Fantasy Hockey: Playoff strategy

If there's one playoff system in the four major sports most conducive to fantasy pools, it's the NHL's. With 16 teams in the mix, a possible 105 games to be played and more than 100 skill players with impact potential, the hockey postseason is one of the most exciting, free-for-all tournaments in professional sports.

But in a playoff bracket that has seen its share of surprises and upsets in recent years, how does a fantasy owner put together a championship roster? Here are some key tips:

Go for winners. It stands to reason that the two teams in the Stanley Cup finals probably also are going to boast the best players for your fantasy pool, if only by virtue of having played more games. Quantity counts in hockey playoff pools; go for games played as much as you would raw talent. Sure, Dany Heatley was the No. 1 skater on the Player Rater in the regular season, but if his Senators get upset by the Penguins in the first round, even a third- or fourth-tier player on a Cup contender would be better.

Pick a bracket. This ties into the first point; you can't pick the players who will last deepest into the postseason if you don't predict your own results. I usually run a few brackets to get a sense of how things might progress based on the outcome of series I think will be closer. Remember, the NHL reseeds by round, and if a closer series could shuffle your results entirely, that's something to note. For instance, in the first round alone, I have the Penguins-Senators and Stars-Canucks series effectively as pick 'ems, and in the latter case, the opponent sure wouldn't be the same if either won. If your bracket identified a sleeper team that might have knocked off a better seed, make sure you're aware what might happen in the event the pick goes awry because it's possible your entire bracket could go differently if even one series goes the other direction.

Don't underrate defensemen. In the regular season, even the best defensemen generally don't manage much more than two-thirds a point per game played. In the postseason, however, key defensemen take on greater importance, and as such, the best ones often raise that output to a point per game. Power-play quarterbacks in particular can become top contributors, so make sure you build around one or two strong D-men.

Power-play time is crucial. Remember, the quality of play increases in the postseason because the weaker teams are out of the mix. As such, scoring becomes more difficult, making the power play an important time for teams to succeed. Don't overlook the power-play leaderboards: San Jose, Anaheim and Pittsburgh had by far the best power-play units of the 16 playoff teams; Atlanta, Detroit and Vancouver were easily the worst. Tampa Bay and Atlanta were also the poorest on the penalty kill and Vancouver, Minnesota, Nashville and New Jersey were the best, which is significant.

Listed below are my rankings for hockey playoff pools, beginning with a ranking of teams based on how strong they shape up for the postseason overall, then of individual players by position, and finally, my filled-out playoff bracket:

Team and positional rankings

1. Buffalo Sabres (East, No. 1 seed): They're balanced, deep and consistent, and they have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. By far the favorite.
2. Anaheim Ducks (West, No. 2): Two Norris Trophy candidates on the same ice should be enough to take this team deep. These Ducks are better than their 2006-07 stats.
3. New Jersey Devils (East, No. 2): Martin Brodeur alone should carry the Devils deep into the postseason, but experience helps the team's chances, too.
4. Detroit Red Wings (West, No. 1): They dominated again in the regular season, but the roster is young and one has to wonder how Dominik Hasek will hold up at his age.
5. San Jose Sharks (West, No. 5): They won 13 of their final 17 games and finished with the game's No. 2 power-play unit. This team got hot at just the right time.
6. Pittsburgh Penguins (East, No. 5): As well as this team fared in the regular season, the Penguins are awfully young and awfully lacking in playoff experience.
7. Ottawa Senators (East, No. 4): Penguins-Senators should be one of the best series of the postseason, so it's not unthinkable you could get seven games out of the loser.
8. Atlanta Thrashers (East, No. 3): A strong finish -- 11-5-1 in their final 17 -- bodes well for the Thrashers, but they're nevertheless the weakest of the league's division winners.
9. Dallas Stars (West, No. 6): Possibly the sleeper of the postseason, as the Stars constantly seem to surprise people. This is Marty Turco's big chance for playoff redemption.
10. Vancouver Canucks (West, No. 3): Don't assume Roberto Luongo will carry the Canucks to a Stanley Cup; remember, he'll be making his postseason debut.
11. New York Rangers (East, No. 6): With Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist heating up at the right time of the year, the Rangers have a shot at a two-round playoff stay.
12. Nashville Predators (West, No. 4): No playoff wins in franchise history, and they barely had a chance to get in a groove because of several key injuries throughout the year.
13. Minnesota Wild (West, No. 7): They won the Jennings Trophy (fewest goals allowed), but the regular season is a very different story from the postseason.
14. Tampa Bay Lightning (East, No. 7): Few people give them any chance at unseating the Devils, not with their sluggish regular-season finish and facing questions in goal.
15. Calgary Flames (West, No. 8): Their chances rest squarely on the shoulders of goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Drawing Detroit in the first round is a tough assignment.
16. New York Islanders (East, No. 8): Their playoff spot was earned via a shootout on the regular season's final day, and they might have to ride a third-string goalie.

