When the free-agent carousel started spinning on Friday, most goalies maintained their backup roles on different teams. But a select few – Mike Smith, Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov – were given a new chance to let freedom ring as starters. This is a perfect theme for today, since I'm celebrating Independence Day here in the USA.
But before I dig into projecting the fantasy value of these goalies for the upcoming season, let me explain why I feel Smith is destined to be much more of a reward than a risk in Phoenix.
For any goaltender, facing adversity, both emotionally and physically, is a necessary component to improving. Some goalies embrace it more than others, as it's one of the surefire ways to gain perspective and truly mature as a person.
Sure enough, Smith's difficult learning experiences over the course of the past season paid off when he was thrust into action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By that time, his entire game, from technique to consistency, had improved. No longer caught in those awkward, scrambling, injury-prone positions, Smith displayed much more patience, a more economical butterfly style and better rebound control than ever before.
Because of this, I feel that Smith is a perfect match in Phoenix. Not only will he be comfortable playing in Dave Tippett's defensive-minded system (thanks to their time spent together in Dallas), but the chance to play at least 50 games is there for the taking. That kind of workload is important, as more consistent minutes lend a hand to more consistent play, and vice versa. If he gets on a nice little roll early, he'll be one of the best fantasy sleepers available.
These elements, combined with his bigger frame and better puck-moving skills compared to Ilya Bryzgalov, lead me to believe he's busting at the seams with rising fantasy value. Toss in his penchant for stopping pucks in a more simplified manner than ever before, Smith has the chance to take that penultimate step and never look back.
With this in mind, I project around 55 starts for Smith, since Jason LaBarbera is a reliable and effective backup with a big frame. I can see Smith posting a 2.40 goals against average and a .917 save percentage with up to five shutouts.
I can't overlook LaBarbera, either. Last season, most of his starts came in uncomfortable and last-minute situations. This season, with less rust on his skates when he inevitably plays more, we'll finally see just how good he can be