Fantasy Hockey: Key draft strategies to keep in mind when on the clock

By Sasha Yodashkin, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Being prepared on draft day is crucial to winning any fantasy league. Regardless of whether you're a total newcomer to fantasy or a seasoned player, it's important to understand how to approach a Yahoo fantasy hockey draft.

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There's no perfect way to draft, but following some general principles will put you in a great position to succeed.

KNOW YOUR FORMAT

This should be your first step before you get to any sort of player evaluation. The first thing to know is whether you're in a rotisserie league, head-to-head league or head-to-head points league.

The draft strategy for the first two formats is similar, as both track six skating categories — Goals, Assists, Plus/Minus, Power Play Points, Hits, Shots on Goal — and four goaltending categories — Wins, Shutouts, Goals Against Average, Save Percentage — for a total of 10. Rotisserie leagues judge your team's standing in those categories relative to every other team for the whole season, while head-to-head formats have gamers compete in week-long matchups.

[Join or create a 2019 Yahoo Fantasy Hockey league for free today]

Head-to-head points formats are only available in private leagues on Yahoo, and assign specific point values to each category (such as six points per goal). This format rewards blocked shots but doesn't consider hits or PIM, which means gamers generally don't need to think about constructing rosters with balanced skill sets like they do when participating in one of the other two league types. Any additional information regarding scoring and roster specifics for rotisserie, head-to-head, and head-to-head points leagues can be found here.

Gaining an understanding of your league's format is an absolute must before draft day. That means knowing the big picture details such as the ones listed above, as well as intricacies like the waiver system for pickups ($100 budget for Yahoo), bench size (four in Yahoo) and Injured Reserve rules (one slot in Yahoo). There will be plenty of things that take you by surprise in the fantasy hockey realm, such as injuries, busts, and breakouts, but your league's rules shouldn't be one of them.

HITS vs. PENALTY MINUTES

Okay, you know what type of league you're playing in, so now it's time to gain an edge in the categories your opponents will think about least. Standard Yahoo Leagues have replaced the penalty minutes (PIM) category with hits to reward physical play, and while many players are helpful in both categories, you should make sure to know which one your league counts and how to maximize your output in that area.

Penalty minutes might be the least intuitive category across the fantasy spectrum, so it's important to know how they're scored. While they're usually considered a negative in the real-world game, penalty minutes are rewarded in fantasy leagues that track them (unlike turnovers in basketball or football). This gives the ever-shrinking share of NHL enforcers fantasy value and especially props up skilled forwards that aren't afraid to get physical like Brad Marchand and Evander Kane. While PIM are less prevalent on Yahoo, hits reward a similar playing style, with the likes of Kane and Tom Wilson finishing in the top 50 league-wide in both categories while also breaking the 40-point mark last year.

A fierce competitor like Brad Marchand holds key value in certain fantasy hockey formats. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A fierce competitor like Brad Marchand holds key value in certain fantasy hockey formats. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rather than rostering a body-banging specialist like Ryan Reaves, I'd suggest targeting skilled players with lots of snarl to fill up the hits category — though strategically streaming a Reaves-type player is always a strong play in head-to-head matchups when the category is coming down to the wire.

LINEUP BALANCE

Lineup balance is a two-fold concept, covering both the positional breakdown of your roster and the skills offered by the players you roster (though gamers in head-to-head points leagues can ignore the latter). Yahoo starting lineups consist of two centers, two left wings, two right wings, four defensemen, and two goalies. Quite a few players are eligible at both wing positions, and some will be eligible at both center and a wing. While it's not necessary to target such players, the added flexibility they provide certainly doesn't hurt, especially since fantasy gamers will likely need to commit at least one if not two of their four bench spots to goalies.

Positional scarcity isn't a major issue in fantasy hockey. However, be sure to avoid waiting too long on goalies, as that position will have two to four players accounting for four of the 10 categories in most leagues, and any shortcomings at alternative positions can be masked by other skaters. Center is particularly deep in high-end talent this year, with many quality options available in the middle rounds, and you can safely wait on defensemen if you miss out on the elite point-getters at the position, as there are plenty of serviceable options available in the later rounds.

The other aspect of lineup balance focuses on categories rather than positions. This requires more in-depth research than anything else mentioned thus far, as it has to do with individual players rather than league settings. Rotisserie leagues, in particular, require a balanced mix of skill sets, as it's much harder to punt a category in "roto" leagues and make up the difference elsewhere than it is in head-to-head leagues.

Centers and wingers will account for most of your goals and shots, as well as the majority of assists and power-play points, but it's important to implement a mix of snipers (such as Patrik Laine) and distributors (such as Blake Wheeler) among your forwards to balance out your production among the offensive categories.

In general, picking up physical players should be a point of emphasis, but especially so when it comes to defensemen, who should rack up plenty of hits (or blocks for leagues that reward those). Plus/Minus is the measure of goals for minus goals against when a player is on the ice (excluding power-play output and including shorthanded production). Plus/Minus is notoriously difficult to predict on a year-to-year basis and more luck-based than the other categories, but you can make an educated guess at the top contributors by targeting players on contending teams, such as the Lightning, Maple Leafs and Sharks.

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