Finding the best way to truly recognize defensive value in a hockey pool
Ed. Note: This is the second instalment in a series in which we'll look at different aspects of the NHL game and how to value them appropriately in your fantasy league scoring, with the objective of creating scoring systems that reflect real life value as closely as possible. Click here for Part 1: The Power Game.
"Offense wins games; defense wins championships."
It's an oft-repeated sports maxim, and frequently true. But is it true in the fantasy realm? More to the point – should it be?
Historically, fantasy hockey has been the sole domain of the offensive-minded. As a Flames fan in the mid-90s, Phil Housley's frequent defensive blunders drove me absolutely up the wall; but as a fantasy manager, did I care? Not a bit! Keep putting up a point-a-game, Phil, and you can give the puck away in your own zone as often as you like!
As fantasy leagues have become more complex, things have changed. Wanting to reflect real hockey as closely as possible, many leagues have looked to incorporate a defensive element into their scoring system. But how is this best accomplished, and how much defensive focus is too much?
Let's be honest: as much as we may value realism, most of us have no desire to see someone take home the championship employing the fantasy equivalent of the neutral zone trap. And yet, a couple of well-chosen stat categories can round out a league and bring fantasy value to players who would otherwise be irrelevant. The question is, which categories?
As we weigh the options, it quickly becomes apparent there's no one stat that defines the defensive game, as defense comes in many forms. The best defenseman in recent memory, Nicklas Lidstrom, relied on impeccable positioning to take away the opponent's time and space – something that doesn't show up on a stat sheet. In Philadelphia, Andrew MacDonald sacrifices his body time and again as the NHL's shot blocking king. Cody Franson locks things down by taking opponents out, as his 282 hits last season attest.
And that's just the rearguards. Up front, you've got forwards who eliminate gaps with their speed; players who forget all about the puck and make their living shadowing others; guys who use their smarts to anticipate the play and create turnovers; and those who believe the best defense is a good offense.
All of this muddies the water when it comes to valuing defense in your fantasy league. Let's take a look at the options and see where we land.
Plus/Minus: For many years, plus/minus has been the go-to "defensive" stat for many leagues; mostly because it was the only "box score" defensive stat. However, that doesn't make it a good option. The shortcomings of plus/minus are obvious. Most significantly, it reflects the quality of a team much more than the quality of any individual player. Milan Lucic was a top-10 forward in plus/minus last season (+30); but is he really one of the league's elite defensive players? Meanwhile, a former Selke winner in Ryan Kesler clocked in at an u