Tram’s Treatise on Fantasy Hockey

While I’ve been watching hockey since the age of my first memories, I’m entering my 16th season as a fantasy hockey competitor. The beginning of it all was right around when fantasy football was starting to become popular just within the crowd that payed attention to that kind of stuff — namely gamblers, baseball aficionados looking for something to do in the fall, and generally older men. I was eleven going into that 1995-96 season, but that didn’t stop me from running what I thought was the greatest four-team league in the world. We used a snake draft to fill our fill our roster of six forwards, four defensemen and two goalies. I created some sort of point system that was probably lifted from The Sporting News or some similar magazine, and included something like four skating statistics and three goalie stats. We ran the stats every week on whatever day it was that USA Today printed NHL statistics in the newspaper (I think it was Thursday, but I can’t really remember. They probably still do it to this day). Needless to say, every team was an all-star team and our one-week playoff matchups (which every team in the league qualified for) were almost entirely a crapshoot.
I quickly went out of my way to add owners and overhaul the way we scored the leagues, and throughout the years the thing grew and grew. During one season (2000-01), I even went with the “pick one player from each group” format. I created the groups and went around with a couple of my best friends to try to get everybody signed up — just one dollar to enter. After getting so many teams that we could justify a 32-team tournament for the title, the league was eventually won by a young lady in my junior class, a fact which slapped the rest of us know-it-alls in the face.

We kept tweaking and kept refining, eventually switching from points-based to category-based scoring; from weekly to daily roster changes; from scoring by hand to letting a website handle everything. Three years ago I took everything that I had learned and tried to form the best possible fantasy hockey league, and I’m proud to say that entering Season Four we have a group of men and women that would probably all testify to the realization of that goal. But, nothing’s ever final. Parts are always moving, and today I want to talk about the pros and cons, dos and don’ts of setting up and playing in a fantasy hockey league. There’s no one right answer — each commissioner and league is free to decide what it wants to deem important. There are a couple wrong answers, which I’ll mention, but all in all I want to talk about how a person can best play fantasy hockey the way they want to.

Fantasy Hockey Should at Least Somewhat Mimic Real, On-ice Hockey
This is my number one canon when it comes to fantasy hockey. Too often I see leagues that are entirely based on goals and assists, specifically those scored on the power play. The lame, unimaginative argument is that in real hockey, all that matters is the final score, and therefore goals, and to a lesser extent assists, should dominate the decision over who wins a fantasy hockey game.
I hate this argument. If all you want to do is see who can predict the league’s scoring race with the most accuracy, by all means go for the “points are all that matters” setup to your fantasy game. But if you’re looking for a more favorable depiction of the sport and a game that more closely mimics reality, dig deeper. The “final score” argument is flawed because it does not take into account the defenseman that hit the ice to block the slap shot from the point; it does not take into account the right wing that charged into the side boards to hit the opponent, dig the puck out and flip it into the neutral zone; it does take into account the center that picks up the clearance and turns up ice with his all-star left wing for an odd-man rush, but only to the extent that the center’s pass is one that leads directly to the left wing’s goal. Here we have a team play that engrosses all three zones of the hockey rink. Therefore, I believe that to have a fantasy game that best aligns itself with real hockey success, we need a game that gives fantasy credit to those players who make plays that lead to real on-ice success for their teams.
Hence, you will never find me supporting or taking seriously a fantasy hockey game that does not give credit for hits and blocked shots. Is a hit as valuable as a goal? Well, no. But a hit is more valuable than zero, and as such it must be given some fantasy value higher than zero.
In a points-based league, it is easy to give points for hits and blocks that are a fractional value of the points awarded for goals. What that ratio should be is entirely up to each league, although comparing the league leaders in each stat could be a start. There usually aren’t more than a few guys who register more than 300 hits in a season. Comparatively, fifty goals seems to be a mark that not more than a few guys will hit in any given season. So, if you want to make a clean comparison and just say that six hits shall equal a goal, go for it. Many people will argue that a 6:1 ratio gives too much credit to hits, but really go out and look at how many 6-hit games there are in the NHL for one player. They’re pretty rare, and it’s just one goal we’re equating six hits to. Do it however you want, just make sure you give something to the physical stats. That is, of course, if you want to play in a league that gives even a small effort to mimic real hockey.
