NHL Fantasy Hockey: The Value of Goalies as Keepers

Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask

You might want to bookmark this article and review it in six months time once you start making keeper selections for next year. But I felt it is important to write this now because this is the time of the season where those that are way out of leagues will start making trades to maximize their probability to win next year. This includes acquiring draft picks and making two-for-one and three-for-one trade to acquire valuable keepers.

Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask
Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask gets ready for overtime against the New York Rangers period at TD Garden Bob DeChiara USA TODAY Sports

Who should you look at for keepers? Well, it appears that you should avoid goaltending when looking at who you want to add to your keeper list.

A Few Points

There are few positions in fantasy sports that are as volatile as goaltending in hockey. In fact, for you fantasy baseball enthusiasts, it’s probably akin to the closer role. So much depends on how your team plays defensively in front of the goalie that it can be tough to predict how a goalie will do in the coming season. To show you the volatility, here are a few things of note:

  • In the top-5 in goaltending on ESPN’s player rater right now are Craig Anderson, Corey Crawford, Sergei Bobrovsky and Viktor Fasth. None of these guys were top-10 goaltenders (in my rankings, at least) before the season started. In fact, Bobrovsky and Fasth were almost definitely waiver wire adds in your league.
  • Five goalies ranked outside the top-20 as of today: Mike Smith, Cory Schneider, Jaroslav Halak, Jonathan Quick, Brian Elliott. These five goalies were all in the top-6 last year in terms of save percentage. The highest ranked of these five goalies this year is T-23rd (Schneider, .910 SV%)
  • The only goalie to finish in the top-10 in save percentage the last two years who is also a top-10 so far this year is Henrik Lundqvist.
  • Team defense plays a huge factor in goalie value. The top five goalies in terms of shots against this year are Ryan Miller, Ondrej Pavelec, Evgeni Nabokov, Devan Dubnyk and Semyon Varlamov. None of these goalies are inside the top-20 so far this season. It’s not a steadfast rule – Ottawa is second-worst in shots against this year but are first in the NHL in team save percentage while St. Louis has the best shots against total per game but the second-worst team save percentage – but it’s one I like to follow in general.
  • Wins are a terrible indicator of a goalie’s value. In the top-10 last year for wins were: Pekka Rinne, Marc-André Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Smith, Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard, Miikka Kiprusoff, Ilya Bryzgalov. None of these goalies are top-5 goalies so far this year and only Rinne, Lundqvist and Howard are in the top-10.
  • Split-start situations are to be avoided at all costs. Teams like Vancouver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh are all in a playoff position as of today and none of them have a goalie inside the top-10. These were all teams that had flashing warning signs around their goaltending situation heading into the season, too. Acquiring a goalie like Jaroslav Halak in a keeper league isn’t a terrible idea, but until there is clarity with their goaltending situation, you won’t get full value.

So now you have a good idea of the volatility that the goaltending position brings. In fact, unless you have Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne or Tuukka Rask as a keeper, you can probably make an argument for keeping a top skater over any other goalie.

But here’s the conundrum: Goaltending is extremely volatile but it’s the most important position in fantasy (and real) hockey. I can tell you this from personal experience. I’m in eight fantasy hockey leagues this year, ranging from 10-team home leagues to an 18-team writer’s league with four roto and four head-to-head leagues mixed in there. Without fail, teams that I drafted goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff, Jonathan Quick, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward or Ryan Miller are not doing well at all. Also without fail, teams where I drafted Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen are at the top or close to it.

You have to remember this: In a standard rotisserie league, goaltending categories will account for at least 30% of your stats (3/10 categories). They could account for maybe 40% of your overall stats. This is despite the fact that you might use four goalies in the run of a season out of 30 players or so which is around 13% of your overall roster for a full regular season. Having good goaltending is crucial to winning fantasy leagues. There’s no real way around that. If you drafted Jonathan Quick, Miikka Kiprusoff and Anders Lindback, which would have been perfectly acceptable on draft day, you probably haven’t looked at your team in two weeks.

