Mental Models in Fantasy Hockey

Alex MacLean shares complex insights from a simple game

Today’s post features perspective from hockey writer/civil engineer/fantasy hockey maven Alex MacLean. It is part of an ongoing effort to share the Hockey Tactics Newsletter platform with emerging voices in the hockey community.

Alex: Strategizing For Fantasy Hockey

At its core, fantasy sports are supposed to be about the best combination of players winning a pool, however, the final results often also factor in a large share of planning and luck. There is some science to both the part about accumulating the best players, on top of a great deal of planning that can go into getting the most out of each asset.

In the end, the team that accumulates the most results wins, and it’s not always the best team on paper – but it all does come down to a combination of assets, planning, and luck.

The hierarchy is simple:

  • Without assets or planning, luck will only get you so far, so that is last on the totem pole.

  • Planning with poorer assets is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, it’s doomed to fail no matter what.

  • That means we have assets as the most necessary piece, followed by planning, and then a bit of luck thrown in at the end.

It makes sense that the base of winning in fantasy sports should be accumulating the best assets, just like it is in the real game. 

Assets

The assets are the easiest part to understand, but the hardest part to master.

Everyone wants the top assets, but you first have to understand why. Looking at the point totals below we see the descending totals of each of the approximately 1000 NHL players to play a game in the 2019-2020 season.

If this was a linear graph, then trading the first and the last player for the two in the middle would be a fair deal, but it’s not. Assuming a fantasy league rosters 200 skaters, the bottom asset would be scoring 33 points. In order to receive fair value for the first and 200th valued asset, it would necessitate the 17th and 18th overall skaters in return.

Even though the value is equivalent at the moment, it is a lot easier in the future to then upgrade on the 200th overall skater, rather than one already in the top 20.

One other facet of the asset management stems from scarcity of certain pieces of value. Whether it be that defencemen or goaltenders are harder to come by, or maybe your league settings overvalue a stat like hits or penalty minutes, there are intricacies in every league that must be accounted for when establishing value.

Using the example above, the first and 200th most valuable skater may be equivalent to the 17th and 18th, however if the 18th most valuable skater is a defenceman, and the other three are forwards, then the value isn’t comparable (as the value of a defenceman drops off faster due to a scarcity in supply).

Each asset has to be compared to the asset that they would be replacing in a fantasy lineup. The defenceman being added would replace the bottom defenceman for team A, and on the other side the vacant slot on defence would be filled by a replacement level defenceman for team B.

Opportunity cost is a last piece of the asset management process to wrap your head around in fantasy leagues. Simply put, it questions whether choosing one option limits the flexibility or quality available for future moves. For example, if you select three goalies with your first three picks in a fantasy draft, then grabbing another goalie later doesn’t make sense even if someone valuable falls.

The same can be said with trades and the general management of assets. Just because a one-for-one swap might be the best option for you in a vacuum, it can limit you in other ways that will overall reduce the quality of your roster. Understanding not just the base value of a player, but the ripple effects of a move throughout your entire roster, will open up opportunities to take full advantage of moves that otherwise would have handcuffed future options.

It all comes down to trying to create the most powerful lineup on paper, and the more top tier assets that a team owns, the closer to the top they will be. In fantasy leagues, quantity is limited, usually to a specific roster size. Buying low, selling high, trading two replaceable assets for one prime asset, and generally condensing into the best possible quality team, is the ideal way to set your team up for sustained and projectable success.

‘Winning’ multiple trades in a short period is often how fantasy league dynasties are born, and getting the best player in the deal is an ideal place to start.

Planning and Research

This portion is all about understanding the nuances of your league, as well as being on top of the news surrounding the relevant players.

If you play in a simple total-points league with no positions and no bench, then there isn’t a large amount of planning that can be done. The more settings and rules a league has, the greater the impact from planning ahead with regards to schedules, positional availabilities, player value fluctuations, and draft plans.

