How to play, draft, and win your ESPN fantasy league like an expert

It feels like only a few short weeks ago we were watching Steven Stamkos hoist the Stanley Cup for the repeat champion Tampa Bay Lightning following an NHL campaign like no other before. Because it was. Yet here we are, already revving up for a hopefully full and uninterrupted – and fingers crossed, healthy – 2021-22 campaign. Which means it’s also time to get your fantasy gang back together, or foster a new league, and try to out-smart and out-manage your direct competitors. We aspire to help you with that. Beginning with the most important few hours of your entire fantasy season.


The Draft

As the wisest of fantasy hockey sages will tell you, it’s much easier to lose a season-long league on draft day than it is to win one. A few ill-advised choices can torpedo your chances of fantasy victory right from the start. Not fun. Which makes that three-hour window on some random preseason evening all the more important. Some advice then — in scope of ESPN’s standard points redraft league, at least to start — to help assemble the strongest team possible when it matters most.

As a devoted student of Brian Burke’s real-life approach to assembling a team, I’m all over selecting the best player available in the draft’s earliest stages. If Connor McDavid is unspoken for, you pick Connor McDavid. I don’t care if Brad Marchand is your favorite competitor, or your heart is set on grabbing a goalie first-overall, in standard scoring leagues, you’re selecting the best player on the planet to maximize that roster spot. That’s McDavid. Done. After the Oilers center, fellow forwards Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, and Leon Draisaitl round out the quartet – quintet if you have faith in the health of Nikita Kucherov’s hip – of elite fantasy performers who are simply more valuable than everyone else. Beyond those four (five?), there’s a mild drop off to the next, and larger, throng of conceivably equal fantasy performers consisting of several forwards, the odd influential defenseman, and one standout netminder.

At this point it’s not a lousy idea at all to grab the starting netminder for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In this tandem-friendly era, Andrei Vasilevskiy can be relied upon to play the overwhelming majority of games — only Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Markstrom started more in 2020-21 — for the best team in the league i=””> maximizing his fantasy output. Vasilevskiy averaged 4.4 fantasy points per game in standard leagues, as compared with Hellebuyck’s 2.9 and Markstrom’s 2.0 rate. There’s no one better to serve you in that uniquely important position, while a very good fantasy forward or defenseman will still be available next round.

Which brings us to a rich group of, again, very good fantasy assets to target in rounds two through five, in standard 10-team leagues. The discrepancy in fantasy value between forwards is relatively thin in the second tier of performers, meaning securing a top defenseman and goalie of choice is a sound move. I can nearly guarantee you Toronto’s Mitchell Marner and Capitals’ captain Alex Ovechkin will be snatched up well before Max Pacioretty of the Vegas Golden Knights in most drafts, even though their individual fantasy ratings project as perceptibly equal. So, go on and scoop up Rangers blueliner Adam Fox or goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as Chicago’s new go-to No. 1, for example, knowing the likes of a Pacioretty or underrated Hurricanes center Vincent Trocheck will still be kicking about in slightly later rounds. In leagues that reward blocked shots, a defender like Alec Martinez, who also contributes to the scoresheet, is a gem of an acquisition.

Once reaching the heart of the draft, positional requirements deserve greater attention. If your league categorizes forwards by specific role, now is the occasion to draft for need, while still respecting potential value, based on C, LW, and RW eligibility. Loading up on appealing centers while disregarding skaters on either wing will undoubtedly prove frustrating and less fruitful when adjusting your lineup throughout the season. As such, forwards eligible at multiple positions can serve as your best fantasy friends. Otherwise, in leagues that classify all forwards equally (F), continue to draft the best forecasted player available.

Either way, mining team previews and other preseason fantasy content to determine who is skating where, and with whom, can pay out significant fantasy dividends. With the more obvious fantasy stars off the board, new faces in new places, or players projected to move up their respective lineups or join top power play units, hold fresh appeal. Forward Zach Hyman — a solid if middling fantasy producer in seasons past with the Maple Leafs — boasts rejuvenated fantasy shine as newbie linemate to McDavid in Edmonton. Which brings us to other under-radar players who can spell the difference between fantasy victory and defeat.

