Fantasy Hockey draft strategies for 2017-18

How will you construct a championship fantasy roster? (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Doug Greenberg, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

Summer is quickly coming to a close; thankfully, so too is the NHL offseason. Your favorite puck players are reporting back to their respective training camps, so it’s time to start considering how you’ll construct your Fantasy Hockey squad for what’s sure to be an exciting 2017-18 season. With an expansion team opening play in Las Vegas and even more young talent pouring into the league, there is a wealth of options available when it comes to drafting your virtual team, so here are some strategies to keep in mind as you prep for draft day.

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Know Your Format

This is the No. 1 rule of playing any fantasy game, and it applies in hockey as much or more as it does in other sports.

As with most fantasy games, your hockey league can be set up in the classic rotisserie format or the more popular head-to-head format, which include both points leagues (in which a variety of stat categories are assigned values and the owner with the most points comes out victorious) and arguably the most popular mode in fantasy hockey, categorical head-to-head. It’s pretty simple, really — the league outlines a series of stat categories, and the goal for each owner is to defeat the opposing owner in as many of those categories as possible in each weekly matchup. In general, this means that you’ll want to value all stat categories equally — but in some formats, like Yahoo’s Head-to-Head One Win, you only need to win the majority of the categories in order to attain a win for the week.

The bottom line is that your draft strategy can vary depending on the specifications of your league, so be sure to completely understand your scoring system, the number of teams in the league, the number of starting lineup slots, and any potential keeper rules.

For the purposes of this article, we will assume that you’re drafting in a default Yahoo head-to-head league that uses the following stats:

  • Skaters: Goals, Assists, Plus-Minus, Penalty Minutes, Power-Play Points, Shots on Goal
  • Goalies: Wins, Goals-Against Average, Save Percentage, Shutouts

Furthermore, there are two primary draft types: snake drafts and auctions.

If you’ve played in another fantasy league before, you’ve probably had a snake draft: They’re the ones where if, say, you’re in a 12-team league and have the first pick, you’ll next have the 12th pick of the second round, then the first pick of the third round, and so on.

Auctions are a bit more complex and time-consuming, but many fantasy players will tell you that they’re more fun, too! In an auction, you have a fixed budget (say, $200) to fill out your roster with players, and you bid against your fellow owners, one player at a time, until everyone’s rosters are full. Succeeding in auctions requires a combination of strategy, cunning, psychology, self-discipline and endurance, not to mention a strong understanding of the player pool.

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Ice Time = Opportunity = Productivity

Fantasy veterans will tell you that the most important statistic in any fantasy sport is playing time, and this adage holds particularly true in fantasy hockey; after all, NHL shifts are short, sporadic, and subject to immense variation based on game flow. This doesn’t really apply to goalies, but you’ll want to target forwards who play in top-six roles and defensemen who occupy top-four roles for their teams, though oftentimes there are players who gain significant playing time outside of those constraints (for example, a third-line forward might serve as a power-play specialist, boosting his minutes and potential for productivity). Therefore, attaining forwards who project to average at least 15 minutes of ice time per game and defensemen who project to average at least 20 will ensure that your players see enough of the ice to make a statistical difference.

As you might imagine, finding skaters who have regular roles on their team’s power-play units is crucial, as many of the league’s best scorers get a lot of their points on the man advantage. In general, the minimum amount of average power-play ice time you’re looking for is 1:30, and more is better. Many teams now roll with four-forward, one-defenseman power-play units; that league-wide strategic shift means that blueliners who get serious top-unit minutes with the extra man are relatively rare. 

Forwards

Simply put, forwards are the powerhouses of your offensive stat categories. With their positioning on the ice, they’re inherently more likely to post more goals, assists, power-play points, and shots on goal than their defensive counterparts. Therefore, snagging a “stud” forward in the first couple rounds of your draft usually ensures that you will at least have a solid floor in the skater categories. From there, loading up on some high-end offensive talent in the early-to-middle rounds is a good way to to shore up your team’s offensive productivity.

After that, filling in the rest of your forward corps is a bit more nebulous, so you’ll want to be on the lookout for players who can help you in unexpected ways. For one, certain forwards outpace defensemen in penalty minutes, as their agitator roles can often get them in trouble with the referees. Some of these agitators are also adept scorers (or become them steadily over time), so being able to identify those players in the mid-to-late rounds can give you a boost in the penalty minutes category while allowing you to maintain decent offensive production.

