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Backup goaltenders are among the most important players to track over the course of the season if you want a real chance at winning your league. Like closers in fantasy baseball or running backs in fantasy football, goalie turnover can be rather high due to injuries, poor performance or trades, so knowing whom to own before they get their shot is key. What’s more, the idea of the “no. 1” goaltender doesn’t mean what it used to in terms of games started. In the past, 70-75 games for a starter was not unheard if your team is lucky enough to have a Tuukka Rask or Corey Crawford between the pipes, but these days it’s much smarter to limit even the elites to around 60 games started. Even with a guy who can start 70ish games, it does more harm than good to roll your starter out that many games during the regular season leaving him too exhausted to perform up to snuff in the playoffs, when it matters most. The need for teams to strike a good balance between riding their work horses in net and giving them a break leaves open a wealth of opportunity for fantasy owners to exploit.

In the past I’ve attempted to make the “goalie first” strategy work, but it’s one I abandoned long ago.  The idea sounds solid at first, draft two elite netminders in the first two or three rounds and worry about your forwards later. When you rely on two guys to win at least 50% of your stats, you want them to be the best, but at what cost? Opting for more offensive punch early on and adding a single, elite netminder to anchor your goaltending situation allows you the freedom to mine this vast vein of backup nuggets, and field a more balanced team in the end. This season has been a poster-child supporting my assertions, and so have my (to this point) successful teams.

Top 30 Starters
(as of 12/1/2013)
1. Tuukka Rask (Chad Johnson)
2. Carey Price (Peter Budaj)
3. Henrik Lundqvist (Cam Talbot)
4. Corey Crawford (Nikolai Khabibulin)
5. Marc-Andre Fleury (Jeff Zatkoff)
6. Antti Niemi (Alex Stalock)
7. Semyon Varlomov (J.S. Giguere)
8. Jaroslav Halak (Brian Elliot)
9. Ben Bishop (Anders Lindback)
10. Josh Harding (Niklas Backstrom)
11. Steve Mason (Ray Emery)
12. Roberto Luongo (Eddie Lack)
13. Kari Lehtonen (Dan Ellis)
14. Ben Scrivens (Martin Jones)
15.  Jimmy Howard (Jonas Gustavsson)
16. Mike Smith (Thomas Greiss)
17. Jonathan Bernier (James Reimer)
18. Martin Brodeur (Cory Schneider)
19. Braden Holtby (Michael Neuvirth)
20. Cam Ward (Justin Peters)
21. Jonas Hiller (Frederik Anderson)
22. Tim Thomas (Jacob Markstrom)
23. Marek Mazanec (Carter Hutton)
24. Sergei Bobrovsky (Curtis McEihinney)
25. Ryan Miller (Jhonas Enroth)
26. Craig Anderson (Robin Lehner)
27. Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)
28. Devan Dubnyk (Ilya Bryzgalov)
29. Kevin Poulin (Anders Nilsson)
30. Reto Berra (Karri Romo)

Ben Scrivens is the biggest backup success story so far, currently leading the NHL in GAA and SV% at 1.48 and .974 respectively, replacing one of the best goaltenders over the last few years in Jon Quick. Even when you think it’s safe one of the elites falls and the little known Scrivens more than fills the void. There’s a lot of buzz around Scrivens and some of it is justified, but the idea that Quick would be relegated to backup duty when he returns from his groin injury is one toke over the line. Scrivens has never handled a full workload before and Quick will get more starts than he does when they’re both healthy. The rich get richer in Los Angeles, mang!

When Niklas Backstrom went down with a concussion it wasn’t shocking to anyone, really. Backstrom isn’t concussion prone, but is otherwise made of glass. Broken glass. He never stays healthy and Josh Harding had been long considered one of the best backups in the league. He stepped in and has played well as Scrivens, for longer, and well enough to create space for himself. Now that Backstrom is healthy they may well split games 50/50, though I’d expect Harding to end the season with a slight edge in starts.

The Rangers learned the hard way what happens when you overwork your starter to take on 95% of the games for your team during the regular season. Henrik Lundqvist was averaging 70 starts a year from 2006 to 2010 and it showed in the few trips the Rangers took to the playoffs. To bring down his GS to a more reasonably 60-65, they signed Martin Biron who, after serving as one of the most reliable backups in the league for the past few seasons, unexpectedly retired shortly after the start of this season. Yet again a goaltending situation changes on the drop of a dime and with King Henrik on pace for 71 starts again this year, new Rangers backp Cam Talbot needs to keep up his stellar early play. Posting a 5-1-0 record, 1.41 GAA and .944 SV% over his first seven starts, Talbot played a career-high 55 games with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate last season posting a season line of 25-28-1, 2.63 GAA, .918 SV% so his early success isn’t surprising, but expect his numbers to normalize a bit. Despite Lundqvist’s greatness, the Rangers need to keep him fresh, so Talbot should see around the same workload Biron did moving forward.

