I have managed many fantasy teams and though it makes little sense to share my secrets with those who play in my leagues, in a forum such as this, I am finally free to reveal some of the tips, tricks, and secrets that have netted me success in the world of fantasy hockey. As the season goes on, I will offer advice periodically on whom you should consider picking up, dropping, trading, etcetera. When next season happens upon us, I will also offer specific draft advice. Also, feel free to leave comments at any time and I will try to personally respond to your individual questions based on specific players on your teams or your leagues. If you are new to fantasy hockey, do not despair - if you play it right, you can quickly dominate your leagues, even if they are stocked with veteran fantasy players. For now however, I will simply begin by sharing a more global set of strategies and tips to consider when playing fantasy hockey. This post focuses first on drafting. Also, for the purposes of my blog, I am going to focus mainly on head-to-head leagues. More power to you if you play in both H2H and rotisserie formats, but my discussion will be far more applicable to H2H leagues. As with all fantasy sports, it all starts with the fantasy draft.
When drafting players, you have options depending on the type of league you are in, who is running the league, etc. If you can avoid it at all costs, do not settle for an autopick draft. Even if you have the chance to set pre-draft rankings, it cannot replace the kind of control you have in a live draft. I would even avoid auction drafts. Do not put your faith in the computer algorithm to make the best decisions. A live draft affords you the best chance to get the players you truly want. If you want to set up a pre-draft ranking of players, you can still do so in advance of a live draft. You can have that list handy as you await your next pick, making your decision a bit easier when it is your turn. Having a road map, even during a live draft is essential, as you do not want to find yourself in a situation where you are suddenly scrambling with just a few ticks left on the clock, only to make a desperation selection before the computer picks for you.
Before drafting and before generating your master list, it is important to do some research. You do not even need to spend hours on this part. It is a matter of going to the right sources and knowing what you need to win. If you simply look to draft the big name players that top the rankings before the start of the season, you will lose your league. I would love to have a team featuring Steve Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Henrik Lundqvist, and Carey Price. Unless the other people in your league don't know hockey players from figure skaters, I doubt you're going to get more than two of those "name players" onto your team, if that. Even if you did manage such a feat, they may not win you your league's cup because they might be top heavy in goal production, wins, or GAA, but cost you in other key categories like assists, PIMs, +/-, or save percentage. In other words, to win at fantasy hockey, you need balance. They say everything in moderation and that is certainly the case in fantasy hockey. Just like in the real game, teams that are very balanced offensively and defensively (provided those offenses and defenses are both good) tend to be at the top of the league. I think of the Blackhawks, Ducks, Lightning, and now even the Canadiens.
When compiling your list of players, look for the guys who can score, the guys who give you the most helpers, the guys who play on very good teams who tend to have better plus/minus numbers, the guys on the top power-play units who make an impact on the man-advantage, and the guys who pepper goaltenders, even if only a third of their shots find the back of the net. If PIMs are big category in your league, as it is in most, then don't snub your nose at the guys who do little else but camp out in the sin bin. If your league counts hits, then look for the best bruisers and bangers. If you look around a little, you'll find lists that rank the players based on each of these categories. That is the key. Do not compose a list based on overall pre-season rankings. Rather, build your list with respect to the players that lead the way in a given stat category. Chunk the players according to each stat category from last season or the current season thus far (if you start playing mid-season) while also taking into account any expert projections if possible. Within each category, compose your own rankings of those players. Rank all the top goal scorers, then rank all the top assist leaders, all the penalty minutes leaders, etc. Note that you don't necessarily want to rank the guy who had the most assists from last season as your number one guy in the assists category. Perhaps you like the guy who had the fifth most assists the best, so he might be your number one pick in that category. This could be based on one or more factors. Perhaps some "experts" think this guy is going to have a breakout season or maybe he is on a new team where he will now be on the top line versus the 2nd or 3rd line, or what have you. These are important considerations to take into account when sorting and ranking your players for each stat category.
Of course, you will also have to fill out a complete roster. You can find the best players in each stat category, but if they are mostly LW, then you may be top-heavy at one position which will undercut your goal of forming a balanced team. Again, that is why you can't always rank your assists leaders for example, from highest to lowest per se, because you want a variety of different position players that contribute a high number of points in that category.
Let's take a look at how this might play out if you were drafting for a league today. We will look at the top 10 leaders in each of the major categories and then sort them based on position. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll look at G, A, +/-, PIMs, SOG, and PPP.
