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Fantasy Hockey: Tiering goaltenders to maximize draft success

Dobber Hockey
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Continuing with this week's series of fantasy-related content, we'll take a look at the fantasy value of some of the netminders in the year ahead.

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When it comes to drafting goaltenders, a tiered strategy is the way to go. It has worked for me for several years. The reason you look at them in terms of a tiered system is because you don't know when they will go in the draft. Goalies tend to go in "runs". Once a person selects one, others follow suit over the next few picks. Sometimes that's as early as the first round. Or it could be as late as the fifth round, depending on the rules of your league. All you need to do is ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that you get a goalie from Tier 1 and a goalie from Tier 2. A second goalie in one of those tiers would be nice, but very tough to do because you are focusing on other positions. Tier 3 would be the goalies you take in the late rounds and generally include rookies, sleepers, those in 1A/1B situations and Band-Aid Boys.

Tier 1

Here are the slam dunks. These are the guys you can count on for 33 wins and they have a shot at 40. Their numbers are generally stellar and they won't let you down, barring a fluke injury (and if you get one of those, you're screwed anyway).

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

Money in the bank. I don't know what else to say about him. Six consecutive seasons of 35 or more wins. There is no safer pick.

Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings

Three consecutive 35-win seasons and a dominant Conn Smythe-winning postseason. If the Kings have to showcase Jonathan Bernier, it may reduce Quick's starts mildly. But he'll still get his 35 wins easily.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

Sure, he was letting in beach balls in April. And granted, a veteran backup such as Tomas Vokoun will cannibalize his starts. But he still managed 42 wins last year and has 35 or more wins in five of his last six campaigns. Even Vokoun holding Fleury to 60 starts won't be enough to push him under the 35-win mark.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Even without Ryan Suter, the Predators play a team system. They didn't have Suter in 2006 when Vokoun managed 36 wins, so it's not the end of the world. Rinne had 42 last year, he should still get to 35 in 2012-13.

Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

Fantasy owners argue that he's an average goalie in a top system, kind of like the argument with Chris Osgood back in the day. But with 109 wins over the last three seasons, who cares? In just 57 starts he still got his 35 wins. More than enough to convince me he'll get there again.

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames

The Flames have had some good teams over the years and some bad teams. It matters little to Kiprusoff. He'll log an obscene amount of starts regardless and get his 35 wins - just like he's done each of the last seven years.

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Tier 2

This next tier is a list of goalies who should hover around 30 wins and put up decent numbers. Many of them have a shot at 35 wins. I'll split this tier into two categories. Since this tiered system is for personal preference - that is to say, use your own judgment and put goalies into whichever tier you want - I'll divide this up between goalies you would consider sliding into the first tier and goalies who probably should be entrenched in this one.

Hint: if you fail to land a goalie from Tier 1, maybe you misjudged whether or not one would get back to you…you're in tough. The best thing you can do is immediately grab your two favorite candidates from Tier 2, and later in the draft grab a third candidate from Tier 2. Often goaltender categories are 40% or 50% of your stats. That's not something to be trifled with.

First, the "Upper Tier 2":

Slide these up into the first tier as you see fit. Or not.

Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres

He stumbled to 31 wins after posting at least 34 in each of the prior five seasons. Miller is a great pick in that there is no real downside. Last year was as close to a downside as you'll get, and although it was painful in the first half it turned out to be okay.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

If Rask is healthy, he'll be a top five goalie. I'm concerned about his fragility, though admittedly haven't seen enough of him to say for sure. If you feel completely secure in his health then he absolutely should be in that top tier.

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

With Smith, it's the same as with Rask. He was healthy last year and you saw what happened when he plays in the Dave Tippett system. If you are confident he'll stay healthy again, include him in your first tier.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers

Bryzgalov was car wreck last season. But say goodbye to goaltending controversy now that Sergei Bobrovsky is gone. I also liked how well he played once the Flyers added Niklas Grossmann. The Flyers are winning a lot of games this year, and Bryzgalov has no choice but to tally up the W's.

Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes

Ward is another safe pick with little downside. Given the improvements that the Hurricanes made in the offseason, his win totals are bound to rise. He and Bryzgalov are probably my favorite picks to go into the top tier if I had to add two.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

Simple - if he's traded to Florida early, then he's Tier 1. If it takes a couple of months, then he stays in Tier 2. He and Corey Schneider hurt each other's fantasy value the longer they stay teammates.

Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay is going to win a lot more games this season and Lindback will get most of those W's if he can handle the heavy workload. If you feel confident that he won't wear down at the 40-game mark and that the Lightning will be a playoff team (or close to it), bump him up to Tier 1.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

All the tiny little injuries this guy gets troubles me (even the ones he plays through), but it's probably just a silly bias. Facts are facts, and the fact is that he has 69 wins in two seasons with San Jose. But his other numbers are middling at best, so you may want to keep him as a Tier 2.

Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild

After a couple of off years and the emergence of Josh Harding, it's hard to confidently put him in the upper tier of fantasy goaltenders. Then again, Backstrom has the best team in front of him in years, and Harding is a certified Band-Aid Boy.