If you play in a categories-based league, it becomes a little trickier to fractionalize the lesser stats because each category generally counts the same. While you can probably tell that I hate leagues that make it possible to tally a point in seven different categories by performing one action, there are ways to adjust the weight of goal-scoring without having it completely determine the outcome of your league.
I should get this out of the way right now: if you see a league that is categories-based and scores the following as separate but equal stats, run the other way:
  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Points
  • Power Play Goals
  • Power Play Assists
  • Power Play Points
  • Short Handed Goals
  • Short Handed Assists
  • Short Handed Points
  • Special Teams Goals
  • Special Teams Assists
  • Special Teams Points
I see leagues set up like this far too often on the internet. Let’s assume that Player X gets lucky and gets an assist on a shorthanded breakaway. He would score “1” in seven different categories! Seven! Meanwhile, his teammate hits four guys, blocks three shots and gets an assist while at even strength, and gets credit in fewer categories (and that’s assuming this league even counts hits and blocks, which so many novice leagues do not).
Let’s count the ways in which Player X scored a “1” with this single action (the shorthanded assist). Player X scores “1” in: assists, points, short handed assists, short handed points, special teams assists, special teams points, and plus/minus (almost all leagues track +/-, and remember, you get a plus-1 for shorthanded points). This is just absurd, and detracts from the point of playing fantasy hockey, which in my opinion should be to have a gathering amongst fans who want to pit their knowledge and luck against each other in a way that might resemble what would happen if they were all real GMs of clubs. Letting a single action count for seven categories, or even close to that number, defeats the purpose of even playing. It’s absurd, don’t do it.
Our league added “special teams points” a year ago in an effort to give more of a reward to the league’s premium players. We count goals and assists, as well as +/-. By having these four scoring stats, you ensure that a scoring action counts in two categories. Either your guy scores or gets an assist at even-strength, which counts as either a goal or an assist, as well as a plus-1, or he gets a point on the power play, which counts as the goal or assist and a special teams point. This system also gives a bonus to short handed points, as you would score in three categories for this one action — the goal / assist, a special teams point, and a plus-1. I feel this is a good way to add weight to scoring while also factoring in the physical and very important stats of hits and blocks. If you want to go one further, count “points” as a separate category. But for the love of everything good in this world, don’t entertain these leagues that make absolutely everything based on scoring.
Faceoffs Won is a Communist Stat
I’m not meaning to get into a serious discussion about the ways for nations to allocate resources. I’m simply drawing on that old cliché, “Communism is great in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Everybody knows this saying, even if they don’t really understand what it means or why it is or is not true.
I’m here to make my argument that in the realm of fantasy hockey, “faceoffs won” as a stand-alone statistic is great in theory, but does not work in practice.
When we started our continentally elite fantasy league, we were nothing short of fantasy hockey snobs. I would say we still are; perhaps even more so today. I mean I’m writing a long blog entry preaching about how to play fantasy hockey…
But I’m doing it because I care. I care about all of you, who are only still reading this because your mind is open and you want the best fantasy league possible. The temptation for an elitist league is to consider faceoffs won in the same sentence as hits and blocks: they represent an under-appreciated statistic that at many times leads to actual on-ice success. If you have a points-based scoring system, I think it’s fine to give a fractional point total for faceoffs won. I would argue that faceoffs lost should count against a player as well. But in a categories-based scoring system I don’t think there’s any place for faceoff statistics, and here’s why.
Today, pretty much all fantasy hockey leagues are run online. The conveniences are obvious: instant, real-time scoring updates; easy daily transactions and roster changes; a fair, non-biased way to handle free agency and the waiver wire; and most of all, the time that is now not spent by the league commissioner rummaging through a newspaper or online box score to try to add up all of these statistics. But the drawback is a lack of autonomy for the league and its members. Not only is it impossible to implement complicated keeper rules without just honoring some man-made rules that are known to the owners and followed separately from the website’s game rules, but allowing a website to run your league means you’re stuck their decisions regarding a player’s position. This is the key to why faceoffs won shouldn’t really count.
