With a dense 56-game inter-play schedule comprised of freshly assembled divisions, the 2020-21 NHL regular season is like no other. If all goes to plan, it's going to be a lot of fun - all the more fun for fantasy hockey managers. ESPN's new standard game - one that rewards wins, saves, shutouts, and penalizes goals-allowed - values quality netminding more than ever. To illustrate, a sample goalie earns their manager 5.6 fantasy points in stopping 28 of 30 shots in a 4-2 win. Solid haul. On the nastier side, the allowing of five goals on 31 shots in a 5-4 loss results in a fantasy net of -4.8 points. Yikes.
In 2020-21, not unlike before, ESPN's ideal fantasy goalie plays/wins most games and allows (very) few goals on a healthy number of shots. The odd shutout is a nice bonus. Managers who draft those top-tier characters off the get go and/or make proper adjustments throughout the season should remain in contention until the end. Those who don't, stand zero - seriously, zero - chance of enjoying any fantasy success.
In standard leagues, I'm drafting my No. 1 fantasy netminder early - second round, latest - and not lollygagging on selecting the second, in each case avoiding a member of a recognized tandem. These guys need to play. After that, I'm more flexible in rounding out my goaltending corps with an underrated mid-tier asset and high-ceilinged sleeper. One or two teams are going to surprise this season, they always do, and pegging that overachieving squad's competent netminder could serve up rich dividends. But nailing down an elite one-two goalie punch early in drafts - based based on individual talent, supporting cast members, and strength of schedule - remains paramount.
Top-tier goalies I like
No NHL goaltender played more games, made more saves, or pitched more shutouts this past season than the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Only Tampa's Andrei Vasilevskiy earned more wins, edging Hellebuyck in that category 35 to 31. The Jets are threatening to roll out backup Laurent Brossoit more often, but I don't buy it. Why? When the league's best is right there on the roster, fit and healthy, there's little sense in settling for the other fella in a division as fiercely competitive as the North. In ESPN's new, improved fantasy game, Hellebuyck presents as the full, shiny package.
Mid-tier goalies to target
Colorado is going to win a lot of games this season and - taking nothing away from Pavel Francouz - Grubauer will start most of them. Consistent throughout his NHL career, and when healthy through a 2019-20 season hampered by injury, the Av's more experienced netminder is reportedly fully healthy. An unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of 2020-21, the 29-year-old has every incentive to shine as member of a team endeavouring to hoist the Cup next summer. That the Avalanche is only dealing with seven scheduled back-to-back sets - the league's fewest is six - suggests fewer opportunities for Francouz, if Grubauer manages to get the job done.
All this talk of Thatcher Demko and yet on scene is a former Stanley Cup Champion, Vezina and Jennings Trophy-winner all revved up to prove he's still an elite netminder at 31 years old. I like Holtby's chances at regularly stealing starts on his new team that, by my prognosis, finishes in a playoff position in the North. Helpfully, the addition of defenseman Nate Schmidt somewhat mitigates the not insignificant blue-line loss of Chris Tanev. Turning the page on a prolific career in Washington, Holtby is set to convince his coaches he's this bizarre season's go-to game by game.
The fresh start with the Wild appeals most as impetus for Talbot to return to old form. Before slipping in the latter half of his Edmonton stay, the veteran netminder was better-than-good his first two seasons. And last year's turn in Calgary was hardly awful, despite seeing limited action behind No. 1 David Rittich. Now Talbot is the guy in Minnesota, and he's jazzed. With Alex Stalock out indefinitely, the 33-year-old is going to be Capital-B-Busy. With the help of Minny's defense, Talbot could rack up some serious fantasy points in a West Division that includes three of last season's bottom-five teams in scoring (Sharks, Ducks, Kings).
Rookie Ilya Sorokin may be the future in Nassau County but, with Thomas Greiss settled in Detroit, Varlamov remains the everyday present. Starting more often than not in 2019-20, the veteran netminder sported a respectable .914 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average. Then came summer's bubbled playoff run. Few (certainly not me) forecast the Isles' inspired charge that fell just short of earning a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Rocking a .921 SV% and 2.14 GAA through 20 games, Varlamov deserved a good deal of credit for that success. Fast-forward to January 2021 and the 32-year-old veteran should be busy enough in a tight and ultimately unpredictable East Division as Sorokin is comfortably eased into NHL action. Don't be shocked in Varlamov exceeds fantasy expectations once again.
Late-round picks to consider
Now hear me out, what if the Senators don't struggle as much in 2020-21 as most believe? What if the offseason additions of forwards Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and others improve the team more than anticipated? What if some prospects, including WJC standout Tim Stuetzle, make an immediate impact? All of that would pave the way for a former goaltending heavyweight out of Pittsburgh to bounce back after a recent run of mediocrity. Remember, Murray is still only 26 years old; he's as much a part of the Senators' (quick?) rebuild as others.
According to ESPN's Top-300 list of fantasy assets, there are 55 other NHL netminders to be drafted ahead of the former Wild No. 1. Fifty-five. I'll concede the Sharks could be in for a rough go in a West Division that also includes the Avalanche, Knights, and Blues, and playing away from home isn't nice, and being saddled with a league-most 12 scheduled back-to-back games strikes as an additional challenge, but ranking Dubnyk outside the Top-40 feels absurd. For the better part of five seasons (not including last year, ahem) the veteran netminder was exceptionally solid in Minnesota. Feeling revitalized with his new team and inspired to prove he's still got it, Dubnyk is favored to run with the No. 1 gig over a lesser Martin Jones. He's worth a late flier in most leagues.
Avoid in drafts at current value
Binnington was undeniably super in taking over in net for the Blues two years ago, helping his team to eventual Stanley Cup victory. Impressive stuff, no question. He was good this past regular season, wrapping up with a 2.56 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. No complaints there. Then he stunk in the playoffs. If you believe one outstanding half-season does not a Top-5 fantasy goalie make, look elsewhere. I like Binnington as a No. 2 - he'll undoubtedly play a ton with former Blues' netminder Jake Allen in Montreal - but no better.