NHL Skinny: Opening questions

GOALIE HOT SEAT

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS RED HOT
1st Chair: Vesa Toskala(notes)
2nd Chair: Jonas Gustavsson(notes)
Skinny: The Globe and Mail reports that Leafs coach Ron Wilson is leaning toward starting Toskala on Tuesday against Ottawa. The heat is on both coach and goalie after Toskala was pulled after one period of a 6-4 loss to the Caps on Saturday. Gustavsson looms as the prized off-season acquisition. He’ll be heard from soon enough, start or no start on Tuesday.


NASHVILLE PREDATORS RED HOT
1st Chair: Dan Ellis(notes)
2nd Chair: Pekka Rinne(notes)
Skinny: Coach Barry Trotz told the Tennessean the Preds will “go one game at a time” in determining a starting goalie. The coach did offer that Ellis had a better training camp, and Ellis (only 19-percent owned) earned No. 1 star honors in the season-opening win over Dallas. It’s Nashville, so of course the guy we thought we should own will be relegated to No. 2 duties.


WASHINGTON CAPITALS RED HOT
1st Chair: Jose Theodore(notes)
2nd Chair: Semyon Varlamov(notes)
Skinny: The Yahoo! fantasy community prefers Varlamov, as he’s owned in 75 percent of leagues (mysteriously low) to Theodore’s 56. It’s really an open audition, however. Theodore did get the opening night start, but you can make a strong case that Varlamov got the more prestigious nod (the home opener). The Washington Post reports that both goalies will get “ample playing time” in the first half, with the goal being to establish a true No. 1 for the stretch run. You’ll want a piece of whoever emerges here.


ANAHEIM DUCKS RED HOT
1st Chair: Jonas Hiller(notes)
2nd Chair: Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes)
Skinny: Coach Randy Carlyle didn’t name a starter for Saturday’s home opener until he absolutely had to, and the fact that Hiller was between the pipes doesn’t mean the preseason battle is over. This is still up for grabs, and don’t be surprised if Giguere (just 41-percent owned) reclaims the No. 1 job. Don’t discount the impact off-ice distraction have had on his last year-plus.


OTTAWA SENATORS HOT
1st Chair: Pascal Leclaire(notes)
2nd Chair: Brian Elliott(notes)
Skinny: Offensive struggles were the primary focus of scrutiny following Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Rangers. The Ottawa Sun believes that Leclaire (29 saves, 33 shots) will be back between the pipes Tuesday against Toronto, and justifiably so. Elliott showed enough promise last year and question marks abound with Leclaire, so this should be one battle to monitor.


NEW YORK ISLANDERS WARM
1st Chair: Dwayne Roloson(notes)
2nd Chair: Martin Biron(notes), Rick DiPietro(notes)
Skinny: This isn’t a situation you want a heavy investment in, but in some formats starters are hard to come by, so it’s worth noting that 7-percent owned Rick DiPietro is facing shots and simulating game action in practice. No timetable has been made public for a return to game action, however. Roloson stopped 39 of 42 shots faced in Saturday’s shootout loss to the Pens.


ATLANTA THRASHERS WARM
1st Chair: Ondrej Pavelec(notes)
2nd Chair: Kari Lehtonen(notes), Johan Hedberg(notes)
Skinny: Pavelec won the season opener and will get an extended run as No. 1 while Lehtonen recovers from offseason back surgery. This could really heat up if Lehtonen hits any bumps in the road during rehab.


MONTREAL CANADIENS WARM
1st Chair: Carey Price(notes)
2nd Chair: Jaroslav Halak(notes)
Skinny: Price’s hot start (2-0, 1.89 GAA) masks the fact that coach Jacques Martin waited until the last minute to name a starter for the season opener. It was probably a formality, sure, but the hesitation underscores the fact that the 22-year-old remains on a short leash despite his draft pedigree.