On, for instance, numerous actual NHL centers are listed as wingers. David Backes, Henrik Zetterberg, Claude Giroux, Antoine Vermette and Brandon Dubinsky are just a few who had hundreds of faceoffs won while remaining eligible as wingers. In some cases, the player isn’t even listed as a center at all. By screwing positional eligibility up, the website creates an easily exploitable glitch by allowing owners to stock up on real centers and playing half of them at wing, guaranteeing victory in the stat category of “faceoffs won.” I’ve went ahead and made the assumption that everyone knows that a league that only rosters forwards, instead of making the distinction between centers and wingers, simply sucks. If that wasn’t clear before, now it should be. That format sucks. It’s juvenile and novice; it’s not even up at the level of remedial.
Now, if you want to count faceoffs in a points-based scoring system, that’s doable. Like I said, faceoffs won and lost should count, so it’s not a “make it up on volume” situation. But, if you prefer a categories-based scoring system, I think faceoffs need to be left behind. I already explained why faceoffs won essentially allows certain owners to manipulate the system.
Going back to the issue of giving the necessary weight to certain actions, I don’t believe keeping two categories for “faceoffs won” and “faceoffs lost” does your league any justice. For one, almost any two fantasy teams will split those categories anyway, as one team will simply take more faceoffs. But second, faceoffs just aren’t that important at most points of a hockey game. Certainly the specialists are called upon to win big draws in a particular zone, but many neutral-zone faceoffs don’t have any impact on the outcome of the game. Sure, they sometimes do, but by counting two categories for faceoffs, you’re only diluting every other category and minimizing each’s importance by adding to the denominator. If you have a league with 13 categories, each stat counts for 7.7% of the total score. Make it 14 stats, and the number falls to 7.1%. Add both faceoff stats to bring the total to 15 categories, and each one is worth 6.7%. What is the point of diluting everything simply to include two stats that will split every week? Or worse, to include one stat that the game setup allows people to cheat at based solely on a website’s ignorance? There’s no point, because doing so takes away from your game mimicking real-life hockey.
We started counting faceoffs won because we wanted to be leaders and improve the correlation between real hockey success and fantasy hockey success. We got rid of it because it simply didn’t work in practice.
Rotisserie / Total Points vs. Weekly H2H Each Category vs. Weekly H2H Most Categories / Weekly H2H Points Matchup
Regardless of how far along we are in our quest for the perfect fantasy hockey league, the number one most important issue that needs to be solved is finding a group of competitors who care about competing in the league. The second most important issue is deciding how to setup the manner in which a league’s champion will be crowned. In category-based scoring leagues, there are three possible ways to keep track of the standings. In points-based scoring leagues, there are only two different ways to determine the standings, but each mirrors one of the three systems that category leagues have to choose from. I’ll explain what each one is, what the positives are to each, and what the drawbacks are. This way, you can play in a league that is most conducive to the type of game you want to play. Remember, this is a six-month commitment, and nobody wants to waste half a year of his or her life. Not to mention, choosing the wrong kind of league can turn a person off to fantasy hockey altogether, and we’d never want that.
Rotisserie Leagues and Total Points Leagues
Before fantasy football blew up and before fantasy baseball was really even a phrase, stat geeks played rotisserie baseball. I really don’t remember hearing the term “fantasy baseball” until a points system came out when I was about 10 years old. Prior to that, I played one season of “rotisserie baseball,” which I found boring at the time, but have come to have an appreciation for. Here’s how a rotisserie hockey league would work.
What it is
Rotisserie leagues are by definition category-based scoring leagues. The league would decide which stat categories it deems valuable, and choose those categories as the ones that count for the league. Let’s assume the league takes nine skating categories and five goalie categories, for a total of fourteen statistical categories. Let’s now say that the league has twelve teams.
