A week after breaking down the likelihood of Sergei Bobrovsky continuing his strong run -- more on him a bit lower in this week's column -- I turn my attention west along I-70 for a look at another young netminder who is making his mark this season, in an even more unexpected fashion: St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen, winner of his past five starts and eight out of 10 appearances overall. As with "Bob" last week, I'll have a look at the same two questions: Should we have seen this coming, and can he keep it up for the duration of the season?
Before we get to that, I'll allow you a few minutes to go check and see if Allen is still available in your league -- at press time, he was owned in just 56.1 percent of ESPN leagues, so there's a chance you can grab him right now. I'd recommend doing so (even if you don't wind up activating him right away).
OK, now that that's out of the way, let's delve more into the Fredericton, New Brunswick, native. Unlike Bobrovsky (who was undrafted), Allen has a strong pedigree from his younger days in the sport. He was selected in the second round of the 2008 entry draft (No. 34 overall), and followed that up with strong play in international tournaments -- leading Canada to gold in the World Under-18 Championship (earning tournament MVP in the process) and a silver in the World Junior Championship a year later -- as well as juniors -- earning the Jacques Plante trophy as the QMJHL's goalie of the year in 2009-10, when he posted a 18-3-0 record, with a 1.75 goals against average and .933 save percentage.
After two effective seasons with the AHL's Peoria Rivermen, he made his NHL debut during the Blues' playoff series loss against the Los Angeles Kings last spring, but faced zero shots in a shade over a minute of action. This season in Peoria, his GAA remained consistent with his earlier work in the AHL (2.89), but his save percentage shrank to .904. Nevertheless, when the injury bug took a bite out of the gentlemen ahead of him on the organizational depth chart (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott), Allen got his shot.
For those who haven't been paying attention to Allen's work over the past 10 appearances, he's got that gaudy 8-1-0 record, and he's steadily improved his ratios: in his first five games played, he allowed 12 goals on 114 shots, generating 2.62/.895 ratios. In the ensuing five, he's relented just nine goals on 148 shots, good for 1.79/.939 ratios. It's not surprising that a goalie with a background as impressive as Allen's has been able to make such a mark at the NHL level; it is surprising that he's done it so soon in his young career.
But can it continue? The rise of Allen has coincided with two trends for the Blues: they're getting healthier (Alex Steen made his return this past week, while Andy McDonald and Vladimir Tarasenko are potentially returning within the coming weeks) and the team's scoring woes of February -- they scored just 26 goals in 12 games (2.17 goals per game) -- have been rectified -- 30 goals have been scored by the club in just nine March contests.
The concern with Allen, as with any strong rookie netminder, is that at some point, opposing teams will have enough video on him to target weaknesses better. To be fair, they were targeting those weaknesses somewhat well over the first half of his appearances already. On the other hand, and somewhat counter-intuitively, he's actually improved when suiting up against teams for additional games: His best game out of three against San Jose came in the third outing (two goals allowed on 41 shots), and after allowing three goals in his first game against Phoenix, he shut out the Coyotes in the return matchup.
As with any goalie playing for a Ken Hitchcock-coached team, Allen is not going to face a lot of shots: That trend has played out again in 2012-13, as the Blues allow the lowest shots per game in the league (24.3). That can serve to diminish a goalie's save percentage -- as fewer shots equals fewer saves -- but Elliott proved last season that this idea isn't always the case (he set a record for seasonal save percentage in 2011-12, with a .940 mark), and there will be nights when Allen faces an onslaught of pucks (such as the 41-shot outing against San Jose mentioned above). The good news about Hitchcock is that despite the fact that he's not averse to running a timeshare (as we saw last season), he will continue to ride the hot hand, and Allen is most definitely hot right now as the wins continue to pile up.
From a strength of schedule standpoint, the Blues face top-10 scoring offenses four times in final 20 games (Chicago three times and Los Angeles once); nine of the other 16 matchups are against teams in the bottom 10 of scoring (Columbus, Edmonton, Colorado, Minnesota twice each and Nashville once). That's generally a favorable situation for Allen or whoever is tapped to start by Hitchcock from here on out.
So what to do about Allen, now that you've picked him up? You've got two choices: Keep him in the active lineup, or market him in trade. My inclination would sway on the fantasy league format. We may be seeing the very best of Allen right now, so in a redraft league, one should send out the feelers on what kind of offers he can draw as he rides that wave. In a keeper league, he has a bit more value, though the Blues have a complicated situation ahead of them: Halak and Elliott both have a season left on their contracts (at $4.5 million and $1.9 million, respectively). Despite that financial conundrum, Allen may wind up as their best option to start the 2013-14 campaign, and for an ascending team like St. Louis, that may push him into the upper tier of starting goalies for next fantasy season. Hang on to him if your league uses keepers, just in case.
