Fantasy hockey's second season
First-round previews and game-specific strategies for playoff hockey pools
How'd you manage? A thrilling Sunday that included a shootout to decide the final playoff spot in the East, also concluded the fantasy hockey season. Fantasy leagues likely concluded with just as much excitement. I needed Saku Koivu to finish with a short-handed point or game-winning goal and a plus-2 in order to come from behind and win one of my championships. Koivu got me a shortie, but his plus-1 wasn't enough and I placed second.
For those of you who haven't been sitting on the edge of your seat for fantasy hockey for a while because of a rough season, redemption is just around the corner. The forefather of fantasy hockey kicks off this week with playoff pools!
Just like the marathon game we play through the regular season, playoff pools come in many different shapes and sizes.
Before we get into some tips for the different formats, you need to sit down and work yourself out a bracket all the way to the Stanley Cup. While predicting which teams will advance the furthest in the playoffs isn't everything for these pools, it's easily the biggest factor.
Write out all the matchups, spend some time looking over the series and piece together how you see the playoffs shaping up. Remember to re-seed after advancing teams through the first round in order to get the right second-round matches.
I won't make any firm statements about predicting how the Stanley Cup postseason progresses because the NHL playoffs are pretty unpredictable and I can't begin to imagine the comments I would elicit from various fans. But I will go over each first-round series with a look at the fantasy friendliness of each and then I'll offer some advice for how to approach some of the popular playoff pool formats.
San Jose Sharks (1) versus Colorado Avalanche (8): Both teams offer tons of fantasy options in the top six. The Sharks reunited Patrick Marleau with Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton and the power line looks like one of the best options to help march you through the postseason. As the top seed, it would be a pretty big upset if the Sharks didn't visit the conference finals so this trio could wind up among the top scorers in the playoffs even if San Jose doesn't play in the Cup final. If you, like many, predict a long second season for the Sharks, then rookie Logan Couture is a dark horse for some points. Evgeni Nabokov is poised to win a number of games during the playoffs, but if your pool awards a bonus for shutouts he is not your first choice. The Avs are definitely an underdog pick given the way they limped into the playoffs. Still there is some firepower up front. Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart can still rack up quite a few points if they push the Sharks to a long series. Peter Mueller, though an obvious fantasy powerhouse in an Avalanche uniform, is questionable for the start of the postseason with a concussion. Look his way only if you think the Avalanche are going to make some noise and force some upsets.
Chicago Blackhawks (2) versus Nashville Predators (7): It's said that goaltending is everything in the playoffs, so if any team is ready to pull a first-round upset it's the Predators. Pekka Rinne is the No. 1 player on the ESPN Player Rater over the past 30 days, and it's not even close (Rinne scores 20.43, second place goes to Tuukka Rask at 16.92). Unfortunately, the Preds don't boast any superstars on a very spread-out offense. In the team's final seven regular-season games, 15 different players have at least a point but none has more than four. Jason Arnott is at least healthy again and leading a line with Martin Erat and Colin Wilson. Don't overlook Patric Hornqvist's nose for the net on the second line. Marcel Goc is a sleeper in the top six and Shea Weber is likely one of the best defensemen to pick if you foresee the Preds creeping well into May. The Hawks have a completely inexperienced, but recently impressive netminder in Antti Niemi. Though the team is the second seed and has the offense to go deep into the playoffs, Niemi may be the weak link. He wrestled the job away from Cristobal Huet toward the end of the season and has his fair share of shutouts, but to go green into the Cup playoffs with a little over a month's experience as a starting goaltender is a tall order. Still, the Hawks didn't slow down at the end of the season and nobody doubts they have the offense to go all the way. Besides, Marian Hossa has a few things to prove. Take your pick from the top two lines and consider a physical in-the-corners player like Andrew Ladd as a sleeper.
Vancouver Canucks (3) versus Los Angeles Kings (6): The Canucks can go three lines deep with talent and may have some sleepers for postseason poolies. The Sedins are as obvious a choice as they come given the Canucks' chances in the playoffs, and where go the Swedish twins, so goes Alexandre Burrows. Mikael Samuelsson is healthy again and Ryan Kesler is a consistent choice, though taking players from the second line could be risky considering that postseason hockey is often more defensive. Coach Alain Vigneault may use Kesler and his linemates more for their two-way abilities. Michael Grabner is a sleeper if the Canucks take him on the roster. His speed means he can score anytime. Defensemen like Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa won't wow you with their point totals, but given an extended playoff run, their points would add up. Roberto Luongo has been far from fantastic lately, and may not be the best choice for goaltenders. Taking him as your choice means you are very certain the Canucks will tighten up the defense in the playoffs. The perfect matchup for the depth of the Canucks' roster is the Kings. While the Kings can't claim to have a line as impressive as the Sedins, they can match up with the Canucks going down the rest of the depth chart. Dustin Brown has been playing some his best hockey of the season lately on the second line, while Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth are always a threat together on the first line. Even Michal Handzus has four goals in the Kings' final eight games on the third line. The trouble is that this will not only be the first playoff experience for a sophomore like Drew Doughty, but this will be the first postseason visit for Kopitar, Brown and even Alexander Frolov. They will have to depend on the Cup experience of guys like Justin Williams and Smyth, who battled each other when the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers faced off in the 2006 Cup final. Fredrik Modin finished fourth in playoff scoring when his Tampa Bay Lightning won in 2004. Goaltending is the big question mark for the Kings as Jonathan Quick has shown some signs of being overworked. We'll have to see if he can find a second wind in the postseason. Erik Ersberg is definitely not the answer in net, but would the club turn to Jonathan Bernier in a pinch?