Rotisserie leagues tally up the figure that each team has registered for each category, and ranks the teams from top to bottom in each category. So let’s take the category “goals,” for instance. The team that scored the most goals on its active roster throughout the year would score 12 points, while the team with the lowest goal total would score 1 point. We would then perform this analysis for assists, and then for every category that is chosen. Winning a category would secure a team 12 points, while every spot thereafter would score one point less than the spot ahead of it.
True rotisserie leagues don’t score themselves until the end of the season, which usually lasts from puck drop to the final day of the regular season. The “standings” can be calculated at any point, but they’re always fluid as points are never truly in the bank, since a team can be third in the league in, say, goalie wins on February 1, but finish the season in ninth. So those ten points on February 1 ended up only being four points at the end of the season. The champion of the league is the team with the most points at the end of the season.
For points-based scoring leagues, the equivalent to the rotisserie setup is the “total points” league. In a total points league, a pre-determined point total is assigned to each hockey action, and every night players accumulate fantasy points accordingly. The champion of the league is the team with the most total fantasy points at the end of the season. Now, I’ve seen total points leagues that have playoffs. What they do is use the total points system to determine the “regular season” standings, and then have playoff matchups according to seedings. This is almost never done in a rotisserie-style league, and it should be noted that the online sites that run fantasy hockey leagues (I’m just talking about ESPN and Yahoo! here) do not allow for a playoff in a total points league, as they shouldn’t.
The Positives
The upside to a rotisserie or total points league is simple: it gives the best indication as to who is most deserving of a championship over a six-month period. Because these leagues are based on an entire season, the champion of the league is the person who finished in first place overall over the longest possible duration. It is hard to argue against the fact that the person in first place overall after six months did not have the best fantasy team based on the rules and format of the game.
So, the positive is that the best team should always win. In leagues that have playoffs, there is the possibility for one team to dominate for four or five months, only to have a mediocre week or two and bust out without the league title. That dimension in itself could be positive or negative, but it should be understood going in that rotisserie and total points leagues are designed to combat that upset phenomenon, and award the title to the best team manager over a six-month period.
The Negatives
It shouldn’t be hard to see where this system can go wrong. If you’re managing a team that has started poorly, and now we’re halfway through the season and you see yourself in the bottom half of every statistical category, or rocking half the total points of the league leader, what’s the point in pressing on when the ceiling for your team is probably around fourth or fifth place?
This is a mindset that many of us think we are immune to, but I’ve never played in a rotisserie league that didn’t see the bottom half give up and go absent over the final two-thirds of the season. In many ways, the positive breeds the negative. If you set up a league that has no playoff and awards the league title to the best team at the end of the season, then more and more teams are going to lose hope of finishing first as the season goes on.
The only way a rotisserie or total points league can truly work is if it has dedicated owners who will fight the urge to quit or go absent if the going gets tough. One way to do this could be to have something on the line for each spot in the standings. Another is to create some sort of situational trophies, where maybe the team with the best results from weeks 21 to 23 gets a low-level award or something. There has to be something to keep everybody interested in these types of leagues. If you can manage that, I think a rotisserie or total points league can be the most rewarding. The problem is, it’s hard to manage that.
Weekly Most Categories and Weekly Points Matchup Leagues
Everything that isn’t a rotisserie or total points league has to be a head-to-head league. This is exactly what you think it is — each week one team plays another specific team, and points or category totals are compared only between those two teams in determining a winner. It’s exactly like fantasy football, which is almost 100% ran with a weekly head-to-head points matchup style.
What It Is
For a points-based scoring league, this is the only way to do head-to-head matchups every week (or two weeks, or whatever time period you want). For a category-based scoring league, there are two ways to do head-to-head. Let’s keep our example of the 14-category, 12-team league. There would be six matchups every week, and each matchup would be a two-team contention for each of the 14 categories. One way to score the standings is to give a win and a loss for each and every category. So if Team A beats Team B in nine categories, and Team B beats Team A in five, then Team A earns a record of 9-5 that week, while Team B earns a record of 5-9 for that specific matchup. That’s the type of league I’m going to talk about last.
