Transition is a part of any sport. When players age, younger players fill their place. When players improve, those who struggled get passed over. This season, the NHL is in an interesting position with many teams having to decide where their goaltending situation stands. Teams have their hands forced due to the upcoming expansion draft, but it is not just a problem losing a goalie in the next offseason, many backup goalies are making stronger and stronger cases that they deserve a heavier workload.
When evaluating the goalie position, and attempting to determine which players have the highest fantasy value, there is an increasing number of teams that split their starts between two goalies. It is not always an even distribution as coaches may ride the hot hand, or have one-half of the tandem succumb to injury. There is plenty of this currently in the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings have the duo of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard. The Dallas Stars alternate between Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. The Carolina Hurricanes have Eddie Lack and Cam Ward.
These are some of the high-profile timeshares, that unfortunately hurt both goalies’ exposure and usefulness in fantasy leagues. It also seems to have a somewhat adverse effect on the team’s success. In recent years, having a two goalie system has worked in theory but not in practice. The theory tends to be that the threat of competition and losing the starting spot will motivate one goalie to play at a much higher level and secure the crease. In reality, this system prevents either goalie from getting into a nice groove. Goalies lose their rhythm and the team in front of them appears disjointed as they have to constantly adjust to a different netminder, depending on the day.
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In fantasy leagues, most timeshares dilute goalie values purely because of the amount of ice time each goalie sees. A goalie like the Minnesota Wild’s Devan Dubnyk may receive 65 starts in a season. This will allow him to score many more points for your fantasy team than a goalie such as Niemi, who may only start 45 games. Combine this lower exposure with the potential problems caused by the lack of consistency, and not only will players like Dubnyk provide more value, but also more value per start.
Obviously, the argument for Dubnyk, or similar players, to play will be the differentiated according to which team they play for, and the style of play the team has. While that is true, there have been some in the goalie market that are showing they may be under-utilized in the backup role.
Backing up the Backups
Antti Raanta of the New York Rangers made headlines recently due to his back-to-back starts, being chosen for both Thursday’s tilt in Winnipeg and Friday’s in Chicago. Henrik Lundqvist had allowed four goals on 32 shots versus the struggling New York Islanders on Tuesday, so Raanta started Thursday night. Raanta and the Rangers defeated the Winnipeg Jets by a score of 2-1, while Raanta stopped 17 of 18 shots. Despite the low volume of shots, Raanta played well, and coach Alain Vigneault chose to send Raanta back out to face the Chicago Blackhawks.
Playing his prior team in a building that he has had enormous success in, having never lost in regulation, Raanta out-dueled Chicago’s backup, Scott Darling, on the way to a 1-0 overtime win. Raanta and Darling traded highlight reel saves all night long and Darling stopped a stellar 36 of 37 shots. Raanta again earned high praise as he shutout the Blackhawks on 26 shots.
In a span of about 28 hours, Raanta sported a save percentage of .977 and a goals allowed average of 0.50 against two playoff contenders. While it’d be hard to argue that Raanta should take over starting duties for the one and only Lundqvist, it is worth noting that Lundqvist is now 34 years old and has a cap hit that is $7.5 million higher than Raanta.
While Lundqvist still has a healthy hold on the blue paint for the Rangers, Chad Johnson has recently usurped Brian Elliott in Calgary. When Elliott joined Calgary this summer, he was pigeon-holed into the starting job. It was a forgone conclusion that journeyman, Johnson, would only be there to play the occasional game when Elliott needed to rest.
With Elliott’s disappointing start to the season, Johnson has come up large and clung onto the starting job. This isn’t to say that Johnson will spend the whole season as the team’s starter, but his value is at an all-time high after a stellar run. In the month of November, Johnson started ten games, recorded three shutouts, and earned a .939 save percentage.
The Youth Are Ready
While some backups have to slog through years of being the understudy, there is always the highly touted prospect that comes to challenge the veteran for a spot at a young age. A tale straight from a script, young players are causing headaches for various front offices. A problem of abundance, but a problem nonetheless. With the emergence of Matt Murray, the Pittsburgh Penguins need to figure out what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury, a franchise goalie with a no movement clause who has stated he wants to stay put.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy biting at Ben Bishops’ heels, Scott Darling has made a case that he could flourish if he got out from under Corey Crawford, Philipp Grubauer continues to perform in Braden Holtby’s shadow, and although on less successful teams, Calvin Pickard has performed admirably out in Colorado, Mike Condon has relieved Craig Anderson with encouraging results, and even Anders Nilsson has created rumblings of a goalie controversy in Buffalo.
While each situation comes with individual nuances and complications, fantasy owners have plenty of options inside the crease. Dobber Hockey’s GoaliePost.com has a ranking of the top 100 goalies for keeper leagues. The power of the backup is obvious as Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury are both in the top 15 as of the November ranking. Other backups such as Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jacob Markstrom sit in the top 30, with so-called starting goalies such as Cam Ward, Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard, and Ryan Miller all falling outside this range.
The Vegas Monkey Wrench
All the abundant riches in the net are causing dilemmas around the league. With the upcoming expansion draft, there are few teams that don’t have a consideration in net. Some teams, such as the Penguins, risk losing one of their most important players, while others, like Tampa Bay, have a goalie entering free agency this summer. Since the Lightning do not need to protect Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy is in line to become the starter for the Lightning next year. Regardless of which goalies end up being claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights, one thing is for certain, there will be plenty of rumors and trade activity before the roster is announced, and more than one goalie may find themselves in a vastly different scenario.
I grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs but currently growing my passion for the game in the state of hockey.