Bounce-back and Breakout Candidates

Along with a concrete foundation of star and otherwise proven performers, high-performing sleeper candidates help spell the difference between victory and defeat by fantasy season’s end. Securing a later-round gem — one that outperforms their projections — goes a long way in challenging for the ultimate crown.

In offering brief taste of guidance ahead of our more comprehensive preseason sleeper coverage, I like Conor Garland as an under-the-radar performer in his new Vancouver digs. Whether Garland skates with Elias Pettersson or Bo Horvat, the former Coyote is poised to strike his ultimate scoring stride at age 25. New Jersey center Jack Hughes appears ready to take the next productive step after an improved Sophomore campaign. Defenseman Vince Dunn — only 24 years old — sports underrated fantasy appeal as a power-play asset with the expansion Seattle Kraken. And no way Philadelphia’s Carter Hart plays anywhere nearly as poorly as he did this past campaign. He’s too talented a netminder to repeat that folly. Just a sample, but these four could serve as mid-to-late-round steals in many drafts.

The “D” Word

On the opposite end of the spectrum from coveted sleepers are those due to decline. Players grow older, change teams/lines, or simply struggle to repeat a previously explosive, and out-of-character, campaign. Blues forward David Perron averaged more than a point per game in 2020-21 for the first time in his 14-year career. What are the chances the now 33-year-old replicates that output for a second-straight season? Ex-Hurricane Dougie Hamilton probably doesn’t finish top-seven in blue-line scoring with the less-productive New Jersey Devils. This isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t grab Perron or Hamilton, not at all, only it’s important to temper expectations and draft them accordingly.

More on Goalies

The position is too important to gloss over quickly. With only a handful of performers responsible for carrying the weight of several categories, your fantasy squad needs 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, go-to operator — Vasilevskiy, Hellebuyck, Juuse Saros etc. — should be included on your fantasy roster, along with a solid second-tier fantasy netminder, such as Ben Bishop or Cam Talbot. Once that one-two G1/G2 punch is secured, focus on padding 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.

Shuttled out of Toronto, Frederik Andersen could be in for a busy, bounce-back campaign as tandem partner to the oft-injured Antti Raanta. Plus, the Hurricanes are a good team, which goes a long way in bolstering any netminder’s fantasy value. On the other hand, John Gibson is an excellent goalie, but the Anaheim Ducks could temper his value if they perform as poorly all-around as most expect.

Unless there’s an inexplicably early run on netminders, or your lineup requires more than two active goalies, save your G3/G4 reserve selections for later rounds of your draft. Still, it bears repeating: this isn’t a position to overlook. Such a limited group is responsible for putting up winning numbers through three, four, or more fantasy categories. They need to perform.

A Deeper Dive on D-men

Roster size and ratio of allotted positions split between forwards and defenders plays heavily into your blue-line drafting strategy. For instance, if your daily or weekly lineup requires twice (or more) as many total C, LW, and RW as defensemen, the latter position deserves less attention in your draft. It makes sense to focus more on the greater wealth of fantasy heavy-hitters up front in conventional scoring drafts. One top-tier D-man, of which there are few, merits earlier draft selection, followed by using later picks to round out a reasonable supporting cast. Only 12 blueliners, including John Carlson, Cale Makar, Jakob Chychrun, and Roman Josi, averaged more than 2.0 fantasy points per contest in ESPN’s default game this past season, all but three of them prolific producers with their respective team’s No. 1 power play.