What we’re talking about here, and is the equivalent to the weekly points matchup leagues, is what’s usually called a “head-to-head most categories” league, or weekly most categories. In these leagues, if Team A won 9 categories and lost 5 to Team B, then Team A would earn a record of 1-0 for that week, while Team B would go 0-1 in that specific matchup. This is a way to have a category-based scoring system while also having a league similar to fantasy football in the way that it keeps track of team records and standings, with one win and loss gained from each matchup.
The Positives
The good thing about playing in H2H most categories or H2H points leagues is that it takes longer for teams to be eliminated. Because a team can be truly awful for the first half of the season and still only be three or four games out of the playoffs, it becomes possible for teams to stay in the hunt longer. If a league’s regular season is 20 weeks, then a bad team could be 2-8 halfway though, but only be three games back of the last playoff spot that is currently occupied by a 5-5 team. If that 2-8 team was generally losing the category total 11-3 every week, then they’re record in a H2H each category league would be dreadful. But in the H2H most categories league, their brutal defeats count the same against them as if they were scrapping their way to 8-6 losses. This keeps everyone realistically eligible for the playoffs later into the season, which should only increase the total amount of league hope.
The Negatives
The terrible thing about these kinds of leagues is that they cater almost entirely to keeping every team in it longer, instead of rewarding the truly best team. These leagues are the polar opposite of rotisserie or total points leagues in that they are built to stem the effects of a massive beating for both the winner and loser.
A H2H most categories or H2H points league is best used when there is concern over the amount of owners in the league who are passionate and will follow through to the end. It’s easy to send a text or email to a guy who is 7-10 telling him that if he runs the table he’s in the playoffs, so he should set his team. It’s much harder giving that same pep talk to a guy who is eliminated with three weeks to go while sporting a record of 85-153, which would be the record of an owner who averages a 9-5 loss every week in a H2H each category league.
Even so, as a fantasy hockey elitist I don’t like the idea of basing the setup of a league on keeping people interested, since I think it should be inherent that they are interested before joining the league. I simply note that these leagues are a possibility because I realize that not everyone has 15, 11 or even 9 friends that they can rely upon to give it their best go. And of course, if late-regular season drama is what you’re looking for, these leagues can provide the system necessary to create that. Although I would point out that if you need gimmicks to create late-season interest, you can probably do better with your fantasy hockey league selection.
Weekly Each Category Leagues
This setup is only available to category-based scoring leagues, and offers the best of both worlds that we’ve explored above. It’s the way we run our league, and appears to have the best level of gameplay while also representing actual on-ice hockey.
What It Is
It’s described above. This is the type of league that would give Team A a 9-5 record for the week, and give Team B a 5-9 record for the matchup with Team A. There will be as many wins and losses (combined) for each matchup as there are statistical categories that are counted.
The Positives
Choosing a scoring system is give and take. The H2H each category style takes the positive aspects from each of the other types of fantasy games, while also sacrificing to take on some of the negatives.
One good thing about this style of league is that, unlike a H2H points or H2H most categories league, it gives weight to the best teams by rewarding an 11-3 beating with an 11-3 record. By rights, the best teams that produce the most convincing wins should be given a boost in the standings, and not simply the same 1-0 reward that another team gets from an unconvincing 7-6-1 win. At least that’s my opinion.
A second good thing about this style is that it keeps more teams involved than a rotisserie or total points league. Those leagues have one six-month scoring period, while the H2H each category leagues have (let’s just say) twenty one-week scoring periods. In the former, a team can have a three-week run that sees it separate itself from the pack in a few categories, and that lead is taken all the way to the bank. In the latter, that three-week domination would only show up in the form of three weeks of very good records. The total stats don’t get to carry over from week to week; just the overall record does.
The third positive to H2H each category leagues is that unlike the rotisserie or total points leagues, they allow for a playoff. While it is true that the rotisserie and total points leagues give the titles to the true best teams over the six-month period, that doesn’t exactly resemble the NHL or any North American sport. Here in the western hemisphere, we live for playoffs. So much so, in fact, that many times analysts, coaches and even players publicly dismiss regular season struggles for a team as unimportant. It’s hard to tell a group of fantasy owners to rewire the way they think about a season, and to play in a league that has no postseason playoff.