What To Look For

So what should you look for in a keeper goalie? Let’s go through a few things:

  • Track record is critical. You’ll notice guys like Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist and Kari Lehtonen (when healthy) in the top 15 almost annually.
  • How good is the team defensively in front of them? It was a no-brainer when thinking about goalies like Mike Smith and Ilya Bryzgalov before the season that they wouldn’t succeed. On the flipside, we expected much better out of Jaroslav Halak and Jonathan Quick. In the last two instances, their respective teams are the two best teams in shots against/game but are having sub-par seasons. You won’t get it right all the time but you should have a good idea of who should be bad defensively even if there are a few surprises.
  • Power-play save percentage is a good indicator of who should regress the following year. Among the leaders in power-play save percentage last year, with at least 25 starts, were: Cory Schneider, Brian Elliott Martin Brodeur and Jonathan Quick. You’ll notice none of those players are in the top-15 for goalies so far this year. An excellent save percentage when a man short is anything over .900, so anything over that is not sustainable over the long-term. This can have a huge impact in a goalie’s statistics. Cory Schneider has already allowed more power-play goals this year (9) than he did all of last year (7) despite Vancouver’s penalty-kill only being 5% worse than last year (so far). It’s not that Schneider is a bad goalie, it’s just that he was over-hyped.
  • This last point can’t be overstated; penalty killing is critical to a goalie’s statistics. The top four teams in PK% are Ottawa, Boston, San Jose and Columbus. Who are four of the top-six goalies in fantasy hockey so far this year? Craig Anderson (OTT), Tuukka Rask (BOS), Antti Niemi (SJ) and Sergei Bobrovsky (CBJ). But again, who is to know? None of these four teams were in the top-10 last year in penalty kill percentage.

    Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick
    Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick makes a save in the second period against the Dallas Stars at the Staples Center Jayne Kamin Oncea USA TODAY Sports

Realistically, there’s only a handful of goalies I want as a keeper. I would definitely keep Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Quick and probably Carey Price. I say these guys specifically for two reasons: Firstly, they are the clear-cut number one goalies. Jonathan Bernier has been taking starts from Jonathan Quick, but they re-signed Quick to a long-term deal and Bernier is an RFA after this year. Secondly, there is some sort of track record here. Rask has been good for a few years now (albeit mostly in time-share scenarios), as has Quick, while the other three are perennial all-stars.

But that’s where my personal list ends. Here are my thoughts on a few of the better performing goalies this year that you might think to target in a keeper:

  • Tuukka Rask has a really high power-play save percentage this year (.931) so his true value probably lies somewhere between his 2010-2011 season (.918 SV%, 2.67 G.A.A.) and his 2011-2012 season (.929, 2.05). He’s very solid and playing for a team that is built to win for years to come but probably isn’t quite as good as his stats indicate so far this year.
  • Craig Anderson’s PPSV% this year is .945 while the last two years have been .885 and .898. So before you break the bank thinking Anderson will be a long-term viable keeper, keep that in mind. And remember the name Robin Lehner.
  • Viktor Fasth is T-3rd in the NHL in overall save percentage despite an .886 PPSV% so he might not be in for a big regression. However, until either he or Hiller leaves Anaheim he is not a valuable keeper.
  • Corey Crawford’s PPSV% this year is .872. Last year it was a paltry .829 (to go with Chicago’s fourth-worst penalty kill percentage league-wide) but was .870 back in 2010-2011 when he had a .917 SV% and 2.30 G.A.A. So in reality, Crawford might just be somewhere close to this good.

So that’s my take on it. There are five goalies I would feel comfortable in keeping, while any other goalie I could make a case for not keeping. Obviously, every league is different. If you keep six players, you probably don’t want to risk keeping Corey Crawford. However, if you keep 12 players or are in some sort of dynasty, you probably would keep Crawford. If you have any keeper questions, always feel free to reach me on Twitter. Happy wheeling and dealing!

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Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');