Crease: Time to get Bobrovsky?

The ESPN Fantasy Player Rater is a great tool that can be used to assess the comparative value of players at different positions and across different periods of time (either from a full-season standpoint or the past seven, 15 or 30 days). Over the past 30 days, for instance, the Pittsburgh Penguins' forward trio of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and James Neal holds down the top three spots, an unsurprising development for those who've been monitoring the team's results over that span, not to mention the high preseason expectations from the Pens' offense. But when clicking over to the Player Rater ranks from the past 15 days, there's a player atop the rankings whose ownership percentage in ESPN leagues remains below 50 percent at this point of the season, and who was the No. 200 player off the board, on average, in drafts: Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bobrovsky is no stranger to fantasy owners. Two seasons ago, he was an electrifying rookie for the Philadelphia Flyers, though his meltdown during the latter portion of the season (and into the playoffs) was one of the reasons Philly hit the market and signed Ilya Bryzgalov to that massive contract prior to the 2011-12 campaign. After a season as the backup to Bryz, Bobrovsky was shipped to Columbus this past offseason. Following a successful run in the KHL during the lockout, some (including this humble correspondent) had depicted Bobrovsky as a sleeper candidate for the shortened 2012-13 campaign.

For the first part of the season, Bobrovsky looked the part, but his numbers didn't match up with that visual evidence, and he was mired in a time-share with Steve Mason. Nevertheless, over the past five appearances -- all wins -- he has been stellar, allowing just four goals on 128 shots, good for a 0.81 goals-against average and .969 save percentage. Which brings us to these two vital questions: Should we have seen this coming, and can this trend continue?

You may remember a recent column in which I examined the concept of quality starts, and how this information could be exploited in fantasy hockey. One of the surprising findings after I compiled QS data on the NHL's Top 49 netminders was that Bobrovsky landed in the No. 23 spot at 54.5 percent; this figure put him substantially ahead of Mason, and he was also higher on the list than goalies like Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and, ironically, Bryzgalov. What this meant then was that despite playing reasonably well -- well enough, as the definition of a "quality start" goes, to give his team a chance to win 54.5 percent of the time -- he was not getting the support on the opposite end of the ice, as he had just three wins in 11 starts. At that point, some might have been bold enough to think Bobrovsky was due for better things ahead. On the other hand, through Feb. 26, he had put up a 2.90 GAA and .899 save percentage on the season, and this was the Blue Jackets we're talking about. Wild offensive flourishes haven't been the norm for that franchise.

We know what has happened since: Despite just a modest increase in scoring for the Blue Jackets (2.4 goals per game during the win streak, up from 2.1 in Bobrovsky's February starts and 1.6 in his January outings), they're undefeated in their past five games, and the 24-year-old was named the NHL's first star of the week for his recent exploits.

So can he keep this up? Well, the bad news is that the Detroit Red Wings aren't on the schedule again. Columbus trotted Bobrovsky out as their starter for each of the four games against Detroit this season, and he won three and lost one in a shootout (on a ridiculous goal by Damien Brunner), posting a 1.68 GAA and .944 SV% in the process. The other three wins in the recent streak have come against Vancouver, Colorado and Edmonton, ranked No. 16, 18 and 25 in the league, respectively, in goals per game. Furthermore, the Blue Jackets will have to face teams in the top 10 in league scoring (including Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Louis) six times over the final 22 games.

The good news is that Nashville -- the league's lowest-scoring team (2.08 per game) -- is on the schedule four more times, and Bobrovsky had a 32-save shootout win against them in the season opener. Overall, the Blue Jackets will face teams in the bottom 10 of scoring (Edmonton, Minnesota, Nashville and San Jose) nine times over the remaining 22. Teams around the league have scored 2,047 goals this season in 750 games played, a rate of 2.73 per game. Columbus' opponents in the final stretch have scored at a 2.59 goals-per-game clip. So it's a favorable schedule based upon what teams have done through the midway point of this campaign.

