Basic Strategies for Fantasy Hockey

by Johnny Fantasy

So, after learning how fantasy sports work in my last post, you’ve decided to jump in and play fantasy hockey.  If this is your first time playing fantasy hockey, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help you succeed throughout the fantasy season, because unfortunately fantasy sports doesn’t necessarily just come down to choosing the players who have the best real-life value.  Here are some tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls in playing fantasy hockey.

Know Your Scoring Settings

Making the right choices in your fantasy draft often comes down to knowing which players are the most valuable for the scoring categories that your league uses.  While we could debate what the best setups are, you may not have that much power to convince your league to change what they’ve chosen (or even worse, the greatest hurdle to changing setups: what they are used to), and so your best strategy will be to find the players that are optimal for that setup.  If your league counts faceoff wins, centres will be even more valuable (even more so for centres that are also eligible to be rostered as wings, since you can put those players in a LW or RW slot and get way more faceoff wins out of that slot than you would normally get from a winger).   If the league counts faceoff wins and losses, then guys like Claude Giroux, Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar will be even more valuable since they consistently win more faceoffs than they lose.

For stat categories leagues, one important thing to consider is how many of the categories are goalie categories.  For example, if 4 of the 10 stat categories are for goalies, that means 40% of your potential wins are dependent on your goaltenders, and so you may then want to prioritize getting a good goaltender (or two – appropriately of course, as using all of your top picks just on goalies may not work either).

In general, if your league uses a lot of peripheral skater categories, players who help in multiple categories will generally be more valuable than some of the bigger names that only excel if a few categories.  For example, even if Joe Thornton can get anywhere close to scoring 82 points again this season, he always takes very few shots.  If your league counts shots, you might be better off with someone like Jeff Carter, who scores less points but takes twice as many shots as Thornton (although with the inevitable decline in Thornton’s production due to age, the point totals may end up being closer than you expect, which could make Carter look like a no-brainer in retrospect).

It will always be difficult to build a team that will dominate in every category.  Being at least competitive in every category may be a winning strategy, but some people may also choose to ‘abandon’ a few categories that their team is weak in, in order to try to strengthen the other categories to have a greater chance of winning those.  For example, suppose the goalie categories for your league are Games Started, Saves and Save%.  You could forego trying to win Save% and load up on goalies that get a lot of Games Started and Saves.  You would likely to be able to find such goalies later in the draft (because they are on worse teams, or are just not as good).   Of course you will not have a good chance to win Save%, but if you can consistently win Starts and Saves because of the sheer volume of those stats that your goalies give you, then you’ve won 2 of 3 goalie categories.  This also frees up your early draft picks to be used on good skaters to help you win the skater categories.  Of course, this isn’t limited to the draft.  If mid-season you realize that you’ve only got one player that puts up a decent amount of Hits (and you always lose that category anyway), you could always trade that player away to a team that is trying to improve their Hits in exchange for a guys who is better in a stat that you have a better chance of winning.[1]  The bottom line is that you are trying to win the most categories.  There is no one strategy that universally works – it depends on the scoring setup of your league and how well you can find ways to optimize your team for its specific scoring system.

Now, the above discussion is much more relevant to a stat categories league (where each category is separately compared to an opponent, rather than a ‘points league’, where each stat is worth a certain amount of fantasy points that are all added up).  In a points league, it may not be as important to do well in each category, so long as your get a lot of fantasy points overall.  But even there, paying attention to the scoring stats can help you find players that are uniquely valuable for your league.  Players that get a lot of Blocks, Hits and PIMs (if those all give you fantasy points) may earn as many fantasy points as a player that scores a lot of goals.  In fact, in that case the player earning fantasy points through peripheral stats is more valuable for your fantasy team because they will earn you those points more consistently.  Shots, Blocks, Hits and PIMs generally occur during a hockey game more often than Goals, and therefore it is more likely that your players will earn fantasy points for you during any given fantasy matchup with those peripheral stats rather than something like Goals, which even the top players can only get slightly more often than every other game (and usually not in a manner evenly distributed over the season).  In order words, peripheral stats are generally more dependable sources of fantasy points.

