The fantasy goaltender strikes similar to football’s quarterback in that success in the part doesn’t near guarantee you league-defeating glory, and yet poor play most certainly assures a long season of struggle and strife. Such a fun fantasy position! Volatile too, as illustrated by New Jersey’s Scott Wedgwood earlier this week. After posting a 40-save shutout against the Bruins, earning his managers a cool 15.0 fantasy points, Wedgwood swerved to allow five goals in a loss to the Capitals, which rounded out to a much less-cool -4.0. Quite a pendulum swing in the span of 55 hours.
With that in mind, here’s a quick tour of what’s moving and shaking between the pipes for teams around the NHL, and how craftier fantasy managers might take advantage. Steering clear of the Scott Wedgwood rollercoaster is probably a good start.
The inspiration for this column, Antti Raanta has evolved into a much more prominent fantasy figure in the last few days. Back in action after losing most of January and February to injuries, the 31-year-old is going to be extra busy with Darcy Kuemper shelved for weeks. Not a week or two, but weeks. Plural. So far, so good, as the Coyotes’ interim No. 1 stopped 44 of 46 shots in a overtime loss to Colorado, two days after shutting out those same Avalanche in relief of Kuemper. Also, Raanta is good. He’s a gifted and skilled goalie for a competitive team. And – the most important bit for fantasy managers in need – he’s available in nearly 90% of ESPN.com leagues.
Consider Tuukka Rask just a bit banged up for now. But if it turns out the Bruins’ No. 1 is more than a bit sore after suffering a rumored back injury on Sunday, fantasy managers shouldn’t hesitate to snag Jaroslav Halak immediately (if available). Halak has been good to superb in all but one of nine starts this campaign, including Tuesday’s tight 2-1 OT loss to the Islanders. He’s projected to face the Rangers Thursday.
That injured thumb is costing Petr Mrazek more playing time than we anticipated. Although the netminder remains “on track” in his recovery – Rod Brind’Amour’s words – Mrazek’s return is already considered two weeks delayed. So, soon then. Splitting starts with Alex Nedeljkovic, No. 2 James Reimer is projected to face the Nashville Predators Thursday. But fantasy managers should prepare to expect less from Reimer once the club’s No. 1 is truly rearing to go. And check on Mrazek’s potential availability.
We’ll get our first look at Darryl Sutter’s Flames at home to the Canadiens Thursday. Three or four games in, we’ll begin to see the new head coach’s influence on Calgary’s defensive play. History suggests it should improve. Which is only good news for Jacob Markstrom – back at it after losing time to an upper-body injury – and his respective fantasy managers. Those in need of quality netminding might consider volleying a trade for Markstrom before his numbers really tighten up.
After sitting out since Feb. 20 with a shoulder injury, Elvis Merzlikins is back and tapped to face the Florida Panthers Thursday. Not to heap undue criticism on Joonas Korpisalo when the team has underperformed altogether, but Merzlikins’ return could provide the necessary boost in helping right the Blue Jackets’ ship. Just about any change is welcome after nine losses in 12 games. Fantasy managers who covet regular goaltending should monitor if a little Elvis magic does the trick.
Veteran Mike Smith – not Mikko Koskinen – is the starting netminder for the Oilers, this we know. The soon-to-be 39-year-old has appeared in 12 of 15 games since making his healthy season debut on Feb. 8, and he’s played well. Aside from a pair of unpleasant outings against the Maple Leafs and one ugly partial effort versus the Jets, Smith has been better-than-solid. Just keep in mind he has a history of running hot and cold. Invested managers should be continuously ready to slam the brakes on Edmonton’s No. 1 if/when the wheels blow off.
Bob is back on track, boasting a 4-1-1 record and .926 SV% since mid-February. Now Sergei Bobrovsky is scheduled to make his fourth start in five games, opposing the Blue Jackets Thursday. This is mainly to suggest fantasy managers attached to backup Chris Driedger may modify their expectations, or entertain other options. Perhaps give Raanta a look?
