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How to play, and win, your fantasy hockey league like a pro!

Will Auston Matthews be a part of your championship-winning ESPN Fantasy Hockey team? Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in what feels like a month-of-Sundays, we're in position to excitedly look forward to the unfolding of a regular regular season, uninhibited and uninterrupted, as was routine pre-March 2020. (Fingers crossed, knock wood, salt over the shoulder and all that.) Along with allowing ourselves to cautiously exhale, we're also gearing up for what portends to be the best fantasy hockey season yet as hosted by ESPN.com. Which means it's time to get your own gang of managers back together, or form/join a new league, and try to out-smart and out-operate your direct competitors. We're here to help you with that. Beginning with the most important few hours of your entire fantasy season.


The Draft

As the old fantasy adage goes, regardless of sport, it's considerably easier to lose a season-long league on draft day than it is to win one. A few ill-advised choices can sink your chances of fantasy victory right from the start, making for a long, slog of a season. Which renders that three-hour window on some random preseason evening all the more important. Some advice then - in scope of ESPN's standard points re-draft league to help assemble the strongest team possible when it matters most.

In respectful mimicry 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 Steven Stamkos is your favourite NHLer, 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 and Leon Draisaitl round out the trio of elite fantasy performers who are simply more valuable than everyone else. Beyond those three, there's a mini drop to the next, larger, throng of conceivably equal fantasy performers consisting of several forwards, a handful of influential defenseman, and two standout netminders. This gaggle includes Kirill Kaprizov, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Cale Makar, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Igor Shesterkin.

If you believe the starting netminder for the New York Rangers has it in him to near replicate last year's Vezina-winning campaign, by all means, grab him in the first round. Shesterkin was a head above any other regular fantasy goaltender this past season, averaging 4.9 points/game. Frederik Andersen and Darcy Kuemper finished tied for second with an average of 3.8. That's quite a gap. Otherwise - if you feel Shesterkin is likely to regress - wait until the second round to select a still-very-good netminder with similar potential.

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. With the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Elias Pettersson, Sebastian Aho, Brady Tkachuk, and even David Pastrnak still hovering about, there's no great sacrifice in grabbing your top target in net early - be it Calgary's Jacob Markstrom or Edmonton's Jack Campbell - before a rival manager beats you to it.

Once reaching the middle 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 forecast player available.

Either way, mining team previews and other preseason fantasy content to determine who's 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. For example, defenseman Brent Burns presents as a revitalised fantasy asset, after sashaying over from San Jose onto Carolina's top power play. 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.

We'll give this topic more comprehensive coverage nearer the season's start, but I already like Ottawa's Tim Stutzle as a solid sleeper candidate in 2022-23. If the third-year forward ends up centering new Senators Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux, as anticipated - look out. Does Chris Wideman end up anchoring Montreal's top power play, full time, now that Jeff Petry is Pittsburgh bound? That's a though worth keeping in mind. In net, Columbus' Elvis Merzlikins is due for a bounce back campaign on a Blue Jackets squad that improved itself significantly via free agency in the offseason, of particular note signing Johnny Gaudreau and Erik Gudbranson.

The "D" Word

The antithetical sleeper, if you will. On the opposite end of the spectrum from players who might exceed expectations are those due to decline. Skaters age, change teams/lines, or simply struggle to repeat a previously explosive campaign. Freshly signed to a near $70-million life-changing deal, the aforementioned Gaudreau will be hard-pressed to repeat his 115-point performance alongside a Blue Jackets center not named Elias Lindholm, who remains planted in Calgary. What are the odds Roman Josi racks up 73 assists again after never having neared the mark anytime before in his 11-year career? (Don't even get me started on teammate Matt Duchene's bottled lightning campaign in 2021-22.) This isn't to suggest you shouldn't grab Gaudreau or Josi - or even Duchene - 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 - Shesterkin, Markstrom, Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros etc. - should be included on your fantasy roster, along with a solid second-tier fantasy netminder, such as Thatcher Demko. 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.

New faces in new places are always worth a little extra thought at this position. Shuttled out from under Shesterkin's shadow in New York, Alexandar Georgiev could be in for a sparkling season with the Stanley Cup Champions in Colorado. I adore Georgiev's current chances of earning the bulk of starts over Pavel Francouz. After a series of underwhelming campaigns in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, Matt Murray has a shot at turning his career around with a strong Maple Leafs squad. The former Penguins standout certainly merits a roll of the fantasy dice as a depth asset. If you believe the Ottawa Senators are going to be legit contenders in the East, new No. 1 Cam Talbot also qualifies as a semi-sleeper.

