Doug Greenberg, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The typical fantasy hockey league on Yahoo rewards skaters for contributing in the categories you’ve come to expect: goals, assists, plus-minus, power-play points and the like. But it’s also one of few fantasy sites that uses blocked shots as a default category, and a dive into your league’s commissioner settings will reveal a wealth of additional categories you can utilize. With that in mind, let’s discuss some less conventional fantasy stats and how to attack them as an owner, then delve briefly into the world of hockey sabermetrics that can help you construct a roster in any format.
As an event that occurs about 60 times in the average NHL game, the faceoff is one of the true hallmarks of hockey. Although they don’t carry significance in many fantasy circles, faceoffs are nevertheless important because they play a big role in a team’s ability to possess the puck, especially in critical positions like the offensive zone, giving faceoff men and their linemates more virtual value. Faceoff wins can also lead directly to assists. The NHL’s added emphasis on enforcing faceoff rules this season will present new challenges for the men lining up at the dot (and those jostling for position around them), so our own challenge will be to find players who can adapt to that.
In fantasy leagues that count faceoffs, quantity is usually everything, as it’s most typical to count faceoff wins, though some formats utilize both wins and losses, thereby making it mandatory to get pivots who win at a high rate. Of course, quantity and quality often overlap in this department. There’s probably no faceoff man in the league more trusted than Patrice Bergeron — last season, the veteran center took a league-high 1,812 faceoffs and still managed an outstanding 60.1 faceoff winning percentage, boosting his own fantasy stock as well as those of his usual linemates, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Ryan O’Reilly and Ryan Kesler also saw high volume and posted impressive percentages (58.0 and 57.4, respectively), with the former also posting the highest average ice time of any forward in the league. Interestingly, the fourth-highest number of faceoffs taken last season belonged to Sidney Crosby even though his win percentage was a lowly 48.2.
The club of great shot blockers in the NHL is made up almost entirely of defensemen, an unsurprising result of their own-zone responsibility. Last season, Nick Bonino led all forwards with 99 blocks; meanwhile, 95 defensemen around the league compiled 100-plus. So it’s the blue line where you’ll be finding your shot blockers, with forwards chipping in with only the occasional bruise. However, many of the top shot-blocking defensemen lack well-rounded fantasy lines, and even elite block numbers don’t make up for poor offensive performance. That makes it extra important to go after players who pull double duty, like Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who racked up 71 points last year and yet still had the wherewithal to step in front of 201 pucks. Mark Giordano, Alec Martinez, Ivan Provorov, Ryan McDonagh and Rasmus Ristolainen are all names to remember in the “scores but also blocks” category.
Taking the body is a crucial part of playing effective hockey, and hits are steadily gaining popularity in the fantasy realm too. In those leagues that count PIM as well, a number of players provide strong value with their physicality because it shows up in two categories, not to mention the ancillary benefits in terms of offensive production and plus-minus. In 2016-17, Mark Borowiecki was the champion in that regard, racking up 364 hits alongside 154 hits — both league-leading totals — although he didn’t contribute heavily in blocks (90) or points (… three). Matt Martin is also a top hits-and-PIM guy who you’ll want to monitor in drafts. More balance in terms of offensive production can be found in players like Brandon Dubinsky, Patrik Hornqvist, Milan Lucic, Anders Lee, the aforementioned Ristolainen, and the ever-stat-stuffing Alex Ovechkin.
There aren’t quite so many fresh options for goalie categories, so let’s take a look at how to choose fantasy netminders with some deeper stats than the typical ratios. Obviously, save percentage is arguably the most important goalie stat, but it’s possible to dig deeper. Like pitchers in baseball, hockey has quality starts! A quality start, as defined by Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, is when a goalie posts a save percentage greater than the league average in any given game or at least an .885 mark when he faces fewer than 20 shots. Therefore, goalies with solid quality-start percentages are more likely to give you great performances on a daily basis.
There was a reason why teams pursued former backups Antti Raanta and Scott Darling so hard this offseason — among goaltenders with at least 25 starts, Raanta posted a league-leading .692 quality start percentage last season, while Darling ranked third with a .630 mark. If they can maintain that form and receive support from their new teams, they’ll be good fantasy options. Sergei Bobrovsky (.651), Craig Anderson (.625), Devan Dubnyk (.619), and Braden Holtby (.619) rounded out the top goalkeepers in terms of quality starts.
Another advanced statistic becoming more popular among analysts of today’s NHL, Corsi is used as a proxy measurement for how well a team or player possesses the puck. Corsi For is calculated by obtaining the sum of shots on goal, blocked shots and missed shots, while Corsi Against takes the same measurements for the opposing team. If a player has a Corsi For percentage (gained by this formula: Corsi For / [Corsi For + Corsi Against]) over 50, it indicates that his team was able to control the puck more often than not while he was on the ice.
As implied, this advanced metric is often more applicable to teams than individuals, and according to the Corsi numbers, no two teams were better at possessing the puck last season than the Bruins and the Kings. Among players who played at least 50 games, Boston and Los Angeles combined to dominate the top 10 in terms of puck possession last season, with Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Torey Krug, Brayden McNabb, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson all on the list. Other individual standouts around the league included Jordan Staal (56.1 Corsi For percentage), Matthew Tkachuk (55.9), Ryan Johansen (55.9), and Nikita Kucherov (55.7). Remember, you can’t score if the other team has the puck.