Mike Smith

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PHT on Fantasy: Backup plan

A lot of things baffle me about the NHL, but like many, you just eventually let it wash away for the sheer sake of enjoying the game.

While I consider myself both bemused and annoyed by Matthew Tkachuk, essentially the Bart Simpson of the NHL, it feels like the NHL doesn’t even ask him to write things on chalkboards with these slap-on-the-wrist suspensions. Boosts in scoring almost always come down to a) young talent forcing improvements by sheer skill and will and b) actually calling a handful of infractions that should have always been penalties in the first place. And, of course, the debilitating normalcy of work stoppages.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just need to do the shrug emoji toward and just keep moving along.

The things that still baffle me, though, are the decisions that cost teams wins and, arguably, money. NHL GMs sometimes skimping on backups has regularly confounded me, to the point that I can’t just look away.

Consider this. Aside from the Oilers turning Cam Talbot into the hockey equivalent of a running back who received too many carries or a pitcher who logged too many innings last season, most teams pencil their starting goalies in for about 60-65 regular-season games per year. Things get fuzzy when you add postseason starts, especially when you remember that the repeat champion Penguins started at least two goalies for significant chunks of their runs both times.

That generally leaves your backup starting 17-22 games per season, and that’s if you’re lucky with your number one guy’s health.

So, it boggles my mind a bit that the pursuit of a backup is frequently treated with the indifference you’d show in acquiring a bottom-pairing defenseman or depth forward.

[Rotoworld: Looking at the week ahead with Michael Finewax]

Sure, “goalies are voodoo” and maybe there’s even more noise with number two guys, but it still bewilders me that the Pittsburgh Penguins would really think Antti Niemi was a likely fit last summer, and that all these teams with shaky backups didn’t even bother claiming Calvin Pickard. And so on.

Before this devolves from rant to hyper-rant, allow me to shift to the point of this column: a lot of starters are on the shelf right now, so how have their backups been doing, and how much should you trust them to continue to succeed?

In this latest fantasy column, I’ll look at goalies who are currently thrust into situations, and maybe sprinkle in a few scenarios that just ended or experienced quite a bit of disruption.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list. Also, this column ended up running long. Sorry.

***

Coyotes – So, it looks like Antti Raanta is healthy, but it’s been a bumpy ride.

Raanta’s played 13 games, Scott Wedgewood appeared in 12, Louis Domingue was banished after seven, and others have picked up some scraps. While I believe the Coyotes are more competitive than their record indicates, I also think that it’s better to travel the road of least resistance in fantasy.

There are a lot of bumps on this desert road.

Bruins – Yeah, I know Tuukka Rask is getting older, but it’s still perplexing that Anton Khudobin has objectively been the better goalie with each guy getting 10+ games played. This is weird and not good, but credit Khudobin for rekindling some of his early-Boston magic.

(Honestly, as happy as I was to see David Backes score two goals last night, I’m generally of the mind that the Bruins offer little beyond a terrifying top line and some promising young blueliners. At least in fantasy.)

Flames – Good grief, it’s really Mike Smith or bust, isn’t it?  Enjoy footage of not-Mike-Smith getting a goal scored off of his mask:

Blackhawks – So far, Anton Forsberg is 1-4-3 with a .906 save percentage as Corey Crawford is on the mend.

For so long, Chicago was the place where backup goalies would do so well, they’d often get chances to be full-time starters. Sometimes those guys ended up being legit, while others were propped up a bit. Now the Blackhawks’ leaky defense instead trips their goalies and pushes their faces in puddles. Or whatever the opposite of “propping up” is. Knocking your crutches/walking cane out of your hand? I don’t know, someone help me out.

You really need to be desperate to roll with Forsberg, is what I’m saying.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Stars – Ben Bishop is dealing with a back issue, opening the door for Kari Lehtonen to already eclipse 10 games played before the calendar hits 2018. This should go about as well as things went on this hideous shorthanded goal (which wasn’t really on Lehtonen, mind you).

On a similar note, I like some of the Stars players and generally Ken Hitchcock as a coach, but not together. It’s basically a peanut-butter steak in Dallas.

Oilers – In my head, I thought Laurent Brossoit was doing kind of OK with Cam Talbot on the shelf.

In reality, Brossoit’s been even worse, with an ugly .877 save percentage so far this season. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if the Oilers were pretty bad at everything beyond employing Connor McDavid.

Panthers – Roberto Luongo‘s injury could be substantial, which is bad news since he’s been playing so well and James Reimer‘s been off his game. Still, Reimer’s been a 1B and analytics darling for ages now, so if anyone can run with a chance like this, it’s Reimer.