Goals: Seguin (C), Tarasenko (RW), Nash (LW), Stamkos (C), Kessel (RW), Foligno (LW), Malkin (C), P. Kane (RW), Pavelski (C), Beleskey (LW) (note: big name player Ovechkin actually falls outside the top 10 in goals right now).
Assists: Giroux (C), Voracek (RW), Crosby (C), Getzlaf (C), Malkin (C), T. Johnson (C), Giordano (D), Backstrom (C), Shattenkirk (D), Zetterberg (C).
Plus/Minus: Forsberg (C), Tarasenko (RW), T. Johnson (C), Kucherov (RW), Santorelli (C), Brodie (D), Stralman (D), Brodin (D), Versteeg (RW), Palat (LW).
PIMs: Downie (RW), McLeod (LW), Prust (RW), Dorsett (RW), Wilson (RW), Roussel (LW), Lucic (LW), Jackman (RW), Gryba (D), Borowiecki (D)
PPP: Shattenkirk (D), Giroux (C) Foligno (LW), Malkin (C), Karlsson (D), Stamkos (C), Crosby (C) Pavelski (C), Johansen (C), Backstrom (C), Kessel (RW).
SOG: Ovechkin (LW), Karlsson (D), Giroux (C), Seguin (C), Pavelski (C), Tarasenko (C), Pacioretty (LW), Byfuglien (RW), Stamkos (C), Couture (C)
Now that you've sorted the leaders in each category, we have to start thinking about our lineup and in which order to draft certain position players. I'll discuss goaltending later.
I almost never draft a goaltender with my first pick, so I'm going to pick a skater for starters. I try to put together a complete starting roster before going to the bench. I typically draft in an order that might look something like this:
1. Forward (C) 2. Forward (C, RW, LW) 3. Goalie (G) 4. Forward (LW, RW, C) 5. Forward (RW, LW) 6. Defenseman (D) 7. Goalie (G) 8. Forward (LW or RW) 9. Forward (RW or LW) 10. Defenseman (D) 11. Goalie (G) 12. Forward (bench) 13. Defenseman (D) 14. Forward (bench) 15. Forward (bench) 16. Defenseman (D).
Which positions I draft where can vary slightly from season to season or league to league and it can also depend on if you start at the beginning of the season or mid-season. The general rule of thumb is that your forwards are very important and you want to take an elite goalie in the early rounds and a second strong goalie no later than the 8th round. You don't have to draft a defenseman until after the 5th round and then after that, you are better off picking up a third reasonably solid goalie and one or two forwards for your bench before rounding out your D corps. So if you take this hypothetical draft order list by position player, let's see how I might approach a live draft when considering the fact that I want a balanced team based on the stat categories.
As you will see, this doesn't perfectly match up with the actual draft picks I made for one of my teams at the start of this season, so again, it's more of a general guide than anything else because the specific order you draft can depend on a lot of factors, including but not limited to the size of your pool, the level of competition, league settings, and the time of the season you join or enter a league.
First pick: I want a forward and I want goals. Stamkos or Seguin would be great to have, but if I don't have the first or second overall pick, I'm SOL. I'm perfectly content with Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, or Matt Beleskey. I'll take any of them if they are still available when my turn comes up. Otherwise, I'll look further down my list. Datsyuk, Bryan Little, or even Brock Nelson are perfectly good centers too with the ability to put the puck in the net. All the while, though I concentrate mainly on one stat category, I have a preference for the guys who have decent numbers in multiple categories (balanced players). Nelson can score, but he also has a good amount of PPP, SOG, and a respectable plus/minus. So if I end up with a guy like him because everyone else grabbed the higher scorers, that's not so bad.
Second pick: I'll probably get another solid forward.
Third pick: I want to pick up my first goalie no later than this round.
Fourth pick: I could pick up a defenseman here or I could grab a LW or RW now. What's more, I want solid plus/minus numbers. It's no surprise that generally speaking, players with good plus/minus numbers are on the better teams that are stingy on goals allowed. However, other factors come into play, such as TOI, what line the player is on, whether they are a one or two way player, etc. If I can get a Kucherov or a Palat here, that would be great. I'd prefer Kucherov because he has more goals and assists, as well as SOG. Though Palat does give me a few more PIMs than Kucherov.
Fifth pick: At this point, I doubt any of the top 10 leaders in the SOG category will be available, though Couture could be. If so, I might pick someone like him. Otherwise, I look at my next best options. Kesler, Zetterberg, Steen, Benn, and Bergeron make for attractive options here. Zetterberg has the most assists out of this bunch with a decent number of PPP and PIMs, too.
