Introduction to NHL Daily Fantasy Hockey: He Shoots, He Scores (and Other Ways to Win)
Welcome back to the 2017-2018 NHL season!
If you have never played daily fantasy hockey, the time to grab your sticks, find your pads and lace up your proverbial skates is this year as the 2016-2017 NHL season was one that drastically increased the amount of daily fantasy sports players who played NHL DFS each night.
This rise in interest was rewarded by a second year of live hockey finale events courtesy of both FanDuel and DraftKings. For those of you that are new to daily fantasy hockey or have not yet made the jump and need a quick overview on the game and some basic strategy, this is the article for you and should serve as a reference point throughout the season as you become more and more comfortable with the scoring and roster construction.
As with any other daily fantasy sport, the objective is to rack up the most points from your roster by having your skaters record points through shooting the puck, scoring goals and notching assists and also having your goaltender earn a win and save as many pucks as possible and maybe even record a shutout.
The way to win may sound obvious, but actually accomplishing this goal is a difficult task. Of the major daily fantasy sports, your NHL games may be some of the lowest scoring contests that you play in and one shot may be the difference between cashing and not cashing. On FanDuel, you must compile a roster of eight skaters and one goalie. That is, staying under the given salary cap, you must select two LWs, two RWs, two Cs, two defensemen and one goaltender. On DraftKings, your roster consists of one C, one LW, one RW, two defensemen, two flex skaters and one goaltender. Other sites, like FantasyAces and Yahoo, also have different lineup requirements.
If you want to cash on any particular night, you really must hit on the goaltender on a winning team, and you need to have at least three goal scorers. On FanDuel and DraftKings, you can win with depth players (who are often the ones who put the puck in the net with helpers from your stars) that shoot the puck a ton or who are troublemakers (as most sites reward players with points for penalty minutes (PIMs) and for “live” statistics such as hits and blocked shots).
Thus, make sure that you understand your site’s scoring system. I know that this mantra is pounded into your head with the start of every fantasy season, but it is worth me saying again. Each DFS site weighs goals and assists differently, just as they value goalie wins in a different manner. What this means is that it is in your best interests to pay up for a goalie on one site, or spend on that top sniper on an another site, because FanDuel and DraftKings, for example, each weigh those relative statistics amongst total projected winning scores differently. On FanDuel, a goalie win may account for much more than that same task counts on DK or DraftDay. Thus, when building your projections or your lineups, make sure you take the relative differences into account. Think about paying up for your goaltender on FanDuel similar to paying up for pitching on the site.
After you have digested this, it is time to look at my plan of attack and some advanced strategies that I employ each night.
The first thing I do on any given day is analyze the lines published by Las Vegas casinos (whether it is the moneylines or over/unders) in order to help assess where the money is going. Some of the information I will write out is accessible to the public, but my information with respect to sharp money and betting trends stems from my own read that I attempt to convey in each piece that I will write for DFS Karma. The thought here is that Vegas spends much more money and energy in setting accurate lines than we spend on any given day playing DFS hockey. As such, we can assume that the information that Vegas releases is as solid a base as any from which we may start our lineup building.
After taking these notes, you want to highlight for yourselves the teams that have the most lopsided moneyline (and use that to select a goalie as his team is more likely to win the game) as well as the games that have the highest over/under (and use that information to select your skaters as those teams are more likely to score the most goals on any given night).
The next thing I do is to take note of the lines that players are likely to play on that night. Then, I take a look at which goaltenders are set to start that night. Make sure you check a site like Left Wing Lock, Daily Faceoff or Fantasy Labs to ensure that you are starting a goalie who is actually in net that night. Most NHL beat writers tweet out this information an hour before the game (if not earlier in the day after the team’s morning skate) after their team’s coach confirms the goalie. However, some coaches will not make this decision until right before the game while the Zamboni is cleaning the ice prior to puck drop. Knowing who the starting goalies are each night is really no different than ensuring in daily fantasy baseball that your players are actually in their respective team’s starting lineup.
Now that you have all of your data written down or scribed in some form, take a look at, for example, FanDuel, and note each players’ salary. Personally, I always start out selecting my goalie. I will take the cheapest goalie of the top tier netminders on the team that is likely (according to Vegas) to get a “W”. The thought here is that FanDuel weighs goalie wins heavily (comparable to a pitcher’s win in baseball) so you want to “pay up” for a goaltender, or at least pay up for the one of the elite netminders. This theory is true when building your cash-game lineups. As a side-note, last season I started paying no more than $8,000 for a goalie on FD as the high-priced keepers in great situations rarely returned value on their price tags relative to mid-tier priced goalies in similar situations.
Remember that my strategy is just a suggestion and is one that I do not always follow. The critical point is that you should always commence your lineup on any given night with your goaltender. Each goalie on each team has a different floor and, necessarily, a different upside. One big mistake that you can make is to limit your goaltender selection by building around your skaters first. Another mistake that novice players make is to take an elite goalie (think, Carey Price), who may carry a $10K+ on FD price tag, when he is skating against a team with an offense so bad that they will not be able to shoot the puck enough. The reason is that because goalies earn points for saving shots, if an opposing team is unable to muster much firepower, then your elite goaltender will not be able to return his price tag even if he earns the win.