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom constantly litter the top of the playoff leaderboard thanks to the Red Wings' propensity for a deep run. It's hard to argue with them doing it again after they were one of the best teams in the league post-Olympic break. Definitely put the focus on the current top line of Datsyuk, Franzen and Holmstrom, though. Jimmy Howard is going in as a rookie starting goaltender, but he is older than your average rookie (26) and may be able to cope with the pressure. Still, Chris Osgood is there as backup (and may be a long-shot choice for your pool). While Wojtek Wolski looks good as a desert dog, it's difficult to see him leading this team past the playoff-tested Red Wings. Shane Doan hasn't scored a goal since January! Can Wolski and Lee Stempniak (two trade-deadline acquisitions) lead a team beyond the first round? I wouldn't pick them in my pool thinking they can do so. Overall, you have a team where the only player with more than 55 points played 80 percent of the season in another jersey (Wolski). Unless you see something here very few others do, lean away from banking on Coyotes in your pool.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens: The way the Caps simply walked away with the Eastern Conference makes it difficult to side with the Habs here. Still, if you envision them getting over such an enormous roadblock, there will be plenty of fantasy value. Scott Gomez has tons of playoff experience from his past (114 games and 81 points), while once and current linemate Brian Gionta is no stranger to the postseason either (67 games and 40 points). The team is coming in cold, though, with not a single player even approaching a point-per-game pace over the final month of the season. Jaroslav Halak was a big part of the Habs' approach to the postseason, but we'll see if he can stand up to the scrutiny of the playoffs in La Belle Province better than Carey Price did. If you are going to put all your eggs in one basket, this is the one to do it. The Alex Ovechkin-led Caps have a ridiculous offense that more than makes up for any questions in net. Some sleepers on offense include: Brendan Morrison, a veteran with playoff experience, and Eric Fehr, a two-way player built for tough battles. In net, Jose Theodore will get first crack at starting, but then again, he did last year as well. Semyon Varlamov replaced him in the first series and played all the way through the conference finals.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers: The Devils certainly look imposing with all their playoff success, stellar postseason goaltending and now Ilya Kovalchuk, to boot. Kovy has had the luxury of only four postseason games in his career, but there is no doubt he is up to the task. For that matter, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias make great playoff pool picks as long as you believe Martin Brodeur and crew can handle the Flyers. Sure, Jeff Carter is back just in time, the Flyers made the playoffs in exciting fashion and the team has a proven postseason leader in Chris Pronger. But unless Pronger is going to play in goal, there is no denying the Flyers are in trouble. Brian Boucher has been hot and cold in his best impression of an NHL starting netminder, and inconsistent goaltending won't get you far in the playoffs (unless you can score six goals a night like Ovechkin & Co.). If you do like the Flyers to surprise, take Pronger, Danny Briere (great playoff numbers; 57 points in 63 games) and Claude Giroux as your sleeper.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins: On paper, this is a goaltenders' duel. The only goalie with a better save percentage and better goals-against average than Ryan Miller this season was Tuukka Rask, on both accounts. The series becomes difficult to predict because of the goaltending factor, and I'd try to shy away from depending on either team too much. The Sabres, even with some bodies injured, look a bit better on offense. Derek Roy has been red-hot over the final months of the season and while both Tim Connolly and Jochen Hecht got hurt, rookie Tyler Ennis and veteran Raffi Torres helped Jason Pominville keep the second line working. Tyler Myers will continue his strong puck movement in his first playoff experience as well. Without leader Marc Savard and short a Phil Kessel from last season, the Bruins don't look great heading into the playoffs from an offensive perspective. David Krejci has certainly picked up some of the slack, as has Patrice Bergeron, but neither has managed to pull a star winger along with them. Mark Recchi is the leading Bruins winger over the past month and Miroslav Satan has the most goals. Those are not positive signs. Still, I will repeat my thoughts about hot goaltending making things unpredictable and Rask has been on fire.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators: Brian Elliott is stepping into his first postseason experience against the defending champions. As a sophomore he has improved his game, but he certainly didn't end the season on his highest notes. On offense, two-thirds of the line that propelled the Sens to the Cup final three years ago is back (Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson), but Heatley really was the key cog in the machine. After Spezza and Alfie, two rookies (Erik Karlsson and Peter Regin) have the most points over the past month. Though, if you think the Sens can handle the Pens, Karlsson and Regin make great sleeper picks. We know the Pens have the wherewithal to go deep into the playoffs as they have done the past two seasons, and we know Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will lead the way. Bill Guerin upped his game in his last postseason run with the Pens, while Alexei Ponikarovsky will likely relish his first taste of the playoffs since 2004. A dark horse may be Maxime Talbot, who took on a leadership role last season in the playoffs and had 13 points in 24 games.
