With the health and safety of players, staff, and their respective families of paramount concern, the 2021 NHL regular season will unfold like no other. Empty or sparsely occupied arenas, a compressed 56-game schedule, competition restricted to inter-divisional play, and 54 pages outlining the league's COVID-19 protocol set the table for the most unique campaign yet. No one knows how this is really going to go, week by week, and fantasy hockey enthusiasts will have to adapt.
From draft day until the final whistle blows in May, here are some season-specific strategies for managers in both rotisserie and head-to-head leagues. Beginning with how to approach changes to ESPN's standard fantasy hockey game itself.
The new game
Frankly, it's fantastic. Tinkering with the default system this long offseason, ESPN.com's fantasy hockey crew has come up with its finest version to date. Hits and blocked-shots are now included, rewarding physical and defensive play. Blueliners are worth more than ever, especially those who block shots and score. Bonus points for special-teams scoring means bigger offensive numbers across the board. Gone is the plus/minus category, despised - in my view - openly or quietly by fantasy hockey managers the world over (still available as a custom option). But the biggest adjustment affects goaltending. The awarding of 0.2 points per save boosts the fantasy goalie's value to fresh heights. The busier and stingier the better. Even more so now, disregarding that position until later stages of the draft will hurt you. You will not win in any format, I promise.
Of course, fantasy commissioners can still customize leagues to taste. If faceoffs and time-on-ice and penalty minutes are up your alley, have at it. There are no wrong answers when assembling a league, however unconventional. The latest round-up of category specialists outlines who to target depending on how the points count.
It's dense. Fifty-six games per team over the course of 121 days will take a harsher toll on some players than others. Tell you what, we're going to find out who's in shape and who isn't pretty quick. More skaters are going to fall hurt more frequently. Some older individuals are going to adopt the "load management" approach and take games off - at least they should. With each draft pick, fantasy managers should ask themselves: "Is this guy going to play regularly/not fall to pieces?" For instance, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty has sat out a total of three games since 2013-14. I like his odds of plowing through this compact campaign more than a less sturdy player (you know who they are). Without sacrificing fantasy upside, it's worth taking extra care in drafting those more robust types.
The discrepancy in number of back-to-back sets for each team is also worth considering, particularly when selecting goaltenders. The San Jose Sharks have 12 such sets scheduled while the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh Penguins have only six. It isn't ridiculous to suggest that netminder Devan Dubnyk - supposing he's San Jose's perceived No. 1 over Martin Jones - will sit more often than Tampa's Andrei Vasilevskiy or New York's Igor Shesterkin or Pittsburgh's Tristan Jarry. In this shorter season, the difference between a goalie playing five to 10 more games than another will carry significant fantasy weight.
Then there's the issue of addressing intra-divisional play. Perhaps the idea of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick facing the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues regularly in the West Division doesn't hold much fantasy appeal. While there's greater parity in the NHL than many other professional sports leagues some competition is still tougher. More than any other regular season, there's value in loading up on quality goaltenders to shift in and out as necessary. Especially if participating in ESPN.com's default game.
Health and Safety
I need not remind you we're still mired in a pandemic. The health and safety of everyone involved in NHL competition, and those around them, remains the top priority. In accordance with regulations imposed by local health authorities, individuals who test positive for COVID-19, exhibit common symptoms, or are deemed to have been exposed to the virus, will have to self-isolate for a significant period of time. Players are going to miss games. Contests are going to be postponed. It's inevitable.
The best fantasy workaround in all formats is to expand roster sizes and provide additional IR spots. Real-life NHL clubs are allotted taxi squads this year, the same expanded-roster philosophy can apply to fantasy teams. This allows for greater flexibility in shuffling bodies around to account for injuries, COVID-related absences, load management/rest days, and even game postponements. Permitting managers to adjust lineups daily is another key. League managers can add extra roster spots or IR spots, even after the draft.
Finally, it's worth keeping in mind that fantasy hockey is a game within a game. It's for fun. There's no point in becoming frustrated when the unexpected happens - prepare yourself to expect the unexpected. Take a breath and remember there are much more important matters at stake.
In that spirit, here's to a successful, entertaining, and beyond all else, safely-run NHL season.