1. Martin Brodeur, Devils
2. Ryan Miller, Sabres
3. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ducks
4. Roberto Luongo, Canucks
5. Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks
6. Dominik Hasek, Red Wings
7. Marty Turco, Stars
8. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
9. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins
10. Miikka Kiprusoff, Flames
11. Ray Emery, Senators
12. Kari Lehtonen, Thrashers
13. Tomas Vokoun, Predators
14. Niklas Backstrom, Wild
15. Johan Holmqvist, Lightning
16. Vesa Toskala, Sharks
17. Chris Osgood, Red Wings
18. Rick DiPietro, Islanders
19. Ilya Bryzgalov, Ducks
20. Wade Dubielewicz, Islanders

1. Daniel Briere, Sabres
2. Teemu Selanne, Ducks
3. Joe Thornton, Sharks
4. Dany Heatley, Senators
5. Sidney Crosby, Penguins
6. Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings
7. Marian Hossa, Thrashers
8. Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings
9. Thomas Vanek, Sabres
10. Peter Forsberg, Predators
11. Andy McDonald, Ducks
12. Ilya Kovalchuk, Thrashers
13. Jaromir Jagr, Rangers
14. Patrik Elias, Devils
15. Jason Spezza, Senators
16. Chris Drury, Sabres
17. Paul Kariya, Predators
18. Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning
19. Scott Gomez, Devils
20. Daniel Sedin, Canucks
21. Martin St. Louis, Lightning
22. Keith Tkachuk, Thrashers
23. Maxim Afinogenov, Sabres
24. Jarome Iginla, Flames
25. Jonathan Cheechoo, Sharks
26. Daniel Alfredsson, Senators
27. Patrick Marleau, Sharks
28. Henrik Sedin, Canucks
29. Jason Pominville, Sabres
30. Brendan Shanahan, Rangers
31. Todd Bertuzzi, Red Wings
32. Slava Kozlov, Thrashers
33. Marian Gaborik, Wild
34. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
35. Derek Roy, Sabres
36. Kristian Huselius, Flames
37. Markus Naslund, Canucks
38. Brian Gionta, Devils
39. Milan Michalek, Sharks
40. Brad Richards, Lightning
41. Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks
42. Bill Guerin, Sharks
43. Pavol Demitra, Wild
44. Michael Nylander, Rangers
45. Jochen Hecht, Sabres
46. Jason Arnott, Predators
47. Ryan Smyth, Islanders
48. Chris Kunitz, Ducks
49. Jamie Langenbrunner, Devils
50. Jason Blake, Islanders

1. Scott Niedermayer, Ducks
2. Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings
3. Sergei Gonchar, Penguins
4. Chris Pronger, Ducks
5. Brian Rafalski, Devils
6. Mathieu Schneider, Red Wings
7. Wade Redden, Senators
8. Sergei Zubov, Stars
9. Brian Campbell, Sabres
10. Kimmo Timonen, Predators
11. Ryan Whitney, Penguins
12. Matt Carle, Sharks
13. Dan Boyle, Lightning
14. Kevin Bieksa, Canucks
15. Dion Phaneuf, Flames
16. Alexei Zhitnik, Thrashers
17. Shea Weber, Predators
18. Philippe Boucher, Stars
19. Marek Zidlicky, Predators
20. Tom Poti, Islanders
21. Sami Salo, Canucks
22. Marc-Andre Bergeron, Islanders
23. Joe Corvo, Senators
24. Christian Ehrhoff, Sharks
25. Michal Rozsival, Rangers
26. Roman Hamrlik, Flames
27. Mattias Ohlund, Canucks
28. Tom Preissing, Senators
29. Filip Kuba, Lightning
30. Francois Beauchemin, Ducks
31. Craig Rivet, Sharks
32. Teppo Numminen, Sabres
33. Brent Burns, Wild
34. Andrej Meszaros, Senators
35. Nathan Paetsch, Sabres

Tristan's playoff bracket:

First round: Sabres over Islanders in four, Devils over Lightning in six, Penguins over Senators in seven, Rangers over Thrashers in six; Red Wings over Flames in five, Ducks over Wild in four, Sharks over Predators in six, Stars over Canucks in seven.
Conference semifinals: Sabres over Rangers in five, Devils over Penguins in five; Red Wings over Stars in seven, Ducks over Sharks in six.
Conference finals: Sabres over Devils in six; Ducks over Red Wings in six.
Stanley Cup finals: Ducks over Sabres in seven.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.