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March 15, 2013
Playing The Point
Where To Go For A Fantasy Netminder

by Mike Schmidt

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It is no revelation to say goaltender is the most important position in fantasy hockey. Owners employ no more than a handful of goalies on their respective rosters at any given time. However, each individual goalie's effect on a team's overall production is significant. One underwhelming netminder's struggles can undermine an otherwise effective fantasy team.

Consider the standard statistical categories used in many fantasy hockey leagues: goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power play points, SOG, wins, save percentage, GAA, and shutouts. Now consider the difference between the number of skaters and goaltenders on a typical fantasy hockey team and which categories each position affects. Fantasy owners cannot overlook an ineffective group of goaltenders for long if they want to have sustained success over the course of a season.

However, there is a problem. Evaluating goaltender performance is a tricky task. Predicting future statistical production from players at the position is little more than an educated guessing game. Investing a high draft pick or a wealth of auction dollars on a goaltender can be a risky move, as is moving forwards and defensemen in a trade to acquire one.

The "best" fantasy metric for evaluating goaltender talent is save percentage. However, studies indiciate that there is a huge amount of year-over-year variation in goaltender performance, save percentage is primarily luck-driven, and it takes about four full seasons for a netminder's save percentage to adequately measure a goalie's true talent. To make matters worse, that talent is rarely stable for four full seasons.

With that in mind, how prudent is it for fantasy owners to attempt to make assessments of goaltender talent with data collected over the course of a few weeks during a shortened NHL season? Simply stated, it isn't.

Should Anaheim netminder Viktor Fasth be labeled a No. 1 fantasy goaltender moving forward just because he has performed like one for 13 games? Should fantasy owners dismiss Tampa Bay goaltender Anders Lindback as a future fantasy asset because he has stumbled thus far during his inaugural campaign as a starter? These two questions should be answered with a resounding "No." There simply isn't enough performance data on either netminder to make a reasonable case about the true talent of Fasth, Lindback, or many other goaltenders.

It is just as foolish to attempt to predict the performance output from one's fantasy netminder for the rest of the season with a reasonable level of certainty. The sample size of games is too small and the amount of factors that help to determine a goaltender's win total, save percentage, and GAA are too numerous.

So how does a frustrated fantasy owner address an underperforming group of goaltenders at this point in a shortened season? The short answer is to recognize what he or she doesn't know, forget about predicting future performance, and make decisions about player acquisition on other, more reliable factors. Let's take a look at a few strategies and identify a few potential targets.

Avoid the timeshare

A few months ago, Cory Schneider looked poised to assume the lion's share of starts in goal for Vancouver and finally reach his potential as an elite fantasy netminder. Meanwhile, Roberto Luongo seemed destined to take his fading skills to another NHL team. However, Luongo has been the better goaltender in 2013. His save percentage is three points higher than Schneider's (.913 to .910) and his goals-allowed average is much better than that of his counterpart (2.22 to 2.63). As a result, Schneider has started just two more games than his veteran teammate. So which player will be the better fantasy option down the stretch this season? Which one will get the edge in playing time? All of this is anybody's guess. Each benefits from suiting up for a talented Vancouver squad. Each has performed quite well during his NHL career. But there is no accurate way to predict what they will offer fantasy owners over the course of the season's final eight weeks.

It is more prudent and cost effective to pay a lesser price in a trade to acquire a goalie with less upside but a clearer path to more playing time. At least they are guaranteed regular work if they stay healthy, they may outperform more talented goaltenders over a small sample size of games, and they will be available at a more reasonable price.

Target: Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders

He is well past his prime, but Nabokov is among the league leaders in wins and ranks fifth in minutes played in 2013. His fantasy-relevant rate stats may not be great, but the Isles are going to lean on the 37-year-old workhorse over the course of the season's final months. He is certainly more proven than many starting netminders, and there aren't any immediate threats to his playing time. Nabokov is still available in many shallow leagues. That shouldn't be the case.

Value lengthy track records of performance

It wasn't all that long ago that Jonas Hiller was a viable fantasy option who saw regular work for the Anaheim Ducks as the squad's No. 1 netminder. Two seasons ago, he posted sparkling fantasy-relevant numbers: 26 wins, a 2.56 GAA, and a .924 save percentage. Now he is an afterthought due to the emergence of Fasth, a rookie who wasn't even considered a draft-worthy option in the majority of leagues. How quickly the fantasy fortunes of a goaltender can change for better or for worse. But how much can the average fantasy hockey enthusiast trust a 30-year-old first-year netminder who played well for a couple of years in Sweden but who has an extremely short NHL track record? Well, that depends. Snagging Fasth off the waiver wire a few weeks ago at the expense of an injured or underperforming roster member would have been a commendable move. Trading for the first-year Ducks goalie in a one-year or dynasty league is less so. The cost to employ Fasth is higher. The expectations for success are greater, as are the chances for disappointment.

For owners in one-year leagues, it is more prudent and cost effective to scour the waiver wire in hopes of finding a goaltender in line for more playing time due to a teammate's injury or underperformance. As previously stated, it takes about four full seasons for a netminder's save percentage to adequately measure his true talent.

Target: Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild

While he is no longer as well regarded in fantasy circles as he was a handful of years back, Backstrom is seeing the majority of starts in net for an improved Wild squad that features a deeper and more talented lineup than it has in recent years. Backstrom's career save percentage is .917 over 348 games, and the 35-year-old Finnish netminder has only one season where it has dipped below .910.

Cheaper is almost always better

It seems like every season there are a handful of netminders who put up Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers on the heels of underwhelming campaigns. Ask owners who employed Phoenix's Mike Smith a year ago or Boston's Tim Thomas two seasons ago. While it usually pays to acquire a proven workhorse like New York's Henrik Lundqvist, Nashville's Pekka Rinne, or Los Angeles's Jonathan Quick, the list of goaltenders who post above-average numbers each and every season for several consecutive years is quite small. In fact, most NHL goalies are a little better or a little worse than average over a large sample size of games, which makes trading valuable fantasy forwards or defensemen for a high-performing goaltender a fool's errand in one-year leagues, especially in a shortened season. Looking to the waiver wire or acquiring an underperforming goalie at a discount is more likely to pay off.

Target: Jacob Markstrom, Florida Panthers

One of the game's top goaltending prospects, Markstrom will have the opportunity to hone his intriguing skills for Florida while teammate and fellow Panthers netminder Jose Theodore is out with a torn groin. Florida has the second-lowest PDO of any squad in the league this season, so expect the Panthers to perform better over the season's second half with Markstrom in goal. After all, his primary competition for playing time is struggling veteran Scott Clemmensen. Why pay for a rookie goaltender with a limited track record of success like Fasth when Markstrom is available in most leagues? He is a bit of a long shot, but the cost to acquire the young goaltender should be minimal.

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