Fantasy sports are a wonderful thing. Not only do they create an electronic world which affords us a small sense of control over our favourite athletes, but they also allow us to mock, harass, and ridicule our friends and colleagues when our fantasy roster overwhelms the competition. Fantasy hockey is the main reason I’m a big hockey fan now. I got into it 8 years ago knowing little-to-nothing, but gradually began researching players and teams more and more extensively. I’ve noticed a few things over that time, and I’m going to share those observations here. I hope they are of use to you. If anything needs clarification, or if you simply disagree with a particular statement, please leave a comment. Chances are we’ll all come to a greater understanding through constructive disagreement, though senseless name calling may ultimately prevail.
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A Layperson’s Introduction to a player’s Fantasy Hockey Value
***TO BE SKIMMED IF YOU KNOW HOCKEY WELL***
Most people have probably heard terms like #1 centre, #2 centre, top-line winger, top-6 winger, etc. These refer to a player’s place on a team’s depth chart, or where and how much a player plays. The idea of a 1st line, 2nd line, 3rd line, and 4th line is not only related to ice-time, but also carries an assumption about what types of players make up those lines. Traditionally, the first two lines are scoring lines, filled with skilled players. They see big minutes on the powerplay, and don’t usually play as much on the penalty kill. The top-line has the most talented players, while the 2nd line has the next-most talented players. The 3rd line usually has two-way players – guys who are decent offensively – not good enough to play on the top-2 lines – but are very reliable defensively. For that reason, the 3rd line is often called the checking line, because it is sent out to play against the other teams’ most offensive lines. These players don’t get much powerplay time, but play a lot on the penalty kill. Coaches, players, and analysts often say that a big hit or fight can turn the tide of a game. The 4th line is filled with players who do just that, which is why it’s often called the energy line. Generally most players on a 4th line are neither good offensively nor defensively; they are bigger players who can skate decently and play physically. While a few teams like Detroit and Buffalo break the mould (using as many as three scoring lines, and using their 4th line as more of a checking line), they are the exception rather than the rule.
So we know there’s a top-6, and a bottom-6, so how does this affect fantasy hockey? Well, in general, you only want top-6 forwards on your fantasy hockey roster. There are cases where this isn’t true – last year Philadelphia had so many offensive forwards that Mike Richards was technically playing on the 3rd line – but once again, this is rare. So naturally, the next question is, how can you tell if a player is playing in the top-6 or the bottom-6? The best way is to look at his powerplay time-on-ice totals (readily available on nhl.com). Teams typically have two powerplay units, with one given priority over the other. The more time a player receives, the more likely he is to put up points in the long-run.
There are also similar conventions that apply to defencemen, but it’s slightly more difficult to distinguish fantasy worthy from non-fantasy worthy. Out of the 6 d-men, there is a top-4 that tends to play most of the game. But unlike forwards, which tend to be clustered together (offensive players together in the top-6 ; less talented ones grouped in the bottom-6) defencemen tend to be paired in a complementary fashion. You’ll often have a talented offensive defenceman paired with a purely defensive, or shut-down defenceman. Both players will play frequently, but only one of them will have good offensive production. But again, like forwards, the best way to distinguish one from the other is to look at their powerplay time-on-ice totals. I remember looking at Tobias Enstrom several years ago, and noticing that although he wasn’t getting many points, he was getting huge powerplay minutes. I picked him up, and shortly after his production started to catch up with his minutes played.
Key Considerations in a fantasy hockey pool/draft
Following from the introduction above, I’m going to spell out the most important considerations when selecting a fantasy hockey roster. Although they are prioritized from most important to least important, the reality is that no particular consideration operates in a vacuum – all the factors comingle. Also, it is generally assumed that, all else equal, the most talented player is usually the best selection. However, talent and production aren’t always linked either. I’ve always thought that guys like Ales Hemsky, Martin Havlat, and Martin Erat (strangely, all Czech-players) are among the more talented guys in the league, yet they’ve never managed to put up huge numbers. (Hemsky and Havlat mainly due to injury; Erat because he plays for a highly defensive team in Nashville). Also, young players like John Tavares and Taylor Hall have obscene talent, but are still very young and aren’t surrounded by the best supporting casts, which makes it hard to produce to their talent level.
