How to play and win your fantasy hockey league like a pro

Leon Draisaitl (L) and Connor McDavid (R) are the players can can carry your fantasy hockey team. Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

While it feels like only yesterday the Vegas Golden Knights made owner Bill Foley look like the most prescient prophet in professional sports, here we are with the 2023-24 NHL regular season nearly upon us. Isn't it wonderful? Which means it's also occasion to gather all your favourite fantasy hockey-loving mates, or form/join a new league, and get back to the fabulous business of managing a team to eventual glory. Or, at least give it the best possible go. Allow us to try to help you in that endeavour, beginning with the most important few hours of your entire fantasy season.

The Draft

There's no better occasion to adopt Scouting America's timeless motto than ahead of the most important two to three hours of your entire fantasy hockey season. You best Be Prepared, or 2023-24 could turn into a long and arduous fantasy affair. Some advice then, largely, but not only, in step with ESPN's standard points re-draft league, to help you build the strongest team possible when it matters most.

Draft the best player available. If Connor McDavid is unspoken for, pick him. If not, grab his teammate Leon Draisaitl. Then David Pastrnak, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon and so on. Let others focus on outside-the-box picks in respect to position or sleeper potential, you'll have plenty of opportunity to out-clever other managers in later rounds. To start, load up on all available superstars - those who put up the sexiest scoring numbers, full-stop - up front. Unless there's some ridiculous early run on goalies, I'm leaving that position alone until the third round, at minimum, depending on league size. Because did you project Linus Ullmark would leave all other netminders in his fantasy dust ahead of last season? Neither did I. But I had sufficient faith in McDavid, Draisaitl, Pastrnak meeting, if not exceeding (153 points remains jaw-dropping even months later), early expectations.

Once through the elite up front, by all means, grab a goaltender. A good one, that plays a lot, for a better-than-average team. A standout defender, if still available, also presents as a nice acquisition - but not at the expense of a high-performing netminder - at this stage. More on those two positions below.

After your superstars and a great goalie are secured, feel free to fill out your roster with greater respect to positional need and/or categories. Loading up on attractive centers while disregarding those on either wing will limit you in adjusting your lineup throughout the season. There's good reason we harbor extra fantasy love for those eligible at multiple positions. In leagues that overlook specificity of position, and classify all forwards equally (F), continue to draft the best forecast player available.

Button-hooking back to the value in preparation, mining team previews and other preseason content to determine who's skating where, and with whom, along with schedule hacks and other useful material, can pay out significant fantasy dividends ahead of your draft and beyond. The more you know and all that.

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Bounce-back and Breakout Candidates

Along with a foundation of sure-fire performers (or as close to), "overachieving" sleeper candidates, including those returning from long-term injuries, can help make the difference between fantasy victory and defeat. Securing a later-round gem - one that outperforms their projections - goes a long way in challenging for the ultimate crown.

Often a change in employ makes a significant difference in a player's productivity (for better or worse). Does Ryan Johansen resurge as Colorado's new second-line center after last year's dismal showing in Nashville? Betcha former Bruin Taylor Hall puts up a lot more than 36 points (61 games) in Chicago alongside this young buck everyone keeps talking about named Connor Bedard. Keep an eye on our fantasy hockey space for more comprehensive sleeper coverage in the coming days.

For record, potential breakout candidate Tim Stutzle headlined this segment in last fall's version of 'Play to Win'. The third-year center's haul of 90 points through 78 games later illustrates the value in recognizing a player on the cusp of erupting, especially when placed in a ripe position and surrounded by high-tier supporting talent. In my view, Philly's Owen Tippett, for one, emits this particular breakout scent ahead of 2023-24.

The "R" Word

On the flip side, some players are going to regress. Skaters age, change teams/lines, or just can't emulate what amounted to an atypically positive season, months earlier. What's crucial here is identifying not only who presents as a candidate for regression, but by how large a margin.

Maybe (most probably) Erik Karlsson doesn't pot 101 points for a second year running, with his new club in Pittsburgh. But would you mind a 75-80 point campaign from the veteran blueliner, while he scoots around on a top power play with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and (eventually) Jake Guentzel? I most definitely would not.