It took two injuries to get Justin Peters an opportunity to shine, but when Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin both went down Peters took the opportunity to post the best stretch of his young career with a 2.49 GAA and .920 SV% despite a rough 4-7-1 (12 GP) record, the only stain on an otherwise pristine season line that can be mostly attributed to the terrible play of the Hurricanes this season than a proble with Peters. Ward is healthy again and Khudobin is skating and nearing a return so Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has three options; trade one, demote Peters to the AHL or carry all three on his active roster. The trade option sounds intriguing but either of the other options hurts Peters’ value. Since any path to the AHL requires Peters to clear waivers first, I doubt very highly the Canes will risk it so unless one of these guys gets traded, all three will see their value take a hit.

When Pekke Rinne’s infected hip felled another top 10 tender and opened the door for not one but two young netminders in Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec. Hutton bombed, but Mazanec has been stellar holding opponents to fewer than two goals in all but two of his ten starts so far. Regardless of how well Mazanec plays, Rinne will dominate the starts when healthy. Recent rumors have the Preds interested in Jonas Hiller, though, so no matter which way you shake it; Mazanec’s value is short lived at best.

Sometimes it’s not an injury, but consistently bad play from an “elite” goaltender like Jimmy Howard whose struggles have become bad enough that despite a shutout last night, and his $36M contract, he’ll sit in favor of the red hot Jonas Gustavsson. Howard was on pace for 71 starts but that’s going to dip to around 60. So long as the Monster keeps gobbling up pucks he’ll keep doing the same to Jimmy’s starts and find himself on the ice around 20-25 games this year.

Craig Anderson has returned to his true form and in 17 games played he has posted a dismal 6-8-2 record, which is the best part of his season line when you look at his 3.51 GAA and .894 SV% that come with it. This has left the door wide open for talented youngster Robin Lehner who has responded each time the Sens have called on him putting a mediocre 4-4-2 record, but with a 2.38 GAA and .937 SV%. With peripherals like that you can expect Lehner to take the reigns sooner, at this point do the Senators really have a choice? You sure as hell don’t if you’re an Anderson owner so if you haven’t handcuffed Lehner to him, do it now!

Ilya Bryzgalov wasn’t even a backup when the season started he sat on his crazy Russian kiester unsigned, but Edmonton starter Devan Dubnyk’s play was so effin’ awful, heeeere’s Breezy! Bryzgalov is as yawnstipating as they come on the ice and as batshiz cray cray as only Russia can produce off the ice. You knew the Oil had to make a move and Breezy cost Oilers GM Craig MacTavish nothing but the contract to bring him on and that’s likely the only reason they bothered. Breezy’s early success had a lot to do with the strong defensive units he had playing in front of him and when he moved on to Philly, a team not typically known as a defensive powerhouse in recent years, his flaws were laid bare and he seemed a lot more like a backup than a starter. In any case it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Dubs or Breezy in net; owning either of these hosers is a mark of desperation for fantasy owners.

Trade rumors continue to swirl around Buffalo Sabres starter Ryan Miller but with the Oil adding Breezy and allegedly asking about (still Mighty!) Ducks starter Jonas Hiller it seems the most likely destination for Miller is no longer interested. If you are hoping that Jonas Enroth is going to get his chance, this isn’t the best news, but hey if you are really hoping Enroth gets a shot you’re doing pretty poorly at this point, eh? You can’t really fault Miller for his poor numbers, though his .911 SV% is admirable considering the shelling he takes on a nightly basis, his 3+ GAA and horrendous 4-12-0 record make him unstartable at this point. Enroth said that he’s more than ready to take over for Miller if and when he gets dealt and for Enroth to have any real value that has to happen. Whether it’s this season or next, Enroth is going to get a shot at being the starter so don’t lose track of him.

Ducks starter Jonas Hiller has also been subject to various trade rumors, the most recent has interest coming from the Preds who, despite the strong play of rookie tender Marek Mazanec, sound like they’re looking for a more stable, long term option to back up Rinne. If Hiller is moved you can expect the talented duo of Viktor Fasth and Frederik Andersen to split duties at near parity, but likely with Fasth having a slight edge. We’ve covered both before, but both are worth owning even with Swiss Miss starting. At any rate, Hiller getting moved would be a boon to everyone but his owners, and since I’m not one of them, I’m rooting for that.

Keep an eye out for more installments of State of the Crease this week and througout the rest of the season here at Razzball!

  1. willy says:
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    I completely agree with your drafting strategy. I drafted all six forward spots before I even thought about a goalie. There’s always surprise goalies that you can grab so that’s why I always put a premium on getting the best forwards possible FIRST.

    On draft day I ended up with Schneider, Reimer and Mason… Can’t say I’m upset with that so far!

