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Fantasy draft tips: Changing with the times

We can’t prepare for pools like we used to: we’re bombarded with misconceptions and myths.

NOTE: This is a condensed version of the story appearing in the 2019-20 Ultimate Fantasy Pool Guide. We have point projections and insights for more than 700 players, full-page breakdowns for all 31 NHL teams with extended depth charts, top 10 prospects and our exclusive points-o-meter, plus specialized stats breakdowns, features and much more.

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Hockey-pool people have never been politically correct. It’s always been about the results, no matter how we got there or who we offended.

At one time, we had to be wary of drafting Europeans in pools. They didn’t always assimilate easily into the NHL. There were questions about the longer schedule and their durability, adaptability to the language and culture and how intimidation might affect their play. In the 1998-99 Ultimate Pool Guide we noted, “Scoring by Europeans is more unpredictable than by North Americans. That is an assumption born of statistical analysis, not xenophobia.”

Times change. We’re not even hockey-pool people anymore, we’re hockey-fantasy people, and picking Europeans is no longer a negative consideration. Some of us have been at it a long time, but that doesn’t mean we’re old school. Quite the opposite. We have to change with the times to be successful, and we must have the ability to recognize when and what to change.So, what’s different and what’s the same? Let’s take a look.

ROOKIES

Picking rookies for your fantasy team has always been a crapshoot, but we’ve learned a few things along the way.

The prodigies are no problem, but there aren’t Connor McDavids every year. We can write down Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko as sure things this season, but that’s about it from the 2019 draft, and we’re not as likely to gamble.

We picked Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson to be the top rookie scorer last season, and he was. But he didn’t jump directly to the NHL – he went fifth overall in 2017, then tore up the Swedish League in 2017-18 – so we had more information on him as he became more seasoned, making him an easy choice.

We didn’t have Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk as the second-highest rookie scorer, because he didn’t rip it up at Boston University. Based on his last name, perhaps we shouldn’t have underestimated him.

Best bets: Europeans who we know are coming, top-drafted college players turning pro and graduating juniors who have high scoring stats.

VETERANS

There was a time when you started noticing a player’s age when he hit 30. Then it was 32, and now it’s probably closer to 35. Better training and improved nutrition, along with the incentive to earn big bucks, mean players can play longer.

That’s the logic, anyway, but the numbers don’t support it. There are actually fewer older players in the NHL today. Even with four more teams than in 1998-99, there were 18 fewer players 35 or older.

Today, it’s not necessarily the player’s age but his age in relation to his salary. Older players generally want more money or earn more money from long-term contracts, and teams can’t afford to pay it and want it off the books.

An example from last season is Patrick Marleau. There’s no way at 39 he was worth $6.25 million or should ever have been signed to that big of a contract. But ignore the salary, and he was a decent addition to the Maple Leafs. Otherwise, he was an anchor, and they had to trade him to Carolina, where he was bought out.

On the other hand, look at somebody like Zdeno Chara. One of the best NHL defensemen of all-time, Chara turns 43 this season, but his contract is a reasonable $2 million. So, that’s an indicator some older players are learning their value is based on their salary, and Chara is worth it at that price.

ANALYTICS

“Hey, look at this.”

“Look at what?”

“This multi-colored blob.”

“What does it mean?”

“What difference does it make? This is hockey analytics.”

There’s a perception in some quarters that if you don’t embrace hockey analytics, you’re a dinosaur. But how about some context, some explanation of how it relates to the game, some meaningful results, something that doesn’t make your eyes glaze over.

Take any scout or seasoned hockey observer and they can tell you more about a player after watching one or two games than you’ll ever get from some multi-colored blob or an array of numbers on a page. Take any seasoned hockey poolie and rest assured they’re not making any decisions based on blobs.

It takes a long time for a stat to become mainstream. Probably the only one we’ve seen in a long time is save percentage. It has meaning now because we know what a good SP is and what a poor SP is, but it took a long time.

For Corsi, we know it’s good if it’s above 50 percent and bad if it’s below. But it’s only slightly more meaningful than plus-minus, and it doesn’t mean possession. Again, to hockey poolies, it’s basically irrelevant.

AFTER THE DRAFT

Once a player has been drafted, we keep an eye on his progress to see when he’s going to play in the NHL. We talked a bit about this in the rookie section, but this is the time between the draft and when we think they’re ripe and ready to pluck.

Teams probably like to see their draftees play major junior because it most closely resembles the NHL and helps Europeans become acclimatized to North America, but if the talent is there, it doesn’t matter where they go.

Top players taken from the USHL and USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program play somewhere else after they’re drafted: major junior, college or the NHL if they’re good enough. Speaking of the NTDP, the under-18 team produced an incredible eight first-round picks this year, topping their previous high of three.

Harkening to the introduction where we said hockey poolies don’t care about political correctness, we should note NTDP players often have a difficult time transferring their games to the NHL. Not the top guys, because it usually doesn’t matter where they play, but for the others, we should be wary of some of the numbers and the level of competition.

The NTDP plays a lot of weak teams and doesn’t have any problem running up the score, pumping in 10-plus goals in several games last year. If the NTDP players tried that against CHL teams, it wouldn’t work out as well, but that’s not the point. The point is some NTDP members may be overvalued and, without going into a full analysis in this space, they fail more often than we think.

So we can see that things aren’t like they used to be and, in the not-too-distant future, they won’t be like they are now. We may even grow to understand and care about those multi-colored blobs.

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