But what about Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jeff Skinner with the Sabres? A slip off Tage Thompson's forward line and the latter might be hard-pressed to kick out another 35 goals and 47 assists. Johnny Gaudreau and Matt Duchene earned mentions in this space 12 months ago, and we all know how their seasons unfolded as compared to 2021-22. This isn't to suggest you shouldn't grab such players altogether, just temper expectations and draft them accordingly.

More on Goalies

With only a handful of performers responsible for carrying several categories, you need consistent play from between the pipes. In conventional H2H points leagues where three to four goalies are shuffled in and out of your active roster, at least one standout operator, good for 60 or so games - Igor Shesterkin, Jake Oettinger, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros etc. - should be included on your fantasy roster, along with a solid second-tier fantasy netminder. A Filip Gustavsson or the like. Once that one-two G1/G2 punch is secured, pad your goaltending corps with quality tandem-team members - especially those who hold the potential of running with the number one gig - and/or an outlying sleeper candidate. This year's possible Ullmark, if you will.

New faces in new places also deserve extra thought at this position. Could the Senators' fresh No. 1 Joonas Korpisalo prove to be this season's Alexandar Georgiev, fantasy-wise? Or are we in for another ho-hum debut showing in Ottawa, à la Cam Talbot (now gone for Los Angeles). These are the questions that deserve a deeper dive ahead of rounding out your goaltending corps to start.

Again, this position can't be overlooked as such a limited group is responsible for putting up winning numbers through three, four, or more fantasy categories. Managers who strike the right balance in filling their net with the league's busiest and most consistent performers, while still loading up on star skaters out front, will inevitably find themselves in the winning mix by season's end. A (fun) challenge, to be sure, but nobody said this was supposed to be easy.

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A Deeper Dive on D-men

Number of league participants, roster size, and ratio of allotted positions split between forwards and defenders all plays a part in building your blue line. For instance, if your daily or weekly lineup requires more than twice as many totalled C, LW, and RW as defensemen, give the latter position a little less attention in your draft. Again, look to the cream of the heavy-hitters crop up front do their best work for you. Nearly 30 regularly-performing forwards averaged 2.4 fantasy points or more in ESPN's default league in 2022-23, as compared to only seven defenders.

But you still need these skaters, especially in leagues that reward blocked-shots and ATOI. There's certainly merit to grabbing an elite performer - a healthy Cale Makar, Rasmus Dahlin, Roman Josi etc. - in the earlier stages of your draft, just not at the expense of a star forward or game-changing goalie. There are too many solid-enough assets available otherwise. Think Vancouver's Quinn Hughes or a ready-to-rock-again Zach Werenski in Columbus.

It's also worth knowing that nearly 70 regular defenders averaged 1.7 points or more in our standard game. Meaning there are plenty of options - with an eye to sleeper potential - from which to choose in padding your roster in later draft rounds. No need to load up early on non-elite blueliners at all.

Categories Matter

They sure do. While the aforementioned draft strategy largely applies to conventional scoring competition, particularly ESPN's default game, the inclusion of other custom categories likely necessitates a different approach. For instance, if penalty minutes count in your league, both Brady Tkachuk and Matthew Tkachuk should shoot up your pre-draft target list. Fantasy competition that rewards blocked shots means taking a fresh look at your list of coveted defenders.

Islander Bo Horvat, along with other centers of his drawing ilk, deserve extra attention in leagues that reward regular success in the faceoff dot. Do assists carry as much weight as goals? Food for scoring thought, no?

Familiarize yourself thoroughly with your own league's categories - taking into consideration whether stats count for their straight up value or for points (and how many) - and revise your rankings accordingly. Don't fall over yourself to draft a banger, who doesn't score as much, if hits are only each worth 0.1 points. Our preseason in-depth look into individual categories will also help in preparing you in maximizing value across the board.

