Cage Match: Lessons Learned From 2015-16

by Dobber Sports on April 13, 2016

Ten lessons we learned from the 2015-16 fantasy hockey season…

 

As a bookend to my 10 Fearless Forecasts column from back in September (remember – the key word was fearless….), I thought it would make sense to focus on lessons we learned (sometimes the hard way) during the 2015-16 regular season. After all, with things still fresh in our memories, we’re able to notice interesting – and fantasy relevant – developments that should impact 2016-17 and beyond.

Here’s my list of 10 fantasy-impacting lessons that emerged from (or were underscored during) the 2015-16 NHL regular season. If you have feedback or lessons of your own to offer, use the comments section below or post them in this thread in the DobberHockey Forums.

 

Lesson #1 –Forward Lines (and Pairs) Are No Longer as Set in Stone

Last year we had the Triplets and That 70s Line; but what about line nicknames coined this season? If you’re blanking, it’s not for lack of memory – it’s that “set in stone” lines have started to become rarer. In fact, it actually goes beyond that; forward pairs are not as common as they had been, with even some formerly inseparable tandems (e.g., Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom) skating apart at even strength for chunks of 2015-16.

Need proof that 2015-16 represented a shift? Consider that the number of forwards who shared 25+ even strength points with a forward teammate (i.e., both received a point on the same even strength goal) was 70 in 2013-14, then 71 last season, but dropped by over 20% to only 54 for 2015-16.

Whatever the cause (maybe analytics, salary cap, and/or match-ups?), this makes it more challenging for poolies to know where things stand not only when planning prior to the season, but also on a day-to-day basis in setting line-ups and making free agent moves. And for poolies who advocate for the strategy of trying to load up on players from the same line – you might want to rethink that.

 

Lesson #2 – Goalie Shares Don’t Tend to Sort Themselves Out

Heading into this season, a big story was the number of teams without a clear-cut #1 goalie. There were even enough projected battles to fill an entire Top 10 list. If we look at that list now, only two teams (San Jose, Chicago) ended up having a netminder start two-thirds (i.e., 55) of his team’s games. In fact, for the first time since 2008-09 fewer than half of NHL teams had a goalie hit the 55 start benchmark.

The lesson is, in today’s NHL teams seem happy to progress through the season with a bona fide goalie share. Accordingly, when drafting for next season, poolies would be wise to not gamble early picks on goalies at risk of being part of a 1A/1B tandem. But the flip side also applies, in that sometimes fellow GMs will shy away from drafting netminders who are projected to be in a share; yet if their win rate and peripherals are solid, they can provide more value than a merely decent goalie who gets 50-55 starts.

 

Lesson #3 – In One-Year Leagues, Don’t Bank on Breakouts

Of the 40 forwards who scored 60+ points this season, only three (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Artemi Panarin, Mark Scheifele) had never posted 55+ in a previous NHL campaign. Similarly, among 26 d-men who reached 40+ points this season, only Shayne Gostisbehere and Rasmus Ristolainen had never tallied 37+ in the past. In other words, true “breakouts” are indeed very rare.

Although it sounds obvious to say that the biggest predictor of current fantasy success is past fantasy success, too many poolies in one-year leagues fall into the trap of ignoring this reality. Instead, they succumb to the lure of untapped potential, hoping to land the next breakout star to reap the benefits, and – let’s not kid ourselves – to prove how smart they are to their fellow GMs.

When drafting in one-year leagues, avoid the temptation of overvaluing potential. That doesn’t mean ignore players who provide a good risk/reward benefit – just don’t overvalue them to the point where you draft them too early, causing you to bypass the true best players available.

 

Lesson #4 – The 3×3 Format Did Increase OT Goal Scoring, But Not By a Lot and Mostly For Defensemen

Before the season began, many (including me – see Fearless Forecast #9) cited the new OT rules as likely to help bolster stats of the league’s best forwards, who we figured would be thrown out there by teams for most – if not all – of the wide open 3×3. Long story short, the total number of OT goals scored rose as predicted, but by my count only from 136 to 160, or 17%. Not exactly a seismic change.

And most of the bigger OT goal-scoring gains were felt by d-men. Of the nine players to tally three or more OT goals, three were d-men (Shayne Gostisbehere, John Klingberg and……John Moore?!). Beyond that – 19% of those who scored two or more OT goals were d-men, compared to 12% last season.

That leads us nicely into the next lesson, which is……….

 

Lesson #5 – There Are More Very Productive Fantasy Defensemen Now Than in Recent Seasons

This season, 19 defensemen played 60+ games and averaged 0.60+ points per game, marking the highest number since 2005-06, with eight at 0.72+ points per game (highest since2006-07). Beyond that, 15 defensemen scored 13 or more goals, which was more than in any season since 2008-09.

We’re getting to the point where there are enough top producing defensemen for poolies to lump them into tiers, ala what’s advocated with goalies. What that means is, treat the top 8-10 rearguards as part of the first tier and then the next 8-10 as being in a second tier, making sure not to reach to draft one too early while at the same time taking steps to land a d-man from both the first tier and the second tier before they’ve all been drafted.