The GAP Pool
GAP stands for goals-assists-points, as these pools tend to be relatively simple in nature. These pools have preset players in groupings from which you select your roster. GAP pools can come in various forms, but are essentially a form of salary-cap game where you get to select one player who you think is the best bet to collect points out of each group, and there's really no limit to the number of people who can participate. There isn't too much strategy to discuss other than staying true to your brackets and making sure you pick the best option out of the group.
An even simpler version of the pool involves soliciting player lists from participants, who must, for example, pick 20 players of their choice, with little or no restrictions. Perhaps you want to require 13 forwards, seven defensemen and a goalie (and count wins as points), or you can allow whatever combination with no regard for position. In those cases, you'll want to load up players from your predicted Cup final four, but throw a few curveballs in there with your final few players, picking high scorers from teams you think will play two rounds in tight series that have a chance to go seven games.
The Draft League
The draft playoff pool works just like the fantasy hockey league you have been playing in all season. The owners all pick their teams from the pool of available players and once a player is selected, he is off the board. There are rarely transactions allowed, so you have to pick a pool of players that you believe will go deep into the postseason. Scoring varies from a setup as simple as a GAP format to more complicated formulas that can include series-winning goals and separate categories for home and road statistics, but is usually rotisserie-style. There are sometimes restrictions on position selection and usually no bench to speak of.
Don't spread yourself too thin: It might seem like a good idea to hedge your bets and select players from six, maybe eight, different teams, but doing so won't work in the end. Last year only seven teams had players in the top 30 for playoff scoring and seven of the top 10 were from the Penguins or Red Wings. The previous year, only five teams were represented in the top 30 and again seven of the top 10 were Penguins or Red Wings. If you don't pick the right teams to make the conference finals, you will have a hard time winning your playoff pool. Have faith in the teams you pick in your bracket and concentrate on getting the scorers from those teams.
Don't have blinders for your top teams: While you don't want to hedge your bets, you don't want to be silly about it either. Chances are many owners will see the postseason evolving the same way you do, so the Capitals, Penguins, Sharks and Blackhawks may disappear quickly. That doesn't mean you keep picking players like Matt Bradley or Adam Burish. Even if the Canadiens are out in four games and the Caps play 25 games, Mike Cammalleri is still a good bet to outscore Bradley.
Pick sleepers for your goaltenders: While everyone is blowing a high pick on Jose Theodore or Evgeni Nabokov, pick your goal scorers early and stock up on some high-upside goaltenders. Grab Semyon Varlamov instead of Theodore and hope the Caps have to make a switch. Same goes for Cristobal Huet, who goes in as the veteran behind recently anointed starter Antti Niemi. How about Pekka Rinne? While you may not think the Preds will go far, a hot goaltender can do a lot of damage in the NHL playoffs. What about Chris Osgood as the last pick in your draft? Depending on the specific rules of your league, you may find it more beneficial to take a stab at some undervalued goaltenders later than to spend a pick early and miss out on some of the top talent on teams you think will travel far.
Brackets and Confidence Pools
These pools stray from the format fantasy players are used to and focus on teams instead of the individual players. In a bracket pool, you simply fill out your bracket, sometimes guessing the number of games in a series. In a confidence pool you rank the teams according to who gets the most wins.
In both cases you want to rely on the bracket you already filled out per my advice at the start of this article. The one main tip I can offer here is to swing for the fences. These pools can have an unlimited number of entries and if you play it safe with your brackets your sheet will look exactly like everyone else's. If you pick a couple of calculated upsets you will have a chance of winning the pool instead of tying for first with 30 other people.
When it comes to guessing the number of games in a series, make sure you think long and hard about the goaltending matchup. Even if the teams are unevenly matched on offense, a good goaltender can easily steal a game or two in a seven-game set.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.
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