The Exhaustive Draft Strategy Article

Hello everyone and welcome in for another article. In this one I’m going to try to give all the advice I can to conjure in order to ace your draft. Before I do that, I want to take a second to invite you to join the Apples & Ginos community on Discord and the Apples & Ginos Patreon where I would be more than happy to answer any questions you have about goalies, mosquitos, or anything else I hate with the fire of a thousand suns.

Scoring Settings

First, understand your settings and how that places value on different players, positions, and stat categories. For example, a H2H points league that values a goal and a hit as one point each will obviously be incredibly weighted towards players who hit a lot; hits are much easier to come by than goals. In this format Radko Gudas would probably outscore Auston Matthews – something you’d definitely want to know before draft night!

That example might be a tad extreme, but settings matter a tremendous amount especially in custom leagues that are not necessarily weighing offensive stats versus bangers stats very evenly. In most leagues there is a way to see how many points each player would have scored under those settings last season. Scanning through the top 50 players in terms of point scoring should give you a pretty solid idea of the relative valuation of the categories. If Brady Tkachuk is a top 10 player, you can bet banger categories are highly valued, and if they are out of the top 50 those categories are certainly not valuable. Other categories that can heavily skew a player’s value depending on value include plus/minus and shorthanded points.

The above advice is obviously more tailored toward H2H points leagues, but categories leagues still require some analysis to determine what kinds of players are highly valuable. In bangers cats leagues the Tkachuks and Svechnikovs are very valuable since they contribute well in offensive categories as well as banger categories, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in cats league drafts is overvaluation of banger cat heavy players. This strategy feels right, but fails to account for the fact that offensive cats are harder to come by than banger cats. Radko Gudas was a banger league god last year but was on many waiver wires even midway through the season. There is almost always a very good streaming option for hits, blocks, or PIMs on the waiver wire every weekend of the season if you need a late-week boost in one of those categories to steal it from your opponent. But the goal and point scorers are much harder to pick up once the season is underway. 

Does this mean that you should fade bangers cats completely in your draft? Not at all. I try to have at least one of my top two forwards and top two defensemen be banger cat relevant, but I don’t reach past a top 5 scoring option like Mitch Marner for JT Miller just because Miller hits a bit too. Essentially what I want here is a baseline of banger production from my top end guys that I can build around with a streaming collection of Gudas-types. 

What To Do With Goalies

It’s worth noting that what a good goalie looks like varies wildly between different formats and it’s important to get that valuation right in your leagues. Some leagues’ settings favour goalies who get lots of starts and lots of shots and don’t place too high of a premium on how well the goalie actually plays. An example of this is a H2H points league that has a high point value on saves but not too punishing a subtraction for goals against. In those cases even a John Gibson can have significant fantasy value. On the opposite spectrum are leagues that have big subtractions for goals against, or cats leagues that track goals against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%) but not many volume cats like wins, saves, or shutouts. For example a Wins/GAA/SV% cats league places a 2-to-1 emphasis on rate stats (GAA & SV%) to volume stats (Wins), making streaming goalies against bad teams a much better play than in the aforementioned H2H points league with a high value on saves. In leagues that reward volume, the few workhorses left in the league like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck become much more valuable – they don’t even have to have particularly good seasons rates-wise to return value.

Having said that, I am a massive proponent of what I have dubbed the “#ZeroG” draft strategy. If you want to read the my full article on applying the #ZeroG strategy to your 2021/22 drafts you can find that here, but I am convinced that drafting “zero Gs” in the early rounds and waiting until the double digit rounds at the earliest to pick your first goalie is the optimal strategy in almost every circumstance.