Now the "Definitely Tier 2":

Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks

Schneider is "definitely Tier 1" if the Canucks move Luongo before the puck drops. Simple as that. Schneider will play with a team that will shoot past 100 points this year and have zero competition for the starting job. That spells 40 wins. But take a win away for every week during the season that Luongo remains.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

Brodeur's 40-win days are behind him, and probably his 35-win days as well. But he showed in the playoffs that there is still gas in the tank. Enough for perhaps 32 wins and decent numbers.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks

There is no question he'll get the starts. Hell, he got 73 of them last campaign. But can the Ducks get back to flirting with a playoff spot? Probably not, so Hiller is likely a 30-win guy at best.

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

A good goaltender and an underrated goaltender. But he's had four injuries in the last three years, of both the "fluke" and "non-fluke" variety. So that probably caps the amount of games he gets into and makes 35 wins unlikely. If all the kitchen knife incidents, etc. are behind him, then he'll prove me wrong.

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Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars

Two healthy seasons out of his last five is the main reason I'm not a fan of putting him in the Tier 1. You need to reserve that tier for the certainties not the uncertainties. But Lehtonen is a solid 30-win guy.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche

Varlamov is a promising goaltender with injury issues. But more importantly, he's on a team that may not win 35 games so how do you expect him to?

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Like Varlamov, Price is on a team that will struggle for 35 wins (they had 31 last year). So even though he'll play 70 games or more, winning 35 will be virtually impossible.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets

Coming off a career high 29 wins, but an unimpressive 0.906 save percentage, it's tough to see Pavelec joining the elite group above this year.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Sophomore slump, or just coming back to reality? Either way, with Ray Emery cannibalizing starts, it's not a very secure situation.

Tier 3

Each round, take a look at the goalies who remain. If you aren't absolutely certain that a goalie in your Tier 1 grouping will make it to your next pick, then you have to take one with the current pick. Once you have a Tier 1 goalie, you employ the same strategy with Tier 2. This allows you to focus on positional players as much as possible without sacrificing goaltending. Once you have a 1-2 punch in net, you can afford to wait until the bench rounds for your third goalie. It is possible that you will be lucky enough to draft a second Tier 2 goalie for your bench. Otherwise, there's always Tier 3. These are your sleepers/dark horses. They are either splitting starts in a 1A/1B situation, or there is some other reason things are less than certain.

Jaroslav Halak & Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues

Circle appropriate name:

(Halak/Elliott) is looking at stellar numbers across the board, but with (Brian Elliott/Jaroslav Halak) around, will he even get 50 starts? A great guy to have for the bench as your No.3, to sub in for the week

Devan Dubnyk &  Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers

Dubnyk was the better goalie these past two seasons, but because his contract had a much smaller number on it, Khabibulin got first dibs on the starts - especially early on. Now that their salary is comparable, Dubnyk should see 50 starts. But that's not enough to warrant second-tier status and he's also a risk because it's Khabibulin's contract year. When it comes to Khabibulin, the contract year is traditionally the year he brings out his inner Hasek.

Braden Holtby & Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals

Neuvirth considers Holtby his worst competition, according to an interview in which he was misquoted. Regardless, Neuvirth considers himself very much in the mix to be No.1. Let's also keep in mind that Holtby had a strong playoff, but the sample size is still very small. My money is on Holtby, but I have a feeling the starts won't become regular until three months into the season.

Evgeni Nabokov & Kevin Poulin, New York Islanders

Nabokov played 64 professional games over the last two years. The lack of action, as often happens with older goaltenders, no doubt influenced the groin injury that troubled him all of last year. He had a winning record with the Islanders last year and should improve on that this time around. But because of that nagging groin injury I think it's too risky to consider him in the second tier - but that's your call. He makes a nice dark horse, but I wouldn't hang my hat on him. Assuming that Rick DiPietro is injured by Game 10, Poulin also makes a nice dark horse - but his value won't shine through until the second half.

James Reimer & Ben Scrivens, Toronto Maple Leafs

The goaltending situation in Toronto is another risky one, because it's no secret that GM Brian Burke will pick up another netminder if any come within his price range. So it's entirely possible that both Scrivens and Reimer will be waiver fodder in most leagues by December. If they do play, either one could seize control of the top job. We really don't know who.

Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers

Theodore's career high for wins is 33, and he hasn't touched that mark in eight years. If he plays a full, healthy season and the Panthers do not acquire Luongo, then Theodore could get 30 wins. But it's awfully tough to count on that, and if you can't count on a reasonable number than you shouldn't put the goaltender into one of the top two tiers.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

As a team, Columbus has 29 wins last season. And Bobrovsky will have to share some of those wins with Steve Mason (if Mason can bounce back) or Allen York (if Mason can't). I think Bobrovsky will get at least 60 starts, but if the W and SO roto categories aren't improving as a result, then what's the point? If you league ignores those two stats and focuses on saves, then sure he can go into Tier 2. Otherwise he's bench fodder.

Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks

Emery will become a very valuable fantasy own if and only if Cory Crawford stumbles (be it through injury or inconsistency). Since that happened at times last year, it's certainly possible this year. But under those conditions, Emery is just a dark horse and should probably be left on the wire until things start looking dicey for CC.

Completely lockout-proof, take a look my seventh annual fantasy hockey guide. Tips, projections, sleepers, advanced stats breakdowns and more - updated until the puck drops.

*Note: Rookies will have their own column later in the week.

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Dobber is the resident fantasy hockey know-it-all for Puck Daddy, and founder of Dobber Sports - which includes DobberHockey, DobberProspects, DobberFootball and DobberBaseball. You can follow him on Twitter @DobberHockey

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