This season, the best word I can think of to describe the NHL's goaltending landscape is "inconsistent." I mean, has anybody even come close to true No. 1 fantasy goaltender status for the bulk of the season? Is there someone out there who hasn't taken weeks at a time off for your fantasy squad between the pipes?
To try and measure exactly how inconsistent things this season, I broke down the first three months of the season (through Dec. 31) into six half-month sections What I'm looking for in each of these periods is to identify which goaltenders were in the top 10 of each of the three fantasy categories we care about: wins, goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage. To weed out low-volume goaltenders, I required at least three starts in a time period to qualify.
Sure, breaking the season into random sample-size sections like this is far from an exact science, but it's an exercise meant to identify some starters who have been more consistent (or perhaps more inconsistent) than they might otherwise appear at first glance -- so, bear with me. Apologies in advance to any goalies that managed to be successful from, let's say, Oct. 7 to Oct. 23, but had some struggles before and after, as those kinds of hot streaks wouldn't register in my selected time periods.
Oct. 1-15: Strong starts out of the gate by several teams allowed eight goaltenders to land in the top 10 in all three categories: Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Keith Kinkaid, Semyon Varlamov, Pekka Rinne, John Gibson, Henrik Lundqvist and Jack Campbell. All were consistent, No. 1 fantasy goaltenders during this time frame.
Oct. 16-31: Not a single one of the eight goaltenders mentioned above repeated the solid play during this time frame. Only Antti Raanta, Devan Dubnyk and Ben Bishop were top-10 goaltenders in all three categories.
Nov. 1-15: Six goaltenders appeared in the top 10 of all three categories during this stretch, however Rinne was the only one to have previously been mentioned in our recap. The other five netminders were Frederik Andersen, Brian Elliott, Roberto Luongo, Sergei Bobrovsky and Thomas Greiss, all of whom shined in early November. It's perhaps notable, though, that Lundqvist nearly qualified, with a top-10 showing in both wins and GAA, but not save percentage.
Dec. 1-15: In early December, it was Koskinen, Jacob Markstrom, Connor Hellebuyck, Louis Domingue, Martin Jones and Jake Allen who were top-10 goalies in all three categories. Koskinen made the cut for the second-consecutive window, but the rest were all making their debuts on this list.
Dec. 16-31: For the final time period in our investigation, seven goaltenders were tops across all three categories: Bishop, Bobrovsky, Markstrom, Robin Lehner, Matt Murray, Collin Delia and Jonathan Quick. Bishop appeared on the list in late-October. Bobrovsky checked in back in early-November. Markstrom is here for the second-straight window.
As this is the first time I've done this kind of analysis in real-time, so I don't have a historical reference for you. However, what I can tell you is that the top fantasy goaltenders in the NHL usually easily beat out the top skaters on the ESPN Player Rater. In past seasons, you'll typically see the top goaltenders eclipsing a Player Rating of 20.00, while there are maybe one or two skaters who manage to push past the 18.00 mark.
So far this season, the highest ranked goaltender (Andersen) has a Player Rating of just 14.66 on the Player Rater, which puts him behind nine skaters at No. 10 overall in the league. I've never seen the top goaltender ranked that low in all the time I've tracked the ESPN Player Rater -- over a decade now. Since getting those No. 1 fantasy goaltending statistics may be harder than ever, chasing the "hot hand" has never seemed more like an appealing strategy.
No goaltenders made the cut three times in the six half-month time periods, and only six showed up twice. Meanwhile, the current top-10 goaltenders on the ESPN Player Rater, covering the whole season, are Andersen, Rinne, Fleury, Lehner, Halak, David Rittich, Bishop, Gibson, Laurent Brossoit and Casey DeSmith. This is why I'm declaring Rinne and Bishop, the only two members of the current top 10 to also be in that six-man group of two-time qualifiers, to be the closest thing to true, consistent No. 1 fantasy goaltender status.
