How do I win my fantasy playoff hockey league, what is the best draft strategy? This is a question that I've been frequently asked in the last week. Is the strategy different from the regular season? Should you diversify your roster among players of different teams or load up on either one or a few good teams? Should you take the best player on a bad team or a support player on a good team? I may be a touch late in getting this piece out for the start of the NHL Playoffs, but hopefully there are a few of you who are drafting this weekend and using back-dated stats who still need answers to these questions. I'll also run through what general types of fantasy playoff leagues there are if you're still deciding on what kind of format to join or start and how the draft strategy can be applied to each of them. And then I'll give you my projected playoff bracket because what would any column be without an opinion?
General Playoff Strategy
As in any fantasy league, knowing your format is imperative to formulating a successful draft strategy. Most fantasy playoff leagues offer a no transaction, no trade, draft and see what happens format. They're typically points only leagues, not including other stat categories that we often see in the regular season such as shots, power play points, penalty minutes, and plus minus. Some have goalies included; typically using wins and shutouts for points, while others do not. For those that do have goalies, some offer team goalies, while some offer only individual goalies. Some leagues, because of their size, allow players to be picked multiple times.
Outside of the league setup, it is important to understand your competition. First and foremost, how large is the league? Is this a group of your buddies, where there are only 8-12 managers or is this a work league with unlimited entrants that could have as many as 50 or 100 plus people in it? The more people in it, the more risk you're going to have to take in order to win the league.
Once you know what type of league you're getting yourself into, you can start looking at how you want to build your roster. Typically in the regular season, diversifying your roster among players on different teams is a safe play so that you avoid hitting too many prolonged slumps. In the fantasy playoffs, because you don't have any transactions to use and the sample size is so small, you can't be concerned with this. If you want to win, you're going to have to load up on a team or a few teams and ride them to a championship victory. Someone in your league will do this and get it correct and we want it to be you this year. The most popular strategy here is to pick the four teams that you believe will go to the Conference Finals and pick from those teams only. A slightly riskier, but still quite popular, strategy is to only pick from the two teams you believe will go to the Stanley Cup Final. I'm not going to argue with either of these popular strategies. They're popular because they work. In the playoffs, volume is the name of the game. The more games you play, the more scoring opportunities you have. With the new playoff format that was introduced this year, this has become easier to project the likelihood of each team making it to the final four. In years past, an unexpected underdog story caused unforeseen playoff reseeding scenarios which have ruined many projected brackets and draft strategies by pitting two teams that you thought would meet in the Conference Finals against each other in the Conference Semifinals. We no longer need to worry about this now that the playoff bracket is set at the beginning of the playoffs.
The number of games played is obviously a major contributor to your success, but you also need them to produce in those games. You can't win without putting points on the board and inevitably you'll be faced with this age old question; is it sometimes better to take a higher point producer on a team that won't play as many games rather than a lower point producer on a team that you expect will go deep into June? For most people, the unofficial line equates to one round per difference in line. In other words, usually when there are only third line players on your projected Stanley Cup Final team, it is best to start looking at the second line options on a Conference Final team instead. This is a very fluid situation though and is heavily dependent on the players in question. When making this decision to grab players on teams that aren't as likely to progress as far in the playoffs, it is important to look at your already partially assembled roster. Do you have players already on the team that you're considering the third line player? If so, then this keeps your draft strategy aligned and might not be a bad pick. After all, anyone can be a playoff hero and more games equates to more opportunity. Bryan Bickell finished with 17 points in last year's postseason show, good for fifth in playoff scoring. Not bad for a third liner who had little in the way of expectations. If you don't already have players on the team in question, then it might be best to skip this third liner and pick a top point producer on a team that is considered an underdog and start loading up on that team instead.
When there are no fantasy relevant point producers left on the teams that are heavily favoured it might be the time to choose an underdog. Often top players on the teams who are thought to not have a chance aren't drafted until the final few rounds, if at all. It is important to look at what each team's chances for advancement within the bracket are. Look for teams whose path to the Conference Finals do not pass through any heavily favoured Stanley Cup contenders or teams that have to might have to beat a good team that has question marks and/or holes on their team. When the favourite's run out of quality players, look to your underdog team to fill you roster. Choosing the correct underdog later in the draft can often win you a championship, but it is important to look at which underdog has the path of least resistance to the Conference Finals. Once I've picked my underdog, I like to call them my darkhorse pick as it has a slightly more optimistic connotation and inspires a little more confidence in the pick. One of my darkhorse teams this year is Philadelphia, but I'll get to why a little later on.
