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In the Cage: Evaluating coaching strategies

by Justin Goldman /
Every Monday during the season, goalie specialist and founder of The Goalie Guild Justin Goldman will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy goaltenders in'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.

When it comes to choosing a nightly starter, every head coach has their own unique goalie strategy. Some stick to the same strategy every year, no matter who is rostered. Some make their choices depending on how the goalies perform in practices and games, otherwise known as the “riding the hot hand” strategy. Others have a strict routine; they adhere to a schedule created before the season began. Others fly by the seat of their pants and adjust things on a weekly or daily basis; nothing is written in stone, there's no visible pattern, and the goalies essentially make the coach's decisions for them.

With this in mind, the more you evaluate a coach's goaltending strategy, the more likely you will be to find free agents with hidden fantasy value before your competition does. Remember, last year was the first time since the 2003-04 season that a goalie didn't win 40 games. Combined with the barrage of backups that have already played this season, it looks like coaches will once again utilize both of their goalies in a more balanced and effective manner this year.

On Saturday night, we saw Jhonas Enroth, Chris Mason, Brian Elliott and Josh Harding earn their first starts of the season. Ty Conklin already has a shutout in his first start for Detroit, while Brent Johnson has played well in two OT losses, stopping 50-of-54 shots. Jason LaBarbera, Cory Schneider, Alex Auld and Tuukka Rask are also destined to play in more games than they did last year.

If this trend continues, it will reduce the fantasy value of some workhorses like Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick and Roberto Luongo. Conversely, it will also increase the number of hidden gems and silent sleepers that you can snag off the wire. So keep an eye on what kind of strategy head coaches are employing; it could quickly change the way you value a number of starters and backups across the NHL.



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 of course GAA and SP%. The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from preseason (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. An injured goalie (Niemi) that has yet to play this season will be ranked lower than their true value due to our inability to gauge their performance.
Players that dropped out of our previous rankings: Craig Anderson
Johan Hedberg -- Although Martin Brodeur's right shoulder injury isn't considered serious, nobody can deny the terrific veteran presence Hedberg brings to the Devils. Coming into a game cold and pitching a shutout is never easy, but that's exactly what he did against the Kings last Thursday. He followed that up with another shootout win against Nashville on Saturday, so the Moose is totally on the loose. As of today, he's 3-0-0 with a 1.41 GAA, stopping 69-of-73 shots. New Jersey doesn't play again until this weekend, so the rest certainly bodes well for Brodeur owners. But if nagging injuries continue to plague him throughout the season, Hedberg could play in as many as 40 games, maybe even more.

Semyon Varlamov -- Due to his sheer athleticism and flexibility, Varlamov is capable of stopping shots that most goalies simply can't. With the Avalanche now scoring goals at a furious pace, he's in a real good position to continue to succeed. The team is way tighter in their own zone compared to last year, while rookie Gabriel Landeskog is giving Joe Sacco the depth he needs to field three strong lines. Varly did allow five goals against the Canadiens last Saturday, but still stopped 38-of-43 shots. Overall, he's 3-1-0 with a 2.17 GAA, a .938 save percentage and one shutout, which is a real high value for a real good goalie. All he has to do is stay healthy, and with such a beefy defense surrounding him, things are looking good so far.

Niklas Backstrom -- In terms of overall performance, last year was a forgettable one for Backstrom. Not only did he struggle to stay healthy, but the team in front of him struggled to score goals. But with the additions of Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, the Wild look to be a more offensive threat this season. The loss of Brent Burns is huge, but that could actually increase the average number of shots Niklas will face this year, therefore increasing his overall fantasy value. Through four games, he is 2-1-1 with a 1.93 GAA and a .928 save percentage, stopping 103-of-111 shots. More importantly, Backstrom rebounded from a weak shootout loss to Ottawa with a shootout win against the Oilers, sparked in part by some confidence-boosting words from head coach Mike Yeo. That may seem like a trivial thing to mention, but it actually goes a long way in boosting Backstrom's confidence as October rolls along. 


Jaroslav Halak -- Through four games, Halak is still struggling to find his game. More troubling, however, is the fact that he's not instilling confidence in his teammates or his head coach. With last night's loss to Anaheim, Jaro is now 1-3-0 with a 3.05 GAA and .848 save percentage, only stopping 67-of-79 shots. The Blues will be one of many teams fighting for a final playoff spot in the West, so there's simply no time to lose. Halak is making $3.75 million this year, so he's expected to rebound quickly, play 60 games, and make the big save on a nightly basis. If he can't, his fantasy value will continue to swim in a sea of mediocrity.  

Dwayne Roloson -- Through his first three games, Roloson's rough start is leading many poolies to believe age is finally catching up with him. On the day after his 42nd birthday, Dwayne was lit up by the Islanders, allowing five goals on 18 shots and getting pulled just 6:47 into the second period. With a 1-1-1 record and a weak .883 save percentage, Roloson will have to put it all on the line tonight against the Panthers (if he gets the start) in order to turn his fortunes around this week. Lifetime against the Panthers, the Simcoe, Ontario, native is 7-5-1 with a 2.57 GAA, a solid .919 save percentage with one shutout.      

Ondrej Pavelec -- Pavelec certainly isn't the weakest link in terms of Winnipeg's struggles so far, but clearly he hasn't been able to steal a game yet. Pavelec is an elite goalie in terms of his skills and talent level, but it takes a lot more than that to win games on a weak team. With two losses to start the season, Pavelec will have to stand on his head this week to win some games. Furthermore, he's expected to face the powerful Penguins on Monday night, a team he's 0-7-0 against (with a 4.67 GAA) in his NHL career.


When Brian Elliott was traded to Colorado last season, he was never able to get acclimated to his new team. Thrown right into the fire, he was hung out to dry in almost every game. But now that he has respectfully earned the backup role to Halak in St. Louis, the window of opportunity is slowly opening.

In a big 4-2 win against the Sharks on Saturday night, Elliott accomplished the one thing Halak has been unable to do so far this season -- make the big, timely save to preserve a one-goal lead. Those saves are not only huge for earning fantasy points, but it also earns the confidence of his head coach. So if Halak continues to struggle, you just might see Elliott earn some more starts.

Furthermore, Elliott is historically a streaky goalie. We've seen him win eight games in a row, and we've seen him lose eight games in a row. This makes him a perfect low-risk, high-reward candidate, as his highlight-reel glove save on Dan Boyle leads us to believe he has a lot of confidence right now. So apply this week's advice to Davis Payne -- it might equate to another start for Elliott sooner than you think. And if he's timely once again, it could lead to even more opportunities as October rolls along.
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