The Negatives
The only downside to being a moderate is that you’re not an extremist. Is that really a downside? Similarly, the negative with a H2H each category league is only what it gives up to one side or the other in terms of either total championship accuracy or longer-term hope for more teams. What you value is for you to choose, just understand that once you figure out what you want out of a fantasy hockey league, you now can choose the type of scoring and standings system that fits your desires.
The Varying Importance of Goaltenders
Another question to consider before embarking on a specific fantasy league is how big of a portion of the outcome you want goalies to play. Many leagues make goaltenders close to irrelevant by having a simple point system that guarantees a certain range of points scored for every goalie start, or by including too few goalie categories in proportion to skating stats.
This is a decision for each league to make for itself, but understand that there are a limited amount of goalies that will play even close to half of their teams’ games. The more fantasy teams in your league, the more scarce goalies become. In 10 or 12-team leagues, everybody’s got goalies. But once you get into the 16-team range, it becomes more of a numbers game, which is something that I would argue fantasy sports are supposed to be about.
We use five goalie categories and nine skating stats in our league, with “goals” being the tiebreaker in the event of a 7-7 playoff matchup. Some may argue that having an even number of categories in a fantasy league is dumb, but not so much when you’re in a H2H each category league. If it was “most categories,” there would be the potential for some ties, but in an “each category” league you can have the convenient 7-7 record for both teams during a tied week. Some may also think that 5 of 14 is too many categories for goaltenders. I would say that’s everyone’s prerogative, but too many fantasy leagues, especially those that allow a shorthanded assist to count in seven different categories, completely diminish the effect of goaltenders on the outcome of the fantasy league. And after all, who would argue that goalies don’t play a big role in real-life, on-ice hockey success? Because remember, that’s what we should be trying to mimic.
Shots on Goal as a Positive Skating Stat
I understand that sometimes we just have to include some statistics that the league keeps track of in order to get the number of countable statistics up in fantasy hockey. What I don’t understand is why a missed shot counts in the favor of a skater.
For most hockey actions, there is a winner and a loser. Some of these are quantified accordingly in fantasy hockey. For instance, when a faceoff is won, it is also lost by another player. When a group registers a plus-1 by being on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal, the opponents all are burdened with a minus-1. When a skater scores a goal, the goalie also suffers a goal against.
So why then do so many fantasy leagues, without batting an eye or taking one second to consider, include shots on goal as a positive statistic for skaters? Here’s what a shot on goal is: either a goal, or a shot that was saved by the goalie (or a missed shot). The positive outcome is obvious — the goaltender is credited with a save, which are almost always counted positively for goalies in fantasy leagues. Had the shot gone in, the goalie would suffer a negative fantasy impact by allowing a goal, which also raises his GAA and lowers his save %. But here, the shot didn’t go in. It’s a positive for the goalie, and a negative for the skater. I’m not saying missed shots should count against skaters, although shooting percentage would be an interesting fantasy stat that would actually punish missed shots. What I’m saying is there is no good argument for counting a saved shot as a positive for the shooter.
I can already hear the dissent. “But you gotta fire pucks on net and good things can happen… Sometimes a shot gets saved but then stuffed home by a teammate.” Okay. The thing about firing on net because good things can happen is already accounted for by the fact that fantasy leagues track goals, which are the good thing that can happen. And if the puck doesn’t go straight in or off an opponent, and rather gets stuffed home by a teammate, that’s also accounted for by the fact that every league also tracks assists, which is what a rebound counts for in the box score for the original shooter. Folks, there is no good argument for counting shots on goal as a positive stat for skaters other than laziness or just wanting to not mimic on-ice hockey. That’s fine, just understand that counting SOG as a plus for skaters is pretty similar to giving fantasy football points to quarterbacks for each incomplete pass.