So aside from pure skill and ability, what are the most important factors in determining a player’s fantasy hockey value?
#1 – Age
Last year, the ages of top-50 scoring forwards in the league averaged to 26.5. Here are the stats broken down into relevant age clusters:
So what’s the prime age? Well, it’s pretty close to the average stated above. Of the top-50 forwards, 15 were either 25 or 26 years old at the beginning of last season*. It’s difficult to *pinpoint the age when a player breaks out, but in the past 8 years of following fantasy hockey, I’ve noticed that the single most common age is 24. Now young superstars don’t fall into this group – guys like Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Staal, Malkin, Kane, and others of their pedigree (all were drafted 1st overall except Staal, who was drafted 2nd), tend to reach their prime considerably earlier. In fact, all of those players were bonafide stars before they turned 21. However, most offensive players will start to peak between the ages of 23 and 25, and be productive until they reach their early 30’s.
*If you calculated the same stats a year earlier, you’d find that the best ages were 24 and 25, which is because players born in 1984 and 1985 were exceptional, while not too many talented forwards were born in 1986. The only ‘86 born forward in the top-50 last year was David Krejci. (Though Malkin will be this coming year as well).
Age 30 isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but most players do start to fall off a bit around that age. Physically, studies have shown that most men experience a 2% drop-off in testosterone production each year after they turn 30. Furthermore, an NHL player’s body accumulates extensive wear and tear over the years, especially in today’s game which features gruelling physical play over an 82 game season. Add in a handful of long and taxing playoff runs, and intense training both prior to and during the season, and it’s amazing that a player’s body could hold up at all over the course of a decade. Of course, many players have defied age and played at a high level well into their 30’s – St. Louis, Iginla, Elias, and of course, the immortal Teemu Selanne, but hockey is primarily a young man’s game.
#2 – Priority in the Lineup
Who’s worth more, a #1 centre, or a #2 centre? Well, a #1 centre, of course. But what about the following example: who’s of greater fantasy hockey value: Travis Zajac, or Joe Pavelski? After a few good playoff runs with the Sharks, and an appearance in the 2010 Olympics for Team USA, I’m guessing most educated hockey fans would go with Pavelski. However, Pavelski is a #2 centre in San Jose behind Joe Thornton. That means he’ll get less playing time both at even strength and on the powerplay, and also lower quality linemates. (Though his linemates are still very good). Meanwhile, Zajac (though he’s currently injured!) is unquestionably the top centre in New Jersey, and has exceptional linemates – Zach Parise, and possibly Ilya Kovalchuk. An even better example is Brendan Morrison – a guy who was never considered a #1 centre, but was fortunate to play with Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi when both were at their peak (circa 2002-2004). Though a fellow like Jason Arnott was a more talented player at the time, he was a second line centre behind Mike Modano in Dallas, making Morrison a better pick.
This is especially true of defencemen, whose fantasy value often depends entirely on the amount of powerplay time they receive. A defenceman who plays on the #1 powerplay can often be more valuable than a more skilled defenceman who plays on another team’s #2 powerplay.
#3 – Linemates
Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu, and Dustin Brown all got some good hockey-related news this off-season – each of them got new linemates. The Rangers signed 2011’s prized free agent, centre Brad Richards, who should be setting up Gaborik for years to come. Playmaking centre Mikko Koivu got sniper Dany Heatley for his wing in Minnesota, and Brown got former Flyers’ centre Mike Richards. All of these moves highlight the importance of linemates. This is particularly true for snipers, who often depend on a playmaker to feed them the puck, but it applies equally to playmakers (typically centres), who dish out way more assists when they’re paired with good goal scorers. The best historical example is Mike Knuble, who has had perhaps the luckiest career of any fantasy player ever. Knuble has played with Joe Thornton in Boston, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in Phialdelphia, and Oveckin and Backstrom in Washington. (With Washington acquiring a younger, long-term replacement for Knuble in Troy Brouwer, I think Knuble’s fantasy days may be nearing the end.) The aforementioned Martin Erat is a vastly superior player in every respect, but has had the misfortune of playing too many shifts with “two-way” centre David Legwand. You should always be aware of who your fantasy players are playing with. A promotion to the top-line is like hitting the jackpot, because that player will not only play with more talented players, but they’ll also get more ice time. (A good example of how these variables tend to overlap).
