A Commissioner’s Manifesto (Part 4 – Finding the Right Balance of Stat Categories)

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.  Judging each stat category as we did in part 3 is an important first step, but how good a league will be will depend on what the chosen categories look like as a whole.  Here in part 4, we’ll try to figure out the right balance for choosing categories in a stat-categories league. 

Balance of Categories

Choosing stat categories is a delicate balance. If you have too many goalie categories, goalies dominate the league (and all the good ones get picked up leaving few options for a mid-season fix or replacement for an injury).  This is one of the major flaws in Yahoo’s default scheme (for stat-category leagues).  It has 4 goalie categories and 6 skater categories.  While goaltending is key to any team’s success, 40% is too high a percentage, especially given the limited number of individual players occupying that position.  I’ve found that 30% or less (3 of 10, or 2 of 9 categories) to be a much better balance.

Skater categories must also be properly balanced.  There’s always the pull to include as many categories as possible, but most of the available options are either peripheral categories or situational-scoring categories (i.e. special teams), which aren’t the best choices for the reasons we discussed in part 3.  The ‘core’ scoring categories (G, A, P, and possibly even +/-) should be the focus of the overall scheme and adding in too many other categories risks shifting the focus too far away from scoring actual points for a team.

So where do we go from here?  Well, the great thing about fantasy sports is that all the different variations make a lot of different fun experiences possible.  You can choose a slate of stat categories that are purely ‘results driven’ – for example, G, A, P, +/-, PPP, SHP, GWG, W, L, SHO.  Only players that get results should be drafted in this league – players that put points on the (real) board, and goalies who (contribute to a) win.  On the other hand, you can go in the complete other direction, and have a ‘goon’ league – G, P, PIM, HIT, BLKS, GS, SV – much fewer scoring categories and a much bigger emphasis on physical, toughness and endurance categories.

These can definitely be fun, but what if you’re a purist?  You want to find the “best” balance of categories to replicate NHL hockey.  Well, certainly there is no perfect balance (and fantasy-points based leagues are much better for this purpose, as they give you a lot more flexibility to weight categories), but if we’re going to try within the confines of stat-categories, we can find an approximate balance.  A good first step would be deciding on what percentage of goalie categories there should be.  As I’ve said above, 40% tends to be a bit high for my liking, but we can set a range of percentages (say, between 20-30%) and will determine how many categories out of our total can be set for goalie stats (in this case, 1/4, 1/5, 2/7, 2/8, 2/9, 3/10, 3/11, 3/12, or 4/14).

From there, we can choose our stat categories (for both skaters and goalies) in order of preference and see where the line can be drawn.  Let’s start with the easy picks, enough to fill our 4 category league.

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points

Goalies: Save Percentage

Probably not a lot of controversy with those; the only downside I see is that the skater categories are purely scoring categories.  If this were going to be the setup for an actual league, it would be very simple.  I might be tempted to swap out assists for shots on goal.  That adds a bit of periphery (and an important one at that), while giving goals more value than assists (since assists get you points, but goals increase your goals and points categories).  If we were going with 5 categories instead of 4, I’d probably choose Shots.  These options might be very good for a beginners league – just the basics for managers that want to keep it simple.  Note, that we would need a minimum goaltender appearances requirement here, as the only goalie stat is a ratio, not cumulative, category.

Where do we go if we want to jump to a 7 category league?  We need one additional goalie category and one additional skater category.

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started

The most glaring choice here is probably Games Started as the second goalie category.  But, when we look at the other options, they are all heavily dependent on team play.  Goals Against Average is a tempting choice, although it is another ratio stat.  With Games Started, we are able to dispense with minimum goaltender appearances.  Saves would be another cumulative option, but again, this is highly team-dependent.  We will need to choose one of these once we keep increasing the number of stat categories, but for now we should stick with Games Started so that we can still reasonably avoid team influence on our goalie categories.

The skater categories here reflect my preference for physical play, but I think this setup focuses on the game’s basics – scoring, shooting, keeping pucks out of the net and hitting.  But, we are getting close to dangerous territory here as far as peripheral weight – 2 of those with only 3 scoring categories.  A more scoring-focused choice might substitute +/- for Hits (or Shots, if you’re really looking to integrate a physical element), and if we are going to jump up to an 8 category league, +/- would certainly be the next category I’d choose.  +/- is far from perfect, but it rewards scoring accurately, more often than not.

Going to a 9 category league, we need to add one skater category.

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits, +/-, Shorthanded Points

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started

As far as which category is probably next most important, I probably would have chosen Blocks.  But, then we would be left with 4 scoring categories to 3 peripheral categories, which is probably too much.  We needed to add another scoring category instead of a peripheral.  Although Shorthanded Points suffers from being a category that is mostly won at random, it at least provides an additional reward for scoring in a situation where it is difficult to do so.  As you see though, we are starting to make compromises with our choices, and thus we may have gone beyond the point where the best balance can be achieved.