Taking into account the discrepancy in quality of play, expect to see a lot more Kaapo Kahkonen and a lot less Cam Talbot as the season stretches on. While the rookie netminder has won eight-straight – averaging 6.18 fantasy points per game – Talbot has allowed 13 total goals in his past three contests (all losses). Yet the two are only separated by eight percentage points as far as rostering goes. Puzzling. The Wild are scoring goals, and having fun, and winning games, and Kahkonen should be spoken for in more than two-thirds of ESPN.com leagues.
As discussed Monday, up-and-comer Mackenzie Blackwood should be benched, at minimum, until the Devils turn matters around. While the 24-year-old sports a bright future between the pipes in New Jersey, he’s operating as a fantasy liability at present. This feels worth mentioning since Blackwood remains rostered in 72% of ESPN.com leagues.
As coach Barry Trotz promised, Ilya Sorokin is indeed receiving a greater share of the action this second half of the season. So far, it’s rounding in form of a 60/40 split in favor of Semyon Varlamov, who’s starting two-straight – the second of which against the Devils Thursday – for the first time in two weeks. And both Islanders netminders are performing wonderfully. Fantasy managers with daily lineup flexibility and several goalie slots should be all over Sorokin. No one is relinquishing the heavily-rostered Varlamov at this stage.
Fantasy managers invested in Philadelphia’s No. 1 netminder have every right to feel unnerved. Fact is, Brian Elliott has been more consistent, sporting one more win than Carter Hart despite starting near half as many games. Now Elliott is scheduled to start against the Capitals Thursday after successfully subbing in for Hart versus the Sabres on Tuesday. One point out of the playoffs, the Flyers will roll out whoever gives them a better shot at victory. Right now, that’s Elliott. Hart’s fantasy managers in re-draft leagues might start weighing other options.
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Pittsburgh’s go-to goaltender. Through the first month, Tristan Jarry wore a losing record, .864 SV% and 3.82 GAA. Since then, he’s won seven of 10, rocking a .923 SV% and 2.49 GAA. Credit the hiring of Ron Hextall if you so choose. Speaking to the “tangible improvement” in his starter’s overall game, coach Mike Sullivan notes the 25-year-old also feels more comfortable. Managers might check on Jarry’s availability in ESPN.com leagues – a trade target, perhaps? – and relegate Casey DeSmith to daily fantasy work for now.
Two-straight defeats won’t cost Frederik Andersen his job as the Maple Leafs’ regular go-to, but what about three- or four-straight losses? Recovering to the point of practicing, Jack Campbell might not be far off returning to competitive action. Extra-stingy in limited play to date, a healthy Campbell would likely leapfrog Michael Hutchinson as Andersen’s more occasional replacement. If it comes to that. This scenario is still nowhere near unfolding, but some potentially prophetic spitballing doesn’t hurt either. Andersen’s start against the Jets Thursday is a biggie.
Rostered in only 44% of ESPN.com leagues, Thatcher Demko is the undisputed top netminder for the Canucks. One poor outing versus the Montreal Canadiens being the solo exception, he’s handled all competition with aplomb since the second week of February. Demko could serve fantasy managers well from now until early May, as Vancouver fancies itself a playoff contender. Barring injury or a turn in fortune, we might not see much of Braden Holtby in that span. The Canucks have only three back-to-back sets left on their schedule.
Loaned to the AHL Henderson Silver Knights, Robin Lehner is practicing for the first time since Feb. 7. Once Lehner is back in rhythm, Marc-Andre Fleury – this season’s fantasy darling in net – will see a reduction in playing time. Particularly if Lehner plays as well as he’s capable.
Thursday’s game in Philadelphia is a big one for Ilya Samsonov. A win would mark his second in a row and third in four appearances since recovering from COVID-19. It could also spell an end to Vitek Vanecek earning regular starts for the Capitals. While Vanecek has generally held his own in Samsonov’s absence, the eight goals-allowed in his past two starts (one incomplete) impart less confidence. Washington’s backup remains rostered in 56% of ESPN.com and Samsonov is available in nearly a third. Managers across the fantasy spectrum will want to gauge how the 24-year-old manages versus the Flyers.