Considering the comedy of errors that is Panthers management, this isn’t a perfect situation, but Reimer’s a decent enough choice if you’re needing a goalie and have limited options.

Kings – Darcy Kuemper playing well so far might, stealthily, be the most surprising thing about these surprising Kings.

Canadiens – Kudos to Charlie Lindgren, who might be a goalie to monitor, yet we don’t really need to belabor the “Carey Price is important” point, do we?

Islanders – A tricky situation with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss splitting things like a true platoon, at least so far. Halak’s been getting the reps lately, it seems. While the Islanders seem like they’re a true playoff team, their goalies are probably not worth the trouble, unless one of them is maybe your alternate option.

Note: I’m the type who prefers the ease of certainty instead of the tedium of tinkering.

Penguins – Coming into this season, Tristan Jarry generated strong work in the AHL in 2016-17, managing a .925 save percentage. The Penguins wanted to leave in there to marinate for some time, but with Matt Murray hurt, Jarry’s pressed into action, and he’s shining pretty nicely. He’s 5-1-2 with a nice .921 save percentage in eight games.

As a second-rounder (44th in 2013 vs. Murray, a third-rounder who went 83rd in 2012), you could argue that Jarry might actually have the superior pedigree.

Jarry is currently 59 percent owned in Yahoo, so there’s still a chance you can get him. While the Penguins’ defense might leave him vulnerable at times, Pittsburgh is playing well, Murray might be week-to-week and Jarry is solid. You could do worse than to give him an audition.

Golden Knights – ¯_(ツ)_/¯

With Marc-Andre Fleury showing some progress, there’s risk beyond the already-comical risk of taking on Vegas goalies, but let’s give Malcolm Subban credit for revamping his career prospects.

As with most Golden Knights things, I really don’t know what to tell you, other than “Yes, they seem better than we all expected, and no, I still don’t know what happens next.”

Jets – There are warning signs that the Connor Hellebuyck train will slow or even come to a screeching halt, but sometimes fantasy success is about being willing to laugh and enjoy hot streaks while they last.

Just be careful to look for escape routes in case that tunnel is actually just a painted-on boulder, Roadrunner-style.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What fantasy hockey players should be grateful for

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Ah, Thanksgiving. A time when families come together to overeat, try to ignore the more problematic elements of the holiday’s roots, watch lopsided football games, and get into arguments.

Not great, honestly, but kudos to my family specifically for at least adding pierogies to the mix.

With the American version of the holiday upon us (it’s in October in Canada … weird!), it seems wise to share gratitude for the players who are powering our fantasy hockey teams to greatness, or at least to help us avoid total mockery at the water cooler.*

Going for seconds, thirds

So far, 2017-18 has been The Year of The Top Lines. It can be seen mostly blatantly in noting that Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are battling for the top scoring spot in the NHL, while Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz are also in the top 10.

Much like the satisfaction of eating homemade sides instead of canned vegetables, the real winners have been the less-obvious members of lines who have been incredible values, and some of whom might deliver for a full season.

Schenn is an obvious example, with his 30 points in 22 games (not to mention 20 PIM and +19 rating) making him a blistering steal. His Yahoo pre-season ranking was 85th, and he likely went lower depending upon your given draft.

Sean Couturier might be the most delirious example so far, though. His yahoo ranking was 262, yet he’s ranked 18th by the same standards, as it’s clear that he’s taken the bull by the horns when it comes to getting an increased offensive role with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on his wings. Vladislav Namestnikov has been glorious, and it sure seems likely that’ll he remain with Stamkos and Kucherov as long as he’s healthy.

Micheal Ferland might spell his name in a funny way, but you’ll make fun of him less often if he’s on your team and manages to stay with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan over the long haul.

On that note, there are still some things to sort out. Will Kyle Connor be the guy that gets to play with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele more often than not? Can the Stars get a consistent third player (aside: we need a third [blank] to go with “second banana”) to dunk in opportunities from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, at least with Alex Radulov seemingly not being the right fit?

[Rotoworld: Breaking down the first quarter]

Really, the questions about duos makes you appreciate stable trios that much more, especially if you have one or both of them on your teams. You don’t see reasonable answers to the glorious combo of the Dany Heatley – Jason Spezza – Daniel Alfredsson very often in the salary cap era, after all.

Hopefully most of those top lines can at least maintain some of this ridiculous energy, as the dog days of the season will probably cause at least some regression. Sorry, didn’t mean to ruin the holiday spirit.

Trading goods

I can’t really go too long without thanking GM David Poile and others for spicing up the season with some trades. Don’t scoff at this being mentioned in fantasy, as trades can make the process more exciting *and* create new gems.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

In six games with the Nashville Predators, Kyle Turris has five points, but I’m most thankful – and intrigued – to see gains from Kevin Fiala (six points in his past five games) and Craig Smith (six in his past six). Fiala and Smith will probably be more worthy of adds in deeper leagues, but it’s a situation to watch, preferably with popcorn.

Turris could also boost guys like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi in a delightful domino effect, so again, a nod of gratitude to Poile.

Big saves

Quite a few goalies are saving their teams’ bacon (or honey-baked ham, to fit the theme?), with Corey Crawford, John Gibson, and Mike Smith coming to mind, in particular. Imagine where the Anaheim Ducks would be without Gibson?

Also: thanks to Braden Holtby, who’s navigating the Capitals’ struggles to remain the new Henrik Lundqvist as far as reliable fantasy hockey star goalies go.

Avoiding turkeys

Finally, all but one owner in each league can be happy to avoid Brent Burns, an awesome, caveman-looking scoring sensation who’s been on a puzzling scoring slump. Sometimes you have to be lucky to be good, even beyond getting a piece of those red-hot lines.

(And hey, maybe you’ll be thankful when you trade for Burns at a discount rate, only to see him bounce back?)

* – For those who grumble about this being a lame gimmick for a fantasy hockey column, allow me to respond with this hex: I hope your Crazy Uncle shares extra ridiculous, patently offensive theories this time around.

And, if *you* are in the crazy uncle role, I hope that a know-it-all nephew totally schools you, to the point that even like-minded family members are giggling at your stammering responses.

Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Maybe all the gravy is making me edgy.

Enjoy the holiday, hockey fans.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Arizona Coyotes’ season is only getting worse

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WINNIPEG — The Arizona Coyotes’ start to the 2017-18 season — a complete tire fire by all accounts — managed to burn a little brighter on Tuesday.

After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes, now 2-15-3, became the first team in National Hockey League history to play their first 20 games and not register a regulation win.

It’s not the first time the Coyotes have flirted with the unfortunate side of the history books through the first quarter of the season.

Arizona’s first win came just in time to partially save their own blushes after ending an 11-game slide to start the year (partially, because they still tied a league record set back during the 1943-43 season for most games without a win to start a season) and prevented them from becoming the sole owners of a piece of history coveted by no one.

“I’ve been saying it all year: You can’t complain, you can’t moan,” Coyotes forward Brandon Perlini said on Tuesday after the loss. “Like, just go play, work hard. There’s no other special secret or special juice. You just have to work your way out of it everyone shift after shift … and eventually I believe it will turn.”

Perlini’s frustration, despite trying to remain positive, was evident, and while the results for the Coyotes are borderline shocking, to say the least, they might not be all that surprising.

The Coyotes have been bleeding for a while now, missing the playoffs in their past five seasons since their remarkable run to the Western Conference finals in 2012.

They lost veteran captain Shane Doan to retirement over the offseason and traded away Mike Smith, who had backstopped the ‘Yotes for six seasons as they entered full-fledged rebuild mode.

They gained Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta via trade with the New York Rangers and have watched Clayton Keller blossom into the league’s best rookie early this season, although he’s been held off the scoresheet in four straight games.

Adding three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t hurt either, but he hasn’t played since Halloween due to an upper-body injury.

Arizona is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for but last in goals against. They’re second last in expected goals for and have the second-worst team save percentage.

None of that equates to wins and the Coyotes aren’t even getting lucky from time to time.

“It’s been a rough start,” said Raanta, who got the yank in Tuesday’s game. “When you have a young team and lots of new things going on, you need that confidence that comes from those wins. We haven’t gotten that early on in the season. But we’re still working hard. It’s the only way we can get over it.”

Raanta, who was arguably considered the best goalie without a starting role in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, said he’s had to battle his own demons this year amid all the losing.

“It’s tough when you’re a goalie and you lose a couple games in a row, you start looking at yourself and wondering what is going on,” said Raanta, who missed nine games with a lower-body ailment earlier this year. “For me, I just have to give us a chance to win. If I can look in the mirror after the game and say that I did whatever I could, of course, you can’t be satisfied, but you can find a positive.”

The land where the Coyotes are a contending team in the Western Conference seems like its far, far away at this point.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

NHL Power Rankings: The Lightning, then everybody else

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A little more than one month into the NHL season and we are starting to see which teams are good and which teams are … well … not.

We are still at a point where one or two teams could emerge from the bottom of the pile or fall from the top, but once the NHL season gets to Thanksgiving there typically is not much change in the standings. At least not much of a significant one.

With that said, there should be no question at this moment as to who the best team in the NHL is. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, and really, there might not be anybody close to them.

At times this season the Lightning have looked like an on-ice version of the Harlem Globetrotters and have just been toying with their opponents. Entering the week the Lightning have the best record in the league (three points ahead of the next best team) and own a plus-25 goal differential. That is 11 goals better than any other team in the league.

Two of their four losses have come on the second end of back-to-backs (with one of them coming against a team that had been rested for three days). Their current four-game winning streak includes a perfect road trip through California that saw them beat the Kings, Sharks and Ducks (two of those teams are excellent at the moment) by a combined score of 12-4. The fourth win in that streak is against Columbus, another likely contender in the NHL this season.

They have the NHL’s leading goal-scorer (Nikita Kucherov has a three-goal lead over John Tavares) and the top-two point producers (Steven Stamkos and Kucherov), both of whom are at least seven points ahead of the No. 3 scorer in the league (Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler).

As if the talent up front is not enough, their starting goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .930 save percentage in 15 starts.

Right now in the NHL it is Tampa Bay, then everybody else fighting for second.

So where is everybody else at the moment? Let us take a look.

Positively terrifying

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They are, quite simply, the best team in the NHL right now for all of the reasons mentioned above.

The rest of the best right now

2. St. Louis Blues — I had little expectation for the Blues heading into this season, largely due to their injury situation, but they still have the second best record in the league, the second-best goal differential, and one of the best lines in hockey.

3. Los Angeles Kings — Dustin Brown has found the fountain of  youth. He has topped 30 points just once in the past five years with 36 being the high point during that stretch. He is pretty much halfway to that total just 18 games into this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — They hit a little bit of a rut a couple of weeks ago but have come back strong with four straight wins. What is truly impressive is three of those wins heading into the new week came without Auston Matthews.

5. New Jersey Devils — The Devils are … fun?! Seriously, what is this? Who is this team? Fifth in the league in goals scored and coming off of a 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Gibbons, out of the NHL for two years, somehow has eight goals so far.

6. Ottawa Senators — Everybody complains about watching them play but all they do is collect points. It is not pretty, but this is pro sports. Teams don’t have to apologize for doing what they need to do to win.

Teams on the rise

7. Winnipeg Jets — Could this be the year the Jets finally turn all of that individual talent into something good?

8. New York Rangers — What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After a disastrous start the Rangers have ripped off six wins in a row. Big time move in this week’s rankings.

9. Nashville Predators — No team improved more in the big Matt DucheneKyle Turris-Colorado trade than the Predators thanks to the addition of Turris at the expense of nothing significant from their roster. The defending Western Conference Champs enter the week 7-3-1 in their past 11 games.

10. San Jose Sharks — Entering Monday the only team that has beaten them over their past seven games is the Tampa Bay juggernaut. Just when you think the Sharks are going away they always find a way to still be hanging around in the Western Conference.

11. Washington Capitals — Don’t look now but here come the Capitals! After a slow start they are starting to look like the team that has dominated the regular season the past two years. Entering the week 6-2 in their past eight games while only allowing 16 goals during that stretch.

12. Montreal Canadiens — The overall record still stinks, I get it, but like the Rangers the Canadiens are starting to erase all of the memories from a miserable start to the season with wins in seven of their past 10 games. That qualifies as a team on the rise even if there are a lot of teams in the league that still have a better overall record.

Teams still looking good

13. New York Islanders — Nikita Kucherov’s start has kind of hidden the fact that John Tavares is scoring goals whenever he feels like it as well. Mighty fine time for a contract year, eh?

14. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith is giving the Flames exactly what they need in net. If he can continue to do that they are going to be a tough out in the Western Conference with that defense and that young talent up front.

15. Dallas Stars — I may have underrated them a bit a couple of weeks ago. They are solid, and in a bizarre twist from recent Stars teams are 20th in the league in goals scored and third in goals against. John Klingberg is playing fantastic hockey right now.

Teams on the decline

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I still like this Blue Jackets team an awful lot and think they can be right there at the end of the season when it comes down to winning the Eastern Conference, but they have slipped a bit in recent weeks with just five wins in their past 12 games.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Being down to their fourth and fifth goalies is not helping, but they are starting to expansion team results in recent weeks. They still have a lot of forwards playing really well and producing.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Brian Elliott has started to look better in his recent starts. With their top forwards going the way they are this could still be an interesting team if they can get that goaltending spot solidified.

19. Chicago Blackhawks — After starting the season 3-0-1 with 21 goals in their first four games the Blackhawks are just 5-8-2 with only 32 goals in the 15 games since.

20. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries have decimated this team this season and they just keep getting worse with Ryan Getzlaf being sidelined for another two months.

Still need some work

21. Pittsburgh Penguins — The schedule with all of these back-to-backs is hurting them. So is the bottom of the roster. The depth problems that plagued them from 2010 through 2015 are back in a bad way.

22. Minnesota Wild — It has been the Jason Zucker and Devan Dubnyk show lately, but other than them nobody else is really doing much of anything to help the cause.

23. Carolina Hurricanes — Everything about this team looks good. They are exciting. They play hard. They once again have dominant underlying numbers. But there is still something missing.

24. Vancouver Canucks — They had a great start to the season that seemed to have them exceeding expectations but things are starting to return to normal for the Canucks. The early start was a mirage.

25. Boston Bruins — A very top-heavy roster. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are great, but where else is the offense going to come from?

26. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha has been a nice bright spot so far this season with a team-leading 16 points. He has been especially strong lately with eight points, including four goals, in his past seven games.

27. Colorado Avalanche — They picked up some intriguing young players in the Matt Duchene trade but an already bad team ended up getting worse in the short-term.

28. Buffalo Sabres — They have scored more than two goals just twice in the past seven games.

29. Edmonton Oilers — Not to keep hitting this same point over and over again, but Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have more points than every player on the Oilers not named Connor McDavid.

30. Florida Panthers — Only two wins in their past nine games with 37 goals against.

31. Arizona Coyotes — In their first 19 games of the season the Arizona Coyotes have exactly zero wins in regulation. Their only two wins, as of Monday, coming by way of overtime or a shootout. That is … really something.

PHT Morning Skate: The scariest goalie masks in history

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–The Pittsburgh Tribune looks at five things we’ve learned from Pittsburgh’s early struggles. The issues they have this year aren’t the same as last year’s. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

–Earlier this season, Mark Streit and the Montreal Canadiens parted ways after a short time together. Now, the Swiss defenseman has announced his retirement from professional hockey. (Swisshockeynews.ch)

–ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski lists the 15 scariest goalie masks in NHL history. Gary Bromley would’ve received my vote, but he finished second on the list, while Rangers goalie Gilles Gratton was number one. (ESPN.com)

Steve Mason added some spooky details to his new goalie mask. The Jets goalie has some of his teammates as zombies pictured on his new lid. (NHL.com)

Brian Boyle is getting ready to return to the Devils lineup for the first time since being diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. How will New Jersey use him? “Eventually, with a guy like him, you’ve just got to put him in. He’s done all the rehab, all the individual skates and now he’s had some consecutive practices. As long as he reacts well, we’re going to put him in soon.” (northjersey.com)

–Predators backup goalie Juuse Saros had a good season between the NHL and AHL last season, but he’s really come out of the gate slowly this year. Keep in mind, he’s still 22 years old, so there’s no need to panic just yet. (predlines.com)

–The Sabres have a four-day break in the schedule, which should give them an opportunity to clean up parts of their game. “We’re tied with the most games played up to this point. So it’s a good time to get a break, a good time to change the mood after a disappointing loss (Saturday) and just try to reset and get fresh for the week ahead,” said head coach Phil Housley. (buffalohockeybeat.com)

Nathan Walker was one of Washington’s best players in training camp. Unfortunately for him, that hasn’t given him much of an opportunity to play this season. Barry Trotz’s explanation as to why he’s not playing Walker also doesn’t really add up. (russianmachineneverbreaks.com)

–Team USA hockey player Meghan Duggan shares her musical play list with ESPN.com. There’s some Krewella, OneRepublic and even some Rihanna on there. (ESPN.com)

–There’s plenty of moves that have yet to pan out for their respective teams. The Coyotes went out and got new players like Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, but it hasn’t resulted in many victories. Here are some off-season moves that just haven’t worked out yet. (spectorhockey.net)

–On the flip side, The Score looks at four players that are off to great starts in their new cities. Patrick Marleau is off to a nice start with the Maple Leafs and Mike Smith has been solid between the pipes for Calgary. (The Score)

–There are so many different ways for a young player to make it to the NHL, but there isn’t just one way. Hannah Stuart looks at the different ways that hockey players can develop into regular NHLers. (fanragsports.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.