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Leagues, Leagues, Leagues

The type of league itself also matters a whole lot. While most ESPN managers compete in a H2H points league, there are other options, often requiring an amended approach to roster assembly and season-long management. Familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of all leagues available on ESPN.com here to figure out which best suits your own fantasy tastes.

Building a Dynasty

Dynasty and keeper competition - where patience and foresight is key - remains popular with many fantasy managers. Equipped with few draft picks each season - just like in real head-office life - dynasty managers often have to look ahead two, three, even four seasons in trying to fortify a solid foundation of talent, year in and out. There's always risk in that good number of prospective stars never reach their full projected potential, but that's part of the game. Securing the most promising player possible works out often enough.

Oh, and draft Bedard straight away, if possible.

Keeper leagues are different in that more players are shuffled in and out each season. While you want to maintain the strongest core possible - seven, eight, or more elite players - drafting a talented, perhaps aging, temp isn't necessarily a bad move. Are you in position to win in the here and now? Then go on and select the scoring veteran who's going to make it happen for you right now. Just don't completely disregard young emerging talent in the meanwhile (see again: Bedard). Mind you, fantasy managers with weaker, rebuilding rosters should instead solely focus on the talent of tomorrow, whether NHL active or not.

Roster Maintenance

Moving on now, drafting a quality squad isn't nearly enough. Unless participating in a set-and-forget seasonal league, keeping your finger on the pulse of which player is accomplishing what, where, and with whom, all the while keeping a keen eye on who's available on the waiver wire is integral to fantasy success. Especially early on. Players fall injured, lose their scoring mojo, and/or shift up and down their respective lineups regularly enough. While the draft remains the most important three-hour stretch of your fantasy season, it's still possible to make up for a handful of misguided picks through diligent roster fiddling. Many a successful manager will boast a very different-looking roster in April as compared to October.

While specific roles matter - Pavel Zacha sports a lot more fantasy sparkle in centering David Pastrnak at even-strength and on the power play than he would/has otherwise - it's also important to take the bigger team picture into account. Some Calgary skaters may have a bit more pep in their scoring step under new bench boss Ryan Huska. Keep an eye on who's responding best to Mike Babcock's fresh presence in Columbus. Same applies to the Predators under Andrew Brunette - who's already promising an inspired commitment to offense - and other clubs with new bench bosses (Rangers, Capitals, Ducks).

Whatever the reason, if there's a more promising positional player available on the wire than on your active roster, switch them out. Not in hair-trigger fashion, mind you, but with level-headed foresight. Panicking prematurely, particularly in reaction to a players' slow start, will get you nowhere fast. And don't disregard the number of transactions permitted throughout the season, ranging from only a handful to an unlimited amount. You won't want to use up them all, or blow your entire FAAB, in the first few weeks. You want access to that roster-saving, dark-horse goaltender when they blow up sometime in February, don't you?

Also, bookmark this space. ESPN's NHL fantasy department rolls out helpful material almost daily, designed to optimize your chances of victory. Even one roster substitute could mean the difference between winning and losing that particular week.

A Word on Injured Reserve

Use those roster slots to your full advantage, even ahead of season's launch. Don't shy away from drafting Florida defenseman Brandon Montour, for example, just because he's expected to miss a handful of games following offseason shoulder surgery. Not after last season's 73-point campaign, including 33 scored with the extra skater. Jam him, or any other not-quite-healthy fantasy asset you fancy, in one of your IR spots and give it a minute.

The Art of Trades

Broker 'em. Especially if waiver wire pickings are lean. Your roster probably isn't perfect, which means another active manager is also dealing with weakness at some position or another. The act of reciprocal back-scratching can prove win-win for both of you, which is a-okay. Focus on the larger task of beating the field. Contrary to how some fantasy sport participants comport themselves, forging a successful trade is not about undressing another manager. The ultimate deal benefits both sides, at least to some degree, in filling a respective void. Your coveted winger for my competent (yet still somewhat disposable) goalie. An exchange of elderly (but still trucking) stars for up-and-comers in keeper leagues, depending on who's rebuilding and who's on the cusp of winning it all. Remember there's a large difference between being competitive and unnecessarily cutthroat.

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