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Fantasy Hockey Gauntlet - NHL Playoff Draft Strategy

Troy Langefeld runs the fantasy hockey gauntlet for the NHL playoffs!

The most beautiful trophy in professional sports, ladies and gentleman I present to you the Stanley Cup - Photo Credit
The most beautiful trophy in professional sports, ladies and gentleman I present to you the Stanley Cup - Photo Credit
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Disclaimer: This is by and large the same Fanpost article that I wrote last year with some tweaks for this year's playoff matchups, so I'm not writing anything new and original. But guess what? Playoff draft strategy doesn't change year to year so I don't much care.

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'll also run through what general types of fantasy playoff leagues there are if you're 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 last 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. Two years ago Bryan Bickell finished with 17 points, good for fifth in playoff scoring. Last year Justin Williams had 25 points, good for third in playoff scoring. Someone who won me a playoff league last year was Dwight King who came through with 11 points on the King's fourth line! Anyone can be a hero! That said, I'd only pick up depth options on a team if you expect them to go deep into the playoffs and you already have players on the team. If you don't have players on this team already, then it might be best to skip the depth guy 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.

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 St. Louis 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. I expect everyone will like Chicago's chances this year. They have been one of the best teams for the last five years and this year, most teams have some warts to worry about. Chicago does too with the loss of Patrick Kane until late in the playoffs, but I figure most people will be trusting them more than others. 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 Chicago, 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.

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 the postseason is even played is because hockey is an unpredictable sport. Ultimately we just don't know what will happen, any team can win. 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.

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC2) Winnipeg Jets - Anaheim Ducks

(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (3) Calgary Flames - Calgary Flames

(1) St. Louis Blues vs. (WC1) Minnesota Wild - St. Louis Blues

(2) Nashville Predators vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks

Conference Semifinals:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) Calgary Flames - Anaheim Ducks

(1) St. Louis Blues vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks

Conference Finals:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals:

(1) New York Rangers vs. (WC2) Pittsburgh Penguins - New York Rangers

(2) Washington Capitals vs. (3) New York Islanders - Washington Capitals

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (WC1) Ottawa Senators - Montreal Canadiens

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings - Tampa Bay Lightning

Conference Semifinals:

(1) New York Rangers vs. (2) Washington Capitals - New York Rangers

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (2) Tampa Bay Lightning - Tampa Bay Lightning

Conference Finals:

(1) New York Rangers vs. (2) Tampa Bay Lightning - New York Rangers

Stanley Cup Finals

(1) New York Rangers vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks - Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago will be hard pressed by both Nashville and St. Louis, but they have a very deep team that is structured for playoff success. They've gone deep in the playoffs basically every year in the last five years. It will be tough to get to the third round, but if they do, they'll get a huge lift with Patrick Kane's return from injury which I believe can propel them over the top. The New York Rangers represented the Eastern Conference in the final last year and after winning the President's Trophy, there's a strong chance they could be back. With the King Henrik Lundqvist in goal and a deep crop of defenseman, you can never count them out. 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 weaker than it's been in years (and that's tough for me to admit). In the pacific division bracket, only the Anaheim Ducks are a legitimate contender to win the cup and I still don't think they're that strong. They lack consistent play and don't have the necessary depth, goaltending, or defense to win the West. They should make it to the Conference Finals though as Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg all have more pronounced holes in their lineups. It kills me to say that Canadian teams have three chances to win this division and none of them are likely to. Picking a darkhorse from this division isn't the worst idea because of the relative weakness of it (I might be taking the Flames, but that's a biased pick). Anaheim should be brought down in the conference finals by the winner of the central division though (in all honesty I'd pick any of the four on this side of the bracket to beat any of the four on the pacific side). Chicago is the strongest team of the group I think, but without Kane, the playing field is evened considerably. He's supposed to return for the start of the conference finals, but he has been practicing and taking wrist shots so maybe he's back sooner? Minny is the hottest team of the group and could be a great darkhorse pick, but I don't see the depth and roster construction on their team that's necessary to go deep. Nashville has been inconsistent since the All-Star break and St. Louis has struggled with goaltending. Chicago hasn't been playing well, but their depth and playoff experience will show up and I'm banking on an early Kane return.

In the East, it's actually a little tougher to see who the good teams are (for once). The Penguins are always a scary team to play, but they've been playing so badly lately that I think the Rangers should blow past them. Still the Penguins are a strong darkhorse pick as they have too much skill to ever count out. Washington and the Islanders will be a good series, but the Islanders started to slump at the wrong time of the year. I'm a huge John Tavares fan and he could easily control this series, but under coach Barry Trotz, I think the Capitals are ready for this postseason. If the Rangers go quickly, I wouldn't hesitate to jump on the Capitals as an underdog. I love the Canadiens this year and if it wasn't for some interesting regular season stats, they would be my favourite to go to the Stanley Cup. Carey Price is a monster, easily the best player in the league this year, and can lift this team to new heights. Ottawa is a fun feel good story, but shouldn't put up much of a fight against Price and co. Tampa and Detroit will be fun to watch and either team could advance, but I like Tampa Bay slightly more. Should I be right, and Montreal and Tampa Bay meet in the second round, Montreal is in trouble. Tampa Bay swept the season series 5-0 by a combined score of 21-8. They were the only team that Carey Price couldn't seem to solve. If this doesn't happen or Montreal figures out their demons, then I like them just as much as the New York Rangers for the East title.

Ultimately, if you're able to pick even one of the Stanley Cup finals teams correctly and are able to load up on that team, you have a very good chance of winning your league so it shouldn't matter which you pick to actually win. They're playing the maximum number of games possible. I like Chicago and the return of Patrick Kane to lift them to another Stanley Cup but there is a lot of hockey between now and then which will definitely throw a wrench in my best laid plans and intentions.