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Fantasy Hockey 101: How to Play Fantasy Hockey

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

You know sports; that’s why you’re reading this. You evidently have an interest in hockey, but may be most familiar with other fantasy games like baseball or football.

Welcome to what I consider the best game on ice AND in fantasy. I kid you not. Hockey is fast. Look away and you’ll miss something great. Fantasy hockey is the same way, but don’t take that in an it-moves-too-fast-for-me-to-keep-up kind of way. So read on, jump in with both feet, and learn more about the exciting world of virtual pucks.

Free or fee?

Yahoo! runs fantastic free hockey leagues – you can sign up and join a league without knowing a soul. Easy! Or, better yet, you and your friends can create a league on their site.

Other free options include OfficePools.com, where you can play games like Pick’Em and Survivor pools (see the football parallel?) Google can help you find free fantasy hockey software with just a few keystrokes.

Some sites require payment. CBSSports.com offers completely customized scoring options and is great for advanced leagues. Googling around can help you find a place to spend your money, but we recommend starting with a free site, just to get your feet wet.

Daily, weekly or seasonal leagues?

How much time do you have? Roster management takes time. Especially daily leagues -- those take the most time because you change your roster before game start each and every day.

Weekly leagues often set rosters on Mondays and last seven days. If a guy gets hurt, you’re out of luck until the following week. Too bad, so sad.

Seasonal leagues are more rare and often come in box formats. What does that mean? In days of paper, you’d get a sheet with a bunch of boxes on it. In those boxes would be names of players. You’d pick one guy from each box – the one you think is the top scorer – and then live with him the rest of the year. These are available digitally, but you might have to hunt for them if you’re interested.

Draft or auction? Yikes!

A draft can be a snake or linear. Linear gives you the most consistency – you always draft in the same spot in each round, just like the NHL Entry Draft. Snake drafts progress in order of 1 to 10 and then 10 to 1. However, there are fantasy owners who stay away from these types of drafts because they could get picks 10 and 11, but have to wait until 29 for the next pick.

Auctions sound more intimidating than they actually are. You get a fixed virtual budget to spend on players – I’ve played in leagues with budgets ranging from $220 and $260 -- and there’s a specific number of players you must draft (as determined by the fantasy league commissioner).

You’re free to spend as much or as little as you want on each guy, but be careful. Don't overbid early or you won't have cash left for big-name guys who'd be a great fit. But you also need to find a way to use up all (or just about all) of your budget -- you don't want to leave money on the table.

Complicated? Not so much. It's great fun! Some guys will go for $1 and it’s common to see an elite player eat up 30-plus percent of your budget. Your own risk tolerance will dictate how you spend your dough, but the auction format gives each owner equal odds of landing any given player once the auction begins.

Auctions are done online (does anyone ever meet in person to draft anymore?). The league provider will predetermine a nomination order of teams. Each team owner will take turns nominating a player for bidding. You can nominate any player at any dollar amount. That's where the craziness begins. Bidding is fantastic, fast and fun, so I recommend watching the first few nominations unfold before jumping in with a bid. Nominations usually start at $1, although you can bid any amount you want, as long as you have the cash. Highest bid wins and the player gets assigned to that team.

Oh yeah – make sure you rearrange your real life to make the online draft. Do WHATEVER it takes to be there. Otherwise, the computer will pick your team and you’ll be swimming upstream the whole season.

Editor’s note: Check out this Fantasy 101: Auction Strategy article to learn even more about this super exciting format.

What is positional eligibility?

Center, left wing, defenseman -- you get the point. Most leagues require you to roll out a specific number of each on your active roster. Smart owners gain flexibility by drafting guys eligible at multiple positions. Remember when San Jose played Brent Burns at forward? He was also eligible on the blue line. A 55-point winger was good. A 55-point defender was fantasy platinum!

Standard Yahoo! leagues include 10 guys – two each at center, left wing and right wing, two defenders and two goalies – with four guys on their “bench.” Other leagues just use forward, defense and goalie as positions. And some formats are fully customized, with more than 20 active guys, including as many as three goalies at a time.