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. Carey Price, Mon (4)
4. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
5. Antti Niemi, SJ (6)
6. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
7. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (5)
8. Viktor Fasth, Ana (8)
9. Jimmy Howard, Det (12)
10. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (11)
11. Craig Anderson, Ott (10)
12. Cory Schneider, Van (22)
13. Jonas Hiller, Ana (19)
14. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (16)
15. Braden Holtby, Was (13)
16. Roberto Luongo, Van (9)
17. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (26)
18. Martin Brodeur, NJ (25)
19. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (15)
20. Jaroslav Halak, StL (14)
21. Jake Allen, StL (38)
22. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (18)
23. Ryan Miller, Buf (17)
24. Mike Smith, Pho (20)
25. Semyon Varlamov, Col (21)
26. James Reimer, Tor (23)
27. Anders Lindback, TB (32)
28. Ray Emery, Chi (27)
29. Ben Bishop, Ott (28)
30. Ben Scrivens, Tor (24)
31. Niklas Backstrom, Min (29)
32. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (30)
33. Robin Lehner, Ott (35)
34. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (31)
35. Dan Ellis, Car (33)
36. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (34)
37. Jacob Markstrom, Fla (36)
38. Johan Hedberg, NJ (40)
39. Cam Ward, Car (37)
40. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (39)
Rising and Falling
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets (up nine spots to No. 17): Well, the saga continues. Now not only is Bobrovsky the top overall fantasy asset over the past 30 days (beating out some plucky young chap from Nova Scotia named Sidney Crosby), but for the season, he's moved up to No. 8 overall on ESPN's Player Rater, clocking in as the No. 4 goalie. Even the most optimistic projections didn't have him performing this well -- we had him pegged as a strong No. 2 in fantasy, at best -- though perhaps his work in the KHL during the lockout (an 18-3-2 record, 1.94 GAA and .932 save percentage) should have been taken more seriously. Nevertheless, it's likely too late to add him off of waivers (unless you play in a league amongst the handful on ESPN.com where he's unowned), and trading for him violates the classic "buy low, sell high" credo. Speaking of which, it's still not a bad idea to float his name as potential trade bait; I think he'll continue to play well, but it's tough to see him continuing the run he's put up over the past eight games: a 6-0-2 record with a 0.74 GAA and .976 save percentage. And playing behind a team that has scored 2.07 goals per game this season, the margin for error is wafer thin.
Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche (down four spots to No. 25): Classic rope-a-dope move by Varlamov on his fantasy owners over the past eight outings. Over the first four, he picked up two wins while generating a 2.19 GAA and a .934 save percentage, and two of those games were against the mighty Blackhawks; this inspired hope that the former Capital was ready to make another big spring run like last season. Over the next four games, however, he won on zero occasions, and his work has produced jaw-dropping ratios of 4.14 in GAA and .872 in save percentage; bear in mind that three of those four games came against our friends in the bottom 10 in league scoring (two against Minnesota, one against Edmonton). It'd be comical if it wasn't so ruinous to his fantasy owners' chances. Without knowing the other alternatives for all the Varly owners out there, I can't definitively call him a must-bench right now, but it's obvious that other options should be examined in greater detail until the 24-year-old gets things straightened out this season.
Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning (up five spots to No. 27): It had been a harrowing campaign for Lindback, his fantasy owners, Lightning fans and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman (who chose the relatively inexpensive Lindback over Roberto Luongo as a trade target this past offseason). Through his first 14 appearances of the season, he went 7-4-1 -- which isn't too bad -- but posted a 3.27 GAA and .890 save percentage -- which is. However, after seven days to reflect, he was pushed into duty when Mathieu Garon sustained a lower-body injury in the game against Pittsburgh on March 4. Including that evening -- when he stopped 16 of 18 -- he's had a 1.97 GAA and .935 save percentage in the six most recent outings, three of which have been wins; all five of the starts in that streak have been "quality starts," using the Hockey Prospectus definition. The usual warning about small sample size apply here -- especially given the larger sample size from earlier this season -- but there's a reason Yzerman and his scouts chose the 24-year-old Swede over the other options (aside from the price tag), and we may be witnessing the dawn of Lindback as a legitimate NHL backstop. Furthermore, playing behind an offense that is the league's second-most potent, he could still be a source of wins even after a dropoff (as long as it's not too extreme). Available in around 17 percent of ESPN leagues as of this week, Lindback is certainly worth rostering in just about any format; whether he should be activated depends on the other options on your roster. Looking the remaining schedule, the Lightning face top-10 scoring teams seven times down the final stretch and bottom-10 teams just five times.
