The preseason always gives fantasy managers plenty to think about. Your team could still be missing a few crucial pieces to the puzzle, but with all of the prospects and potential sleepers buzzing around for roster spots, this week is almost more of a distraction - an easy way to be persuaded into making hasty lineup decisions. If one of those missing pieces is a goaltender, get down on your knees and pray for a miracle, because there are probably very slim pickings in the free agent pool.
But through the dense fog of the first half of pre-season, there’s actually a set of goalies turning into solid backups or motivated starters. These goalies are playing much better than expected and the two examples of this right now is Michael Leighton in Carolina and Peter Budaj in Colorado. In two pre-season games, Budaj has only allowed two goals on 38 shots. He has been the best Avalanche player in pre-season except for Ryan Smyth. Budaj is one of many goalies right now that share a similar storyline. Just look at what has transpired since the end of May – Jose Theodore left town and Budaj was cut loose from the shackles of being the backup and now he’s getting the chance to prove his starter capabilities.
That storyline of a budding star being liberated is exactly what must happen in their career before they can come into a situation of total crease domination. Look around the league and you will see many other goalies currently in this situation. Mathieu Garon has been set free in Edmonton and is also putting together a very fine pre-season. Mike Smith is getting to run with the lead role in Tampa Bay, and then to a lesser extent you have Dan Ellis in Nashville, Ilya Bryzgalov in Phoenix and Martin Gerber in Ottawa all getting the chance to be the un-disputed #1 this year.
Not all of these goalies are going to surprise us and some might even surprise us in a negative fashion, causing frustration and wasted games. But all you have to do is look at what Martin Biron did last season as a full-fledged Flyer starter, what Bryzgalov did as soon as he came over from Anaheim. Don’t be afraid to put your faith in Budaj or Ellis, even though their teams may not be predicted to be one of the top teams, there’s no reason that they can’t put together some really solid streaks. That being said, let’s briefly break down all 30 teams and see if there’s a domination or a liberation in the big blue crease.
Jean Sebastien Giguere will slide down slightly as one of the top statistical goalies this year. Expect Jonas Hiller to see more than the 23 games he played in last year as a rookie.
Kari Lehtonen will successfully comply with head coach John Anderson’s request to start at least 60 games.
Manny Fernandez gets the chance he deserves as Tim Thomas has struggled in the pre-season. One could ultimately be set free before the end of the season as both are in the final year of their contracts.
Ryan Miller looks more confident than ever, thanks to last season’s experience playing a heavy workload. I have been very impressed with Patrick Lalime’s positioning so far this pre-season.
Miikka Kiprusoff needs goal support and lower shots per game this year if he’s going to play 75 games. Curtis McElhinney has snagged the backup spot but Matt Keetley has also played extremely well.
Michael Leighton looks very strong, making 36 of 37 shots in two preseason outings. That includes a 21-save shutout over the Flyers last night. Keep an eye on Leighton - he’s a big boy with great lateral mobility.
Expect Nikolai Khabibulin to be traded before the 20-game mark as Cristobal Huet plays lights-out in net. Update: Khabibulin was waived just after this column was written.
Budaj is poised to make big waves in his first season as full-fledged starter in Colorado and I don’t expect it to be another David Aebischer and Marc Denis story all over again. Budaj is for real. Andrew Raycroft is not.
Pascal Leclaire must work hard and shake that injury-prone stigma. Fredrik Norrena will be playing a more consistent role as the backup and play in more games, that’s straight from the mouth of Ken Hitchcock.
Marty Turco is struggling this pre-season, so let’s see if he’s pressured at all from backup Tobias Stephan.
Chris Osgood hasn’t been a true starter since his days in St. Louis, so health or focus could be an issue.
Mathieu Garon is facing stiff competition from Dwayne Roloson, but Garon is still out-shining everyone in Edmonton. He has put together a pair of solid outings and looks poised to continue his momentum.
Can Tomas Vokoun pick up the Panthers and make them a defensive threat once again? Craig Anderson has had a few positive pre-season games to solidify his presence in the NHL this season.
LOS ANGELES: Liberation
Who steps up? Jason LaBarbera is looking rather soft (as I predicted) and Ersberg has been just mediocre.
Niklas Backstrom looks solid after two full games, including 28 saves and a great OT period in a 2-1 victory over Buffalo last night. He will quietly become one of the league’s premier puck stoppers this season.
This is Carey Price’s sophomore season, which is still a liberating one. He made 36 saves Sunday in a 3-2 shootout victory over the Panthers and stopped all three penalty shots. He is ready to rock and roll.
Dan Ellis is physically prepared for a grueling season in a very competitive Central Division, but where is his mental focus right now? It’s tough to say – only time will tell, just like it did with Chris Mason.
NEW JERSEY: Domination
Whatever type of stats Martin Brodeur posts in the first half of this season, you can bet on his numbers being much better in the second half. Does complacency set in for the league’s best goaltender?
NEW YORK (I): Domination
Rick DiPietro will continue to improve in all facets of the game and I’m going out on a limb by saying he will score a goal this year.
NEW YORK (R): Domination
Henrik Lundqvist is in prime pouncing mode for a tremendous season, but with no need to look in the rearview mirror at Steve Valiquette, complacency and work ethic could become a concern.
Martin Gerber has been set free from the binds of the ridiculous goaltending fiasco when Ray Emery was still around. Can Darth Gerber use the force and put together the same type of early streak as last season?
Last year Martin Biron was a liberated goalie, being set free from Buffalo. What type of encore?
Ilya Bryzgalov’s consistency is now under the microscope, as he plays on a “rejuvenated” and “re-structured” team that has much higher expectations – playoff expectations.
Last season was Marc-Andre Fleury’s liberating year, so expect big things in his first season of crease domination in Pittsburgh.
ST. LOUIS: Liberation
Either Manny Legace will be liberated from nagging meniscus problems or Chris Mason will liberate himself from an abysmal last season in Nashville.
SAN JOSE: Domination
Evgeni Nabokov is looking to become one of the top five goalies in the league and Brian Boucher has secured a formidable backup position.
TAMPA BAY: Liberation
Fans have already gotten behind a liberated Mike Smith and so has head coach Barry Melrose. Olaf Kolzig is there for support and Karri Ramo is ready for the call-up when needed.
Vesa Toskala played much better at the tail end of last season and since Ron Wilson will manage Toskala’s activity much better than Paul Maurice, expect better play but not better numbers from Toskala.
Roberto Luongo has looked extremely sharp in pre-season and with no personal “baggage” he’s primed to come out with a fury of a million fists.
A lot of good vibes are coming out of Theodore believers and with the fans’ support, he should have no problem playing consistently on a team that will score plenty of goals for him.