How To Value Defensemen and Evaluating Goaltenders

Like I wrote about in my fantasy hockey draft guide, the value of players in a league is largely dependent on that specific league’s particular settings. As of today, in a standard ten category rotisserie league (Goals, Assists, plus/minus, Power-Play Points, Shots On Goal and Penalty Minutes), there are no defensemen ranked in the top 50 in overall rankings. However, for example, in a roto league that I’m a part of that includes ATOI (Average Time On-Ice) as a statistic, there are two defensemen in the top 50. In a straight points league (Goals and Assists only), there are three defensemen inside, or tied for, the top 50. What’s interesting is that of those five defensemen ranked inside the top 50 of those two leagues, there’s no overlap: Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Kris Letang and Kevin Shattenkirk are on the list.

USA Today Sports Images
USA Today Sports Images

As such, the first thing you need to know about valuing defensemen is that you have to know your league settings. This applies for every fantasy sport and league you take part in and is no different in fantasy hockey. The next few paragraphs will discuss how you should look at defensemen in fantasy hockey.

Standard Rotisserie Leagues

Roto leagues of any sort (standard roto or Head-To-Head roto) typically devalue defensemen as long as that ATOI category isn’t a part of the statistics. So let’s look at a few reasons why this might be over the last 2+ seasons:

  • In the previous two NHL seasons plus this one so far, only one defenseman has been ranked inside the top 20 in roto value; Erik Karlsson in 2011-2012.
  • There is no defenseman (as of today) ranked inside the top 50 all three years. The only player that has a chance to do so is Zdeno Chara (21st in ‘11-’12, 29th in ’10-’11), but he is currently ranked 177th this year.
  • The nature of their position is what limits their potential; Erik Karlsson was the only defenseman last year to finish inside the top 80 in overall point production and four the year previous (Nick Lidstrom, Lubomir Visnovsky, Keith Yandle and Dustin Byfuglien).
  • With their point production limited, defensemen thus rely on peripheral stats. However, only one defenseman in the last 2 seasons has greater than 275 shots; Dustin Byfuglien had 347 SOG in 2010-2011. ‘Big Buff’ averaged 4.28 SOG per game that year; the league leader this year is Erik Karlsson by a mile at 4.5 SOG/game. The active leader is Keith Yandle at 2.83 SOG/game.

 

So now you can see why a defenseman’s value can vary so much:

  • Value can vary depending how they are used by their coach. Despite getting over a minute more of ice-time/game last year after the All-Star Break, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was out-pointed by teammate Keith Yandle 14-11, a lot of which is due to Yandle getting more power-play time.
  • Goal totals can vary wildly with all players. Because defensemen naturally take less shots, this can be even more problematic. P.K. Subban took eight more shots in 2011-2012 than the previous year, but scored seven less goals.
  • Most of the value of most defensemen comes from peripheral stats. If those peripherals aren’t there (and I’ll demonstrate in a minute) then their value declines dramatically.

Zdeno Chara

If a defenseman declines in peripherals, their value takes a massive hit. Despite just 52 points last year, Chara was 21st in roto rankings (ahead of 77-point man Ray Whitney and 82-point man Phil Kessel) because he also racked 86 PIMs (9th among D-men), had 224 shots (5th among D-men) and was T-3rd in all of the NHL in plus/minus at (+33).

Chara is ranked so low this year despite the fact that he’s on pace for, in an 82 game season, 44 points, 98 PIMs and a (+27) rating. This is because he has just one power-play point in 15 games (82 game pace: six PPP, had 18 last year) and is on pace for his lowest shot/game average in a decade; 2.13 s/g so far this year and it hasn’t been this low since 2001-2002 when he averaged just 1.4 s/g.

As discussed earlier, there are reasons why a defenseman’s value can vary so much. Coming into this season, Chara was the most consistent defenseman in the NHL over the previous two seasons, largely because he was “the man” in Boston. Now that rookie Dougie Hamilton is on the scene, Chara is getting his shot totals cut into. Chara led all Boston defensemen in shots last year by a margin of 50 and the year before by 98. This year, Hamilton is outshooting Chara 35-32. Assists come from rebounds, goals come from shots. Chara’s 0.33 assist/game pace this year is his lowest since before the last lockout.

So to summarize so far:

  • Consistency in roto defensemen is tough to find. Even something as simple as a 19-year old rookie defenseman can sap the value of someone who was the most consistent performer for a couple years.
  • Unless ATOI is a category (because they typically lead in ice-time), then D-men aren’t as valuable as people think.
  • A lot of the value of defensemen comes from peripherals. Niklas Kronwall from Detroit is on pace for nearly a 70-point season, yet is ranked just 57th among all skaters. This is only because he is currently sporting a (-4) rating.

So how do you value defensemen?

