It's been a couple of months now since the fantasy hockey season ended. Plenty of time to gloat in your championships or lick your wounds (I've done a little of both, being in so many leagues). Now that the dust has settled, it's a good opportunity to look back on this past season and draw out some lessons from the past season. If you've been playing fantasy hockey for many years, few of these should come as shocking revelations; however, even the 20 year experts need to be reminded that fantasy seasons rarely pan out the way you script them at the draft table.
Lesson 1 -- Good Old Goalies can be Good Again
After claiming the title of best goalie in 2008-09, many fantasy players and experts wrote Thomas off at the start of last season, under the assumption that he would be destined to back up to the fresh, new Tuukka Rask. As I wrote in last fall's preview -- "Rask is a sexy-bold pick for your starting goalie this fall, but don't get overconfident here. Thomas didn't exactly lose his job, as much as Rask earned it. Things could easily go the other way this time around."
And go the other way, they did, from the start of the season through game 7 of the Finals. By no means did I predict Thomas to have the season he did (I had him ranked 20th). But even my cautious optimism over Thomas's outlook was stifled by the court of public opinion (and his age). Instead of seeing Thomas for what he is (a quality goaltender who happens to have a lot of experience), we all assumed that his first stumble would mean his inevitable downfall.
So what do we take from this? Is Thomas the exceptional exception, or part of rule to be considered when ranking your goalies this fall? Consider, Thomas isn't the only goalie to have a fantasy rebound in his late 30's and beyond. Consider what Roloson has done, or even Brodeur following his injury comeback last spring. Bottom line here is that (outside of major injuries) star goalies don't lose their power overnight. A bump in the road shouldn't cause us to write a guy off as washed up. Keep this in mind as you contemplate where to rank the likes of Kiprusoff, Backstrom, and even Brodeur and Theodore this fall.
Lesson 2 -- Location Matters
As in marketing, location clearly matters to hockey players. This has become obvious on two fronts:
1. Strong fantasy performers who change locations often suffer a setback, even when moving to a "better situation". Consider a few examples from last year:
• Ilya Kovalchuk's move to New Jersey saw him drop to a lousy 60 points last season. Ruined my draft…
• Sergei Gonchar went from fantasy stud in Pittsburgh to an embarrassment in Ottawa. 27 points with a -15.
• James Neal was a strong goal-scoring option in Dallas, but completely went dry when he landed in Pittsburgh.
Aside from Dustin Byfuglien, can you think of any significant fantasy stars who fared better in their first season in a new town? It's rare and should be noted when deciding where to place guys like Mike Richards, Brad Richards, and Jeff Carter in your draft rankings. Don't bet the farm on any of them to light it up in their first go in a new sweater.
On the other side of the story…
2. Struggling players can often find new life in a new home.
You see this with average fantasy options that suddenly burst onto the scene with a new club:
• Clarke MacArthur was virtually unknown in Buffalo and Atlanta, but emerged as a solid fantasy forward in Toronto
• Lubomir Visnovsky saw his stock decline when he landed in Edmonton, but after recovering from injury in 2009, he exploded in his first full season with the Ducks, registering a whopping 68 points.
• Alex Tanguay had slowly slid into irrelevance over the past couple seasons with Montreal and Tampa. A move back to Calgary sparked him to a 69-point performance last season.
So it makes sense to keep an eye out for a few guys finding a new home in hopes of better fantasy fortunes. In particular, give a bump to Jakub Voracek landing in Philly, Simon Gagne moving to LA, and Devin Setoguchi landing in Minnesota. Maybe even give an outside hope to an old gun named Sheldon Souray in Dallas.
Lesson 3 -- The Top Rookies aren't always the Best Rookies
Entering the 2010-11 season, all the attention (as it typically is) was on the top two picks: Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. A few eyes were glued to the likes of P.K. Subban as well, following his remarkable post-season run last fall. In the crease, there were high hopes for some rookies fighting for jobs, such as Crawford in Chicago, Bernier in LA, and a couple youngsters in Washington. Once the season got moving and the dust settled late in the year, none of these players (while most having respectable seasons) finished in the top 3 for the Calder trophy. Logan Couture, Jeff Skinner, and Michael Grabner were barely in the conversation at the start of last year. And that doesn't even count guys like Derek Stepan, Cam Fowler, and Brad Marchand who all made noticeable fantasy contributions this season, despite the lack of early press.
So what can we learn from this? First of all, don't put too much faith in drafting rookies. There are too many factors, many of which are financial, that can throw off your plans. Also, more so than with established players, you need to comb the waiver wire for rookies starting 2 to 4 weeks into the season. It's at that point that teams decide who's staying and who they plan to let ripen another year in the AHL. Prior to that point, it's too much of a risk to waste valuable draft picks on promises that rarely come true.
Lesson 4 -- Playoff momentum rarely carries into the next season
You see this trend every season, though in our hearts we like to pretend it doesn't exist. Each year at draft time, we give special weight towards the playoff heroes of the previous spring, only to see them fall flat. 2010-11 was no exception, so learn well this rule. Look back at the playoff leaders of 2010, particularly those who surprised with their numbers:
• Michael Cammalleri led all players with 13 goals last spring, bounding him up the draft charts. He followed that up with a lousy 19 goal regular season performance.
• Danny Briere finished 2nd in goals and points in the 2010 playoffs. 68 points was a bit of a let down for fantasy owners this year.
• Simon Gagne sizzled with 9 playoff goals and followed that up with his 2nd straight 17-goal regular season total.
• Most fantasy players expected big numbers out of Ville Leino following his monster performance last spring. 19 goals and 53 points did not meet those expectations.
• In the pipes, Niemi, Halak, Leighton, Rask, and Nabokov were the statistical leaders last spring. Did any of them help your fantasy team this year?
So are we to assume that a strong playoff performance means doom for a fantasy draft? Not necessarily. Superstars tend to put up big numbers in the regular season as well as the playoffs. No need to make corrections there. The lesson learned here is not to put much, if any, weight in how a player performs in the playoffs. It's a different animal altogether. In other words, don't artificially bump up the likes of Joel Ward, Sean Bergenheim, Michael Ryder or Dwayne Roloson on your draft list this fall. Consider yourself warned.
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