ST. LOUIS BLUES LUKEWARM
1st Chair: Chris Mason(notes)
2nd Chair: Ty Conklin(notes)
Skinny: Conklin was acquired to start the second night of back-to-backs and that’s exactly what he did in backstopping Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Red Wings. Mason has had issues establishing himself as a true No. 1 and Conklin has spent the last two seasons making life interesting for starters on Stanley Cup contenders, so this could get juicy.


CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS LUKEWARM
1st Chair: Cristobal Huet(notes)
2nd Chair: Antti Niemi(notes)
Skinny: You never want to sleep on a challenge to a No. 1, so it would be foolish to completely dismiss the shutout Niemi recorded in his native Finland on Saturday. That said, let’s not get carried away. Huet is the No. 1 here.


I’m looking for an answer to two questions as the curtain rises on the 2009-10 fantasy hockey season.

1. Is this the year sanity gets restored to the goalie position?

Historically, you draft a No. 1 goalie in the first or second round, secure a No. 2 by the end of the sixth or seventh and then take a serviceable backup or high-upside sleeper late in the draft as your G3. In standard formats your two goalie positions account for roughly half your total rotisserie output. You can’t, in other words, afford to ignore the position and let your offense carry you to a league title. The math doesn’t work there.

But back in December I began to wonder if it was time to take a different approach with the goalie position. Guys like Steve Mason(notes) and Pekka Rinne had emerged while top-20 draft staples like Martin Brodeur(notes) and Evgeni Nabokov(notes) had missed significant stretches due to injury. The numbers still said you couldn’t ignore the position, but I began to theorize that loading up on offense early, then drafting for goalie values late (staying active in free agency post-draft, of course) might be the way to go.

So has anything changed? Well, not really. Last year in the Yahoo! Friends and Family league three goalies were drafted in the first round and 12 were off the board by the end of the third round. The names may have changed in 2009-10, but again three goalies went in Round 1 and 12 of the first 36 picks were dedicated to netminders. Those results were not at all surprising. If you pass on that top tier of goalies, you are basically betting that 1) there will be significant injuries or turnover in that elite goalie tier, and 2) you’ll be quickest to the trigger when surprising talent emerges. It’s a significant gamble, and losing means shuffling ratio killers in and out of your lineup all season.

Before we declare victory for the status quo, however, let’s see how the first 2-3 months of the season play out. What if Dan Ellis and J.S. Giguere emerge as top-10 fantasy goalies? What if Jimmy Howard(notes) takes over in Detroit? The next big injury could come at any time. If we start seeing more and more league champions getting by with late-round goalies and waiver-wire filler, we could see a significant change in draft strategy in 2010. Or everything could return to normal. I’m anxious to see how things develop here.

What’s next for the Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson line?

Yes, I realize these guys aren’t together anymore, but for better or worse they’re forever linked. Back to those 2008-09 draft results, Heatley was drafted sixth, Alfredsson 15th and Spezza 22nd. This year only Heatley retained his value. Joe Thornton’s(notes) new linemate was drafted 8th in the F&F draft. Spezza wasn’t drafted until late in the fourth round and Alfredsson’s green room stay dragged into the sixth. They are already bemoaning the lack of offense in Ottawa, but I have a feeling Alfredsson and Spezza could emerge among the top draft values of ’09-10.

That’s not all, of course, but those are the two topics that most occupied my thoughts as draft season was winding down. Now on to the Skinny …

BARGAIN BIN: Top player available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues
Erik Johnson(notes), D, Stl. (41-percent owned) – It’s curious to see this ownership percentage given how popular Johnson was in the later rounds of most experts drafts. But industry leagues tend to draft a bit deeper; it’s likely Johnson is a FA only in those leagues using the default four defensemen positions. Regardless of format, Johnson needs your attention. Healthy after missing all of last year with a freak knee injury, Johnson figures to mature into a 50-point defenseman with considerable power-play upside given the return of Paul Kariya(notes) and the presence of Andy McDonald(notes).

David Moss(notes), RW, Cal (17-percent owned) – You never want to get too caught up in the linemate game. Assignments change game-to-game and in today’s game a player’s power-play role can be far more critical to fantasy production than even-strength pairings. That said, when the other two names on the depth chart are Jarome Iginla(notes) and Olli Jokinen(notes), you have to take notice. This brings us to Moss, who has a role on Calgary’s No. 1 line after last year’s 20-goal campaign. His two goals Saturday in Edmonton should extend his lease at least another one or two games. Rene Bourque(notes) is another Flames forward who should not be overlooked.

MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values
James van Riemsdyk(notes), LW, Phi – The rookie left wing played just under nine minutes in the Flyers’ season-opening win, picking up an assist and three shots on goal. Saturday brought an uptick in minutes (13:36) and two more assists. Coach John Stevens appears willing to give all four lines ample ice time.

Yannick Weber(notes), D, Mon – Weber is an offensive defenseman (16 goals in AHL in 2008-09; two points in three playoff games with Montreal) who is expected to see some power play time in the wake of long-term injuries to Andrei Markov(notes) and Ryan O’Byrne(notes). You don’t just walk in and replace Markov’s power-play production, but I’m willing to roll the dice on Weber as a D4.

Chris Bourque(notes), LW, Pit – He’s been watching from the press box so far, but deeper league owners may want to make a speculative add based on chatter that Bourque is a candidate to play on Evgeni Malkin’s wing. Chasing line combos in Pittsburgh has been a futile effort in season’s past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t file this name away on your watch list.

Scottie Upshall(notes), RW, Pho – Upshall’s goal in the season opener gives him nine goals in 20 games in a Phoenix uniform. That’s not a sustainable pace (his career high is 15 goals), but the setup in there for a sneaky 25-goal, 80-PIM season.

Craig Anderson(notes), G, Col – I can’t say I’d blame a current Anderson owner for shopping him after his 2-0 start, but it is borderline inexcusable that Colorado’s goalie is a free agent in 40 percent of Yahoo! leagues. Sure the Avs may be technically rebuilding, but Anderson ranked third in the NHL in save percentage a year ago for a Florida team not exactly known as a defensive juggernaut.

Kyle Quincey(notes), D, Col – Wasn’t necessarily by design, but here’s a guy who wound up on a lot of my rosters this year. Probably partially due to waiting out a few mid-round goalie runs and partially due to his recent track record on the power-play. Early on he’s getting plenty of ice time in all situations and has looked pretty comfortable with two assists (one on the power-play) in two games.

Matt Carle(notes), D, Phi – So far, so good for the post-hype stage of Carle’s career. Lining up as Chris Pronger’s(notes) defense partner in Philadelphia, Carle has a goal and an assist in two games. Try him as a D4 and see if he sticks (7-percent owned).

Benn Ferriero(notes), RW, SJ – The promotion to the Joe Thornton line was probably just a subtle coaching nudge directed at Devin Setoguchi(notes), but the goal Ferriero scored Saturday shows he does have some promise as a top-six forward, and that’s just what he’ll be with center Joe Pavelski(notes) sidelined for the next several weeks.

Michael Del Zotto(notes), D, NYR – Just 19 years old, Del Zotto has already earned power-play time on the aggressive Rangers blueline. New York is thrilled with the youngster’s offensive instincts, which so far have resulted in two goals in three games. Both he and fellow rookie Matt Gilroy(notes) bring substantial offensive upside for guys available in more than 90 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

Chris Drury(notes), C, NYG – Drury played just 11 minutes and saw zero power-play time in Monday’s 3-2 win over the Devils. Count Brandon Dubinsky(notes) among the forwards who will benefit if Drury remains in coach John Tortorella’s doghouse.

Yahoo! Friends and Family League update
No reason to get too excited over 3-4 days of action. Recent fantasy call-ups include Scottie Upshall, James Neal(notes), Derek Morris(notes) and Rene Bourque.