 

Lesson #6 –Fantasy Hockey Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

Many poolies don’t pay enough attention to the effect “real world” factors have on fantasy, except perhaps for a few obvious areas like Ice Time and depth charts. But the truth is, some players have other “real world” shortcomings that could likewise affect them in fantasy.

A great example is faceoff percentage, which indirectly influences the value of centers in all fantasy leagues, even those leagues which don’t include any faceoff-related categories. Think of it this way – if a center cannot be counted upon to win key faceoffs, then doesn’t logic suggest that his team would have little choice but to limit his ice time at least somewhat?

And sure enough – according to nhl.com, although 19 “centers” scored 60+ points this season, only two of the 18 (Mark Scheifele and Evgeny Kuznetsov) did so while posting a faceoff % less than 48.5%. And it was a similar story in 2013-14 (21 “centers” posted 60+ points, but only three with a faceoff % less than 48.5%) and in 2014-15 (24 posted 60+ points, but again only three with a faceoff % less than 48.5%).

The lesson is, make sure the players you draft or retain have the required “real world” tools to position themselves to produce for you in fantasy. And to do that, you’ll need to examine their performance in areas beyond just your league’s categories.

 

Lesson #7 – Top Production under Abnormal Circumstances Signifies Special Talent

Looking at this season’s top 30 forward scorers, nearly all fired 200+ SOG, or played 19:00+ per game, or did both. In fact, only four players failed to meet either criterion. But two of those four just happened to be among the best NHL players of the past two decades (Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton) while the other two are seemingly young NHL stars in the making (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Artemi Panarin).

The lesson suggested by this is if a player can excel despite not meeting the normal criteria required by others to succeed, then young or old there’s a good chance he’s a special talent. On the other hand……

 

Lesson #8- Lack of Top Production Under Normal Circumstances Is a Sign of Concern

Only two forwards age 25 or younger fired 260+ SOG this season yet failed to score 55 points – Nazem Kadri and Evander Kane, both of whom actually scored below a 50 point full season pace for 2015-16. Also, only two forwards who finished with 200-250 SOG while also averaging 19:00+ in Ice Time per game didn’t manage to post over 50 points – Patrick Marleau (48 points – down from 57 points last season) and Henrik Zetterberg (50 points – down from 66 points last season).

Thus, the flip side of lesson #7 seems to be that players who meet criteria that normally equates to top production, yet who still fail to produce, are – if young – at risk of not turning into an elite scorer, or – if older – at risk of being in a downward slide from which they won’t recover.

 

Lesson #9 –High Scoring Forwards with Low PPPts Could Be at Risk of Slumping Next Season

Among the top 25 forward scorers from 2014-15, six had fewer than 18 power play points (PPPts) and were age 24 or older at the start of last season: Jiri Hudler (76 points, 16 PPPts), Tyler Johnson (72 points, 17 PPPts), Ryan Getzlaf (70 points 13 PPPts), Rick Nash (69 points, 12 PPPts), Max Pacioretty (67 points, 11 PPPts), and Jonathan Toews (66 points, 17 PPPts). All six have taken a step back in production for 2015-16, with Hudler, Johnson and Nash each doing far worse.

What might this mean for 2016-17? Five age 24+ players finished 2015-16 within the top 25 forward scorers despite posting fewer than 18 PPP – Blake Wheeler (78 points, 17 PPP), Jaromir Jagr (66 points, 11 PPP), Taylor Hall (65 points, 12 PPP), Max Pacioretty (63 points, 17 PPP), and Loui Eriksson (63 points, 17 PPP). For Jagr and Hall, their PPPs are so low that things probably won’t get worse. But seeing Pacioretty here for a second straight campaign, plus Wheeler after a career best, and Eriksson in his UFA season – maybe it would be best to move those three a bit lower on your 2016-17 draft boards.

 

Lesson #10 – The “Habs Factor” Still Exists

If you read my Cage Match columns regularly, you’ve heard me talk about what I call the “Habs Factor”, which relates to poolies overvaluing players from teams that get the most mainstream attention. Which teams are affected by the Habs Factor? Ten total – all the original six squads, plus the two teams with the most “mainstream” stars (Pittsburgh and Washington) and the two in major US cities (Philadelphia, Los Angeles).

Looking at players drafted, on average, within the top 50 in Yahoo leagues for 2015-16, we see that 22 were from one of these ten teams. That’s 44%, rather than the 33% that would be expected based on there being 30 NHL teams. Beyond that – only two of those 22 players (i.e., 9%) saw their final Yahoo ranking increase as compared to their pre-season ranking, compared to seven of 28 players (i.e., 25%) on the other 20 teams whose ranking increased.

What this underscores is poolies still have to be as careful as ever to avoid the trap of overvaluing players on these ten “Habs Factor” teams. Let someone else in your league reach too early for these players; and if you’re tempted to draft one of them, be sure you’re doing so because he’s truly the best player available, as opposed to familiarity.

 

Conclusion

So there you have it – 10 lessons learned to close the book on the 2015-16 regular season. It was a fun ride, and hopefully there’s useful information here to help guide your 2016-17 and beyond. Come back next week for a regular Cage Match, and watch for a summer Cage Match tournament in July.