At this point I'm going to split the discussion into the two main styles of playoff leagues; large entrant leagues that allow players to be picked multiple times and smaller single draft leagues that allow a player to be drafted only once.
Large Entrant Leagues
Large entrant leagues are difficult to win. Not only are you pitted against many owners, but with such a small sample size in the playoffs, really anything can happen. If you're going to win, you need to take a lot of risk and differentiate your team from everyone else. Now, I'm not saying that you pick your roster from the bottom seeded teams in the East and West, but you will have to do something that everyone else isn't doing.
There are two formats that large entrant leagues typically take. The first allows each manager to pick anyone they want and usually has a large enough roster (20 or more players) to ensure that the odds of anyone having the same roster are highly unlikely. In these leagues, it's best to simply load up on the top point producers of the two/three/four teams that you think will be going the deepest. Differentiating your roster in these pools is difficult, but often comes down to either picking deeper on a team that goes all the way, or picking a darkhorse correctly to go all the way. The darkhorse is always a feel good story, but is really difficult to pick correctly, so I often suggest drafting deeper on your Stanley Cup Finals teams rather than picking a darkhorse. Picking the top two lines and maybe a third liner or two on the scoring by committee teams like Boston and then picking the top two lines of high profile scoring teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh can often yield very good results if these teams are your pick to go deep. That said, picking a darkhorse correctly can singlehandedly win you a league, so the choice is yours, just remember what I said about picking a darkhorse correctly.
The second large entrant format utilizes a box system whereby owners must select one player from a list of six or eight in each box. Again. there are usually 20 or more boxes to choose from in order to get a roster large enough that it isn't likely to be repeated among competing teams. The boxes are usually setup to have similar level point producers on similarly favoured teams. In other words, usually all the best players on the favourite teams are placed in the same box so that you can only have one of them and all the best players on the underdog teams are placed in the same box. This forces everyone to roster a team that has both players on a favoured team as well as an underdog team, changing the strategy slightly. Choosing your darkhorse correctly from the list of underdog teams is even more important in this format as it has been forced upon you, but the principles that surround your choice remain the same; choose from the path with least resistance that doesn't contradict your other higher seeded picks.
Single Draft Leagues
Single draft leagues are the most common fantasy playoff league, but they are entirely different from the large entrant leagues due to each player only being rosterable by one owner. Single draft leagues typically go deeper into the player pool because of this and have shallower rosters, usually only around 10 players per roster as opposed to the 20 or more that large entrant leagues employ. In the large entrant leagues, your strategy is less about what other owners are doing and more about your own pick strategy. In single draft leagues, not only do you have to be aware of what others are doing, you have to do so with split second timing in a live draft format when you're on the clock to make your next pick. Being adaptable and aware of draft trends are the most important things you can do to be successful in a single draft league.
When participating in a single draft league, I always start with picking players from my Stanley Cup Finals favourites, but it often turns into Conference Finals, and then inevitably I wind up employing a darkhorse strategy by the end simply because most fantasy owners share similar playoff projections. Everyone loves Boston this year. They won the President's Trophy as the league's best team this year, they play in the relatively weak Eastern Conference, and they have the pedigree to win having made it to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the last three years. It's never easy to earn your ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, but the odds of them doing so seem to be better than most teams. As such, they are on everyone's list of teams to draft from, mine included. It will be next to impossible to load up on all the fantasy relevant players of Boston, so you'll often have to change your strategy as the draft goes on, thus leading to more and more players on darkhorse teams by the end of the draft.
Try to anticipate the trend and if there is someone that you really want on your roster, make sure that you get it with your last pick before it gets to everyone else's projected value. If no one has picked a goalie yet and it's nearing their projected value, maybe now is the time to start the run on goalies by picking the best one. Try to start trends, not finish them. If you miss the trend, don't get stuck in thinking that you have to pick the next one up. Wait for them to come to you and pick them up at the right value. Other people won't need them as much since they've already rostered one. The one thing I can't stress enough is that you can't come in with an iron-clad pre-set value for each player. Draft values and average draft positions are dependent on each owner's individual decisions throughout the course of a draft. As such, you must be constantly re-evaluating each player and the assigned value that you've given them relative to each player that comes off the board. Being adaptable and recognizing trends is the key to a successful draft.