In a roto league (straight roto or H2H roto), it’s tough to find that consistent performer. Chara was the guy until Dougie Hamilton came along. Erik Karlsson was the guy this year until he got hurt. This is what I look for, then:

  • Draft defensemen that play on good teams. It seems easy enough and I know can happen once a season starts, but we all knew that teams like Chicago, Vancouver, Boston and Pittsburgh would be good teams this year. This generally gives you a boost on plus/minus. I’m a stickler on (+/-) because it is the one stat where low value (negative rating) can actually detract from the value of another player.
  • I never draft defensemen in the first four rounds. For those that play other fantasy sports, defensemen are like pitchers in fantasy baseball and quarterbacks in fantasy football; there are too many similar players to justify taking the two or three players we value above everyone else. Even though there is no defenseman inside the top 50 so far this year, there are 20 defensemen within 98 ranking positions of each other.
  • Once the season starts, you need to keep an eye on ice-time/game and power-play minutes per game. You can find these numbers at Behind The Net. Firstly, ice-time leads to points. Secondly, ice-time gives you an indicator of the level of trust a coach has for a player. If you have a defenseman declining in ice-time, he’s lost the trust of his coach and is viewed as a liability, this is very bad.
  • In a points-only league, you can definitely find good value somewhere. With +/- no longer a factor, you can look at teams like Florida, Columbus and the Islanders for replacements. But again, there are a lot of similar performers. After Erik Karlsson with 78 points last year, ranks 2-16 were within 10 points of each other. In 2010-2011, ranks 10-30 among D-men were within 10 points of each other. So far in this shortened season, the top 22 defensemen are within six points of each other.

 

So to summarize:

  • In a points-only league, look for ice-time and power-play ice time, these will directly lead to point production (usually).
  • In a roto league, look for peripheral stats, ice-time again and watch the team that they play for.
  • In either league, don’t break the bank drafting or trading for a defenseman, they aren’t as valuable as you might think. Again, league settings matter.

 

What To Look For In A Goaltender

I was watching a very interesting discussion on Twitter the other day between some advanced hockey stats guy I watch. The topic was goaltending. A point was made that I don’t think can be expressed enough:

The difference between a good and a bad goalie is one save every 50 shots.

It’s a pretty small margin for error, isn’t it?

Butterfly goaltending revolutionized the position. This concept is where a goalie drops to his knees, spreading his pads to take away the lower part of the net (where most goals are scored). Also, being aggressive and cutting down the angle was stressed. For those that aren’t puck-inclined, think about a baseball team playing with the infield in. If it’s hit right to a player, they will stop it and have a better shot at home plate. If it’s hit to the side of them, well good luck. It was just a matter of time, however, until players adjusted to this. The result was the East/West game you see now in the NHL. Passes are made through seams and over/under sticks to get the goalie moving from side to side. This takes them out of their “butterfly” and gives players other angles and places of the net to shoot at.

So naturally, there’s a response to a response, right?

Check out these saves from Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist, regarded as two of the best goaltenders on the planet. You’ll notice two things in both these videos:

  1. Look how deep both goalies are. When the puck is being moved around in Quick’s video and when Boston gains the zone in Lundqvist’s video, their heels are pretty much on the goal line. This is for two reasons: Firstly, it allows them an extra 3-4 feet of reaction time. Secondly, it is a much shorter distance to go from side-to-side along the goal line than at the top of the crease. This is a method goaltenders are beginning to adopt to counteract the new “East/West” style of hockey.
  2. When the save is about to be made, the goalies (especially Quick) push-off directly at the shooter. This cuts down the angle considerably and both goalies end up making the save off of their mask. Whatever it takes, I guess.

By contrast, let’s take a look at a goalie who hasn’t really adopted this style yet in Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh. In this video, he gets let’s a goal in on a tic-tac-toe passing play. While he can’t totally be faulted for this, you’ll notice two differences in this clip from the other two:

  1. He pushes off towards Patrick Kane after he gets a pass back from Marian Hossa, expecting him to shoot. This is despite the fact there is a defenseman right in Kane’s shooting lane. Fleury wasn’t anticipating the play.
  2. When he pushes off, he gets to the top of his crease to challenge Kane. Once Kane makes the pass across the crease to Viktor Stalberg, he has the whole net to shoot at. Fleury isn’t able to get across because, as I said, it’s a much greater distance to cover in a short amount of time. Fleury doesn’t read the play right, he gets too aggressive and one pass beats him.

So to get back to my original “One shot in 50” point, how do you evaluate a goaltender?

While it might seem crazy, the hybrid goaltenders (butterfly + “flopping”) of the last couple of decades like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas are among the best goalies of the last 20 years. They have a style that enables them not only to make the first save, but the second or third as well. With their somewhat unorthodox style of play, they are able to make that extra save that traditional butterfly goalies cannot.

These “floppers” are much a thing of the past, however, and the new breed of “floppers” are the athletic guys who play deep in their nets. You don’t need to be big to be a good goalie, Jonathan Quick is only 6’1”, you just need to react to the play. Those that can read the play and stay deep in their net are better set up to play in the new NHL than most. Guys like Quick, Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask are great examples of this.

Hopefully this helps you with your fantasy hockey team this year and in years to come. Like all fantasy sports, offense is king. However, the peripheral stats for defensemen and styles of goaltenders can have a big impact on the outcome of your season. Know your league settings, know your goalies and draft accordingly. Once the draft is over, keep an eye on ice-time and watch your goalies to see if they are making style adjustments. What they do should dictate what you do.

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