For a 10 category league, we are back to adding a goalie category.

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits, +/-, Shorthanded Points

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started, Goals Against Average

Goals Against Average is a tough stat because it’s not always fair to the goalie’s play.   A goalie can put up a .940 Save Percentage (an excellent performance), but if they are facing 50 shots, that means they have a 3.00 GAA (this is not a good performance for this category).  But, of the available options, this seems to be the best.  At the end of the day, letting in a low number of goals each game is key to a team’s success.  Shutouts may be a better category as far as being more dependent on the individual’s performance, but like shorthanded points, it is largely won in a random manner.  It’s probably better to limit those random categories, so since we already have shorthanded points, it’s probably better to choose GAA.

To get to 11 categories, we just need to add a skater category.

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits, +/-, Shorthanded Points, Blocks

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started, Goals Against Average

I think we can fit blocks in now.  Blocks is a solid peripheral, as it rewards shot suppression and adds value to defensemen in particular.  The balance is starting to get weaker though, as the core scoring (G, A, P) are being drowned out, and the other scoring-related categories (+/-, SHP) have their problems and thus don’t do as good of a job balancing the peripherals.  To get to 12 categories, we will have to add another (albeit problematic) scoring category.

12 categories:

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits, +/-, Shorthanded Points, Blocks, Power Play Points

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started, Goals Against Average

Now we’re getting pretty crowded here.  We’re giving skaters another category just for scoring when they have an advantage (on the power play), just to make sure peripherals don’t overwhelm the setup.  On the plus side, having +/- at least gives even-strength scoring a little more worth (although the ‘minus’ part of +/- can largely negate this, especially since about half of minus marks are awarded to players who had no affect on the goal against).  Can we possibly fit in any more categories?

14 categories:

Skaters: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, Hits, +/-, Shorthanded Points, Blocks, Power Play Points, Faceoffs Won

Goalies: Save Percentage, Games Started, Goals Against Average, Shutouts

Wow, there’s a lot going on here.  We’ve added 1 goalie and 1 skater category on top of an already crowded setup.  I’ve taken shutouts since it is the only other reasonably individual-performance-based goalie stat.  As for skaters, I’ve taken faceoff wins because any other scoring category really isn’t preferable.  Taking Power Play Goals would unduly weight power play scoring (and further lessen any mitigation that +/- could provide); shorthanded goals would be too many randomly won categories (especially after taking shutouts).  And game-winning goals are random and dumb.  We’ve gotten to 14 categories, but let’s look at problems that could arise here.

Team A: 15G, 25A, 40P, 100SOG, 25HIT, +20, 0SHP, 20BLK, 10PPP, 80FW, .925SV%, 6GS, 3.10GAA, 0SHO

Team B: 5G, 15A, 20 P, 110SOG, 50HIT, +10, 1SHP, 30BLK, 15PPP, 100FW, .920SV%, 3GS, 2.95GAA, 1SHO

Here is a week where Team A should have dominated.  They scored a lot more points (especially at even strength) and had a better and more consistent performance from their goalies.  But, Team B wins this week 8-4 on the strength of periphery and situational scoring.  Will this be the most likely occurrence each week?  No, but with this setup a manager could focus on dominating peripheral stats like SOG, HIT, BLK and FW.  A team set up to be dominant in those categories, can count on 4 of 14 categories that they would be likely to win each week.  Add in some solid goaltending, that could be 8 categories that a team could often win, leaving G, A, P, +/-, SHP and PPP up for grabs each week.  Again, it’s not that such a strategy would be the sure-fire winning one, but it seems problematic that scoring could theoretically be marginalized like that.

Let’s take a look at a worst-case-scenario under my favourite configuration out of those discussed above.

Team A: 15G, 25A, 40P, 100SOG, 25HIT, +20, .925SV%, 6GS

Team B: 5G, 15A, 20 P, 110SOG, 50HIT, +10, .910SV%, 8GS,

Here, we have a team that is trying to load up on peripherals and other more dependable cumulative stat categories.  Even if they were to win all of those, they’d still lose 5-3.  While perhaps one could argue that Team A deserved a more decisive win, the end result is that they did win (and in the playoffs would advance). Of course, something like +/- could be flipped, and then we’re left with a 4-4 tie. Maybe we could describe that as the equivalent of a team that is playing poorly holding on for a shootout loss (or win).  But as we know, teams that scrap by to get wins (or get extra points) often can’t maintain success that way, and the same would be true here.  What we’ve come to with this setup is what should be true in every league – you can’t win if you don’t score enough points and have quality goaltending.

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5 thoughts on “A Commissioner’s Manifesto (Part 4 – Finding the Right Balance of Stat Categories)

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