Now that I've run through playoff draft strategy and what types of fantasy playoff leagues there are for you to join, I'm going to hedge everything I've just said by telling you to look at the results of what has already occurred in the playoffs to date and incorporating that into your draft plan if you haven't yet started drafting. If your darkhorse was the Dallas Stars or the Tampa Bay Lightning, it might be a good idea to reconsider that pick after their start to the postseason. If you have already drafted, well then I just hope your darkhorse wasn't the Stars or Lightning.
At the end of the day, all the statistics, reasoning, and draft strategy cannot predict the results in the playoffs. Use them to your advantage and choose wisely, but the reason we play fantasy games and they play the postseason is because ultimately we just don't know what will happen. So the last piece of advice I have is that if you believe in something, then do it. Sometimes your intuition can find the correct darkhorse pick to win you your league when the statistics and popular belief would suggest otherwise. It may look funny when others don't agree, but ultimately you need to trust your gut. If you do and you're wrong, oh well. You gave yourself a shot. If you're right, then who's laughing now? You've likely just differentiated yourself from everyone else and won the league. It's the playoffs, so make sure to remember that anything can happen and nothing is out of the question. Good luck in your fantasy playoff leagues this year.
I'll leave you with my projected playoff bracket and a brief explanation of what I expect and why.
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC2) Dallas Stars - Anaheim Ducks
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2) San Jose Sharks - San Jose Sharks
(1) Colorado Avalanche vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Montreal Canadiens - Montreal Canadiens
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Montreal Canadians - Boston Bruins
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers - Philadelphia Flyers
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers - Boston Bruins
Stanley Cup Finals
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Boston Bruins
As most of you can tell, I am projecting a Stanley Cup Finals that matches up the same two teams as last year which isn't very original, but who's to argue? I do pick the Bruins to win it all this year in what will be a revenge statement similar to what the Penguins did in 2009 by beating the Red Wings the year after losing to them. Chicago won the Stanley Cup last year and three years prior to that. Boston won the Cup three years ago and lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final last year. Both have been the class of the NHL for a few years now and I see no reason to think that this year is any different. My Chicago pick is being pressured by the Blues 2-0 start this year, but Chicago hasn't played at home yet and I'm not switching my pick just yet. What's probably more important isn't who I pick to win though, but what my general feeling is for each team.
I think that the West is crazy tough to predict (as does seemingly everyone). With as many as six legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, it's a minefield to try to navigate correctly. I do think that Anaheim isn't as good as their record shows and that they've relied on too high a shooting percentage all year and don't have the necessary depth, goaltending, or defense to win the West. Because of this Dallas was a mini-darkhorse for me as I thought that they matched up well against them. Apparently after the first two games, that would be a tough darkhorse to put money on now. Regardless, Anaheim should be brought down by the winner between the Sharks and the Kings. Both of these teams have the necessary depth, goaltending, and leadership to go deep in the playoffs and this should be an entertaining matchup to watch. I'm picking the Sharks, but with no amount of confidence. The upstart Avalanche team should make it by the Wild fairly easily I think, but they will ultimately be beat by the winner between the Blues and the Hawks. The Blues and Hawks is another tough matchup with two teams that have all the right stuff to go deep. The Blues have the advantage right now, but both games have had the Hawks leading going into the final minutes only to have the Blues tie it and win it in overtime.
In the East, it's a little easier to see who the good teams are. Boston will have a tough time against the Red Wings, but remains my pick to come out of the East. If the Red Wings win though and get Henrik Zetterberg back in the second round, they would become my new pick to represent the East which makes them an intriguing darkhorse pick. Montreal is playing well right now and should beat Tampa without Ben Bishop in net, but I can't see them beating either Boston or the Wings. Still, they're a mini-darkhorse for me. The Penguins should have an easy time with Columbus, but everything rides on the performance of Marc-Andre Fleury. Will he be the playoff mess he has been the last couple of years or will he take his team to the Stanley Cup Final like he did in 2008 and 2009? I think he'll return to form and the Penguins certainly have the offense to get the job done, but I think the Flyers just have their number in the postseason. With the questions on Pittsburgh's goaltending, picking either the Flyers or the Rangers to upset them as a darkhorse makes a lot of sense to me. The trouble is determining who comes out of that series. I like the Flyers matchup better against Pittsburgh based on their history the last couple years and I like them better in fantasy as the higher scoring and more fantasy asset laden team, so I'm picking them but its close and I couldn't find fault in picking either. In the end, I just think that Boston is too complete a team to lose to anyone else in the East barring injury.
The entire Western Conference should feature a number of heavy battles that will ultimately wear them out which is why I'm picking an Eastern Conference team to win the Stanley Cup this year. They've simply got an easier and less physical path to the Cup which should save them.