Note that player ranking lists (even your platform’s default rankings) and reports of ADP (average draft position – where the player is drafted on average) will generally not take the league-specific stat strengths into account (for league-specific rankings, check out the some of the resources listed below), and other managers in your league may target certain players in the draft earlier than their rank because of these league-specific considerations.  On the other hand, other managers may not be taking these considerations into account and league-specific valuable players can be late-round steals for you.  Knowing this will help you better refine your draft strategy.  Being able to read your opponents is immensely helpful in a draft and will help you figure out when you’ll have to draft certain players to avoid missing out on them.

 

Team Composition

Another important aspect of fantasy success is managing the positional composition of your team.   Some leagues will break down the roster spots into C, LW  and RW (rather than generic forwards) and so you’ll want to make sure you have enough players at each position to maximize the number of games your players are appearing in each week.  However, your league also may have a maximum number for game starts at each position (usually common in a rotisserie league, where you can only start a player in each of your roster positions a certain number of times during the course of the whole season).  Whatever the setup, you want to maximize the number of player appearances (up to any such limits) to have the best chance of getting the most statistics towards winning the fantasy matchup.

In Head-to-Head leagues with daily roster changes, a common pitfall is loading up on multiple players from the same NHL team.  This creates a roster inefficiency each time that team plays on a busy night on the NHL calendar.  For example, if you have 2 LWs from the Blackhawks, and one more LW from the Ducks.  Whenever the Hawks and Ducks have games on the same night, you will end up having to bench one of those 3 LWs (assuming your league only gives you 2 active LW slots).  If instead of that 2nd LW on the Hawks, you had a LW on a third NHL team, there is a greater chance that one of those 3 will instead have a game on an adjacent night and you’d get appearances from all 3 LWs over those few days.  Diversifying the NHL teams represented on your fantasy team won’t always work out this well (as there are often nights where virtually every NHL team is playing), but over the course of the season you will likely end up having less of these roster conflicts.  When you do have multiple players from the same NHL team, those players will always have games on the same day.  All other things being equal, always try to maximize your player appearances (since more appearances equals more opportunities to score points for fantasy purposes).

It is for this same reason that you will want to fill up all of your active defencemen slots.  There will usually be forwards available as free agents that will end up scoring more points than your worst defenceman, but this doesn’t mean that you should drop the D in favour of that forward.  Having a defenceman that is always active when he has a game will generally be more valuable to you than having a forward that gets benched much of the time (because you already have a full complement of forwards on your team).

 

Understand Positional Depth (The Scarcity of Stats Among Different Roster Positions)

A good general rule of thumb when comparing two players based on actual goal-scoring stats (Goals, Assists, etc.) is: if the number of Points they are scoring is roughly equal, a defenceman is more valuable than a forward, and a winger is more valuable than a centre.  This is because there are a lot more forwards that can score a given number of Points in a season than there are defencemen who score the same number of Points.  This is what people mean when they talk about the ‘depth’ of a position.  In most leagues, you’ll be able to pick up a 45-Point forward from free agency at any time – they are essentially fungible.  Forward slots are expected to be filled with players scoring at least that much (depending on how many teams are in your league, and how big your team rosters are of course).  Defencemen, on the other hand, generally score a lot fewer Points, and finding a defenceman scoring at even a 40-point pace in free agency may be a challenge.  For example, the average Points (over the course of the season) you may be able to get out your defence slots may only be around 40, whereas your forward slots may average over 60.  If you can draft  a 45-Point defenceman instead of a 50-Point forward, your Points (average and total) from your defence will increase, and the Points from your forwards will likely be unaffected (as you’ll be able to easily pick up a replacement 50-Point forward later). This is why Erik Karlsson always gets drafted very early – he gives you (elite) forward-level scoring from a defenceman slot, greatly raising the number of Points from the defencemen slots.

Similarly among forwards, a winger is more valuable than a centre that scores the same amount of Points.  While this difference is not as pronounced as the difference between defencemen and forwards, there never seems to be a shortage of quality centres (look no further than the natural positions of the forwards on Canada’s World Cup roster), especially during much of the draft.  Things may even out between centres and wings by the time you get to the final draft rounds or free agency during the season, but when it comes to top players earlier in the draft, wingers beat out comparable centres because there is much more likely to be a serviceable centre available later in the draft than a comparatively serviceable winger.