Three Ideas that Took Our Fantasy Hockey League to the Next Level
Feel free to copy these ideas if you like them, but think about sending over a referral or something. When Bill Simmons writes about having a fantasy football ménage à trois every few weeks, or in-game betting that affects fantasy team records, people attribute the ideas to him. Think about implementing one or more of these ideas and let me know how they impacted your fantasy hockey league at the end of the season, positively or negatively.
The Holiday Cup
Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with and consumed a lot of european football, or soccer if you want to call it that. Two of my three ideas are based largely on what I’ve seen across the pond, the first being the Holiday Cup.
Taking just the country of England as an example, teams within the Premier League and its lower leagues compete on different fronts. The first, and most basic, would be their domestic league, which for the top twenty teams in England (and Wales now, cheers Swansea) is the Premier League. The Premier League competition would be akin to our regular fantasy league’s season. Every team falls into place somewhere by the end.
But throughout the season at various times, the country also makes time for a couple large tournaments that include not only teams from the Premier League, but also the lower leagues. In the case of the more popular tournament competition, the FA Cup, you and I could pretty much start a bakery over there and get some guys together and enter the FA Cup. The tournament starts for the lesser teams in the summer, and holds its rounds on fixed dates all the way through the final the following May.
There’s no real easy way to have inter-league competitions in fantasy hockey, but there is a way to have a tournament like this that stretches over time within a league. I set it up on holiday weeks because some of the greatest high school and college hockey in America comes in these Thanksgiving or Christmas-time tournaments. Another reason it’s great is that a team that is still alive in the tournament may have taken a downturn in the league’s regular season, but still has this trophy to play for — much like the English FA Cup sees most years.
We have four divisions of four teams each, but it doesn’t really matter how your league is setup or how many teams there are. But for the sake of giving ideas, here’s what we do: Over 18 regular season weeks, a team plays every other team in the league once, and then plays its three divisional rivals a second time. What we did is move the first wave of divisional games up to weeks 1 through 3. The team that leads its division qualifies for the Holiday Cup semifinals, which are staged during the week that encompasses Thanksgiving. Since the matchups are necessarily inter-divisional, it doesn’t matter how the schedule is set up because you can change it right after week 3 to accommodate the needed matchups during week 7 or whatever it will be by the holiday.
Also, by doing this you don’t mess up your league’s regular season at all. Since every team plays every other team once anyway, you are able to have these semifinal matches be part of the league’s regular season. The winners then go on to play each other on the week between Christmas and New Year’s, with the Winter Classic hopefully playing some sort of role on the matchup. And again, not a wrench in your regular season, because that matchup was scheduled for sometime in the future anyway, so you can simply swap two weeks of play after week 7. In our league last year, two of the Holiday Cup semifinalists had the league’s two best records by the end of the year. Neither won the league championship. The other two HC qualifiers had the 8th and 9th best records by the end, but at least had periods of four weeks during the season where they knew a big matchup was coming.
Take it or leave it, but we love it as an extra competition that not only spices things up, but also gives that all-important hope to more teams throughout the season than would otherwise have it. If you have questions regarding how to set something like this up in your own league, feel free to ask. I live for this stuff, and you’ll love it.
The Relegation System
This idea was entirely lifted from the setup of european football, and has the problem of needing a lot of dedicated owners who can keep their egos in check. It remains to be seen whether we truly have that.
To keep people competing throughout the season, I set up a second league that is distinctly lesser than our top league. I’ve referred to it as a feeder league. It works exactly like the Premier League and the Championship, with the two worst teams from our league dropping to the lower league, and being replaced by the two teams from the lower league that won the regular season and playoff championships. The lower level regular season champ is the league champ, and does not compete in the promotion playoff.
The 15th and 16th place teams in our top league dropped down to the lower league. Regarding keeper leagues, instead of having specific new owners take over specific rosters, we threw every vacated roster into an expansion draft and let the new people pick from those players to get their keepers heading into the real draft.
