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Fantasy Hockey Draft Tips And Strategies

By: Michael Clifford  (Fantasy411)

When preparing for a fantasy draft in just about any sport there’s one thing to keep in mind: There is no one tried-and-true, steadfast way to go about any draft. For fantasy hockey, you might go in to the draft planning to wait on goalies, just to see 15 of them fly off the board in the first four rounds. You might plan on taking goalies early, only to find everyone else snapping up elite scorers and you’re left with scraps. The key to any draft is to be able to adjust your pre-draft plan according to the way the players are being taken.

Another thing to keep in mind is that draft strategies alter on a year-to-year basis. Last year, there wasn’t too much of a premium placed on goaltending. This year, following the seasons by Henrik Lundqvist, John Quick, Pekka Rinne and the St. Louis tandem (also with the emergence of Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider), there is a clear upper-crust of goaltending and some people are tempted to take one of these guys early.

To recap, remember:

  • There’s no single “right” way to draft.
  • You have to be able to adjust your pre-draft plan depending on the way the draft is proceeding.
  • Strategies change from year-to-year.

All that being said, there are general rules that I keep in mind from year-to-year. Also, there are rules that I keep in mind for this year specifically. In this sense, this will be a two-part posting; The first part will be rules I try (keyword: try) to adhere to on a yearly basis and the second part will be rules I’m trying to abide by in this year’s drafts specifically.

These rules are based on 12-man head-to-head or rotisserie leagues with skaters stats of goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, penalty minutes and plus/minus. Goalie stats are wins, shutouts, save percentage and goals against average.

Rules I Follow From Year-To-Year

  1. I try to get a top-tier goalie early and both my goalies in the first 7-8 rounds. Think about it this way: if you have two starting goalie slots and a 17-man starting roster, then you are getting 40% of your total stats (wins, S/O, SV%, GAA) from 12% of your roster. With such a disproportionate percentage of your stats coming from a small percentage of your starters, I consider it foolish to gamble with your goalie picks later on in the draft. I wrote a piece last year for fantasytrade411.com saying that your target for a goalie should be one with a .918 SV%. This would put them around 15th in the league. If you can get two goalies at/above this threshold, you’re putting yourself in a position for success.
  1. Don’t over-or-undervalue your defencemen. Granted, they don’t produce points at the rate of the top forwards (even Erik Karlsson didn’t finish in the top-10 in points in 2011-2012), but there is value in other categories: five of the top-11 players in terms of +/- last year were defencemen. There were also four defencemen in the top-8 in the NHL last year in power-play assists. While I don’t shoot for top D-men early in the drafts (you’ll rarely find the likes of Karlsson or Letang on my teams), I don’t like to let them slide too late either. There is, in my opinion, four actual tiers of defencemen this year: The top-3 with Karlsson, Letang and Byfuglien; A glut of six to seven defencemen after that that will perform similarly, including Chara, Weber, Pietrangelo among others; Finally another glut of about 20 defencemen where the bulk of your D-men should come from. After these top-30 defencemen, you’re taking a big risk either through health issues (Ryan Whitney, Mike Green, Andrei Markov) or unproven elements like Slava Voynov, Dmitry Kulikov or John Carlson. If you let your defence picks slide too far, you’re taking a lot of gambles and that’s never a good thing.
  1. There is a lot of value in dual-eligibility. If one of your players goes down with an injury, you most likely would rather replace him with someone on your bench than have to fish in the waiver pool. If you have a LW go down and all you have are RW/C/D/G on your bench, you’re hitting the waiver wire. But if you have a LW go down, maybe one of your RW is Steve Downie (LW/RW-COL), so you can slide him over then put your bench player on your roster. I wouldn’t over-pay for dual-eligibility, but it does come in handy.
  1. As a general rule, if I have a choice of two similar players and one is a winger and the other is a center, I’ll almost always choose the winger. There is much more depth at center than at the wing so finding a replacement center on the wire is much easier than on the wing. Again, it depends on your team. If you have three wingers drafted, and your choice is between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Loui Eriksson, go with RNH. But it’s a general rule I like to follow.
  1. Keep in mind that you are drafting statistics, not players or positions (for the most part). You’re not drafting Gabriel Landeskog because you “really like him” or that he’s a winger, rather you’re drafting him because he can stuff the stats in all the categories. When assessing your team during the draft, look for weaknesses. You might really like Jordan Caron (RW), but if you need penalty minutes, then Steve Downie (LW/RW) or Paul Gaustad (C/LW) are who you need.
  2. I’m a stickler for plus/minus. It is the one category in this format where one player can detract the value of another. I’m a big Nikita Nikitin fan (D-CBJ), but I’m wary to use him because he plays for Columbus. If he ends up as a (-13) for the season and another defenceman on my team, say, Zdeno Chara ends up (+13), then it’s a zero-sum and you have diminished the value of Chara. This situation cannot always be avoided, but I try to watch out for minus-players as much as possible.
  1. If possible, fill your bench with high-upside guys. This includes rookies and bounce-back candidates. If they don’t work out, you can drop them to fill a need.