    While other people were picking up elite goalies early in the draft, I was picking up guys like Saguin and B Ryan. I’m currently sitting comfortably in 1st place in my H2H 12 man. My top 6 forwards are:

    H Sedin
    Giroux
    Ryan
    Saguin
    Lucic
    E Kane

    I picked up Okposo, Vrbata and Hertl from free agency very early in the season and they have been great players to plug in when my top 6 are resting.

    Call it luck with the goalies if you will, but I call it prioritizing on the forwards.

    Great work JD… Keep it up. I know the hockey part of Razzball doesn’t get as much love as the others, but fellow Canadians like myself do appreciate it!

    Cheers!

    • JD

      JD says:
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      @willy:

      Thanks, Willy! I’m glad you appreciate my work. Hockey doesn’t get the love it should in the states, but I do my best. Happy to hear about your early success, too! I end up with similar teams, I have one that boasts Couture, Pacioretty, Getzlaf, Giroux, Datsyuk with Corey Crawford, Schneider and Reimer in net and save losing out on Ws a lot early on, the trio posts elite numbers as a group and keeps me in it for GAA/SV%/SHO every week while my beastly offense is so deep even losing a guy like Dats hasn’t slowed the team much.

      • willy says:
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        @JD: I hear ya… Giroux was a let down early on and that didn’t derail my team. Now it seams like he’s back to business as usual and my team will continue to crush.

        I was at a point where I was considering selling Giroux for a top defender like what’s his face in Ottawa, but glad I didn’t. I posted a comment in my league saying “the ship has sailed to buy low on Giroux”… They all hate me! Ha! I love it!

        Good luck to your teams this season man!

  2. Paz says:
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    I’m with you on this, man. I waited until the last minute and drafted Nabokov and Tim Thomas. Now I’m riding the backup/free-agent train with Scrivens, Mazanec, Brodeur, and Talbot.

    I’m in first in my 14-team H2H (7-2) and it’s thanks to those guys, especially with Stamkos out.

    • JD

      JD says:
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      @Paz:

      Losing Stamkos crushed most of his owners, but if you played your cards right at the draft this is the kind of insulation you need to win that this strategy provides. You’ve got some short timers on that list, though, so I’d consider a trade that will give you a more stable starting tender. One situation you don’t want to find yourself in for the stretch run is having Brodeur as your primary starter with Scrivens/Talbot behind him; those two may not see enough starts to really hold fort without a Corey Crawford-type in front of them to anchor your goalies.

  3. Hello from West Michigan. I can’t say how much I appreciate your columns and advise! I have Niemi, Bob, & Lehner in net (recently dropped Hiller for Lehner). Goalie categories: W, L, SO, GAA, & SV%. Bernier is available on waivers but I am wary of all the shots on goal Toronto allows. Now I see Niklas Backstrom & Cory Schneider were cut. Bob seems to follow up each loss with a win, but I feel like I need to hold tight, even if he seems unpredictable. Maybe that is a mistake? Lehner was kind of a flyer, hoping for Craig Anderson to become 1B instead of 1A right now. Hiller was getting too scary. Is Cory Schneider worth consideration over Lehner or Bob? Do you like Bernier over Schneider? Thanks again!

    • willy says:
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      @madden_curser: I wouldn’t shy away from Bernier because of the shots… that just means he’ll have a nice save% for you at the end of the night. Bernier is getting the bulk of the starts in Toronto compared to Reimer. Schneider is also a beauty. kind of the opposite of Bernier’s situation. The other night he had a 15 save SO and the night before that he had another win with about 15 saves. Only problem is that if he lets in a couple goals with only 15 to 18 shots against, it won’t be a pretty save%… anyway, I’d take Bernier or Schneider over Lehner at this point of the season. Tough choice though between the two. Bernier will get more starts and will get more goals from his team to support him. Schneider has Brodeur in the way so no matter how much better his peripherals are, they will stick with Brodeur.

      Maybe take Bernier based on him getting more starts. What do you think JD?

    • JD

      JD says:
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      @madden_curser:

      Don’t drop any of your goalies for Bernier. You’re right to be wary of the amount of shots that the Leaf’s allow and it will wear down Bernier and Reimer over time. I love Schneider, but until he gets more love from Peter DeBoer, he’s not worth dropping anyone you have to get. Backstrom has clearly taken a back seat to Harding who, despite two straight losses, still got the nod last night over Backstrom, so he isn’t worth nabbing in your situation either. Anderson will give up more starts to Lehner as the season goes on, but they will likely end up around a 50/50 split, but that still makes Lehner a high end no. 3, low end no. 2

      tl;dr – Sit tight with Niemi, Lehner and Bobrovsky for now.

      • willy says:
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        @JD: Schneider starting to get some more love… today’s yahoo note says that he’s going to get the nod for Wednesday’s game… that will be 3/4 starts for him. I think they are starting to see the light!

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