Valuation of Elite Defensemen

One thing that I see people getting consistently wrong in their approach to drafting and roster construction in general is the devaluation of top defensemen. In most leagues you will start 2 each at LW/C/RW and 4 D. In a 12-team league that’s 48 starting defensemen versus 72 starting forwards, and the vast majority of teams only employ a single defenseman and four forwards on their top power play unit. That’s approximately 32 PP1 defensemen but 128 PP1 forwards. Now top power play time is not the be all and end all of fantasy production, but it’s very important and even moreso for defensemen (many of whom struggle to put up a lot of points even with great deployment). In bangers cats leagues this difference is mitigated by the common use of one or even two D spots for defensemen who generate hits and blocks but may not contribute many points. However in H2H points leagues without a strong weight to the bangers cats,  the value of point-scoring defensemen goes through the roof because of their ability to distance themselves from replacement level defensemen.

Think of it this way: if you’re playing the waiver wire correctly through the season, it is entirely possible to find forwards performing at a 60-point pace (albeit for a short period of time) at any given moment. With defensemen, you would be lucky to find a 30-point pace player on the waiver wire at any time, because all of the defensemen receiving PP1 minutes or in otherwise good offensive situations are generally already rostered. Therefore a 90-point forward is providing the same value above replacement as a 60-point defenseman (30 points more than what’s available on the waiver wire). Yet typically all of the projected 90-point forwards go off the board in the first round of drafts while John Carlson and Dougie Hamilton linger into the second or even third rounds. I’m not saying that you should choose defensemen over forwards necessarily; only that having a Carlson or Hamilton or Makar is a sizeable upgrade over what’s normally available at defense. I’m definitely an advocate for defensemen in the 2nd to 4th rounds, which is usually a sweet spot to find 55-60 point defensemen who are more valuable at that point than the remaining available forwards. This year I think there is a clear elite tier of defensemen: Makar, Carlson, Hamilton, Josi, Hedman, Theodore, Fox, and Barrie. In banger-heavy setups I would add Darnell Nurse and Seth Jones to that list. I am definitely trying to get one or two if possible of these guys onto my teams.

Another reason for valuing elite defensemen so much is that it is very rare to have a waiver-wire defenseman emerge during the season to have a sizeable fantasy impact. Even Adam Fox from last year was likely drafted in the majority of 12-team 4-D leagues. This obviously goes back to the scarcity of defensemen getting that PP1 deployment, where very few get it and those that do are almost all selected in your drafts. Contrast that with the emergence of Jason Robertson, Drake Batherson, Kasperi Kapanen, and a dozen others and you can see how you’re much more likely to find a valuable waiver wire forward at some point during the season than a defenseman. 

Valuation Between Forward Positions

It’s worth noting that there has always been an imbalance between the number of useful fantasy centers versus wingers. Perhaps this is because the best players on their teams almost always grow up playing center, but there is no denying that there are more fantasy relevant centers than left wingers or right wingers. Right wing in particular has been the weakest position for fantasy over the past couple of years and I don’t see that changing in 2021/22. What does that mean for us as fantasy managers? It simply means that the value over replacement for a right winger scoring the same amount of fantasy points as a center is significantly higher than that center, making him more valuable as a fantasy asset. This is a good way to break a “tie” when choosing between two players in the draft, and can inform you when building your team as there are often solid producing centers still on the board at the end of drafts when the winger cupboards have long since been ransacked.

Mock Drafting

Mock drafts are a good tool to get an idea of where players are generally getting picked, but don’t get married to the idea that you can always get player X in the 5th round. Your league’s draft will certainly vary from mock drafts in some way and you need to be willing and able to adjust to your specific draft room. There will undoubtedly be some off the wall picks in your actual draft, and someone may take your fifth round guy a full round earlier than his ADP in the fourth. The ability to take value as the board falls and remain adaptable throughout is what separates great drafters from good drafters. Having said that, it is certainly worthwhile to set ADP targets on some players that you identify as undervalued. If you (like me) think Oliver Wahlstrom is in line for a potential breakout, it’s worth setting a range where you would be comfortable taking him.

