During the course of a fantasy hockey season, it's easy to lag behind in a category or two. This can be the result of an intentional drafting strategy (sometimes we forget to acquire ourselves a ruffian to boost the PIM totals); other times, the players we imagined would help out with plus/minus are struggling on the defensive end, thereby submarining that category instead. That's why it's important to keep an eye on the single-category studs.
This is a phenomenon that is more present among skaters than goaltenders -- for starters, there are a lot more categories from which to choose when it comes to the guys who aren't wearing full-body armor and cool-looking masks -- but there are usually some netminders available who are doing well in just one or two of the three categories we use in standard ESPN fantasy hockey rules, thereby reducing their value. For those who need help in those categories, these players may even be available on the waiver wire; if not, they can be targeted in trade.
With a third of the season (16 games) completed for many teams, it's a fine time to identify areas of improvement and attack them with a trade or another waiver move. Perhaps you're pacing your league in wins, but lagging behind in goals-against average and save percentage, or vice versa. Here's a guide to finding single-category stud goalies for those problem spots.
In pondering which goalies can help in this category, you're likely tempted to look at the team atop the NHL's standings, the Chicago Blackhawks, and that's a nice idea. The problem is Corey Crawford is also performing well in the other two goaltending stats this season, so his owner in your league is not going to part with him unless you overpay. Here are some other ideas:
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: Sure, Fleury is a well-known player on one of the league's most TV-friendly teams, and as a result of backstopping the Penguins, he's notched eight wins in 11 starts. But as has been the case in past seasons, his ratio stats have lagged behind, and he's currently in the No. 17 spot in both GAA (2.34) and save percentage (.914). Those aren't bad numbers, and you are going to have to pay a premium price to acquire him. That's the bad news. The good news is that it's likely that the Penguins' winning ways continue, so you can rest fairly assured that as long as Fleury remains healthy, the wins will keep coming.
Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: Coming into the season, some observers projected the Canes to be one of the NHL's rising teams. The campaign didn't start off that way -- the only thing rising was the blood pressure of those who'd wasted high draft picks on Hurricanes players -- but they've won six of nine games in February, with Ward in net for four of those wins. If history is any indicator, the Alberta native will continue to see most of the starts for Kirk Muller's team. Furthermore, while Ward's ratio stats are pretty gruesome right now (3.19 in GAA, .901 in save percentage), that's well below his typical pace, and those should head back in the right direction. A fine buy-low candidate in general right now, but especially for those needing help in the wins category.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers: Bryz stood tall during the Flyers' Monday afternoon massacre of the New York Islanders, but that was actually his first shutout since March 13 of last season (he'd gone 34 games without one in between). On the season, his 2.42 GAA is 20th in the league; his .911 save percentage puts him in the No. 22 spot. But seven wins have him trailing only three players for the top spot in that category. Based upon what we saw out of Bryzgalov backstopping this same Flyers team last season, it's hard to project anything too much better out of the ratio stats, but with the offense apparently waking up, those wins should continue to flow.
Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders: We've reached the long-shot level here, to some degree, and you're probably wondering why a representative of a team that's won only six of its 15 games is being recommended as someone who can help a fantasy team's win total. Well, thanks to the lack of any real competition for Nabokov, he's started 13 of the Isles' 15 games, and picked up all six of the wins; those six wins have him among a group of eight tied for 11th in the league, and the rest of them are owned in near 100 percent of ESPN leagues (Ryan Miller, Pekka Rinne, Jimmy Howard, Mike Smith, Antti Niemi, Anders Lindback) or injured (James Reimer). Nabokov, who has looked sharp on some occasions this season, and is in no danger of losing his grip on the starting gig, is owned in just 67.0 percent of ESPN leagues. Again, break open glass only in case of an emergency, but he's a player who can add a win or two here and there if you can withstand the hit to the ratios.
