A Commissioner’s Manifesto (Part 2 – Formats)

by Johnny Fantasy

Setting up a fantasy hockey league is no easy task if you want to do things right.  While it’s impossible for fantasy to exactly track reality, I always wanted to find a league setup that did the fairest job of approximating reality and that would provide the best experience of managing a hockey team of NHL players.   To that end, there are the some basic principles I’ve settled on over the years.  In part 1, we looked at the different platforms available (we settled on Yahoo and the rest of our discussion will focus on that).  Here in part 2, we’ll look at league formats.

Formats

After choosing a platform, the next step of any league is choosing the format.  Fantasy hockey seems a bit odd among fantasy sports, as its formats have been continuing to evolve fairly recently.   The season after the 2004-05 lockout, Yahoo’s only options were Rotisserie and Head-to-Head (stat categories) leagues.  While it was unclear why, the fantasy football-style, head-to-head points format was missing.  As a result many fantasy hockey players seem to be accustomed to stat-categories style leagues. Yahoo did introduce fantasy-points based leagues eventually, and now we a variety of format options to choose from: rotisserie vs. head-to-head; points vs. stat categories; keeper vs. non-keeper.  Was it worth the wait to have all of these different options?  Let’s look at each to see how well they work for fantasy hockey.

Rotisserie – This is my least favourite format.  Whether it’s stat categories or points only, this format basically amounts to a year-long battle royale against all other managers in your league.  The main downside to this is that insurmountable leads can be obtained far before the end of the season, and if you’re not competing with the top few teams then you’re basically just competing for rank among the other also-rans.

This takes a lot of fun out of playing fantasy hockey.  In head-to-head, even if you’re in the bottom of the league, you have a chance to win any given week and, if enough teams are let into the playoffs, you may even still have a shot at the championship.  Rotisserie much more tedious.  Perhaps a rotisserie points-only league (with the proper point allocations) could be considered the ‘truest’ measure of who has put together the best roster over the course of the season, but is that what the fun of fantasy sports is?  It seems like it’s missing something.  I want the ups and downs of a week to week matchup – one player’s over-performance on the last day resulting in a dramatic comeback or one team barely hanging on for a win.  Are those things random and sometimes unfair?  Absolutely, but it’s that anything-can-happen aspect that makes sports, especially hockey, great.  Rotisserie seems to be the fantasy equivalent on ranking NHL teams based on the number of goals they score, rather than their win-loss record.  Maybe some would prefer that, but it’s not the way the NHL works and I think rotisserie is a less preferable format for fantasy as a result.

Head-to-Head – Now this is more like it – matching up against another team one at a time and seeing who comes out with the best record at the end of the season followed by an elimination tournament to crown a final champion.  Even if you’re at the bottom of the standings, you can still hope for a solid week from your players and feel good about a win.  Does this system have its flaws?  Of course, and top ranked teams are never assured a championship …just like every real-life professional sports league.  Head-to-head allows for underdogs and upsets and that adds a lot of fun to the game.

But then the question becomes: stat categories or fantasy points?  Fantasy hockey is a bit weird in that for a long time there was no option for fantasy points scoring (even though this was the standard for the far more popular fantasy football).  Did it just take Yahoo years to come up with point values for each hockey stat?  (And if so, shouldn’t they have come out better?)  Regardless, the option is here now, but for those of us who’ve been playing fantasy hockey for longer than Yahoo’s points format, we’re weirdly used to stat categories.  I’ve run into a number of managers that have never even played fantasy points scoring in hockey.   Both have their merits, but I think fantasy-points probably has the edge.

Fantasy Points – I’ll start with the fantasy-points format, because honestly, that feels like it’s the more sensible way to judge a player’s output and score a fantasy league.  Each action a player takes will have a value relative to their overall contribution to their team; finding the right values for each action and adding them all up seems to be the simplest and best way to decide each fantasy matchup.  The main criticism I can see for fantasy-points-based scoring is similar to the problem with rotisserie (although to a much lesser degree) – it’s an all-or-nothing thing.  No matter how well your team plays in any area, and no matter how close a matchup is, at the end of the week it’s either a win or a loss.  To a certain extent, that is fair (and if a weekly matchup is meant to be a game in a hockey season, it really shouldn’t be any other way),  but that reduces the fantasy season to roughly 22 games, which is far less than an NHL season.  Stat categories, on the other hand, typically provide a much greater sample size of events on which to base the standings.

Stat Categories – As I mentioned above, I think the main thing stat-categories has going for it as a format is momentum among fantasy managers.   It seems like most managers are much more familiar and used to this format.  And, it has the benefit of not reducing the fantasy season to small number of games.  If you completely dominate an opponent in the categories 8-1 one week, that’s 8 wins and only 1 loss for your standings – a great reward for a decisive victory (and of course a narrow victory awards each player their relative number of wins and points in the standings).  This results in arguably a much fairer standings ranks.  However, ‘one win’ stat-category formats are also available, where the matchup is based on the stat categories but decided on a weekly basis (essentially, like the playoffs in stat-categories leagues).  This option eliminates the weighted victory benefit of a traditional stat-category league.

The main problem with the stat-categories format, however, is that each chosen category is weighted the same.  This means having the most goals is the same as having the most assists, which is the same as having the most shots or even hits or penalty minutes.  Any hockey fan will tell you (and even any analytics expert will agree when it comes to an individual game), scoring more goals than your opponent is always more important to winning than taking more shots than your opponent.  So, the trick with a stat categories league is figuring out the right balance of categories – too many peripherals (stats which are not derived from goals, e.g. shots, hits, etc.) and the actual scoring stats get drowned out; not enough peripherals and you don’t capture a lot of the nuance of the game (such as possession, scoring chances and physicality).   It’s a tough balance (and perhaps we’ll go into some more detail on that in a future post), but a good league will choose categories so that players are not overvalued because of their peripherals.

Keeper vs. Non-keeper – Another important formatting option is whether a league is going to be a traditional (i.e. fresh draft every year) league or a keeper league (where each team can keep a certain number of players year to year).   This option is the one that I am most ambivalent about, since I enjoy both formats.  A keeper league provides a much deeper fantasy game, where you have to think about drafting and holding onto prospects that could develop in the future, trading draft picks and deciding which players to keep.  But, non-keeper is great too – every year starts fresh, and you always have the chance to get your favourite player that you missed in the previous year.  With keeper leagues, you may have to resign yourself to the fact that you may never be able to trade for your favourite superstar.

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