Fantasy stoppers

CHRIS NICHOLS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 1:14 PM ET

In pretty much every team sport, defence wins championships.

Fantasy hockey is no different -- to an extent. Offence is critical, no question, but you have to at least have reasonable goaltending numbers to compete for a championship. How early should you grab your goaltenders though? Your specific league scoring categories will dictate how important goaltending is and the flow of your particular draft may determine where you need to take yours, but in general terms it may not be a bad idea to hold off until the first 10-12 goalies are off the board.

The fact is over the past few seasons many of the goaltenders that ended up in the top ten in stats were not chosen in the first few rounds of fantasy drafts and too many of the goalies that were chosen early tanked. That means that if you can grab the 100 and 90 point scorers in the first three or four rounds of the draft and then take goaltending, you've actually got a pretty good chance of getting the best of both worlds in terms of offence and goaltending.

The following rankings are based on projections for wins, GAA and SA%. Guys in a battle for a number one slot, even on solid teams like Tampa and Detroit, automatically have lower values because you'll need to take up two roster spots until a winner emerges.

Stay tuned to SLAM! during the preseason for more fantasy articles: Wednesday will be a ranking of the top 75 fantasy players and Friday will be a "players of interest" column, highlighting a number of guys who should exceed their draft position. Next week look for an entire article dedicated to players you should target via draft or trade in keeper leagues.

TOP TEN

1. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey: Yes, he'll be without Stevens and Niedermayer; not to mention Elias is slated to miss the start of the season. That will certainly hurt. Keep in mind though that Stevens only played 38 games in '03-4 and Brodeur survived. Derian Hatcher left Dallas and Marty Turco still posted incredible stats. Take a wait and see approach with New Jersey's defensive situation, but you've got to respect the organization's ability to get things done and that Brodeur has flat out earned the number one fantasy goalie designation. Someone is going to have to push Brodeur off the mountain to take his number one ranking.

2. Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary: It's astonishing that a guy who wasn't even drafted in 99.9% of fantasy leagues in '03-4 can now be considered a stud, but such is the case for this talented Finn. Is another 1.69 GAA season in the works? Not likely. But Calgary has only gotten stronger since its Cup run and Kipper is no fluke. With Darryl Sutter behind the bench and Calgary's amazing defensive unit in front of Kipper I feel confident that he's a blue chip goaltending pick for this season.

3. Roberto Luongo, Florida: The off-season soap opera surrounding his arbitration hearing should not have any bearing on Luongo's ability to put together another great fantasy season. Florida's new-found depth means it should be able to win some more games than the last time out and as usual, Luongo's main draw is his amazing SA%. Other goalies will get more wins and have a better GAA, but Luongo's ability to take a licking and keep on ticking makes him one of the best fantasy goalies around.

4. Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose: The rise to prominence of the Sharks has been well-deserved and Nabokov has been a key part of the success. San Jose has one of the strongest teams in the West and although fantasy owners may have an up and down impression of Nabby, keep in mind that of the four full seasons he's tended net for the Sharks, only one has been bad and that was a team effort. He's a wise fantasy investment.

5. Robert Esche, Philadelphia: Wherever Ken Hitchcock is coaching; you'll find me choosing his goalie for my fantasy team. The Flyers look to be a powerhouse in the East and as a demonstration of my confidence in him, Esche is a starter on my own keeper league team. He'll be pushed by Antero Niittymaki, who had an awe-inspiring run to the AHL's Calder Cup Championship during the lockout, but Esche has the starting job this year and will deliver solid numbers.

6. Marty Turco, Dallas: I'm not exactly giddy about Dallas's prospects of making the playoffs this season, which is why Turco is a few slots later than you might think. He's still a regular season stud in net though and his GAA and SA% should be among the top guys. There is no worry about him losing his starting job and that's one of many reasons you should be fine with Turco on your team. You may sacrifice a few wins with him, but he should more than make up for it in the other stats.

7. Dan Cloutier, Vancouver: Look up "oft-maligned" in the dictionary and you'll see a photo of Cloutier. In the meantime, grab him for your fantasy team and see why he's posted totals of 31, 33, and 33 wins over the past three seasons.

8. Dominik Hasek, Ottawa: The Dominator, so low on the list? This will work to your advantage, if you feel like taking a small gamble on an ancient goalie. Ottawa's team is stacked and any number of goalies could put up great stats between the pipes, let alone a legend like Hasek. Certainly rust and health are concerns, but if you grab Ray Emery as insurance you should get better numbers than you might normally get by taking a goalie at this slot. If someone else wants to make Hasek the second or third goalie taken in the draft, let them.

9. Jose Theodore, Montreal: Secure in the knowledge that he's locked in with the Habs, Theodore should easily post a 30+ win season with a pretty high SA% and a respectable GAA. There's something to be said for owning a goalie that has no chance of losing the starting job, especially one with the focus of Theodore.

10. Andrew Raycroft, Boston: The Bruins will be one of the best teams in the East again and although Raycroft may not post numbers equal to his rookie season, he'll still be among the best and have a high win total. Hannu Toivonen is there to keep Raycroft's competitive fires stoked and although it's always possible Raycroft will have the sophomore slump, it's not likely. If Raycroft has another stellar season, he'll get bumped up the list.

11-20

11. Ed Belfour, Toronto: I have little doubt that Belfour is going to put up good stats this season, despite his age, back problems and the legions of haters with Eagle voodoo dolls. The Leafs, despite losing character and grit in the off-season, are still going to have a very competitive team and in fantasy circles that will translate to success.

12. David Aebischer, Colorado: Take away Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote and what's left? Actually, a pretty decent team. The Avs will certainly feel the loss of Foote in the defensive end, but they're already well-versed in playing without Forsberg. The West has only gotten closer since the summer free agency period ended and the Avs are going to have to fight harder than ever for success in their Conference.

13. Tomas Vokoun, Nashville: The acquisition of Paul Kariya has to give the Preds a little bit of the confidence they've seemed to lack in past years and may help this franchise push beyond past limits. With a killer power play duo in Timonen and Zidlicky combined with the new offensive prowess of a first line with Kariya, Nashville may be able to squeeze out a few more wins for their workhorse Vokoun.

14. J.S. Giguere, Anaheim: If there's a guy that should enjoy a nice rebound season, it's JSG. With Scott Niedermayer in front of him Giguere's job got a slight bit easier, so look for stats in the 30-win range with a SA% not too far off his breakout season. Even though his overall numbers were bad in '03-4 compared to the previous season, remember that he was pretty hot in the second half of '03-4.

15. Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders: This former first overall pick is entering his second season as the go-to guy and things will only get better for DiPietro and the Isles. He may not win 40 games this year, but his job as the starter is safe and he'll get decent enough stats. His fantasy future is bright and before too long he'll be able to carry this Isles team on his back.

16. Nik Khabibulin, Chicago: Khabi was pretty unbelievable during the Lightning's playoff run last season, but he had so many inconsistent stretches during the past few regular seasons that it's hard to rank him too high on the list. The Hawks have made some serious improvements in addition to adding Khabi though, so that bodes well for his value. The best part of taking him is that his salary means he'll be playing no matter what.

17. Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta: Possibly the sleeper of the entire goaltending field, this rookie is going to finish in the top half of goaltending stats. Atlanta's team is slowly building toward contender status and although not there yet, this season will certainly mark a playoff berth and Lehtonen will be carrying the bulk of the load as long as his pre-season groin injury doesn't continue to haunt him. Vet Mike Dunham will be there if this prodigy stumbles, but don't count on it. And as you've heard me say in past years -- if you can grab Lehtonen in your keeper league do it because this guy is soon to be a franchise player. Lehtonen is also a starter on my keeper team.

18. Dwayne Roloson, Minnesota: Need a cheap goaltender in the middle of the draft to get you results? Roly is your man. He gets so little respect in fantasy circles and all he's done for two straight seasons is post great stats -- good enough to win you a pool against the guys who invested early in guys like Brodeur and Turco while you stocked up on offensive gems. Manny Fernandez should have a much better season than in '03-4, so you may want to carry both just in case we head back to any kind of platoon situation. Roloson is the third man in my Esche-Lehtonen-Roloson keeper team starting troika.

19. John Grahame, Sean Burke, Tampa Bay: Grahame is my odds-on favourite to emerge out of this tandem, but it's certainly worth investing in both. The defending Cup champs will ice a highly competitive team once again and whoever ends up between the pipes for the most amount of time should have a fairly nice win total. The only reason they're ranked this low on the list is because of the uncertainty of a clear starter.

20. Ty Conklin, Edmonton: Conklin could be one of the fantasy surprises this year and a 30-win season is not out of the question. The only problem is that the Oil has confidence in Jussi Markkanen if TC should stumble, so it's a state of affairs that will have to be monitored closely. If I had to bet, I'd say Conklin emerges as the number one with Jussi providing the steady backup job that he's done so effectively for the past few years. Edmonton's overall defensive picture looks much brighter with Pronger and Peca added to their existing talent structure and Conklin should be the beneficiary.

21-30

21. Chris Osgood, Manny Legace, Detroit: Just when you thought Detroit had learned from the disaster that was their goaltending carousel in '03-4, we enter camp with an open job for number one. Both guys are capable of putting up decent regular season numbers, but you've got to waste two roster spots to figure out which one will emerge as the starter. Given's Detroit's penchant for making Legace the backup no matter how well he plays, look for that to happen again.

22. Jocelyn Thibault, Pittsburgh: Before you completely dismiss Thibault as useless because Pittsburgh has no defence to speak of, remember the kind of stats Thibault put up in Chicago (2.37, .915 in '02-3), which also had no defence. The former Hawk is actually pretty well-suited for this high octane team and if Pittsburgh's power play is as deadly as it should be, Thibault will at least be good for some wins. The downside of Thibault's acquisition is that we don't get to see Marc Andre Fleury, but that will come with time.

23. Curtis Joseph, Brian Boucher, Phoenix: If you draft Joseph, you'd better draft Brian Boucher and be prepared for a possible platoon situation throughout the season. Phoenix is going to surprise some people with how much it has improved since last time, but the team will still be in tough to get to the playoffs, even with 99 behind the bench. The good news for Joseph owners is that his ankle is healthy and he's raring to go. He'll also be helped by the fact that Boucher suffered a groin injury in a preseason game and that may leave an opening for Joseph to start as the number one guy.

24. Patrick Lalime, St. Louis: Lalime took too much of the blame for Ottawa's playoff downfall, although those Nieuwendyk goals are pretty hard to forget. Nonetheless, Lalime is going to be hungry to prove his detractors wrong and that's good news for you if you draft the 31-year old. The bad news, obviously, is that Chris Pronger is gone. The possibility exists that Lalime will post decent to good stats this year, but I'd rather not end up with him on my team.

25. Mathieu Garon, Los Angeles: This guy did a very nice job backing up Theodore in Montreal over the past few years and his 32 win, 2.12 GAA, .927 SA% AHL season during the lockout certainly has to inspire a bit more confidence in him. In fantasy terms, Garon still needs to prove himself as a starter before you should invest a draft pick even though the Kings are better than a 25th place team.

26. Marc Denis, Columbus: Although Denis is a workhorse and Columbus will be bolstered by Adam Foote, Jan Hrdina, Bryan Berard and the continuing maturation process of Rick Nash and Nik Zherdev, Denis is still better left to the last few rounds of goalies available.

27. Marty Biron, Ryan Miller, Mika Noronen, Buffalo: This is Miller's year to prove he belongs in the starting threads and after an impressive lockout season in the AHL where he collected a record 41 wins, survey says he'll do it. Biron is the favourite to get dealt in this threesome, but crazier things have happened and Noronen could be playing elsewhere too. The bottom line is that even though Buffalo will be a better team this time around, I'd recommend you avoid this whole mess and let someone else deal with the headaches.

28. Olaf Kolzig, Washington: Despite being a good goalie, the veteran is in for another miserable season. He'll go on a tear for close to a month like he does every year, but don't believe for a second that Washington is good when that happens, because they're not. The team has some talented players and Ovechkin will be fun to watch, but the Caps are clearly in a transitional phase and Kolzig should not end up on your team. Phil Kessel, here we come.

29. Kevin Weekes, New York Rangers: This is a guy that can be a pretty amazing goaltender. He posted some nice numbers for a Carolina team that really wasn't very good in '03-4 (2.33, .912) and guess what -- he's going to be playing for another team that's not very good this year. Although I respect his ability, I can't recommend him for your fantasy squad.

30. Martin Gerber, Carolina: Somebody had to be last. Gerber did an admirable job filling in for a struggling JSG in Anaheim and now he'll have a shot to prove himself as a starter in Carolina. The good news for Gerber is that the Canes have some more offence in Stillman and Whitney to help win games, but Carolina is still likely to finish fourth in its division and there should be better options than him in net for your roster.


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