In the Cage: Bryzgalov's late-season surprise value

Thursday, 04.03.2014 / 12:00 PM
Justin Goldman  - NHL.com Correspondent

Every Thursday during the season, Justin Goldman, a regional goalie scout for USA Hockey and founder of The Goalie Guild, will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy goaltenders in NHL.com's weekly segment: "In the Cage." From updated goalie rankings to guys you should keep a close eye on and much more, Goldman will be your fantasy goalie expert all season long.

In a season loaded with stretches of stellar goaltending from surprising fantasy assets, nobody will ever forget the inspirational play of Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding.

Not only has Harding earned 18 wins in just 29 games (18-7-3), but he also still holds the NHL's best goals-against average (1.65) and save percentage (.933). Unfortunately, he hasn't played since Dec. 31, 2013 due to complications with multiple sclerosis, a situation that opened the door for Darcy Kuemper to produce a breakout rookie season.

But now there is another pleasant surprise in the Wild goalie carousel: the recent play of Ilya Bryzgalov.

Since joining the Wild at the NHL Trade Deadline, Bryzgalov has gone 4-0-2 with a 2.16 GAA and .909 save percentage, including a 36-save shutout against the New York Islanders on March 18. Those stats aren't startling, but the wins have helped Minnesota cling to a wild-card spot for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference.

After being bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers at the end of last season, Bryzgalov faced an uncertain NHL future. Instead of settling for a gig in the Kontinental Hockey League, the 33-year-old spent part of his summer training with elite Swedish goalie coach Erik Granqvist. That led to an opportunity with the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers in October, where he would continue to train, this time with Wranglers goalie coach Michael Lawrence.

Despite a tainted reputation from his days with the Flyers, Bryzgalov's hard work and diligence paid off when he signed with the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 8, 2013.

Upon joining the struggling Oilers after a conditioning stint with American Hockey League affiliate Oklahoma City, Bryzgalov started things off with a bang. He stopped 12 of 13 shots in relief of Devan Dubnyk against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 25, 2013, then three days later earned a 33-save shutout in his first start of the season against the Nashville Predators.

The uplifting start with Edmonton quickly turned into a downward spiral. In just his third start with the team, he suffered a head injury in the second period of a game against the Dallas Stars. He spent the next two weeks on injured reserve, then finished the month 1-3-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .912 save percentage. In January, he went 2-4-1 with a 3.62 GAA and .885 save percentage.

In February, Bryzgalov rebounded. Due in part to additional rest during the Olympic break, his final three games with Edmonton were as strong as his first two, as he went 1-0-2 with 92 saves on 98 shots. That put him on the map for teams needing depth at the trade deadline, and with injuries to Harding and Niklas Backstrom, the Wild were clearly in the market.

Fast forward to today, and Minnesota's four-point buffer zone on a wild-card spot is considered fragile. The remaining schedule (six games) is daunting, as the Wild face the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, then play a back-to-back set against the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins on Monday and Tuesday. They close out the season with a key battle against the St. Louis Blues on March 10, then close the regular season April 13 against Nashville.

To make things more interesting, Minnesota is one of just two teams (Detroit Red Wings) currently in a playoff spot with a negative goal differential. Fortunately, Bryzgalov has allowed more than two goals just twice in his past 11 games, and in his seven appearances with the Wild, they have given him 23 goals for support, or 3.29 per game. That's well above their average of 2.40 goals per game, which is 27th overall in the League.

It won't be easy, but if Bryzgalov can continue to provide the Wild with stable goaltending over the next two weeks, he could earn the organization's trust and a new contract for next season. Harding did practice with the team Wednesday, but his playing status, both short-term and long-term, is unknown.

Even if Bryzgalov isn't re-signed by the Wild (Kuemper is a restricted free agent and Backstrom is signed through the 2015-16 season), he still has a great opportunity to earn a job with another team, which would put him right back on the radar for next year's fantasy hockey drafts.

TRENDING UPWARD

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche -- After winning four straight games in the past week, Varlamov now sits first overall in wins (38) and saves (1,739), and fifth overall in save percentage (.925).

Anton Khudobin, Carolina Hurricanes -- With only two wins in his first seven games in March, Khudobin rebounded in a big way last week, going 2-1-1 with 115 saves on 121 shots, a .950 save percentage.

Chad Johnson, Boston Bruins -- Johnson earned six starts in March and won them all, allowing just eight goals on 164 shots, a .951 save percentage. Of his 45 total goals against, only six have come in the first period.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Jaroslav Halak, Washington Capitals -- Washington is feeling the squeeze in the Eastern Conference playoff race, all while Halak is 1-1-3 in his past five games. He has allowed 10 goals on his past 88 shots.

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs -- March was a free-fall for Toronto, which lost eight straight games. Bernier's value suffered as a result, as he went 3-3-1 with a 3.25 GAA and .907 save percentage.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks -- Due to injuries to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Crawford must step up down the stretch. But he's 1-3-0 in his past four games with an .892 save percentage.

KEEP AN EYE ON …

Nathan Lieuwen, Buffalo Sabres -- After earning his first win on Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils, Lieuwen has a chance to earn a few more; Buffalo has two more back-to-back sets with only seven games remaining.

TOP 30 FANTASY GOALIES

These modified re-rankings are a projection of a goalie’s fantasy output for the entire season. Our rankings are based on volume categories like games played, wins, saves, and GAA and SP%. The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from last week (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). It is important to note that our rankings reflect sheer fantasy value, not talent. A less-talented goalie could be ranked higher due to their team’s strong defense and offense.

1. Tuukka Rask, Bruins (same)

2. Ben Bishop, Lightning (same)

3. Carey Price, Canadiens (same)

4. Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche (+2)

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins (-1)

6. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (-1)

7. Antti Niemi, Sharks (same)

8. Ryan Miller, Blues (+2)

9. Sergei Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets (-1)

10. Jonathan Quick, Kings (+2)

11. Jonas Hiller, Ducks (-2)

12. Anton Khudobin, Hurricanes (+5)

13. Corey Crawford, Blackhawks (+1)

14. Steve Mason, Flyers (+1)

15. Jaroslav Halak, Capitals (-2)

16. Jonathan Bernier, Maple Leafs (same)

17. Cory Schneider, Devils (+3)

18. Kari Lehtonen, Stars (+4)

19. Jimmy Howard, Red Wings (+2)

20. Ben Scrivens, Oilers (-1)

21. Eddie Lack, Canucks (+2)

22. Chad Johnson, Bruins (+6)

23. Alex Stalock, Sharks (+2)

24. Craig Anderson, Senators (+2)

25. Frederik Andersen, Ducks (NR)

26. Braden Holtby, Capitals (+1)

27. Karri Ramo, Flames (+2)

28. Pekka Rinne, Predators (-4)

29. Ondrej Pavelec, Jets (same)

30. Thomas Greiss, Coyotes (NR)

Players that dropped out of previous rankings: Martin Brodeur

Injured: Josh Harding, Roberto Luongo, Mike SMith, Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom

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