Ramblings: Defense Is the New Offense, Wait on Goaltenders

by Ian Gooding on July 30, 2016
  • Hockey Rambling
  • Ramblings: Defense Is the New Offense, Wait on Goaltenders

Defense is the new offense, wait on goaltenders, plus more…

Sam Gagner is reportedly close to signing a one-year contract with the Blue Jackets, according to Columbus Dispatch reporter Aaron Portzline.
 


Should the signing happen (and remember, the report only said the signing is close, not done), Portzline points out that Boone Jenner would move back to left wing, which could help his fantasy value in terms of positional value if nothing else. Brandon Dubinsky would center the top line, while Gagner would battle up-and-comer Alexander Wennberg to center the second line. My money would be on Wennberg, who scored 40 points in 69 games in his sophomore season.

Gagner scored just 16 points in 53 games last season, but he has a shot to reach 40 points if he could stay with the club for the entire season. This might sound surprising considering that it seems like he hasn’t been around that long (or I’m just getting old), but Gagner has reached 40 points six times over his career. I’d bet the under, as Gagner would probably be more of a depth signing than anything. But this would probably be a good spot for him anyway, as he would at least fit into the Jackets’ top 9.

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Speaking of the Jackets, a stray question from last weekend’s Ramblings, which was a follow-up to the Jenner vs. Evander Kane debate: potential +/- next year for each? Based on projections, I’d go about -10 for Jenner and about -5 for Kane. So advantage Kane if your league counts that stat.

Fewer fantasy hockey leagues are embracing the plus/minus stat. Demetri will have more on that in this week’s Contrarian.

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The Coyotes have signed first-round pick Jakob Chychrun to a three-year entry-level contract.

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Don Henderson, the linesman knocked out by Dennis Wideman, recently underwent neck surgery. His future as an NHL linesman appears to be in serious doubt. Very unfortunate situation for Henderson, who was just doing his job. A court case might be in both parties’ futures if Henderson doesn’t ever return to the ice.

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A couple of developments over the past year have got me thinking about the possible increased role of defensemen in scoring:

  1. The monster seasons of blueliners such as Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Kris Letang.
  2. The philosophy of a defenseman’s role from an advanced stats’ point of view.

On that second point, here’s a quote from an NHL.com interview with new Coyotes’ GM and advanced stats expert John Chayka:

“Defense isn't about defending, it's about getting the puck in the forwards' hands and getting the puck moving into the offensive zone. It's about transitioning. That's the philosophy and that's been the theme behind the moves that we're making, let's get players who can get pucks back and get pucks up to forwards in an efficient and effective manner.”

With the offseason acquisitions of Alex Goligoski, Anthony DeAngelo, and Luke Schenn, Chayka has made defense a priority this offseason (particularly defensemen with offensive upside, as Goligoski and DeAngelo have).

So with that in mind, should we make defensemen more of a priority in fantasy drafts?

Picture a typical default Yahoo league (which is probably not yours, but I’ll use it anyway). This league would be a single-season 12-team league that uses six forwards (two at each position), four defensemen, two goalies, and four bench spots. If each team drafts four defensemen, that’s 48 defensemen drafted. So we’ll round that up to 50 blueliners drafted. If each team drafts six forwards and uses two more bench slots for forwards, that’s 96 forwards drafted. So we’ll round that up to 100 forwards drafted.

When I performed a quick analysis of NHL scoring over the past ten years, this is what I found:

  1. The league average total goals per game has decreased from 6.05 goals per game in 2005 to 5.34 goals per game in 2015.
  2. The lowest scorer of the top 50 defensemen has remained relatively constant over the past ten years (around 30 points). That’s even with scoring declining over the past ten years.
  3. The lowest scorer of the top 50 forwards has gradually declined over the past ten years from 68 points in 2005-06 to 58 points in 2015-16.
  4. The lowest scorer of the top 100 forwards has gradually declined over the past ten years from 54 points in 2005-06 to 46 points in 2015-16.

(Sources: NHL.com, sportingcharts.com)

Whether or not you believe in advanced stats, the increased percentage of total offense from the defense is clearly evident. So defensemen shouldn’t be an afterthought in your drafting strategy. In fact, they need to be a focal point as much as the forwards.

The NHL.com and ESPN single-season fantasy hockey ranking sheets have accounted for this. ESPN has Karlsson ranked at #5 and Burns ranked at #9. Meanwhile, NHL.com has Karlsson at #5, Burns at #6, and new Predator P.K. Subban at #10. (Remember that NHL.com settings are created for Yahoo fantasy leagues.) My two thoughts on these rankings:

  1. In 10+ years of playing online fantasy hockey, I’ve probably never seen defensemen ranked this high before.
  2. I’m not arguing these rankings at all. You will have to grab these guys very early.

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While I was peeking into these rankings, another unusual positional ranking jumped out at me. Anecdotally speaking from live drafts in the past, I’ve noticed that the top one or two goalies tend to go in the first round of 12-team drafts, with a goaltender run that usually starts sometime in the second round. But that goaltending run may not happen this season if everyone uses their default rankings to pick their players (or autopicks).

At ESPN, Carey Price is your top ranked goalie at #8, followed by Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby at #14, Ben Bishop at #20, and Jonathan Quick at #28. This goaltending absence becomes more noticeable at NHL.com, where the top-ranked goalie is all the way down at #16 (Holtby) followed by Bishop at #23 and Price at #26. So what gives?

My first instinct would be to suggest that with scoring down, goaltenders are posting better numbers than in years past. In one of my Sportsnet goalie articles, I wrote about the dominant era of goalies, comparing goaltending numbers from 2015-16 to those of 2005-06. I won’t rewrite those observations here, but instead I’ll just say that you should increase your expectations of what you consider acceptable goalie numbers.

So I’ll use my same benchmark for the number of goalies drafted in a 12-team default Yahoo fantasy league, which I would calculate to around 30 (an average of 2.5 goalies drafted per team).

  1. In 2015-16, a .915 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average were good for 30th in each category (among qualified goalies).
  2. In 2005-06, a .898 save percentage and a 2.97 goals-against average were good for 30th in each category (again, among qualified goalies).

What might be more relevant, though, is how closely ranked the goalies are.

  1. In 2015-16, the top-ranked and 30th-ranked goalies were separated by .015 in save percentage and .54 in goals-against average.
  2. In 2005-06, the top-ranked and 30th-ranked goalies were separated by .031 in save percentage and .90 in goals-against average.

In other words, drafting a goaltender early now will probably provide you with less differential advantage than waiting for a goaltender somewhere in the pack. Again, I’m not critiquing these rankings, although the wildly different ranks of Price between the two sites is interesting. To at least some extent, this could be a reflection on the different scoring systems used on these sites (I haven’t played ESPN for at least a couple seasons, so I can’t speak for its settings.)

So to bring this back to defensemen, it’s time to consider drafting your top blueliner before you draft your top goalie. Or maybe not feel that you need to get sucked into that goalie run that usually happens in rounds two and three. I’m not saying that you must draft a defenseman before a goalie, since every draft is fluid and every league has its own settings. But if you believe that you must draft a goalie before a defenseman, then you need to let go of that theory.  

This trend represents a major shift in the way that fantasy drafts are mapped out, but a shift that you’ll need to be in tune with to dominate your league.    

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Enjoy your Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding.