When it comes to fantasy netminders, environment is a gigantic part of the equation. An ordinary goalie can turn into roto gold if the right defense is protecting him, while a rock-solid puck stopper sometimes has his fantasy value torpedoed by a sketchy defense.
For most of Jimmy Howard's professional life, he's had a cushy setup. He's not going to enjoy that in 2013. Detroit's blue line is a mess right now.
When Howard inherited the gig for the 2009-10 season, the Red Wings were overflowing with quality defensemen. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski were still going strong, with Niklas Kronwall the emerging new talent. A deep group of two-way forwards also made Howard's life easier. That 2009-10 Red Wings team outshot its opponents by over six chances per game. The roster slowly started to turn over in the next two seasons, but Howard still had an envious life by NHL standards.
Fast forward to the present, where the Red Wings are off to a messy 1-2 start, allowing 11 goals and 101 shots. Howard faced so many breakaways in the opening-night 6-0 loss at St. Louis, the game started to look like Mini 1-on-1. The team's play wasn't that clean at Columbus either, though the Red Wings stole a 4-3 victory in a shootout. Howard played well in Tuesday's loss to Dallas, stopping 30 of 32 attempts. To be fair, Kari Lehtonen (40 saves) stole that game for the Stars.
Lidstrom (first year of retirement) and Rafalski (second year) aren't walking through that door, obviously. Kronwall is solid as Detroit's No. 1 defenseman, not that he's ever going to be in the Norris Trophy discussion. Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo are both out indefinitely. Jonathan Ericsson is dinged up. Kyle Quincey remains a pylon on ice (Vladimir Tarasenko spun him like a top over the weekend). If you can skate backwards and live in the greater Detroit area, stop by Joe Louis Arena sometime – and bring your gear.
The Red Wings still have two elite forwards in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and Mike Babcock is probably the best coach in the league. Rookie forward Damien Brunner has looked good in all three games, even the St. Louis debacle. There's still talent here at the top half of the roster, but is the depth good enough to pick up the pieces? Can the second line consistently score if there's not a Datsyuk or Zetterberg added to the mix? Will Howard have to play Superman every night? I wouldn't be surprised if Detroit missed the playoffs entirely in 2013, and even if the Wings qualify, I can't see any kind of a deep run.
Ah, but that's all real-life talk. Let's take it back to the fantasy prism. Is Howard still a Top 5 or Top 10 fantasy goalie to you? Are you buying low on the Red Wing netminder today, or looking to trade the name-brand value while you can? I'm not tied to Howard on any of my teams, and frankly I'm relieved to say that. I'm not bullish on this team for the short haul or the long haul. The circus leaves town for everyone eventually.
A few other names and notes while we have you here:
• Nobody views Canisius College as an NHL talent hotbed, but the Buffalo college has to be proud of alum Cory Conacher. The clever forward is finally getting a shot in The Show after some minor-league seasoning, and he's making good on the opportunity.
The 23 year-old Conacher is off to a snappy 2-3-5 start for the Lightning through three games, settling in as a Top 6 forward. He's also getting some run on the power play, logging 10 minutes in that role (by way of comparison, Martin St. Louis is at 16:04 and Vincent Lecavalier is at 11:44). Conacher isn't going to push anyone around at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, but speed and quickness always have a place in this game (St. Louis nods his head). The kid clearly showed scoring potential in the AHL, totaling 55 goals and 59 assists over 118 games there.
Conacher's ownership tag in Yahoo! leagues is still remarkably low – it was less than one percent after Tuesday's tally, though he's already been added over 2000 times during Wednesday's period. He's carrying two positions of eligibility in the Y! game (center, left wing), always a selling point. Ready to kick the tires?
• Cam Atkinson is another 23 year-old forward I'd suggest you keep an eye on. He scored a gorgeous highlight-clip goal against Detroit on Monday (thanks, defense), and although that's his only point through two games, he's also collected nine shots. When in doubt, follow the opportunities – trust that the goals will come eventually. Atkinson didn't look out of place during last year's 7-7-14 trial at Columbus (over 27 games), and he was a prodigious scorer at Boston College (61 goals over his final two seasons).
Atkinson also had a 17-21-38 line in the AHL this year, waiting out the lockout. He knows how to score, and he'll get all the ice he can handle on this Columbus team (it's also telling that he led off Monday's shootout). You'll find the right wing currently available in 94 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
• Even if you don't have any interest in subscribing to NHL premium products this year (lockout bitterness, I get it), make sure you're taking full advantage of the Center Ice Free Preview that's running all month. When you consider the thickly-settled nature of the 2013 schedule, we're talking about a crazy amount of free puck coming your way. Be your own scout on a nightly basis; you'll pick up all sorts of useful information and you'll enjoy the game more.