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The Best Draft Strategies for Fantasy Hockey Newbies

What’s roto? How do head-to-head leagues work? What categories should you use? Here’s what you need to know for those just jumping into the pool.
Cale Makar and Connor McDavid

What’s roto? How do head-to-head leagues work? What categories should you use? Here’s what you need to know for those jumping into the pool.

Categories

Most fantasy leagues will feature the traditional categories: goals, assists, points, plus-minus, special teams points, shots and penalty minutes (PIM) for players; wins, losses, saves, goals-against average (GAA), save percentage and shutouts for goalies.

In recent years, to add an extra wrinkle and add another layer of difficulty and interest, “banger” categories have been introduced. These are blocked shots and hits and give some fantasy value to checking line or role players who otherwise may have zero value.

Plus-minus is easily the most controversial category because it’s a poorly designed stat to gauge a player's offensive and defensive impact. A player who is scored minus-1 for being on the ice because the opposition scored an empty-net goal is not indicative of his ability.

Penalty minutes can also be troublesome because it’s usually bad when a player takes a penalty in real hockey. In fantasy, the more PIM, the better.

Game-winning goals (GWG) and shutouts (SO) – and god forbid you play shorthanded goals (SHG) or points – have declined in popularity since both depend on some luck. Even the best players/goalies have little control over how many GWG or SO they accumulate, and the best fantasy leagues tend to eliminate as much luck as possible.

For those into advanced analytics, fantasy leagues that wish to count shot attempts or possession metrics as categories will need to keep track on their own the old-fashioned way. Neither Yahoo nor ESPN leagues offer such leagues at this point.

When you rank players, ensure you are well aware of the categories and their individual values.

Positions

Forward (F) positions include center (C), left wing (LW) and right wing (RW). Some players have dual-position (or triple-position, though very rarely) eligibility. This comes in handy if you have a player listed as a winger but plays center (e.g. J.T. Miller), giving you added flexibility to move your players around and allows you to accumulate faceoff wins from a LW or RW roster spot.

Leagues that use the F designation do not need to worry about C, LW or RW. The other positions are defensemen (D) and goalies (G).

Rotisserie

The preferred format for fantasy purists, “roto” leagues are a season-long grind where stats are accumulated daily, and the fantasy manager who has accumulated the most stats per category on his team is crowned champion. Each category is weighted equally depending on the number of teams; for example, if there are 10 teams, the fantasy team that has accumulated the most goals is awarded 10 points, and the team that has accumulated the least is awarded 1 point. Half points are used in the event of a tie.

In this zero-sum format, the maximum number of points can be accumulated by each team is the number of teams multiplied by the number of categories. An eight-team league with 10 categories means that the highest possible score is 80 total points for the winning team.

Winning roto leagues requires managers to keep tabs on their pace of stats accumulation. Unlike weekly head-to-head leagues, a bad week does not result in a loss right away, but a bad stretch of a month or two will make it difficult to win. If you’re into the macro side of things, the best way to keep track is to average out the number of stats your team accumulates per day and compare that against your competitors, and keep in mind not only will you have to catch your competitor, you will have to exceed them. If your fantasy team averages 10 shots per night but your rival’s team averages 12, by the end of the month you’ll be 60 totals shots (360-300) behind them. Should you wish to catch up by the end of the following month, you’ll have to average at least 14 shots per night (ie. outgain them by two shot per night) just to tie your rival.

Many fantasy managers will try to get “specialists” on their teams, which are players who are particularly outstanding in one category to address a deficiency on their team, usually hits or blocked shots in banger leagues. The upshot to hits and blocked shots is that they’re relatively predictable, but note that players who are very good in the banger categories tend to be low-usage checking line players who do not score often. That’s also why bangers who can score, such as Tom Wilson or Tanner Jeannot last season, are valuable and often overlooked fantasy options.

However, keep in mind points is still the toughest category to fill, and as a zero-sum format, gains made in banger categories may result in losses in more traditional scoring categories. All categories offer up the same number of points, and in any given season, one category may be much more competitive than the other.

Astute managers should know within a few months of the season if they have a shot at winning. Those who don’t see any hopes of a championship should keep trying because it’s good fun and gamesmanship and because they can easily play the spoiler by loading up on one category to prevent a rival team from gaining points. In roto, the margin of victory in each category does not matter; it only matters if you have accumulated more stats than your rival, be it a margin of one or 50.

Head-to-Head

Head-to-head leagues are mostly weekly, which is further split into two formats: one win for each matchup won, or multiple wins for each category won. There are equally good arguments for either format, but note awarding one win for each matchup means the margin of victory does not matter and in general usually features tighter races.

Weekly leagues tend to be a sprint as opposed to a marathon in roto leagues, and the weekly schedules of each player become vastly more important. That means a lesser player playing four games could be much more valuable than an elite player playing only twice. Planning ahead is recommended because you don’t want to trailing after Saturday’s games only to find out there are no games on Sunday to play catch up, as will be the case in Week 1.

The strategy for head-to-head weeks can be more restrictive depending on the minimum and maximum limits placed by the league commissioner. In most cases, there are minimums for goalie starts so fantasy managers can’t coast to a win in GAA (playing no goalies at all means an automatic 0.00 GAA), and there is also a maximum number of player adds and drops to further level the playing field. In a lot of cases, goalies become the most scrutinized and frustrating position since goalies do not play every game and their performances can be difficult to project. It’s also far easier to gain a big lead early in your weekly matchup than trying to play catchup later on, so it pays to be aggressive when making player adds and drops.

Points leagues

Points leagues are straightforward, season-long accumulation of points. Each stat is assigned a point value and the team that has accumulated the most points wins. This format is perhaps the easiest for beginner players due to its simple format, though there are a ton of variations due to assigned point values. Some leagues make an effort to equalize all stats, while others will emphasize goal scoring or banger categories. In the worst kinds of leagues, certain stats are valued too much, and an imbalance of player stats versus goalie stats will also skew player values by position rather than production.

Hockey is inherently unpredictable, therefore assigning point values at the beginning of the season to make all categories equal can be a futile exercise. During the Dead Puck era, scoring was a premium because so few players could do so at a point-per-game pace, and almost all goalies posted respectable stats. Nowadays, a handful of defensemen can score at a point-per-game pace, and elite goalies have become increasingly hard to find because scoring is up and usage of starters is down.

The strategy is to figure out what stats and positions are favored and lean into them. Keep in mind that certain categories are easier than others. Goals and shots are much more predictable than assists, hits and blocked shots are easy to catch up on but often have a huge opportunity cost in scoring categories, and keeping goalies on the bench – even if it’s a good matchup – can be a desirable strategy.

Good luck. 

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