Tier-Based Drafting

Tier-based drafting is a concept that fantasy football players have been utilizing for some time now but for some reason is still a foreign concept to much of the fantasy hockey world. This involves dividing up all players by position and putting players into buckets or “tiers”. Each tier represents a group of players that you view as roughly equal in terms of draft value. For example, you may not see a significant difference in the fantasy value of right wingers Mikko Rantanen, David Pastrnak, Mitch Marner, and Patrick Kane. They would represent a tier for you, with a drop off in value before the next tier of say Kirill Kaprizov, Jake Guentzel, and Alex DeBrincat. This helps you in-draft by identifying where you can avoid drafting the first player in a tier and perhaps snag the last player in that tier with your next pick. If you can continuously take players towards the end of your tier breaks, it helps you avoid “reaches” or drafting players higher than their actual fantasy value warrants and thereby decreasing the overall fantasy value of your finished roster by the end of the draft. 

Tier based drafting can also help you prepare for your drafts. I like to perform an exercise asking myself “who is the last player at this position I would be comfortable having as my #1 option?” This can help you build a solid foundation for a team and not get tilted on draft day. It can also help you avoid getting sucked into positional runs. If you see 8 defensemen run off the board in round 7, you might be tempted to follow suit. Creating your tiers can show you that there is probably a winger or center from a higher tier still available. In my #ZeroG article for 2021/22, I went through my goalie tiers. Take a look and you’ll get an idea of how you can build your own for each position.

Dealing with Positional Runs

Positional runs are common in fantasy drafts, occurring when multiple managers get nervous about filling a certain position and a number of players at that position get drafted in quick succession. As a general rule, it’s a bad idea to get caught up in a positional run and draft someone far earlier than they should be drafted simply because of their position. Instead of getting nervous, think of positional runs as an opportunity: when the other managers over-value a certain position, it means that value at other positions is by necessity falling to you. Identify where that value is on the board and snap it up; it is always better to take the value presented to you than to have a perfectly balanced draft position-wise. So much changes during the season that a team that looks balanced on draft day may be off the deep end by Week 2. The best advice is to stay flexible, keep an open mind, and draft value as it falls.

Identifying Floor vs Ceiling & Risk vs Reward

I like to view all players in a “range of outcomes” lens. I do median projections every year which show what I view to be the most likely outcome for that player, but some players are more or less valuable than that projection would suggest because of their risk/reward profile. Setting aside injury for all but the chronically injured, I ask myself what is this player’s worst case scenario this coming season, and what is his best case scenario? For a player on a bad team, we have to entertain the possibility that the team might trade him to a better team that will use him less, especially if he is entering the last year of his contract. For a top six winger on a team with an incoming rookie or free agent projected to challenge for that spot, we have to weigh the risk that the incumbent is simply outplayed by the newcomer and loses some of that scoring role and opportunity. For players projected to be on their team’s top power play unit, what is the likelihood that they get moved off that unit in favour of another player? These are the types of factors that play into how risky a player is.

On the flip side, you have the potential reward. Rookies are often overvalued in drafts because of the excitement of the unknown. But there is certainly value to be had in looking at what could happen for a talented player if they were to get a prime opportunity to produce. This is exactly what came together for Jason Robertson last year – a talented player who proved himself capable down the lineup and was eventually promoted to the top line and top power play due in part to the absence of Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. This year we have a clear competition for the two top-six (top two lines) LW spots in Toronto alongside superstars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. If any of Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, or Nick Robertson are able to cement themselves as a suitable complementary player on either line, they could become very valuable for fantasy. Of course players who haven’t broken out yet aren’t the only ones with high ceilings. Andrei Svechnikov still has a 90+ point ceiling in my mind but probably needs 18+ minutes per game to get there, which may or may not happen under coach Rod Brind’Amour. But I will give Svechnikov a little bump in my rankings just because I think he does have that potential to hit another gear.