While the Point total and average numbers I’ve used above will vary from league to league depending on the overall league depth, the principles will remain true no matter where those averages fall.[2]

 

Limit Your Fandom/Rivalry Instincts

After you’ve played fantasy hockey for some time, you’ll start to notice that you become a fan of a wider variety of players in the NHL.  Naturally, you are going to like players that are on your fantasy team and helping you win.  The word of warning I will give is to make sure you have an open mind when it comes to the flip side – there will always be players in the NHL that you can’t stand and will refuse to draft.  There’s nothing wrong with that in small doses, but being successful in fantasy means having to let go of some of your hockey hatred and draft players from your hometown team’s most hated rival,[3] and even sometimes draft some of the games least like able personalities.

I know this goes against all of your natural instincts as a hockey fan, but believe me, as I am a victim of this myself.  Like a not insignificant portion of hockey fans, I cannot stand Sidney Crosby.   Now, having arguably the best player in the game on your ‘do not draft’ list seems like a pretty bad strategy, and I certainly turned a few heads the couple times I’ve had the first overall pick (thankfully Alex Ovechkin has been here to be a mostly consistent fantasy performer (especially in leagues that count shots and/or hits), so I didn’t seem completely insane (not that he doesn’t have his own detractors).)

Needless to say, when I started hearing about Connor McDavid, I made a conscious decision to jump on that bandwagon early before the NHL hype machine started ruining him (thankfully, he does seem like a genuinely nice kid on top of being an unbelievable talent, so there’s not much to dislike so far).  The moral of the story is: be slow to hate on players; you never know when they’ll be an asset for your fantasy team and you don’t want to miss out (or be conflicted in cheering for them).

The other side of that coin is to make sure that you aren’t overvaluing players from your favourite team.  Your home team’s star may be the best in your eyes, but if he should more properly be drafted at the end of the first round, don’t waste your early first round pick on him – Claude Giroux is not more valuable than Alex Ovechkin, Flyers fans.  Go for the better fantasy asset – you can always try to trade down for your favourite player once the season starts and maybe be able to get a little more out of the deal from the manager receiving your higher-ranked player.  But, know that you will be most informed about your favourite team, and if you are the only such fan in the league you will have a leg up on that team’s prospect pool, up-and-comers and ice time earners.  This can translate into being able to get a breakout player before anyone else notices – good job grabbing Gostisbehere, Flyers fans!

 

Other Practical Tips

Transaction Timing

Be mindful of your league’s rules on transaction timing.  Are roster changes allowed daily or weekly?  If daily, you won’t be able to swap out (or in) a player from your bench once the scheduled start time of the game of either player (the one being swapped in or out) on that day has passed.  It is always better to give yourself a few minutes buffer too – you don’t want to be trying to change your lineup at 6:59 before a 7:00 start only to be foiled by a slow internet connection.  If you’ve got weekly lineup changes, make sure to see how many games each player is playing that week.  It may be better to play a less valuable player who has more games on the schedule that week than a star player who has fewer games.

Regarding adding and dropping players from free agency or waivers, be mindful of when transactions are processed.  Are they processed same-day?  Great – you can take advantage of starting goalie information (see links in the resources section below) and opportunistically pick up goalies (usually backups) who you know will be starting that day if your own goalies aren’t playing and you could use additions stats/fantasy points.  Sundays are always good to try for some last-ditch points by picking up some random players that have a game that day.[4]  Are transactions processed the next day?  Make sure to get your transactions in before 12:00am Pacific time (on Yahoo at least) the day before you want the move to be effective.  Unlike with same-day processing, you can drop players after their games have started (since they technically won’t be dropped until the next day), but that means that you have to submit your transactions in advance, so you don’t have the same level of flexibility. Are continuous waivers in effect?  You don’t have to worry about ever rushing to add a player, like you would under the previously mentioned options, but you will only be getting new players when waiver claims are processed (only once every few days).