Viktor Fasth (owned in 88.8 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Jonas Hiller (96.6 percent), Anaheim Ducks: After a 29-save shutout against Calgary on March 8, Fasth suffered an upper-body injury in the Ducks' morning skate this past Tuesday. Apparently this spooked owners in 11.2 percent of ESPN leagues, as they were quick to unload Fasth, who had only been one of the hottest goalies in the league. In his first start back, in fact, Fasth looked no worse for wear, stopping 32 of 35 shots en route to a win over San Jose on Monday night. It's worth checking to see if he was dumped in your league, and snatching up regardless of whoever else you've got. As for Hiller, it seems that the presence of real competition has brought out the best in him. Since returning from an early-season injury, he's looked like vintage Hiller, and the recent stats bear this out: in his last seven outings, he's gone 5-0-2, with 1.67/.942 ratios. It's too late to jump on the Hiller bandwagon, of course. As for the rest of the campaign, we know that Bruce Boudreau is not averse to running a timeshare, so both goalies will continue to have value in the fantasy realm (though they are somewhat limited by the other's presence).
Ben Bishop (owned in 22.3 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Robin Lehner (25.5 percent), Ottawa Senators: With Craig Anderson still on the shelf -- more on him in a bit -- Bishop and Lehner continue to suit up for Paul MacLean's club. In the early days of Anderson's injury, it was Bishop tending the crease, but the momentum has swung in Lehner's direction as of late, perhaps the result of a five-goal-against outing for Bishop on March 6. Since then, Lehner has started four of the team's ensuing five games; through six starts overall since Feb. 28, he's posted 1.90/.946 ratios. Lehner is the better option for fantasy owners until Anderson returns.
Cory Schneider (owned in 99.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (99.7 percent), Vancouver Canucks: As of last week's column, it looked like things were taking a decidedly Schneider-oriented turn in Vancouver. The Massachusetts native had been the starter for three straight games (with a 2.57 GAA and .910 save percentage in that span) as part of a run of starting five of the last six. But then, Luongo was the man in the crease for all four games over the past week. The end result? Two wins (one in a shootout), with a 3.21 GAA and .883 save percentage. Not exactly inspiring much confidence, and as the second game in two nights, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Schneider back in front of the cage Tuesday against St. Louis. For both re-draft and keeper formats, Schneider is the preferred option going forward.
Braden Holtby (owned in 94.8 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Michal Neuvirth (2.4 percent), Washington Capitals: Things were really starting to shape up for the Capitals in general, and Holtby specifically, until the 23-year-old's recent skid: In his past three games, he's allowed three goals apiece, and only pulled off a win in the most recent one because the team put five goals past Ryan Miller. Prospect Philipp Grubauer did not appear ready for the NHL game in his lone start (a five-goal-against loss to the Islanders), which meant that it was Neuvirth picking up the pieces in two outings this past week. To put it gently: Holtby's starting job doesn't seem to be in peril. Neuvirth had one great game -- two goals allowed on 38 shots in a win over Carolina -- and one rough one -- four goals allowed in a loss to Boston. It's this kind of inconsistency that has plagued Neuvirth during his days in Washington and what keeps him mostly off our radar for fantasy purposes. Holtby should bounce back, whether the Caps sell off some assets at the NHL's trade deadline or not. As a result, fantasy owners shouldn't lose faith.
Training room roundup
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators: Still nothing concrete on Anderson -- who still remains in the No. 1 overall on the Player Rater despite not playing since Feb. 21, a testament to what he accomplished in the early weeks of the season -- with the latest buzz that Anderson has been skating in practice, but not going through any drills. If you've stuck it out this long with Anderson on your bench (or in an IR slot), no sense changing anything up at this point. And while his return doesn't appear to be necessarily imminent (the strong play of Lehner and Bishop in his absence has decreased the need for a hasty comeback) it might not be a bad idea to find out what his owner would want in trade; depending upon how well that owner has dealt with the loss of Anderson, it could be an opportunity to acquire an undervalued asset.
Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: Good news on both Devils netminders over the past week: Not only did Brodeur make his return to the ice for practice on Monday -- more on that here -- but the word is that he could suit up as the backup to Johan Hedberg for Tuesday's showdown with the New York Rangers. Speaking of Hedberg, he had two quality starts out of three total for the week -- going 1-1-1 with a 1.64 GAA and .928 save percentage in that span. Brodeur could start as soon as Thursday at Carolina, and will most likely take on the lion's share of work over the final 17 after that. He'll be right back amongst the solid No. 2's in fantasy so long as there's no further setback.