The benefit from this is not only that people on the bottom play for their lives the whole way through, but also that in theory the worst owners are replaced year-to-year by other owners who have shown an ability to succeed, which hypothetically can only increase the overall level of competition in your league. In addition, once that lower level promotion playoff starts, it has a feel that I imagine is much like the English Championship promotion playoff between teams that finished 3rd through 6th. People who maybe otherwise wouldn’t care so much suddenly make moves and battle hard, and the increased competition for something that feels real can only be in line with what we try to create with these fantasy leagues in the first place.
Before you set this up, ask yourself a couple of questions, and be honest. First, do you have enough people to make the second league worth running? I’m not sure I really do, but it still remains to be seen. Second, are you and everyone else in the league alright with being relegated and having to play in what is explicitly referred to as a lesser league? We had one relegated owner quick to join the lower league, and one go absent. Third, do you honestly want to compete in a more competitive league? The snap answer is “yes,” but I find that some people are more content to play in a league composed of one-third novices and one-third absentee owners, giving them a 25% or better chance to win it all. Many people can’t handle losing. But since you are still reading this and are in the hockey world, I’m going to assume that you have honor and reflection in your being, and that you would rather lose in a great league than win in a garbage one.
The Consolation Tournament for the #1 Draft Pick
This idea is exactly what the title makes it look like, and it has been a booming success. In our 16-team league, the top half makes the playoffs. This is in line with the real NHL, which sends 8 of 15 teams in each conference to the playoffs. Since we are very competitive, it is not all that easy to just decide to follow your team and automatically make the playoffs. Because of this, good teams and good owners miss out on the top 8 from year to year.
The solution to this “problem” off too much competition is setting up a playoff, identical to the one for the championship, that involves the bottom eight teams. It’s seeded 9 through 16 just like you would think, and the winner, the team that wins three rounds, gets the number one overall draft pick the following year (or whatever draft order spot the owner wants, but in keeper leagues you almost always want #1).
In addition to allowing the bottom eight teams to play a playoff for something tangible that can affect the future of their teams, the consolation bracket also serves as a last-ditch shot at top-level survival for the 15th and 16th-place teams. If one of them is able to win the entire tournament, they remain in the top league and gain the top overall draft pick the following year. The 14th-place team gets relegated in their stead.
Since we’ve been doing this, the #9 overall team has never won the tournament, but has said every time that after the initial disappointment of failing to qualify for the playoffs wore off (which usually takes about one day), they were more excited to compete for the top draft pick in a tournament that they thought they should win than to limp in to the real playoffs as an 8 seed and have a very small chance at upsetting three straight teams en route to the league title. And other than the bottom two teams trying to survive, the consolation tournament has the most on the line for the 9th-place team, as winning it gives them the first overall draft pick, but losing at any point guarantees them the eighth draft spot.
Keeper Leagues and Auction Drafts
The decision over keepers is entirely up to each league. Keepers give the league the feeling of continuity, as what you do now affects who you have in future years. But, of course, the more keepers a league has, the fewer great players are involved on draft day. I can see the argument both ways, but I prefer keeper leagues. How to setup and go about enforcing keeper rules is not something that I came up with, so I won’t waste anybody’s time by rambling on about time limits or prices to be paid in future years by keeping certain players. If you’re interested in more keeper league ideas, just google “fantasy hockey keeper” or something. I did a few years ago and came across a lot of relevant results.
And lastly, I always love me a good auction draft because it requires more skill across the board from each owner. The problem with it is similar to the problem with rotisserie or total points leagues: there will always be some owners who are in over their heads.
While I think the idea of auction drafts is far superior to a snake-style player selection process, I would caution that a league needs a lot of dedicated owners who can hold their own mathematically in order for the auction not to turn lopsided and give otherwise good owners the feeling that things were screwed up by others’ lack of understanding. If you can pull it off, the auction draft can be one of the most fun and entertaining things you can take part in.
Well my fellow beauties, that’s all I have to say right now about what to consider when looking for the right fantasy hockey league this year. I hope you gained something from it, and thanks for sticking with me through these 7,600+ words. As always, feel free to leave a comment, or hit me up on Twitter. Have a good season.

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