Scoring is complicated!

Don’t be surprised to see different scoring systems from one league to the next, but almost all include goals, assists, power-play points, goalie wins, save percentage, GAA and shutouts. But there are also ones that count everything from plus-minus, penalty minutes and faceoff wins to blocked shots, hat tricks and time on ice (TOI), among other things. These are tougher to predict, so that’s why Rotowire.com has created a draft kit that includes a custom hockey rankings model. You enter your scoring system and the model spits out a ranked list of guys you should target!

Like baseball, you can play roto or points – the concepts are the same. Roto ranks your totals first to last in each category and awards you with that rank. Points leagues give you points using a multiplier and then adds them up to one giant total. Play what you like!

Want to really test your general manager abilities? Head-to-head pits you against another owner, usually over the course of a week (but sometimes it’s based on a single night’s NHL schedule). Your ability to pick the right roster to matchup against the other owner’s team will dictate your success.

Keeper or one-year wonder?

Single-year leagues are a great way to get started in fantasy hockey. You pick your team and manage it for one season, and then throw them all back in the proverbial pond once the ice melts at the end of the year.

Keeper leagues involve guys you get to hold onto for the next season. These leagues allow you to imitate a real NHL general manager and often have complex rules around contract length (how long you can keep a guy without penalty) and annual cost. Admittedly, I’m biased – keeper leagues are my favorite, hands down.

To waive or not to waive – that is the question.

The waiver pool can be a real lifeline if you get hit with injuries during the season. But just remember this: the waiver pool is made up of players that no one wanted in the first place. They weren’t good enough to draft. Generally, the only good players you’ll find there were cut by accident, are returning from injury mid-season or have been promoted from the minors.

I’m not saying avoid the waiver wire, but just be smart about it. Most leagues use a priority system, so you’ll drop to the bottom of the priority list the moment you snag a player off the wire. Always weigh the potential value of the player against the possibility a better player might come along (maybe a young buck from the minors). You might not get him if you already used up your priority spot. Make your picks worthwhile!

FAAB (free-agent acquisition budget) gives you a sum of money – usually $100 – to spend on free agents over the season. More and more hockey leagues are using FAAB than ever before.

Manners matter, especially in trades!

Reputation matters in fantasy hockey, so do not blow yours by offering up lopsided trade offers to fellow owners. That’s the fastest way to be branded a jerk (and I’m using the nice word in this article). DO NOT offer a droppable guy and a bag of pucks for a star player. DO NOT be like that person who calls in to sports radio and sounds like an idiot. DO always respond politely to messages and trade offers thrown your way, even if they’re awful. The best trade partners consider how the trade at hand will benefit both parties.

What exactly is DFS?

DFS (or Daily Fantasy Sports) is an intense fantasy hockey experience that starts fresh again every night. It’s great for those with money to burn or the attention of a fruit fly. Or both. You pick a roster, lay down a wager and let ‘er rip. Just a word of advice – start small until you get the hang of it. Play within your financial means. It’s a game -- nothing more, nothing less. Check out FanDuel or DraftKings – they have lots of tutorials to help you get started.

Last, but not least – DO NOT overthink your roster.

There will come a point in time where you overanalyze your team. You’ll be in a weekly format and your top player will play just two games that week. And you’ll move them to the bench in favor of a lesser player who has four games.

Resist. The. Urge.

Two games from Ryan Getzlaf are almost always going to be better than four games from Reilly Smith (especially in Vegas). As with any fantasy sport, your star players should be lock-and-forget types unless they’re hurt or truly only have a single game in that week or period.

Pull the trigger if a trade feels right to you. DO NOT listen to whiners who question your decisions – they’re only jealous you didn’t consummate the trade with them. Seriously!

Fantasy hockey really is a load of fun. Try it today, and take advantage of Rotowire.com’s free 10-day free trial [insert link] to check out the Hockey Draft Kit. You’ll dominate your first season with our award-winning tools and resources.

Welcome to the best game in fantasy!