The Convergence of Talent and Opportunity

Having said all of that, draft day will arrive one day and you will have to make a call on some players. How do we accurately evaluate where these players stand value-wise in relation to their peers? I like to think of player evaluation for fantasy as the convergence of talent and opportunity. A player could have lots of opportunity but never do anything with it (looking at you, Kailer Yamamoto). On the flip side, a player could have tons of talent but never get the opportunity to really put up points. Where we can find that true value in the draft and especially in the mid-to-late portions of it is where we can find players with talent who look to have an opportunity for a big offensive role. Usually that means top power play deployment and a top-six role for forwards or a top-4 role for defensemen. For goalies, I’m fading them until late as I’ve stated previously, but when forced to take one I want a talented goalie on an above average defensive team (top 10 if I can get it) that is projected to make the playoffs and is in a nebulous situation where we’re not sure who will get the lion’s share of the work. Spencer Knight, Ilya Sorokin, and either Jack Campbell or Petr Mrazek are ideal targets under these circumstances.

For the sake of having a single clean statement on what opportunity is:

–      Top power play time

–      Top six even strength time (for forwards) or top four even strength time (for defensemen

Is there nuance to this? Sure. There is great opportunity like the above statement and then there is just “good” opportunity which could be one or the other depending on linemates etc. For example it’s legitimate to be excited about Jesse Puljujarvi when he gets to play with Connor McDavid, even if he’s not on the top power play. But my expectation for this year is that the newly signed Zach Hyman will get first crack at the net front top power play role, and he’ll also likely play with McDavid at even strength. So obviously I’m going to favour Hyman over Puljujarvi, even though I rank their talents somewhat similarly.

Talent is even more subjective, because you will always get some armchair Twitter scout who saw a player score a bar-down goal in junior and now thinks that player is more talented than anyone else in the league. My process is to listen to a few respected talent evaluators (especially prospect evaluators, as natural talent is usually evident at an early age), and then marry that analysis with numbers and data. I’m not so myopic as to think that the data can capture all the nuances of the difference between Auston Matthews taking a shot from the faceoff dot or Josh Archibald. Clearly one play is a lot more likely to result in a goal than the other, which is where talent evaluation comes into play. While you might only need to see one game of Auston Matthews playing to realize he has a weapon of a shot that is easily top-5 in the game, you might not come to the same realization about a lesser-known player by simply watching a game he’s playing in. When talent evaluators I trust speak highly of a player and in particular speak highly of traits that matter a lot to me as a fantasy player (shooting ability, hockey sense, and physical play), that makes me double-check the data and consider if there are reasons to believe that this player could be better than their numbers suggest. Did they play with linemates/on a team that held them back? Did they create lots of scoring chances but perhaps get unlucky with shooting percentage or teammates who couldn’t bang in their perfect passes? Like I said, it’s subjective, and I do try to avoid crafting narratives to explain away a player’s poor previous performance – usually the most obvious answer is the right one and they simply did not play well.

I want to note here that of course this works in the opposite direction as well. Players outperform their natural talent every year and come back to earth the following season every year. Marcus Foligno is a great example of this from last season, shooting nearly 30% in his injury-shortened campaign. Counting on him to score at the same rate next season would be betting against a stacked deck, and the numbers bear this out. I’ll get more into how advanced stats can help us identify these types of players later on, but I will say that it is much easier to predict an over-performing player to regress or fall short the following season than it is to predict an under-performing player to break out.

What About Injury-Prone Players

Injuries are something that I essentially neglect on purpose when evaluating players. If there is a three-plus year trend for a player to miss a significant amount of games (10 or more), I’ll look into it, but unless those injuries are the recurring type or a product of that particular player’s style of play, I’m not going to base my drafting decisions on a theory that a certain player is injury prone. Recurring injuries are typically soft tissue types (think shoulders and knees, not broken bones). A broken bone usually heals back just fine, but players can certainly develop chronic shoulder, knee, and ankle problems that limit their ability to produce. If a shot blocking defenseman is continually missing time due to a broken foot or other attributable injuries, then I might consider that player to have a little more injury risk. Similarly a hard-hitting forward who keeps getting injured on hard hits and work in the dirty areas of the ice may have a realistically higher injury risk. But by and large, I do not put a lot of stock into certain players being “injury prone” unless the injuries they have sustained are all due to a chronic condition or playstyle.