Similar to the situation involving wins, there are a lot of heavy hitters atop the GAA standings -- Rinne, Anderson, Luongo, Crawford -- but there are some gems out there if you're willing to do some digging:
Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils: Because he plays about a game per week, Hedberg isn't going to threaten for the Vezina Trophy, nor will he be among the league leaders in the counting stats (including wins, of course). But one of the guiding principles regarding goaltenders in fantasy hockey is that a skilled backup on a strong team can be as good or better than a less talented option on a bottom-feeding team. Such is the case for Hedberg, who is part of the tandem (with Martin Brodeur) that has helped the Devils post the seventh-lowest goals-against rate in the league this season (2.25). Personally, Hedberg has been responsible for a 1.72 GAA, and that rate is actually skewed a bit after a five-goal against outing against the Islanders this past weekend. Over three other starts, he allowed just two total goals. Thinking ahead, Hedberg's rate may tumble a bit, but he's posted GAAs of 2.38 and 2.22 during the past two seasons as the understudy to Brodeur. As noted above, Hedberg is only going to get around one start per week, but that can be enough to help push a fantasy club's GAA in the right direction a bit, and he's owned in only 20.3 percent of ESPN leagues right now.
Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues: By most measurements, the first portion of this season has been a disappointment for Halak. He's started only five games, winning just three of them (and watching understudy Brian Elliott come in and earn a win after Halak gave up three goals in 32 minutes). The Blues' defensive system hasn't allowed a lot of shots on goal, so his save percentage is down. To top it off, he's been battling a groin issue that's kept him off the ice since Feb. 1. The good news is that the same defensive system that's allowed fewer shots has also resulted in fewer scoring chances, and that has led to a strong 2.10 GAA for Mr. Halak. He's set to make his return at some point this week, and Brian Elliott has clearly taken a step backward this season; as a result, it's Halak's job to lose, and if he's only going to be giving up around two goals per contest, that's going to help his win total, as well. He'll certainly boost a team in the GAA category, and those wins are nice, too. The window to trade for him is closing fast.
Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks: Similar to the situation in New Jersey, the Blackhawks' nets are primarily under the watch of the primary starter (in this case, Crawford), with an occasional appearance by journeyman Emery. That being the case, Emery isn't going to do a great deal to push a fantasy team's stats in the right direction, but the effect is certainly greater during the 48-game campaign than in a full 82-game one; and more so with the idea that there are only around 32 of those games left for NHL teams. Remember above when I mentioned how the Devils have the seventh-best mark in the league, giving up just 2.25 goals per game? The Blackhawks are the league leaders in that regard, with just 1.87 goals allowed per game. Emery has done his part, too, allowing just 11 goals in five starts. There's a bit more risk with Emery than with the other two: his GAA was an unhealthy 2.81 in 2011-12 behind a similar Blackhawks team. Nevertheless, it appears that they've got a good thing going for now, and with an ownership percentage at just 55.7, Emery may be sitting there on the waiver wire, ready to help.
Some consider save percentage the best straight-forward quantitative assessment of a goaltender's skill, and so it's not surprising that there are famous names atop the leaderboard in this metric, including Anderson, Rinne, Crawford, Lehtonen and Luongo. But some other interesting names are nestled in there, too:
Dan Ellis, Carolina Hurricanes: Ellis has been a fun story this season. Left out to dry following the free-agent signing period, he caught on with a minor league tryout deal with the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate, and did so well there, they started the season with him as the primary backup to Ward, shipping Brian Boucher back to Philly. Save for a rough outing against the Flyers, Ellis has carried over that strong work in his play for the NHL club: in five appearances, he's saved 115 out of 122 shots, which produces a save percentage of .943, second in the league among qualified netminders, behind only Craig Anderson. Looking over Ellis' career stats, his previous season high was just .924, so it's bold to say that he'll keep up the current pace. That noted, the Hurricanes give up the fourth most shots per game (31.9) in the league this season, and with a great many shots can come a great many saves. Ellis isn't a threat to take over the starting duties from Ward, but as with Hedberg and Emery, he can help a fantasy team with just a start per week, and he's owned in only 4.4 percent of ESPN leagues right now.
Ben Scrivens, Toronto Maple Leafs: Thanks to his strong play in the AHL during the lockout, Scrivens was tapped to start the Leafs' first three contests of the NHL season. After allowing five goals on 25 shots against the Islanders, he was lifted and used sparingly until a knee injury befell James Reimer. In the time since that injury, however, Scrivens has played well enough that Randy Carlyle and his staff will have to decide which netminder deserves the starting mantle once Reimer is healthy: Including the partial game played where he replaced Reimer, Scrivens has stopped 133 of 137 shots he's faced, which yields a .971 save percentage. As with Carolina, Toronto has been giving up a lot of shots this season -- they're actually one notch higher, relenting the third most shots per game (32.1) -- and the one category for which this can be good is a goalie's save percentage. Owners in 45.7 percent of ESPN leagues have snatched Scrivens up within the past week, but his overall ownership percentage is only at 47.9. He's a great short-term option while Reimer remains on the shelf; he'll be, at worst, in the same category as Emery, Ellis and Hedberg once Reimer returns.
Top 40 Goalies
Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. The ranking at the start of the 2012-13 season is indicated in parentheses.
1. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (2)
2. Tuukka Rask, Bos (1)
3. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (4)
4. Corey Crawford, Chi (10)
5. Carey Price, Mon (3)
6. Jimmy Howard, Det (5)
7. Craig Anderson, Ott (6)
8. Antti Niemi, SJ (8)
9. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
10. Mike Smith, Pho (9)
11. Viktor Fasth, Ana (18)
12. Roberto Luongo, Van (14)
13. Ryan Miller, Buf (13)
14. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (12)
15. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (11)
16. Jaroslav Halak, StL (15)
17. Martin Brodeur, NJ (16)
18. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (20)
19. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (17)
20. Anders Lindback, TB (24)
21. Cory Schneider, Van (19)
22. Cam Ward, Car (21)
23. Niklas Backstrom, Min (22)
24. Ben Scrivens, Tor (27)
25. Semyon Varlamov, Col (23)
26. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (25)
27. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (32)
28. James Reimer, Tor (26)
29. Johan Hedberg, NJ (30)
30. Braden Holtby, Was (31)
31. Richard Bachman, Dal (NR)
32. Jose Theodore, Fla (28)
33. Dan Ellis, Car (37)
34. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (38)
35. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (34)
36. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (35)
37. Michal Neuvirth, Was (36)
38. Jonas Hiller, Ana (33)
39. Brian Elliott, StL (29)
40. Thomas Greiss, SJ (39)
Rising and falling
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators (down one spots to No. 7): Given how quickly news flows in this era of humanity, it seems like a great deal of time has passed since Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson suffered his season-ending Achilles tendon injury; in reality, it was just this past Wednesday. The loss of Karlsson is a detriment to Ottawa on the back end, but even more so on the scoreboard: Following Karlsson's injury, the Senators didn't score a goal in any of their contests until the third period of Monday's game against the Devils. So how does this relate to Anderson? He'll still plug along in the crease, stopping most of the pucks sent in his general direction. However, his production in the win column is certain to take a hit, as there's simply no replacing Karlsson.
Viktor Fasth, Anaheim Ducks (up seven spots to No. 11): As of just two weeks ago, Fasth was being trumpeted in this column as one of the league's most fantasy-relevant backups. Last week, he was the main focus of the top section, as his strong play continued (even though Ducks coaches still weren't calling him the starter). Now? I don't think they have a choice anymore. After three more victories this past week, Fasth has now won all eight of his starts, becoming only the third goaltender in league history to do so (and earning the NHL's second star of the week in the process). It's too late to hop aboard the Fasth train (he's universally owned in ESPN leagues), and you'll have to overpay to get him in trade. For those who did pick him up, now might be a time to see what kind of trade offers you can generate; his value probably won't get any higher than it is right now, and there could be a downturn ahead. Generally speaking, however, he should be active in all formats until further notice.
Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers (down four spots to No. 32): I'm not really sure what kind of strategy the Panthers are trying to follow with their goaltending situation right now. Theodore has been brutal -- 3.37/.893 ratios support this claim -- but he's continued to get the vast majority of the starts because No. 2 tender Scott Clemmensen has been even worse (4.33/.837). After winning the Southeast division last season, the Panthers are one of the bottom-feeders in the Eastern conference this campaign. It would seem like a good time to recall future franchise netminder Jacob Markstrom -- who's posted a 2.65 GAA and .920 save percentage in 33 appearances for the AHL affiliate this season in San Antonio, and showed promise in a brief NHL tenure in 2011-12 -- but hey, I'm not running the team. As for Theodore (and Clemmensen, for that matter) keep them far away from your active lineup, and there isn't much of an argument to even have them rostered at this point.
Sergei Bobrovsky (owned in 25.3 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Steve Mason (2.9 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets: Hasn't been a great season for the Blue Jackets -- though they are just two points behind the defending Stanley Cup champs, but that's an entirely different story -- and that's part of the reason GM Scott Howson was fired this past week and replaced by Jarmo Kekalainen. Kekalainen inherits a team that thought it'd acquired a starter in goal in Bobrovsky, but the reality of the situation is that Mason has been about his equal thus far. That's a bad sign, considering the depths from which Mason is pulling himself. Just two of Bobrovsky's starts have been quality starts -- which are generally defined as allowing two or fewer goals while posting a .912 save percentage or better -- while it's been 3-of-8 for Mason. Columbus seems content to keep rotating the two of them; unlike other teams where a time-share means two productive fantasy goalies, the diminished workload reduces the value of Bobrovsky and Mason even further. Time to move on.
Cory Schneider (owned in 100 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (100 percent), Vancouver Canucks: The countdown continues to the NHL's trade deadline on April 3, and the sound of the clock ticking is louder perhaps nowhere than Vancouver, which has one of the league's biggest trading chips in Luongo. The Montreal native has assisted the Canucks thus far, posting a 1.63 GAA and .934 save percentage in eight appearances, bettering starter Schneider in both regards (2.62 and .912). There's no reason to think that the Canucks' current time-share plan in net will abate anytime soon; it's worked out pretty well for them thus far. Nevertheless, both of them continue to be viable fantasy options, and this trend could also continue through the end of the season (as we saw with St. Louis in 2011-12, with Brian Elliott finishing first among all players on the Player Rater while appearing in just 38 games).
Braden Holtby (owned in 62.4 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (4.0 percent), Washington Capitals: We haven't seen Neuvirth on the ice for Washington since he gave up two goals on 11 shots to Pittsburgh on Feb. 7, and that trend has now stretched to four additional contests with Holtby starting all of them. Now, Holtby hasn't been perfect in that span -- or even as stellar as he was during the postseason run last spring -- but he's been markedly better than his first three appearances: his GAA has been 2.93 (down from 4.02), his save percentage .911 (up from .885). Sunday's game against the Rangers ultimately ended in defeat, but Holtby did just about all that he could, stopping 38 of 40 shots. It appears that coach Adam Oates has found his starter, and Holtby is obliging those who remained faithful to him in the fantasy hockey realm with improved play. It's safe to start rotating him back into the active lineup.
Training room roundup
Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars: This was the big one from the past week. Lehtonen is having another great season for Dallas -- he's part of the group tied for fourth in the league with seven wins, and is sixth overall in save percentage at .934 -- but injured his groin during the first period of the game this past Friday against Vancouver. He was placed on IR on Saturday, with no further signs as to when he'll return. In the meantime, Richard Bachman will start in his place, with Cris Nilstorp called up as the backup. Bachman pulled out the win Friday, stopping 18 of 21 shots, but looked out of sorts on Sunday, allowing the Flames to put four pucks past him on 26 shots. He had his moments in 2011-12, though, finishing with 2.77/.910 ratios, so he may be worth a flier for those desperate for help.
James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs: The buzz regarding Reimer as he was placed on IR last Wednesday was that he could be out as little as a week. But an MCL sprain can be a funny thing, and it wouldn't be surprising if he's held out for a while longer. The Leafs have the luxury of a backup who is performing quite strongly in Reimer's absence (Ben Scrivens, mentioned above), and this could dictate how quickly they push their starter back into harm's way.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames: So much for Kipper returning last week. After this column was published, the Flames reported that Kiprusoff would miss another two weeks with his MCL sprain (see what I mean?). While he continues to rehabilitate, it's been a bit of a revolving door in the Flames' crease. Leland Irving started the game on Feb. 13, allowing four goals in a win over Dallas, but after giving up two in the opening four minutes against St. Louis on Friday, he was replaced by journeyman Joey MacDonald and sent back to the AHL affiliate on Saturday. Sunday's start went to MacDonald, who picked up the win, but has allowed six total goals on 51 shots. Danny Taylor, called up as Irving was sent down, looked outmatched on Monday night, allowing four goals on 37 shots. No individual mentioned in this paragraph is currently worth starting on a fantasy hockey team.