On my television shows last season, when discussing goalies, once we discussed Vegas lines, the focus was always on which team would allow at least 28-30 shots against that night. More often than not, my cash game goalie would come from a team that was a favorite to win, was $8K or under (on FD), and was projected to face at least 28 shots.
Once I have my goalie, from there I add a couple of core superstars and then add in the remaining puzzle pieces. At points during the season, especially in your cash-game lineups on short-slate nights, you will almost feel obligated to play, for example, Connor McDavid or Alex Ovechkin every night, because you know that even though they come with a high price tag, you do not want to be the one daily fantasy player without them in the lineup. This situation happened during the last NBA season when it was almost impossible to not roster Russell Westbrook (when Kevin Durant was out) despite his rising salary each night.
Ideally, you want to target your skaters on teams from games that have a high over/under. It is also helpful to find situations where one team has a significantly better power play and is playing a team with a significantly poor penalty kill percentage. You should then attempt to select a netminder in a game with a lower than normal over/under where the moneyline is extremely in favor of the favored team. For NHL purposes, I like to have a goalie on a team with that is at least a -175 on the ML or higher. With respect to my skaters, I try to roster as many forwards and defensemen as possible that skate on the first line (or first defensive unit) as well as on their team’s top power play unit. Of course, this may not always be possible, so you must learn to dig deep to find “values”.
The hardest part about setting a daily fantasy hockey lineup is finding those value or bargain bin players. To do so, pay careful attention to a team’s lines, and note whether a value player (in other words, a player with a cheap price tag) is playing with the first line or second line. It is a bonus if this value player is expected to see power play time. Much like NFL, MLB or NBA DFS, pay particular attention to cheap players who are getting a significant bump in responsibility. That is, if a skater who typically sees third-line usage and is suddenly projected to skate with his team’s top line and first power play unit, then to roster that player you will have to pay a fraction of what you would pay for another skater in a similar situation that usually sees the same usage.
For example, Patrick Kane will see first line and first power play unit time, but he is usually one of the most expensive players to buy each night. If a less talented player replaces Kane one night, you can roster him for much less cap space, and you know he’ll be skating with more talented linemates than he may be used to skating with. So, lock him in and then use that savings to spend elsewhere, say, on a more expensive goalie than you had planned on rostering before.
Lastly, on short-slate nights, be on the lookout for offensive-minded defensemen that log 22:30 minutes of ice time per game or more. You may be in a position in which you want to spend top dollar on that D-man. If you roster that one blueliner who notches a few assists or records a goal when there are 3, 4 or 5 games on a night, you should usually cash in your double-up games. The thought is that a high-priced, offensive defenseman is more likely to at least reach his value when compared to a similarly priced forward that might get second power-play unit time in a poor matchup. My favorite example here is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whom I lovingly refer to as “The Hyphen”, because I know he will see nearly twenty-five minutes of ice time and will shoot the puck three to four times again. OEL may not play on a dynamic offense, but there is safety in your cash game lineups for rostering a blueliner that you know will be on the ice and thus has the chance to rack up fantasy points.
Game Wrap Up/Analytics
In the end, succeeding in the daily fantasy hockey landscape is as much about following the game on a nightly basis as it is in making the right roster choices. If you become adept at finding and exploiting salary inefficiencies, then you will be able to maximize the firepower of your lineup each night. As you follow the NHL news, you will spend less time trying to find holes in players’ salaries and more time building optimal lineups. Remember that daily fantasy hockey is still a small (yet growing) world, in comparison to NFL, MLB and NBA, so if you learn the game, you should be highly profitable.
Over the course of the season, I will be sure to include more advanced strategies in my pieces. One of the primary tools that the hockey world has been rapidly accepting are advanced analytics. While there is no perfect statistic that encapsulates a skater’s worth like say, xFIP, win shares or wRC+, us hockey analysts have been crunching numbers in an attempt to be the first to create that one metric that accurately measures a skater’s value. Until then, we must keep using Corsi, Fenwick and other analytics that are designed to track puck movement and puck possession.
One statistic that I discussed quite a bit over the past two seasons was what I referred to as high-event hockey. It is comparable to the pace statistic in NBA. The idea is to target games in which both teams a) are in the top third in the NHL in shooting the puck, b) are in the top third in the NHL in surrendering shots, c) are in the top third in the NHL in scoring goals and d) are in the top third in the NHL in giving up goals. Shooting and scoring are the “events” in a hockey game and the more shots taken and goals scored, the more fantasy points your skaters can record.
Thus, in taking skaters from not only games that Vegas projects will have high over/unders and also from games that project to be high-event games, we can maximize the probability that our team has a chance at scoring more points than a team from a DFS player that did not do the same research.
We will be including more advanced statistics on DFS Karma this year so please make sure you check back frequently and also feel free to contact me on Twitter @TheTonyM with any DFS NHL questions.