Beyond that elite dozen, the next tier — averaging between 1.7 and 2.0 fantasy points per game — comprise of 35 players. Followed by another glut of defenseman ringing up 1.5 to 1.6 points. Once the blue line’s best of the best are spoken for — who certainly merit targeting promptly — there’s little reason to exhaust early to mid-round draft picks when a greater number of productive forwards contribute more on a contest by contest basis, and you need to fill those C, LW, and RW lineup spots. Particularly in fantasy competition where blocked shots count, increasing the sum of valuable D-men. Montreal’s David Savard may have only put up six points this past season, but he blocked 80 shots. And there’s a good chance Savard (and/or many of his ilk) will still be kicking about in your draft’s later stages.

Categories Matter

They sure do! As mentioned, the overhead draft strategy largely applies to conventional scoring competition, particularly ESPN’s default points game. Hardly one-size fits all. Perhaps penalty minutes carry heavy weight in your league. Now Washington’s Tom Wilson is a much bigger deal. Shots and PIM matter a lot? Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators shoots up your target list. Mitch Marner is a much richer commodity in leagues where assists are equal to goals. Perhaps faceoffs are worth a pretty fantasy penny, rendering Blues center Ryan O’Reilly and Carolina’s Jordan Staal even more useful. I once (begrudgingly) participated in a league that didn’t acknowledge scoring at all, instead concentrating on less orthodox stats like hits, blocked-shots, and faceoffs, tossing the usual player rankings out the window. Not my own fantasy jam, but to each their own.

My best advice is to familiarize yourself thoroughly 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. Our preseason in-depth look into individual categories will also help in preparing you in this regard.

Leagues, Leagues, Leagues

The type of league itself also factors into how you should assemble and manage your fantasy squad. While the majority of ESPN managers compete in a H2H points league, there are other options, which often merits an amended approach. For instance, H2H each category leagues reward every stat equally, meaning penalty minutes are just as important as goals and hits and whatever else falls into the specific scope of competition. You want to outscore, out-hit, out-shot-block your opponent of the week across the board. A weekly score of 10-2 constitutes a much larger victory than 7-5, suggesting balance is key. It doesn’t matter if you beat an opposing manager by one goal (or assist, or hit) or 10. Loading up on, say, prolific shot-blockers instead of striving for competitive balance can backfire.

But the same tactic doesn’t apply to H2H category most leagues, where a weekly score of 7-5 is equal to 12-0 in that the end result counts as 1-0. I’m more comfortable ignoring a stat or two — PIM or plus/minus, for example — alternatively loading up on others. Securing a few “slam-dunk” categories at the expense of one or two others makes greater sense in this particular brand of fantasy play.

As for Rotisserie (Roto) competition, assembling a balanced squad is vital. Squandering one or two categories can prove costly in losing too great a share of points available. Let’s say your 12-team/10-category league provides a maximum total of 120 points. Ranking worst or near-bottom in a couple of stats, and subsequently earning only a point or two of a maximum of 12, is difficult to overcome, regardless of how well you’re humming long in other facets. You have to care about plus/minus whether your wan to or not. Managers who successfully strive for balance fare best in this league style.

The more rare season-long, set-it-and-forget-it league is a whole other animal. Hey kids, there was a time when your parents, grandparents, and favorite fantasy hockey writer (ahem) had little choice but to gather at a local watering hole with an analog magazine and list of eligible players to draft. Your selected roster was complete for the entire campaignu: no waiver acquisitions, no trades, no injury substitutes. These leagues still exist, whether drafted in-person or online (or both). Durability is nearly as important as quality of player in such competition. San Jose defenseman Brent Burns hasn’t missed an NHL game since November 21, 2013. Those less injury prone — like Burns — are extra-precious commodities in leagues with few, if any, permitted transactions.

Building a Dynasty

While the above largely applies to redraft leagues, dynasty and keeper competition remains popular amongst a great gaggle of fantasy managers. With both, particularly dynasty leagues, foresight is key. Armed with a limited number of draft selections each season, dynasty managers are best served looking at securing a future fantasy star like scoring forward Matthew Coronato (Calgary Flames) or franchise netminder Jesper Wallstedt (Minnesota Wild). Never mind that these young competitors won’t become relevant for another year or more, the most competitive dynasty teams are built on the strongest foundation possible. There’s always risk in that not every prospective star reaches their full projected potential, but that’s part of the game. Snatching the most promising player possible works out often enough.