Despite lackluster work in 2011-12 as the backup to Bryzgalov -- a 14-10-2 record, 3.02 GAA and .899 SV% -- Bobrovsky does have a relatively strong 2010-11 campaign to fall back on; he finished 28-13-8, with a 2.59/.915 split. We know he has the talent from a visual standpoint. We know he has put a team on his back before (in a city that places considerably more pressure on its goaltender). We know the Blue Jackets have a favorable schedule down the stretch. However, we also know that Columbus has scoring problems of its own -- they've produced 2.23 goals per game this season -- and it's not like Nick Foligno, R.J. Umberger and Vinny Prospal have magically turned into Crosby, Kunitz and Neal. In spite of the recent streak, wins may be tough to come by down the stretch for this club, which obviously places a cap on Bobrovsky's value.

As a result, Bobrovsky is not a "must-own" fantasy hockey player at this point. Depending upon your current situation, he might not crack the top two on your roster. But for those who are having some difficulty -- especially in the ratio categories -- he's worth a look, and may be sitting there as a free agent in your league. It's not every week that the NHL's first-star honoree is available on waivers.

Rising and falling

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 from last week is indicated in parentheses.

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

Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins (down four spots to No. 16): Widely considered one of the league's most talented netminders -- when he's on top of his game -- Fleury is also one of the most enigmatic. When it comes to providing value to his fantasy hockey owners, that's a bad thing. While Fleury has had five starts this season in which he has allowed just one goal, he also has had five starts in which he has allowed four or more. Oh, and three of that latter five have come in Fleury's past four starts. The good news for Fleury owners (and bad news for Penguins fans) is that backup Tomas Vokoun has had similar problems serving as the understudy; one night Vokoun will shut down an opposing offense entirely -- he had a 28-save shutout win over the Rangers on Jan. 31 and a 14-save win over the Flyers in relief of Fleury on March 7 -- and then another night he'll allow six goals (that has happened twice this season). While the presence of Vokoun was meant to put some pressure on Fleury, it's tough to see this turning into much less than a 65-35 split, the current starting ratio. Nevertheless, for the rest of the campaign, Fleury has given his fantasy owners a decision to make if they have another strong option to play on the nights he's starting.

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes (down five spots to No. 20): Smith was one of the first goalies off the board this preseason, which was not surprising, given what he did in the 2011-12 season (he finished fourth among goalies on the Player Rater). But those who invested a high draft pick on him have been waiting to see production at the expected level. Unfortunately, after a miserable January led to a promising February -- he improved his save percentage from .836 to .915 -- his numbers have been off again this month. Despite picking up wins in three of four March starts, he has posted a 3.60 GAA/.872 SV% ratio. So he does have one of the three categories for goalies in ESPN fantasy leagues covered; the other two, not so much. Based upon what Smith did in his previous NHL seasons, perhaps 2011-12 was the mirage after all.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche (up six spots to No. 21): Varlamov's final 22-game stretch of 2011-12 -- he posted a 1.87 GAA and .934 SV% -- had some projecting bigger things ahead for the one-time time-share resident in Washington. That optimism crashed to the ground in the early going of the 2012-13 season; he rang up a 6-8-2 record, with a 2.84/.908 split in January and February. Perhaps that was just Varly keeping us honest, because he's heating up again. Through four starts this month, he has gone 2-1-1, with a 2.19 GAA and .934 SV%. For those not averse to risk, it would be prudent to target Varlamov via trade now, pointing to his overall numbers in order to keep the price tag down. There's at least a chance he's in the early stages of another big late-season run.


Viktor Fasth (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Jonas Hiller (78.0 percent), Anaheim Ducks: A wild string of strong starts, coupled with an injury to Hiller, had both Ducks fans and fantasy owners racing to jump aboard the Fasth bandwagon, and fleeing Hiller's just as fervently. But since the latter has returned from his health issue, it has been a time-share for Anaheim in the crease, a trend that is not very surprising given Bruce Boudreau's historical tendencies (Washington fans are nodding solemnly at this). The downside is there's no true No. 1 starter in Anaheim, so there's a limit on how much value either man can bring to a fantasy roster. The upside is that we've seen in recent seasons that both members of a time-share can have a high value. Looking at last season's final Player Rater rankings, for instance, Brian Elliott (No. 1) and Jaroslav Halak (No. 6) were both key contributors to their fantasy teams. The call to action here is simple: Check to see if Hiller is available on your waiver wire. It's too late to be able to get either man via trade for a reasonable price.