In one of my leagues I managed to win back-to-back championships in 2018 and 2019 despite there being far superior teams on paper in the league. This was accomplished with some shrewd asset management with which I managed to plan my entire run through the playoff weeks ahead of time.

The league is a head-to-head setup where one manager faces off against another each week, and points are awarded for each of the 10 categories tracked. At the end of the week the team with the most points (from victories in the most categories) is the winner. The playoff system runs the last three weeks of the NHL regular season, and as a result the schedule of all the games is available for planning ahead of time. There are six playoff teams in our league, with the top two earning a bye in the first week. My team did not have a bye, but by accumulating good players on my roster that had the most games in the playoff weeks, as well as focusing on more projectable stats, I could plan to win just enough categories to win each week. Brains can beat brawn, but only if there are some assets to work with.

Optimizing the schedule is an excellent place to start, such as targeting players on teams that play more frequently on ‘off-nights’ (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) in order to make lineup decisions easier. Taking things a step further, there are endless troves of advanced stats to browse online. These advanced stats aren’t the ones counted in fantasy leagues, but they can help give context as to why a player over or under produced. The insight provided can be used to further the acquisition of undervalued assets, or to take advantage of an underappreciated source of value in a fantasy league. Diversifying your research with multiple sources and opinions will pinpoint a clearer overall picture on player value as well.

Luck

How can someone make their own luck? Well, it depends what is considered luck in fantasy sports. Players on your team staying healthy while your opponent’s team is decimated with injuries is not something you can necessarily plan for, but it isn’t completely out of your hands either. The same thing goes for when players see value changes (e.g. a breakout season, or play falling off due to age) as we can’t entirely accurately predict a developmental curve, however, we can do our best to get ahead of one of these occurrences. Some players have a reputation of being injury-prone or streaky, and if there is an equivalent player available without those red flags then steering clear of the possible land mine will be more likely to bring a fortunate outcome later on.

One of my favourite sayings sums this up well: “To be good you have to be lucky, but to be lucky you have to be good”.

Once you have a few fantasy leagues under your belt, then adding in keeper options, trading of draft picks, salary caps, and other limitations can make for an even more involved and enjoyable experience. Every style of league has its own variations in strategies, but in the end every league comes back to the three main facets, of prime assets, planning, and just a little luck.

Jack: Real-Life Takeaways

I last played fantasy hockey a decade ago. Since then I’ve been consumed by writing, coaching and analyzing real hockey.

But I’m glad to have invested time and energy into what many consider to be a simple game. Indeed the mental models one builds via playing fantasy hockey (or Franchise Mode in EA Sports’ NHL video game series) transpose themselves beautifully to the real thing. Here is an example:

Asset Management Model: 80/20

In a nutshell: Find the core qualities you wish for your team given the nature of the game, focus 80% of your energy on securing those assets, then use the remaining 20% of your resources to diversify your holdings.

Examples:

  • When I worked with the McGill Martlets hockey program (read more about it here), head coach Peter Smith prioritized two projectable qualities in his player recruitment strategy: skating ability and learning ability (on & off-ice intelligence).

    Not only did we end up with a core group of players who could play the game the Martlets way, but we were also better positioned to absorb and insulate lesser skaters and students with other valuable skillsets - whether it was a player who handled the puck well but wasn’t quick in a straight line, or an outstanding athlete who struggled in the classroom.

  • GM Julien BriseBois and his predecessor Steve Yzerman built the Tampa Bay Lightning on elite speed and skill, acquired mostly via the draft. After an underwhelming 2019 playoffs BriseBois stuck with his core asset strategy (80%), but signed/traded for players such as Patrick Maroon, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn to fortify the lower half of his team’s lineup.

    These players may not ordinarily fit with Tampa’s asset management strategy, but they brought important elements (the other 20%) that helped the team to the 2020 Stanley Cup title.

What top NHL and fantasy hockey GMs are reading:

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