I'll take this one step further by declaring Ben Bishop to be a fantastic trade target for fantasy. I don't think his current "name value" has him on quite as high a pedestal as some of the elite goaltenders in the game. That should help keep his value down. Most fantasy managers probably view him as no more than a low-end No. 1. His only bad month this season -- which wasn't too bad -- came in November, when the Stars were without top-minutes defenseman John Klingberg.
It's also worth nothing that Bishop barely missed the cut for qualifying in a third half-month window back in early-October due to his save percentage. I think he's been far better than the stats might indicate. In a league without much in the way of consistency in the crease, Bishop is in the best position to continue his success going forward.
Forwards on the move
Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres (down two spots to No. 16): It's looking like Eichel is getting close to a return, so even as he continues to miss time, he's not slipping much. He practiced in a reduced role on Monday and hasn't been fully ruled out yet for Tuesday's game -- though I wouldn't bet on it. Eichel has been all that he was promised to be this season with 49 points in 40 games. The Sabres need him back for the sake of the rest of the team's production.
Filip Forsberg, W, Nashville Predators (up 24 spots to No. 40): Back for Nashville in a reduced role on Monday, I'm similarly easing Forsberg back into my rankings. The Predators are going to be careful with his usage for now, as he only played half of his first game back in the top-six and wasn't used on the team's top power-play unit.
Ilya Kovalchuk, W, Los Angeles Kings (up 12 spots to No. 161): The Kings are, for the first time this season, building their lineup the way EA Sports would likely do on "auto-set." Lo and behold, they are winning games. Kovalchuk is on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and is also playing on the top power-play unit. He has assists in consecutive games and I'm hopeful a proper deployment can bring more results like this going forward.
Defenseman on the move
Jared Spurgeon, D, Minnesota Wild (up 28 spots to No. 201): I try to avoid repeating players in consecutive weeks, but I couldn't resist hammering this one home. Quoting from last week's article regarding Spurgeon's role without Matt Dumba: "The results haven't been there yet, but when the Wild remember how to score again, Spurgeon should benefit from the increased presence." Well, since then, Spurgeon has scored three goals and two assists, with a plus-3 rating over three games. Remember, Dumba will be out until around the start of April.
Goaltender on the move
Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins (up 21 spots to No. 92): While it's hard to trust a goaltender who was arguably the worst starter in the NHL through early-November, Murray has come back from his latest injury like a man on fire. He was 5-0 in December with an unreal .959 save percentage and is a perfect 2-0 in January with a .968 mark so far. Perhaps he needs competition to truly shine, as he struggled with his ratios last season with Marc-Andre Fleury out of town and, while he was injured this season, Casey DeSmith showed serious signs of pushing for the job. I'm ready to call Murray a No. 1 fantasy goaltender again, but I'm wary of committing beyond his current ranking until I see more than a seven-game sample.
New to rankings
Cam Fowler (back from injury and the power play is likely all his), Anthony Mantha (also back from injury, was buzzing over the weekend), Bryan Rust (still playing with Sid), Andreas Johnsson (his top-six role is lasting longer than expected), Mike Green, Frank Vatrano and Jesper Bratt.
Jack Roslovic (gets a top-six role while Nikolaj Ehlers is out), Thatcher Demko (Vancouver's top prospect is now in the NHL, but Markstrom has been solid), Anders Nilsson (tough to have fantasy value tending twine in Ottawa, but I like his chances better than anyone else), Brandon Pirri (sent down, but potentially could be coming back up with Reilly Smith ailing), Joel Armia (getting both top-line and power-play time with Andrew Shaw out), Alex Killorn, Jordan Eberle, Connor Brown and Mikael Backlund.
Cal Pickard (I'd like to see what he could do for Arizona, but I'm tired of waiting), Nick Foligno, Alex Iafallo, Kevin Labanc, J.T. Miller, Ty Rattie and Denis Gurianov (he didn't do anything with recent opportunities -- maybe later).