#4 – Injuries
Age is a lurking variable here, as most players will tend to incur more injuries as they get older. But that being said, some players prove themselves to be injury prone year after year. You need to be aware of players like Ales Hemsky, Marian Gaborik, Tim Connolly, and others, who have boatloads of talent but are almost never able to play an entire season. Fantasy pools do have IR spots, so they’re often worth taking a chance on – Sidney Crosby might still be worth an early pick, as you could put him on the IR for the first 20-40 games and pick up another player early in free agency (where good players often still remain) until Crosby returns. However, if you’re in a pool that doesn’t allow very many free agent transactions, you have to avoid players like these. (My player rankings include significant injuries).
#5 – Quality of team
This is a big factor if your pool is a head-to-head league rather than a points-based league. Players on good teams will be more consistent than players on non-playoff teams. In fact, the best players are often ones from lower-seeded playoff teams. If a player plays on a great team, their playoff spot will be locked down before the end of the season, which often leads to coasting late in the season. Similarly, if a player is on a bad team, he may be similarly unmotivated towards the end of the year*. However, if the player’s team is in an intense playoff race, they might be playing their best hockey at year’s end, when your fantasy roster will be in playoffs (head-to-head leagues).
*Though young teams (which tend to be bad) sometimes play their best hockey at year-end when the pressure’s off – like the New York Islanders late last year
#6 – Position
If you’re in a Yahoo! Sports pool, you need to be aware of positions. Most pools split the forwards into LW-C-RW categories, and you need to draft a certain number of each. This seems fine, but there’s a problem: Yahoo doesn’t always give your players the proper positional eligibility. The trend I’ve noticed is that many players who do not play centre are listed as centres in Yahoo-based pools. That’s because many players are drafted as centres, but begin playing on the wing when they come to the NHL (since centres have more defensive responsibilities and take face-offs, which young players usually struggle with). The result is that good centres are often left over when the draft is done, while the wingers have been well picked through. If your pool doesn’t have a distinction between forward positions then this doesn’t matter. Otherwise use this rule: all else equal, draft a winger!
#7 – League Depth
You need to be aware of how many players are drafted in your league. One of my pools is set up more or less like this:
Draft 16 players: 9F, 4D, 2G, and 1 bench player (inevitably a goalie)
If you take a snapshot of the league part-way through the year, here’s how many players will be taken:
Forwards: 100 (9 x 10 + 10 on IR)
Defencemen: 45 (4 x 10 + 5 IR)
Goalies: 30 (3 x 10)
We’ve played with this general F:D:G ratio for a few years now, so I’ve come to notice the economics – or scarcity, of using this configuration. Goaltenders tend to be the toughest players to acquire if you didn’t draft them well. There are only a few available to pick up off waivers/free agency, and they’re generally only available early in the season. Defencemen are also difficult to pick up, since talented young defenceman don’t emerge as quickly as forwards do, and even ones that do have a good start can cool off in a hurry. (See Matt Carle 06-07, Kevin Shattenkirk last season).
And though I’m always tempted to draft forwards for the first 5 or more rounds, the reality is that forwards are usually the easiest players to pick up off waivers/free agency. There are more of them out there, and 22 year olds sometimes come from nowhere to produce big numbers. (Eric Staal in 05-06, Mike Cammalleri in 06-07, Mike Richards in 07-08, Logan Couture last season). While it’s tough to resist a high-scoring forward in the early rounds, chances are you’re better off taking a safe-bet d-man or goalie if your league looks anything like mine.