Drafting

Know where you are in the draft order and how the draft is working.  In all likelihood, your draft order will be snaking, meaning that the draft goes in reverse order every other round.   So if you end up with the last pick in the first round, don’t worry too much, because you have the first pick in the second round (which is almost like having 2 late first round picks).  Of course you then will have to wait through the whole reverse order and then the whole original order before you pick again.  Be mindful of when your next pick will be during the draft.   If you are in the middle of the draft order, your turns will come pretty consistently round to round. If you are near the beginning or end of a round, your next pick will either be coming up soon or will be a while away.  When you have the short picks, you don’t have to worry as much about reaching for a lower ranked player that you really want, since there will be less people picking before you get to pick again (and thus a greater chance the player will still be available)).  When you have the long pick, though, you have to assume that a good number of players will be taken before you get another pick, so it might then be a good time to pick a player you want that is ranked a little bit further down the list rather than whatever player happens to be at the top (but whom you don’t feel as strongly about).

While it goes without saying that you shouldn’t announce your intended picks before you actually draft them, it can be useful to have some chatter during the draft.  There is definitely a psychological component to drafting.  Like poker, you may want to use more than just the cards you’re dealt.  Now, of course to be effective there has to be some subtlety to it, but even a well placed “wow, I can’t believe X hasn’t been drafted yet” might be enough to cause a more nervous manager to pick player X (hopefully leaving the player you want still available for your next pick).

If you’ve never done a fantasy draft before, also consider doing a mock draft to get the feel for it.  You’ll want to have that familiarity with the process for those important first rounds of the real draft, rather than being lost until the draft is half over.

Other

Be involved – the more you put into your fantasy hockey experience, the more you will get out of it.   Post on the league boards, offer people trades, use the smack talk features – all of these things make the league more interesting and will get other people more actively involved too, enhancing the experience for everyone.

 

Other Resources

There are a ton of great resources out there to help you get the information you need to make good fantasy decisions.  Here are a few that I recommend:

http://dobberhockey.com (especially the player profiles, which provide some advanced stats and line combinations)

http://www.dailyfaceoff.com/ (starting goalies, injury reports, etc.)

http://goaliepost.com/ (starting goalies and other goalie info)

http://www.leftwinglock.com/ (starting goalies, line combos, etc.)

https://www.reddit.com/r/fantasyhockey/

 

League-specific ranking tools:

https://4fandfurther.com/2016/09/07/nhl-fantasy-hockey-2016-2017-pre-draft-ranking-excel-guide/

http://www.chirphockey.com/custom-fantasy-hockey-rankings-tool/

Podcasts:

http://www.keepingkarlsson.com/

http://www.dailyfaceoff.com/40185/introducing-the-dailyfaceoff-podcast

https://hockeypdocast.com/ (not fantasy-specific, but good hockey insight from an analytics perspective)

 

[1] You can of course add and drop players to strengthen specific categories as well.  Yahoo’s standard deviation sorting feature is helpful to determine how players are performing compared to the rest of the league in each category.  See an explanation of how it works here.

[2] One thing to keep in mind for very deep leagues is the rate of talent drop off at each position.   For example, defencemen Point production drops steeply at the beginning (with Erik Karlsson and a few others producing better than most forwards, and then most rosterable defencemen scoring in the 40-Point range).  But if you are in a very deep league, you may have to worry about the drop off of defencemen after the 40-Point range down into the 30-Point or even lower range.  Centre, being the deepest position, has the most gradual curve down the player rankings list, but at some point there is a critical depth for all positions where there will be a steep drop off, since the players ranked that low will simply not be getting the ice time to be able to produce.

[3] Except of course for Rangers fans, Flyers fans ….well like half of the Eastern Conference really, because you can pretty much blackball the entire Devils organization without any fantasy risk (Cory Schneider, and for now Taylor Hall, begrudgingly excepted)

[4] I’ve known managers that use a certain number of spots on their roster as a revolving door for such opportunistic player adds.  Maximizing man-games played is sometimes effective, especially for higher occurrence stat categories (like Shots, Hits, Blocks, etc.), as discussed above

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