Sixth pick: If I have not done so already, I can and should grab a defenseman and the timing is right because I want a guy who can deliver a lot of PIMs. Dmen are usually good for that. Unless you spend a high draft pick on a super offensive defenseman, your blue-liners wont' generally make or break your team goals-wise. That said, look for the guys who can give you PIMs and a decent number of assists and/or PPP. Don't fall in love with the big name Dman. In real hockey, a big name shutdown Dman can be a difference maker on the ice because of their grit and their big hits, ability to close down passing lanes, etc. However, that does not always translate well to fantasy. Here, you are simply looking for points. I'm probably not going to get a Karlsson here. I'd love to have him on my team, but that's okay because I don't necessarily need him. He's got lots of PPP but his plus/minus is terrible. He does play for Ottawa, after all. Big names like Keith and Doughty sound good but when looking at the numbers, they are fairly pedestrian compared to handfuls of other Dmen. If either Phaneuf or Byfuglien is available, I'd grab one of them. Byfuglien, who can play D and RW (assuming your league lets you use him at D) is good because he takes a lot of penalties but also contributes nicely in the other areas. I'd also take Doughty over Keith (if he's an option), but I'd take Brodie over Doughty. Kronwall and Vatanen are also solid choices. Best to stay away from rookies too, like Aaron Ekblad.
Seventh pick: It's probably time to pick up my second goalie here before the pickings start to get slim.
Eighth and Ninth picks: I will likely want to pick up a couple more wingers with these picks. I've already cycled through the stats categories once. Now I'll probably revert back to goal and assist producers. If I can get a Zach Parise, James van Riemsdyk, or Wayne Simmonds here, that's awesome. Otherwise if I can still snag guys like Jaden Schwartz, Jiri Hudler, Bryan Little, or Gustav Nyquist, that works, too.
10th and 11th picks: Now I want to pick up my 2nd defenseman, looking first for PIMs and then from there, looking for balance among the other categories. I will grab my third and final goalie in this tier of picks, too. I generally don't draft more than 3 netminders.
Picks 12-16: Now I look to round out my defensive corps and bench forwards. I will look to find guys that net me more PPP, good plus/minus, and SOG that will counterbalance my emphasis on goals and assists through my first five picks and picks 8-9.
Using the general strategy above for one of my teams, it has earned me first place. The competition is fierce however as there are a lot of strong players on other teams. I don't have a plethora of top 10 forwards or defensemen, but the point is there is no way you can get them all and it's a long season. My first place team has already undergone a 25% turnover since the start of the season. Even if you were to have all the best players to start the season, injuries and slumps happen. Therefore, to stay competitive and in contention, it is imperative that you draft well but that you are also flexible enough to move on from players whom you may otherwise like quite a bit, but are just not cutting it on your team. In that way, fantasy hockey is a lot harder than fantasy football given that if you get some of the top players in football leagues, you can ride that almost all the way to the title game without nary a waiver wire add. In hockey, it's a lot different. You have to keep it fresh and you have to keep the team balanced.
A note about goalies. I said I would talk about drafting goalies. It is critical that you draft at least two solid goalies and it's best if at least one is considered elite. Don't be the person who drafts their goalies late and ends up with backup goalies or number one goalies on teams with porous defenses, low win totals, low save percentages, and a high GAA. Handcuffing goalies can be smart, but only when they are handcuffs, not when they stand alone. Sure, an understudy can get hot while filling in for the number one starter if he is injured for a period of time, but typically, that number one starter does something quite incredible. He returns. If you want to get a primary goalie and then draft his backup, that's not a bad plan, but it might be better to draft three decent stand-alone goalies, as you can usually just pick up his backup off the waiver wire soon after your league starts play. I wouldn't necessarily waste a draft pick on a backup. Also, if necessary, you can always try to trade your third best drafted goalie for the handcuff for one of your top two goalies, especially if the person who has your handcuff is in dire straits in net.
When drafting goalies, always go for the guys who will most likely get you the most wins first. Then worry about SV%, GAA and SO in that order. If you can't get the most elite goalies, then go for the netminders on the better teams known for players that play well in front of their net. Frederik Andersen is no Henrik Lundqvist, but he's quite good and he gets a lot of wins because his team is exceptionally dominant thus far this season. You want to have enough goaltending to ensure that you meet your goalie minimums, but you also want to have decent goaltenders, otherwise you are almost better off without any if you are matched up with a team that is solid in net. In that case, minimum reached or not, it won't help if you're goalies are terrible. It could be a struggle just to steal one goalie category.
In my next post, I will discuss how to manage your team day to day and matchup by matchup, including how to score big off the waiver wire and free agents list.
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