Keeper leagues are different in that more players are shuffled in and out each season through the yearly draft. While you want to maintain the strongest core possible — seven, eight, or more elite players — selecting a here-for-a-good-but-not-long-time competitor isn’t necessarily a bad move. Are you in position to win here and now? Winning is the point, right? Then go on and select Dallas veteran Joe Pavelski, who at age 36 (now 37) put up 25 goals and 26 assists though 56 games in 2020-21, to round out your lineup. Just don’t completely disregard young emerging talent in the meanwhile. On the flip side, fantasy managers with weaker, rebuilding rosters should instead focus on the talent of tomorrow, whether NHL active or not.

Roster Maintenance

Unless participating in a set-and-forget seasonal league, drafting a solid squad is just the first step (albeit it a huge one) of your months’ long fantasy journey. Whether competing in a daily or weekly-set league, you have to keep a sharp view of how your own players are faring, along with maintaining an eye on those available on waivers. Diligent, anti-stagnant roster management is key. Players are apt to fall injured, go cold, and/or shift up and down their respective lineups.

Specific roles, and the varying opportunities they provide, often matter just as much as skill, talent, and health. Boston’s Charlie Coyle is an entirely different fantasy player when centering a scoring line with Taylor Hall than when skating in the Bruins’ bottom-six. Who’s playing with Kirill Kaprizov (assuming the RFA re-signs) on the Wild’s top line? In deeper leagues, you want that center or opposing winger as a sleeper asset on your own fantasy squad. I’m not suggesting you reflexively react to coach Dean Evason’s every lineup tweak, but if another player inherits a plum scoring spot alongside Kaprizov, and it feels somewhat permanent, that skater merits extra attention as a mid-season free-agent addition.

Point is, if there’s a more promising LW (or whichever position) available on the wire than on your active roster, switch them out; either directly or by spending a few digital dollars from your free-agent acquisition budget. You want to ice the strongest team possible at every opportunity (and our weekly in-season coverage will help to that end). Of course, the number of transactions permitted throughout the season — ranging from only a handful to an unlimited amount — impacts your roster-shuffling strategy. You won’t want to use up them all, or blow your entire FAAB, in the first few weeks. There’s also the danger of tossing away solid talent that just happens to be struggling in the short term. Every year I see managers panic prematurely only to regret moving players who rediscover their scoring stride a short time later. Don’t do that.

A Word on Injured Reserve

Use those roster slots to your full advantage, is several are provided, beyond temporarily stashing your own injured stars. Goalie Tuukka Rask — out until January or February post-hip surgery — may not play another game for the Boston Bruins. Perhaps Linus Ullmark and/or Jeremy Swayman get the job done in Boston, convincing management there’s little use in re-signing their long-time veteran netminder, even for pennies on the dollar. Or Rask no longer feels like it when all healed up. But what if Ullmark and Swayman struggle, and Rask is tasked with swooping in and saving the Bruins’ season? Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of the best in recent history harmlessly stashed away on your roster in an excess IR spot, only to unleash his fresh, goaltending figure in later stages of the season? Yes, it would. Fill your excess IR spots with potential performers when healthy. You can always remove them if necessary.

The Art of Trades

Contrary to what some fantasy message board posts might suggest, forging a successful trade is not about hoodwinking another manager. The ultimate deal benefits both sides, at least to some degree, in filling a respective void. Win-win. Your coveted winger for my competent goalie. An exchange of aged stars for up-and-comers in keeper leagues, depending on who’s rebuilding and who’s on the cusp of winning it all. If not completely convinced to take the classier mutually beneficial approach, remember fantasy trade karma is real. Managers who develop a reputation for trying to fleece their fellow competitors will find few trading partners in the future. If they’re not booted from the league altogether.

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