Jaroslav Halak (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues), Brian Elliott (29.6 percent) and Jake Allen (8.3 percent), St. Louis Blues: An injury robbed Halak of starts earlier this season, and it was during that time that some speculated Elliott would wrestle sole control of the St. Louis net away from him. That obviously didn't happen, and last season's Player Rater champ is now an afterthought. It isn't so much that Halak has been outstanding -- he certainly has not been -- but there's a new individual in the mix, and the 22-year-old from New Brunswick has led the Blues to a win in five of his six starts. Allen's numbers -- 2.73 GAA, .891 SV% -- fall between those of Halak (2.38/.881) and Elliott (3.65/.851) for the season, and ratios like that could be a burden to a fantasy team. However, for those in need of some help in the win category, he's worth consideration, as the team clearly has confidence playing in front of him.

Anders Lindback (owned in 72.1 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Mathieu Garon (1.4 percent), Tampa Bay Lightning: A lower-body injury sustained by Garon in last week's loss to the Penguins forced Lindback back into duty, and after allowing two goals on 18 shots that evening, he was pressed into starting duty for the next two contests. This might be tough to believe, based upon what we've seen out of Lindback thus far this season, but he actually looked like a legitimate NHL starter in those two games, saving 25 of 27 shots in a win over New Jersey and 26-of-28 in a loss to Winnipeg. Don't get carried away, though; two good starts does not a No. 1 goalie make. But there's hope that he could actually get himself straightened out. Garon does not have a high enough ceiling to merit much consideration for our purposes, but keep tabs on Lindback, as the recent string could be a good sign for the duration.

Cory Schneider (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (100.0 percent), Vancouver Canucks: Have things taken a turn in the Vancouver crease? Canucks coach Alain Vigneault tapped Schneider for three straight starts, and while all three resulted in losses, it's tough to blame Schneider, who posted a 2.57 GAA and .910 SV% in the three contests, with two of the three falling into the definition of a quality start. Looking at a larger span, Schneider has started five of the past six, and eight of the past 12. Luongo's past two starts have also been tough, as he allowed 11 goals total over that duo of contests, losing both. He'll have a chance for redemption Tuesday night against Columbus, and each start from here on out could determine how big a slice of the remaining pie he'll get.

Training room roundup

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators: The early edge of Anderson's expected return range has come and gone (it was this past Thursday), and he's still not been activated from injured reserve. The Ottawa Citizen has reported that Anderson had some soreness in his injured ankle after a workout this past week, and with coach Paul MacLean commenting that the team would "err on the cautious side" with its No. 1 netminder, this could push Anderson's return back several more days. That's bad news for Anderson's owners, who are still waiting for the early-season MVP to return, but good news for those who took a chance on Ben Bishop, who is owned in just 43.9 percent of ESPN leagues and has four wins in eight appearances (with a 2.54 GAA and .925 SV%), and Robin Lehner, who is owned in 4.3 percent of ESPN leagues and has a 1.89 GAA and .947 SV% despite just one win in four appearances. Anderson owners must continue to sit tight, while both Bishop and Lehner should be under consideration for those who need a short-term boost. Their spot on the rankings isn't that high because once Anderson returns, we won't see much of them. But over the next several days, each could provide some value.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: Another week of the NHL schedule, another week of no Marty for New Jersey, as well as another week of rough outings from backup Johan Hedberg. The Devils have remained tight-lipped regarding status updates on the future Hall of Famer, and considering it's a back injury, their non-disclosure may be partially because there's no real answer yet in terms of a timetable for Brodeur's return. Back issues have a tendency to linger, making it difficult to project when a player will be back. Any thought of using Hedberg on one's fantasy team have faded significantly; in his past 10 starts, only three have been "quality," using the accepted definition.