How to win your ESPN league

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This piece is meant to act as an introduction to the standard game. With a different league setup than many other manifestations of fantasy hockey, ESPN's standard game needs to be approached carefully by any new manager. Admittedly, it is a bit different than some fantasy leagues you've played in in the past, but once you get over the simple fact that it's different, you will begin to embrace it.

The game uses 10 statistical categories: seven for offense (goals, assists, plus/minus, penalty minutes, shots on goal, power-play goals and average time on ice), and three for goaltenders (goals-against average, save percentage and wins). Based on the categories, goal scorers definitely have the most value. Playmakers will still be counted thanks to assists and plus/minus, and defensemen have their dominion in average ice time and penalty minutes, but goal scorers get to dominate in three categories with shots, goals and power-play goals. That brings us to ...

Eight Simple Rules For Winning Your League

Simple Rule No. 1: Daniel beats Henrik. The rule, of course, refers to the Vancouver Canucks' Sedin twins. Both players will finish with essentially equal numbers in points, plus/minus rating and penalty minutes, but Daniel is ranked in our top 25 and Henrik falls outside the top 60. That's because Henrik is a playmaker and Daniel is a finisher. While Henrik will have an advantage in the assists category, Daniel will score more goals, get more shots on goal and have more power-play goals than his brother. The ESPN standard game favors the player who puts the puck into the net, not the one who helped make it possible. Remember this rule when comparing players; make it the foundation on which you build your rankings. Goal scoring breeds production in two other categories, while assists are an island unto themselves. (Though now that I've used the Sedins in this example, this will be the year they switch jerseys and never tell anybody).

Simple Rule No. 2: Alexander Ovechkin is the No. 1 pick, and it's not even close. This rule is used to really drive home the type of player that the ESPN standard game favors. Ovechkin is likely to lead the league in three of the seven standard categories. Sidney Crosby won't lead the league in any of them. This isn't a debate over who is the better hockey player. This is simple math given the variables of the standard ESPN game. Ovechkin and high-scoring wingers are king. Crosby and playmaking centers are his serfs.

Simple Rule No. 3: A quality goaltender in hand is worth three skaters in the bush. If goal scorers are responsible for three categories, then logic dictates that goaltenders, who are also responsible for three categories of their own, also deserve a measure of respect. A standard roster will feature an offense with nine forwards, five defensemen and a utility spot. Each of those roster spots helps toward seven categories. That means that 15 players are responsible for 70 percent of your rotisserie points, or about 5 percent of your total roto contributions from each offensive player. With two goalies handling the remaining 30 percent of your standings, that means each goaltender is responsible for 15 percent of your rotisserie points.

This is not to say you should be drafting goalies in the first two rounds (not that it's a terrible idea), but rather the rule is emphasizing the fact that those you draft need to be solid. Two elite goaltenders lock you in for 25 to 30 rotisserie points. Two elite forwards don't promise anything other than a good start to your offense. Even owning both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can't guarantee you any category. But owning Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur (in a year when both don't get hurt) means you're going to finish near the top of the goalie categories.

Simple Rule No. 4: Elite defensemen are truly elite. If there is a premium on good goaltending, there is an even bigger premium on your elite defensemen. Defensemen accrue points in the same fashion as forwards in this format. There is no bonus for defense points, nor are there any stat categories that specifically favor them (though time on ice certainly leans in their favor). That makes your elite, top-tier defensemen extra special, as they can compete with some of the top forwards for production. ESPN auction values show Zdeno Chara as the top defenseman at $24, but it drops all the way to $9 for the No. 12 blueliner (Mark Streit). But from No. 13 to No. 24 there is only a $2 value change, from $8 to $6. Same goes for No. 25 to No. 36. That means the top dozen defensemen give you a spectacular advantage if you can secure a couple of them. You also want to avoid being stuck with the low-end defensemen whose only attribute is that they skate backwards a lot, but statistically do not belong in the top 200 players conversation.

Simple Rule No. 5: You do NOT want goons. Penalty minutes are closest to being a specialty category than any of the other ones. For example, you rarely find someone who shoots the puck a lot but has trouble scoring (Mikael Samuelsson might be the exception), or someone who has a good plus/minus but doesn't put up points. But there are tons of players out there who rack up PIMs, and nothing but. However, the problem with goons is that despite the advantage they can give you in a category, they will absolutely decimate you in another. Of all the NHL players you could reasonably expect to rack up more than 100 penalty minutes, only a dozen or so will get more than 15 minutes of ice time. The others will drag your average ice time down so much you will be sacrificing one category for another while losing the scoring production you'd get from even a replacement-level forward.

Simple Rule No. 6: Multicategorical players are worth their weight in gold. Brenden Morrow used to be the king here, but Alexandre Burrows and Scott Hartnell are reigning champions, with David Backes and Sean Avery challenging. These guys may not light up the nets, but the fact they have a decent amount of ice time to go with 150 penalty minutes and know what to do with the puck means they don't have to. Any power forward is a sleeper to find this kind of value, but you want to make sure they have a chance of having a decent plus/minus to truly be valuable. Todd Bertuzzi, anyone?

Simple Rule No. 7: Plus/minus is both essential and fleeting. Plus/minus is an unusual fantasy statistic because players can contribute both positively and negatively to a non-ratio category. That is not something you often have to deal with in fantasy sports. While you have to cope with a baseball player who doesn't steal bases, you don't see that player take away some of the stolen bases your other players get. If you were playing fantasy football, no one would touch the running back that consistently posted minus-50 yards every week, but in fantasy hockey, some players with a similar handicap deserve a spot on your roster due to their other contributions.

The unpredictability from year to year really messes with the category as well. Dany Heatley was third in the league in 2007-08 at plus-33 but finished last season with a minus-11. Thomas Vanek led the league at plus-47 in 2006-07 but followed up with a minus-5 campaign. Wade Redden led the league at plus-35 in 2005-06 and was plus-1 the following season. The 2003-04 league leader was Martin St. Louis at plus-35 and the next season he was minus-3. Getting the point?

Simple Rule No. 8: When factoring plus/minus into a player's value, pay attention only to the extremes. We know the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings will be the home of plus/minus leaders this season, so feel free to move those players up in the rankings because of their rating. We know the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning will have a plus/minus rating similar to Antarctic temperatures, so move them south in your rankings. But since most Pittsburgh Penguins will finish somewhere between plus-10 and minus-10, just forget about the statistic completely. Don't bother giving Sidney Crosby credit for his plus-8, and don't discount Jordan Staal for his minus-5.

I wouldn't bother factoring it into any of your decisions except for players on certain teams. Teams whose players deserve a boost for plus/minus: Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils and the top players for the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. Reduce the values of players for their plus/minus on: Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and possibly Edmonton Oilers. Ignore the statistic for everybody else.

At the end of the day, though, I called these all "simple rules" for a reason. These are just blanket-statement strategies. Well-thought-out strategies, but strategies nonetheless. It's not my place to offer up a rigid code of conduct, but by reading this, you should feel a little more comfortable with the ESPN standard game. Surely you'll enjoy the subtleties and come up with your own strategies once you get playing. But hey, guess what? If you don't like it, ESPN Fantasy Hockey is fully customizable to any category and game-play setting you desire. Did I mention it was free, too?

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association hockey writer of the year. You can e-mail him here.