turned the corner he will continue to chip away at Howard's advantage. For now, it looks like a rotation is starting to settle in, which means you could get two starts from Gustavsson next week during the Red Wings' four-game schedule.
Antti Raanta, G, Chicago Blackhawks: No, two rough games aren't enough to even consider Corey Crawford at risk for losing serious starts. But the stumble does come as Raanta has played well and the Hawks have a pair of back-to-back games next week. That could mean two starts -- and two potential wins -- from Raanta. He's not necessarily getting any starts next week, but for those stretched thin in net, he is available.
• With Tyler Bozak on long-term injured reserve, Nazem Kadri collected a pair of goals on the top line with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. This depth chart alignment leaves the Leafs extremely thin on the bottom three lines, but will be a huge boon to Kadri as long as it lasts.
• Calgary Flames start the season strong. Flames lose Mark Giordano to injury and struggle to score. Giordano returns to lineup with two points as Flames beat Phoenix Coyotes. Sounds like a pretty simple formula and a reason to roster Giordano. It is also reason to question whether Kris Russell can continue to be effective for fantasy purposes with Giordano back in the fold. Having Dennis Wideman on the shelf will provide a chance for Russell, but he is no longer the de facto top offensive blue liner.
Each week the Fantasy Forecaster will also include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary cap game that allows you free reign over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
Four game teams: You can squeeze that extra game this week out of the Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning. That is a huge list of four-game teams, so it negates some of the advantage you can take by targeting their players, especially goaltenders. All of the teams have at least one back-to-back set of games, with the Red Wings and Kings featuring the rare pair of back-to-back contests. It means that we will see a lot of backup goaltenders this week and you should consider a best-goalie-available approach to your lineup. The Forecaster likes the matchups for the Boston Bruins and Habs, so Tuukka Rask ($12.5M) and Carey Price ($12.1M) make strong choices.
Streaking players with four games: The Hurricanes probably won't leave Jeff Skinner ($4.9M) with Eric Staal ($8.5M) in the long term, but the combination is working great right now and should be capitalized on. Eventually, the team will need to separate them to create scoring, but that might not happen until Alexander Semin ($7.8) is healthy again. Then again, Semin seems to be eyeing up a return next week. The Oilers needed a game like Thursday's 8-2 blowout of the Avalanche. Now might be a good time to buy low on players like Taylor Hall ($8.8M), Jordan Eberle ($8.2M) or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($7.4M) in hopes of cashing in later.
My roster for next week:
As of Friday, I'm in the 81.6 percentile for the ESPN Hockey Challenge, with 320 points. My personal salary cap is at $108.1M.
Carey Price, G, MTL - $12.1M
Josh Harding, G, MIN - $10.9M ($10.8M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $9.2M
Sergei Gonchar, D, DAL - $6.2M
P.K. Subban, D, MTL - $7.8M ($8.5M on market)
Duncan Keith, D, CHI - $8.3M
Ryan Johansen, F, CBJ - $5.2M
Jeff Skinner, F, CAR - $4.9M
Valeri Nichushkin, F, DAL - $5.1M
Marian Hossa, F, CHI - $8.1M ($8.2M on market)
Patrick Kane, F, CHI - $9.3M ($9.5M on market)
Jonathan Toews, F, CHI - $9.1M ($9.0M on market)