When to Draft

It is always advisable to have your draft as close to the start of the season as possible. There’s nothing worse than having your season ruined before it starts by news like Nikita Kucherov being out for the season like we heard just before 2021 started. Many teams were sunk (or at least had a long uphill battle afterwards) by that news, but that could have been avoided by simply having drafts closer to the start of the season. Ideally, your drafts should come in the last week before the NHL’s first games occur.

The Early Rounds

The early rounds of your draft are obviously the most important. You can’t afford to whiff on these picks, especially since your leaguemates will be drafting certified studs in this range and missing on a player here can put you far behind the eight-ball in terms of production. My simplest advice is to find guys with elite “floors”, the ones whose worst-case outcomes are not going to put you in a hole chasing your leaguemates for production. This past year, that could have looked like grabbing a John Tavares (Yahoo ADP of 28.7) over a Patrik Laine (ADP of 25.1) and banking on Tavares’ steady production over Laine’s 50-goal potential. That also means fading goalies in the early rounds (assuming the format/scoring settings doesn’t make them incredibly valuable relative to skaters), as the variance from year to year even among top-ranked goaltenders is extremely high. Some will advocate focusing on forwards over defensemen in the early rounds, but as I’ve mentioned my research has shown that the value over replacement (how that player produces relative to how an average player or a replacement-level player produces) on elite defensemen is actually higher than many of the forwards going in the same range. 

The Girthy Middle

In the mid rounds (say rounds 4-8 for an arbitrary cutoff) you will start to get into players with a lot more question marks on their resumes. This isn’t a bad thing! What you want to do in these rounds is evaluate your risk tolerance and draft accordingly. If you’ve taken my earlier advice and have three certified beauticians already on your squad that you are confident will provide a weekly floor of great production for your team, then in these rounds it’s more than OK to take a couple of shots on players who you think could break out and have “league-winning” type upside. Even if those players do worse than you expected, they shouldn’t sink your whole squad if your foundation is in place. I would continue to add to both forwards and defense in this range, with either a five forward/three defense or a six forward/two defense composition coming out of round 8. That’s not a hard and fast rule, and if your league is ignoring value at the defense position, don’t be afraid to snap it up. I still do not recommend drafting goalies in this range – even in the most extreme scoring settings I would be loathe to spend more than one selection on a goalie in this range. 

The End Game

In the late rounds it becomes more and more beneficial to take chances on players you think could break out early in the season. Don’t waste picks on guys who won’t get a chance to show what they’re made of in the first week or two of the season, but don’t be afraid to call your shot on a rookie or new acquisition who might have the inside track on a lot of playing time early in the season, especially on the top power play unit. This portion of the draft is generally a bad time to take on “boring vets”, older players who don’t realistically have a chance at outperforming their expected production (and thereby, their draft position). You can also cast an eye towards the first week of your season in head to head leagues, and select players who will play more games during that first matchup of the season than others.

The Draft is Just the Beginning

I think it’s important to note that bad drafts don’t lose leagues. When I look back at my drafts I often see how I made an ill-advised pick in the early going, but by the end of the season it’s not uncommon for my rosters to turn over by 60% or more. Whether it be by trading or picking up waiver wire players, there will be plenty of opportunity to remake your team through the season and undo mistakes. Other managers may grow disinterested over the course of the season and begin to fall back, so it’s important to not be discouraged by what may appear to be a bad draft early in the season.

That’s all for this one folks! Make sure you follow Apples & Ginos on Twitter, on TikTok, and join the Apples & Ginos Discord server for more content and to ask any fantasy hockey questions you may have.

Thanks for reading, you are appreciated!


Published by Apples & Ginos

Apples & Ginos Fantasy Hockey Advice

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