While some leagues just use forwards as an all-encompassing category (or as a sort of flex category), it’s important to mark the differences between centers and wings. Center tends to be the deepest position for fantasy purposes; there are often several quality options available at that position at the ends of drafts, even if they do occupy third-line roles. (And if your league counts faceoffs, you should know that centers are practically the only ones who take them.) There isn’t much difference between left and right wingers other than their positional eligibility; on that note, when the opportunity presents itself, picking up guys with multi-position eligibility is always helpful. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that you’re broadly more likely to find guys who contribute in the physical categories like PIM and hits on the wing than at center.

When you’re looking for forwards deep in your draft and the reliable scorers are gone, it’s a good time to gamble on young players who are likely to see increases in playing time. Do so with one eye on talent level and the other on where these upside guys might fit, line-wise.

Defensemen

As you might have guessed by now, defensemen do not carry as much clout in the offensive stat categories as forwards do. The only surefire exceptions to this generalization are guys like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, who put up forward-type scoring stats from the blue line and thus merit early selection in fantasy drafts.

If your draft position doesn’t allow you to nab either of those two studs, you should probably turn your attention to the early-to-middle rounds to grab your top defenseman. In doing so, you’re looking for a reliable source of 40-plus points — preferably with a good number of those coming on the power play — with a strong rating (that is, plus-minus).

While we’re on the topic of plus-minus: Not only is it a crucial stat category in itself, but it’s also important to note that this statistic is a decent indicator of a player’s overall effectiveness and team context. These players are usually important pieces of their teams’ defensive schemes, and thus warrant more ice time; at the same time, many of the top plus-minus guys get to play in front of elite goalies, so make sure that’s among your considerations as well.

Another stat that bears mentioning for defensemen is shots on goal, as that’s often a direct reflection of any given blueliner’s involvement on offense. A good way to identify “sleepers” among defensemen is to find players who took a lot of shots last season, but weren’t rewarded with many goals or points; that luck tends to balance out over time. Keep in mind that many defensemen need a few years in the league to develop their offensive touch, and increases in shots on goal are often a good portent of that occurring.

One quick caveat: if your league rewards blocked shots, feel free to give the defensemen in your draft a bit of a value bump, as that stat category is utterly dominated by blueliners. They’re often quality sources of hits, too.

Goalies

The goalie is the backbone of a fantasy roster. As good as your skaters may be, that’s only six of 10 categories in a standard league; the other four are accounted for by just a couple of goalies, so it pays to pick up good ones.

It can be hard to value goalies; in many leagues, a few stud netminders expected to enjoy big workloads go in the first couple rounds, but the position will be scattered through your draft thereafter. Generally, picking an elite goalie early on will hurt you on offense because you’ll miss out on the league’s top-scoring stars, so it’s often better to look toward the middle rounds for values in net.

When evaluating goalies, it all starts with save percentage — among the standard stats, that’s the truest representation of goalie performance because it focuses specifically on how well the goalie does his job, which is stopping as many pucks as possible. Other factors to consider include whether the goalie plays for a good team in general (like pitchers in baseball, goalies are dependent on their teammates to help them get wins) and has a certifiably good defense in front of him; if your goalie’s facing a lot of shots, even a good save percentage may not save his goals-against average from mediocrity.

However, just as important as high-end stats is a high-volume workload; particularly in head-to-head leagues, squeezing all the starts you can out of your goalies can be crucial due to the counting stats (wins and shutouts). If you get stuck with a goalie who’s working in a timeshare situation, it will limit your volume and potentially complicate your lineup decisions, so it pays to get someone you can count on for 50-plus starts, if not 60-plus.

If you want to draft a third goalie, going the handcuff route (which is to say, owning an elite goalie’s backup) sometimes isn’t a bad idea; after all, if your top netminder gets injured, it’s nice to have an insurance policy on your bench. However, you may want to get a third goalie who sees regular playing time if you’re taking a more volume-based approach. Some owners choose to forgo drafting a third goalie if better value presents itself among the skaters at the end of the draft.

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