Those are the rules I try to adhere by. But they are not steadfast and can fluctuate. I do have Nikitin on some teams and I sometimes take the best player available regardless of some stats I need. But if I make a habit of it, my team suffers and my chances of winning are greatly reduced.

Rules For The 2013 Season

So those are the strategies I use on a year-to-year basis, but what about this specific season? There are several rules I’m trying to follow for the 2013 year alone:

  1. If I don’t get one of the goaltending Big Three (Lundqvist, Rask, Quick) or even Rinne, I’m waiting until the 4th round to take my first goalie. After those guys are gone, there are 5-6 similar goalies like Ward, Price and Miller that are bona fide #1 goalies. Also, I don’t take any goalie if I have a top-5 pick in the first round. If you have one of those, you should be taking one of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux or Alex Ovechkin. In my opinion, there is a significant enough of a drop-off after those top five to justify a first-round pick on a goaltender. But I am wary of Quick: he just got medically cleared from back surgery a week ago and I worry that the Kings coaching staff will be careful with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he only got 35 starts.
  1. Speaking of goaltending, I’m avoiding the goalie situations in St. Louis, Vancouver, Washington, Ottawa, Toronto and Columbus entirely. The first three is because there are too many question marks. St. Louis will probably split starts, Vancouver has two #1 goalies until (if) Roberto Luongo is traded and Washington will have a short leash on Braden Holtby with Michal Neuvirth right behind him. In Ottawa, while I believe Craig Anderson is the starter, Ben Bishop proved himself a worth starter in limited action last year and they have a franchise goalie in Robin Lehner who has nothing left to prove in the AHL. Toronto and Columbus are just goalie pits and there is just nothing to draft there.
  2. I worry about how the condensed schedule will affect the older players. Patrik Elias (NJD) already said as much and Ottawa Head Coach Paul MacLean has already floated the idea of resting players in certain situations. For this reason, if I have the choice of two similar players in my draft, I will go with the younger player to, if nothing just so I can sleep easier at night.
  1. Typically, it takes a team time to develop chemistry with new line-mates. Teams are not afforded this kind of time this season. It’s a one-week training camp and no exhibition games. For this reason, I will shy away from players like James van Riemsdyk, Zach Parise, Ray Whitney and others. I won’t completely stay away if the draft position is right, but I’m not taking them where I’m seeing them being drafted.
  1. Place a little more (not a lot, though) stock in players who have played overseas during the lockout or in the AHL. The reason for this is that there is a significant difference between being in good physical condition – which almost all of the players will be – and in “game shape”. There is a list available here http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/feature/?id=75388 that will tell you who ended up overseas. Also, you can visit the AHL teams’ sites for roster lists of who played in the minors. The quality of these leagues are not close to the NHL, but it’s just the fact of being in game shape that matters.
  1. Don’t place a lot of faith in rookies. There has been one rookie in the last four years to hit the 60-point plateau and that was Jeff Skinner in 2010-2011. There is not a lot of time for these players to adjust to the pace and physicality of the NHL so this is an area of great concern for me. Also, some rookies tend to go into prolonged slumps and in a 48-game schedule, this is a killer. The great Steven Stamkos scored two goals in the first 22 games of his rookie year and three in his first 34. As great as some rookies may be down the road (Yakupov, Hamilton), I wouldn’t bet a starting roster spot on that being this year.
  1. This is a rule I usually follow from year-to-year, but it’s even more important this year because of the condensed schedule. Your first nine or ten draft picks should be the core of your team. This is no time to gamble on unproven players. You might really like the talent of Nail Yakupov or the upside of Justin Faulk, but they haven’t proven what they can do yet. If one of these players falters, you are losing more value in replacing a ninth-round pick with a waiver addition than you would if you were replacing a 15th round pick. You should draft your top six forwards and your top two defencemen/goalies with confidence. They should be guys with at least somewhat proven track records – and near sure-fires like Skinner or Tyler Seguin – that you know won’t drop off considerably. If you start gambling with the core of your team, you’re gambling with the success of your season. Nothing in fantasy sports is guaranteed, but the probability of winning is greatly reduced with the more chances you take.

Those are the seven rules I carry from year-to-year and the seven rules I’m keeping in mind for this season specifically. If you follow these tips as best you can, you are putting yourself in a position to succeed. Like I said, nothing is guaranteed in fantasy sports but you want to give yourself the best probability of winning. Sticking to these rules, for the most part, will give you a good chance of winning.

See the Fantasy Hockey Draft Guide