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 a part in how you should build your blue line. For instance, if your daily or weekly lineup requires more than twice as many totalled C, LW, and RW as defensemen, the latter position deserves less attention in your draft. But, considering the recent emergence of a greater number of top fantasy producing D-men, only a little less. While it formerly made sense to focus more on the greater wealth of fantasy heavy-hitters up front in conventional scoring drafts, 23 blueliners - including Roman Josi, Cale Makar, and Victor Hedman - averaged more than 2.0 fantasy points per contest in ESPN's default game this past season, up from only a dozen the previous campaign. Those are some truly valuable assets worth snagging in earlier rounds of selection.

Beyond that elite group, the next tier - averaging between 1.7 and 2.0 fantasy points per game - comprises of 45 players. Followed by another glut of defenseman ringing up 1.5 to 1.6 points. Considering the ever growing number of influential fantasy defenders, as mentioned, you'll want to fill your own roster with members of the Top-50, if at all possible. And don't neglect to look beyond scoring numbers in fantasy competition where blocked shots count. Vegas' Brayden McNabb put up only 18 points this past season, but led the league in blocking 179 shots. And there's a good chance a few McNabb types will still be kicking about, past the first few draft rounds.

Categories Matter

They matter a lot. 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 Nashville's Tanner Jeannot is a much bigger deal. Shots and PIM pay out serious fantasy dividends? Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators shoots up your target list. New Flame Jonathan Huberdeau is an even richer commodity in leagues where assists are equal to goals (although asking for 85 again might be too big a request). Perhaps faceoffs are worth a pretty fantasy penny, rendering Blues center Ryan O'Reilly and Vancouver's Bo Horvat even more useful.

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 most of ESPN managers compete in a H2H points league, there are other options, which often merits an amended approach. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of all leagues available on ESPN.com to determine which best suits your own fantasy tastes.

Building a Dynasty

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 already looking at securing a future fantasy star like scoring forward Matthew Savoie (Buffalo Sabres) or future power-play defenseman Pavel Mintyukov (Anaheim Ducks). 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 in the here and now? Winning is the point, right? Then go on and select the scoring veteran who's here for a good fantasy time, if not a long one. Here's looking at you Mark Giordano and Joe Pavelski. 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. While the draft remains the most singular important three-hour stretch of your fantasy season, it's still possible to correct a parade of misguided picks through industrious roster fiddling. Just because you can lose the fantasy campaign on selection day, doesn't mean you're necessarily tied to that fate. Many a successful manager will report sporting a very different-looking roster in April as compared to October.

Specific roles often matter just as much as skill, talent, and health. Is Ryan Hartman still centering a Wild top line with Kirill Kaprizov? If not, there's no chance (zero) the feisty forward repeats his 34-goal showing from last season. Who's lining up with Huberdeau and Lindholm on Calgary's No. 1 unit? If it's Tyler Toffoli, consider me a reinvigorated fantasy fan.

Taking the bigger team picture into account is also important. There's a new bench boss in Philadlephia (you may have heard of him). Some players will respond more favorably to John Tortorella's coaching style than others. Figuring out who will - and who won't -- could go a long way in determining the most valuable fantasy performers with the Flyers. This isn't to suggest parting ways with a talented winger only because he's found his way into Tortorella's time-out corner for a spell, but keep a view on such relevant trends. Paying attention to rumblings out of training camp should provide an early hint of who gels well with Torts and who doesn't.

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. 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.

Also, we're here to help. ESPN's NHL fantasy department rolls out a regular weekly schedule designed to optimize your chances of victory (i.e. obliterating opposing managers). We get you started on Monday with Waiver Watch, which lists a number of underappreciated fantasy assets overall. Even one such roster substitute could mean the difference between winning and losing that particular week. Overall rankings, including scrutiny, are updated every Tuesday, while Friday's Forecaster helps you hack the NHL's schedule for the week ahead. Thursdays are loose; devoted to whatever bit of info and analysis will benefit you most at that particular time. Coaching change with such-and-such a franchise? We'll dive into how that might affect the individual players involved as fantasy assets. The more you know, right?

A Word on Injured Reserve

Use those roster slots to your full advantage, if several are provided, beyond temporarily stashing your own injured stars. Forward Brad Marchand, out until early December post-offseason hip surgery, is projected to return to peak form once fully healed. Which will eventually translate into plenty of points and PIM, alongside a re-signed Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. So stick Marchand on your Injured Reserve in the meanwhile. Same applies to Anthony Cirelli, Max Pacioretty, Tom Wilson and the like. Again, if there's an excess of IR spots available. 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 undressing another manager. The ultimate deal benefits both sides, at least to some degree, in filling a respective void. Win-win. Think lunch hour on the gymnasium floor in Grade 3, when the swapping of a fruit roll-up for chocolate chip cookie pleased all parties. 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. And aren't likely to be invited back to play in future seasons.