Hockey Prospectus: Tips and Trends To Help You Win FanDuel NHL Contests
by Timo Seppa, Hockey Prospectus
A founding author of Hockey Prospectus in 2009, Timo Seppa became managing editor in 2010 before becoming editor-in-chief in 2013. Starting in 2012-13, he has consulted for two very successful NHL teams and advised a prominent NCAA program, making on-ice impacts in each case, he would like to think.
As is the case with every major sport, the NHL is constantly tinkering with its rules. Consequently, new trends emerge that shape the way we analyze the game. This season is no different, as the league made major changes to its overtime format. This signals another shift in the distribution of scoring, on top of several existing trends. Fantasy hockey players can get a leg up on the competition by understanding these tendencies and using them to their advantage.
In the offseason, the NHL made a switch from its long-standing 4-on-4 overtime format to 3-on-3, opening up the ice for a free-wheeling display of speed and skill by both stars and specialists. This is a potentially huge change, affecting the real and fantasy values of select players in ways we won’t completely understand until weeks or months into the season. What is certain is the new format will significantly reduce the number of shootouts, and add to scoring totals for certain players—the ones who get the playing time and are able to capitalize on it. Last season, 56.6 percent of NHL games that went to overtime ended up in a shootout after a five-minute deadlock, whereas only 23.8 percent went to a shootout in the AHL, which used a hybrid of 4-on-4 for half the overtime and 3-on-3 for the final half.
In 2014-15, the Panthers led the NHL with 18 games needing extra time, nearly one-fourth of their schedule. This season, we will see an unprecedented amount of 3-on-3 play—an extreme rarity in the past—allowing certain players to emerge as 3-on-3 specialists. Sure, the superstars will get the most ice-time, but they won’t be able to play the entire OT. FanDuelers can get an edge by keeping an eye on time-on-ice at 3-on-3 and finding the second- or third-liners that are producing in overtime and come at a cheap price. Frans Nielsen was known to be a shootout specialist. Who will emerge as the 3-on-3 specialists?
Power-play vs. even-strength scoring
A decade ago, the NHL was dominated by power-play scorers. In 2005-06, there were 11.7 power plays per game, but last season, there were only 6.1 per match. You might think the result would be a huge drop in scoring, but goals per game have declined modestly from 6.2 to 5.5. Most importantly, scoring hasn’t gone away — it has been redistributed. Instead of having two or three players putting up huge totals, three or even four lines of forwards are chipping in significantly on many teams.
This means fantasy players can find diamonds in the rough in the form of quality 5-on-5 scorers who aren’t considered “stars.” For example, Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov ranked fourth in even-strength goals with 23, but he did not see much power-play time, finishing with only 28 tallies overall. Generally, quality 5-on-5 scorers like Kucherov will come at a cheaper price, but will still provide plenty of pop.
Plus-minus is hard to predict
For years, traditional analysts used plus-minus to determine whether a player was good defensively. Those days are gone, as even the oldest of the old school has agreed with modern analysts that plus-minus does not tell us much about whether a player is solid in his own end – for a variety of reasons. Consider that two seasons ago, Alex Ovechkin was a minus-35, but then posted a plus-10 last year. That said, plus-minus remains a staple of fantasy hockey despite its unpredictability.
How should you approach plus-minus? Simply put: it should not play a huge role in your decision to draft a player. Going into last season, you might have expected Bruins players to pile up plus-minus stats for you, as they had done in the recent past. Those trends can clearly change, not only on an individual basis, but also on a team basis.
The dying breed: Enforcers
Most leagues (FanDuel included) still give out points for penalty minutes. In the past, every fantasy team had an enforcer or two that would rack up the PIMs and the points for your squad. No longer. With the NHL’s increased focus on player safety and analytics pointing to smarter uses of roster positions, fewer teams are suiting up a bona fide enforcer. Look at the numbers: last year, the league’s leading team in major penalties had 46, while in 2011-12 two teams tied at 65.
Instead of trying to find the last remaining enforcer (John Scott?), look for players who are both physical and can score. For example, Columbus’ Scott Hartnell had 60 points and 100 penalty minutes. Blues captain David Backes is another player who has fit a similar profile for many seasons.
An eye on shooting percentage
Fantasy baseball players understand that established hitters who underperform early in the season will inevitably bounce back. Likewise, hot starts can be a mirage. How can you tell in hockey? Frequently, hot streaks early on will be boosted by unusually high shooting percentages. For top scorers like Sidney Crosby or Vladimir Tarasenko, a shooting percentage in the range of 14 percent is normal. For other forwards, it might be closer to 10 percent, though again, 10 percent would be high for a defenseman. If a player is off to a blazing beginning to his year with anything higher than the norm for a star player, buyer beware.
Goalie wins: Team matters
When it comes to drafting goalies, common sense would suggest focusing on netminders who have the best save percentages and goals-against averages, but in many leagues, wins are worth the most points. Last year, Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop was an average goaltender in terms of save percentage at .916, but he won 40 games. Conversely, New Jersey’s Cory Schneider only won 26 games despite posting a fine .925 save percentage. The team matters.
Finally, keep watch for teams that have cut down on the number of back-to-back starts from the past, as statistical studies showed most goalies perform worse in the second game. Case in point: only Washington’s Braden Holtby and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick started more than 70 games in 2014-15.