Though I collected a fair amount of data to make these rankings, they’re also based in large part on my personal opinions, which makes them heavily biased. So here’s my bias: I’m always expecting young players to break out, and down on older second-line players, who are solid mid-round picks, but who don’t possess the same upside. I’d take Jordan Eberle over Ryane Clowe every day of the week, and Bryan Little over R.J Umberger. These aren’t necessarily the right choices, but I like taking the player with more potential, especially after the early-round sure-bets are no longer available.
Today is just the forwards. I’ll post the goalies and defencemen fairly shortly.
EXPLAINING THE RANKINGS
Overvalued – Undervalued
These ratings indicate my belief that these players will generally be drafted earlier or later than their potential offensive production would merit. Generally, any player who has played for a Canadian team (the Sedins, Iginla), or the Canadian Olympic team (Toews, Richards) has tremendous name value, and fantasy drafters who don’t have extensive hockey knowledge will tend to draft them a bit earlier than they deserve to be drafted. This was true of Rick Nash for years – a very talented guy with poor linemates who posted several seasons of <70-points, yet was often taken earlier than a guy like Brad Richards, who put up 168 points in the last two seasons. The overvalued players are still very good, but chances are that an inexperienced fantasy pooler will reach for them early, and it shouldn’t be you.
The undervalued players are of course the opposite. They’re mainly break-out players, who tend to be young and unproven, with the best examples being Jamie Benn, Tyler Ennis, and Derek Stepan. They will probably become household names in the next few years, for now they remain unknown to the average hockey fan. They can also be called sleepers.
Tiering – Tier 1, 2, 3, Other
Tier 1 includes forwards that have achieved success in the past, are (mainly) in good health, and should achieve good results as long as they stay healthy. Tier 2 includes talented forwards with clear flaws: too young, injury history, further down the line-up (not many first-liners), poor linemates, etc. Tier-3 includes players who generally have multiple problems – young, struggling to get ice time, poor linemates, etc. “Other” is players you probably shouldn’t draft, but who might be worth looking at if your team experiences injuries.
I listed past or highly like linemates of the various players, but left certain players with a TBA. This was particularly true of players on Buffalo and St. Louis, who have so many offensive players that it’s hard to project lines. For many of the top players, the linemates are irrelevant – it does a lot more for James Neal’s fantasy value that he plays with Evgeni Malkin than the other way around. Same thing for Claude Giroux, who I just left as TBA, because he’ll produce no matter who he’s with. The linemates variable factors in more for the Tier-2 forwards, whose value could fluctuate a lot depending on who they’re playing with.
I listed their most common position, usually based on what position they actually play. I also listed an alternate position based on what I’ve seen in Yahoo, or other positions they’ve actually played.
For most players I calculated a three-year average of their point totals. However, it does not apply for young players, or for players who sustained serious injuries in any given year. In some cases I calculated only a two-year average if I felt that was most representative. I generally didn’t use an average for younger players, who are only scratching the surface of their potential (Bobby Ryan, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, etc.)
I listed serious injuries that players have suffered – generally anything over 40 games missed, but occasionally less if a player regularly missed 15 or more games with the same injury. The list is not comprehensive, but it’s a start.
Here’s the legend for how injuries are classified:
(LY) Last year: Serious injury within the last year
(P) Past: Serious injury prior to last year
(C) Current: Will miss time in 11-12
(R) Recurring: More than one injury to particular region of the body
Note: The individual rankings aren’t intended to be taken too seriously – the tiers are of greater significance than any individual numerical. That’s why I used 5-point ranges rather than exact figures. I also assume that the players will all play around 80 games, unless they have a significant injury history (Hemsky, Connolly), or are currently injured (Gagner, Zajac). This of course won’t be the case – many players will get injured and perform below the standards I have anticipated, but since I have no way of predicting which (generally healthy) players will be injured, I just assume they’ll all play a reasonably full season.
Talented but Flawed
*19 year-old Brett Connolly (Tby) should be added to list above. (May play with Stamkos). Colin Wilson (Nas) too – 22 years old and having a strong pre-season.