Hockey playoff pools have come a long way since the first playoff pool that I participated in, which was about 20 years ago.
For that playoff pool, the six of us chipped in $5 each and conducted our “draft” using the statistics that appeared in the Tuesday edition of the Vancouver Province newspaper, passing around the paper to look up player information, then writing our lists and crossing off each player as he was chosen. I ended up winning that pool, using strategies that I still employ in playoff pools today. However, I’m pretty sure that I quickly spent the $30 that I won.
Since then, I’ve also participated in numerous playoff pools, some of which involved me picking any 20 players (or whichever number was predetermined), with those being the players that you were stuck with for the entire duration of the playoffs. So once a player’s team was eliminated, you had one fewer player on your roster. So if your strategy was to stock up on players on a heavy Stanley Cup favorite and that team was knocked out early, your chances of winning your pool might have flown out the window. But if you played it safe and diversified your playoff portfolio, you could also lose to another participant who had more players go farther.
So you constructed your roster with both strategies in mind. Which players were on teams that would likely go deep into the playoffs? Could you find any top players who might make the most out of playing just one round?
Fortunately, today’s playoff pools take some of that risk out of the game. Playoff fantasy leagues, such as the ones on Fantrax and Fantasy Postseason, allow you to make changes to your roster when a player’s team is eliminated or a player becomes injured. That way, everyone can continue to participate all the way up to the Stanley Cup Final.
It can still be extremely difficult to know where to start when it comes to ranking players. Recent seasons have seen an increase in the level of parity in the NHL, which makes choosing a team that more difficult. To give you an idea, the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference were only separated by 12 points between Anaheim/St. Louis (109 points) and Calgary (97 points). The Eastern Conference playoff teams were separated by 15 points from the top-seeded New York Rangers (113 points) and their opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins (98 points).
To compare, in 1993-94, the first season that the 1-8 conference playoff system was used, the 1 seed (Rangers) and the 8 seed (Islanders) in the Eastern Conference were separated by 28 points. In the Western Conference, the 1 seed (Red Wings) and 8 seed (Sharks) were separated by 18 points. Even with a wider gap between teams, upsets still happened, as the Sharks knocked off the Wings in the first round.
So picking a team to get behind is difficult because teams are so closely matched. I could just pick players from any team, but then I could miss out on a player with a long playoff run. Some fantasy playoff leagues reward teams with players that play more than one round for the same team, so it’s best to find those clutch playoff performers as early as possible. You can obviously continue to play, but seeing an elite player that you were counting on get knocked out early is never good for your team.
Something that may get your thought process rolling is to participate in the NHL.com Bracket Challenge. Similar to March Madness in NCAA basketball, you pick the winners of each first-round series and then play out your projected series all the way up to the Stanley Cup Final. Very simple to understand. Once you’ve established which teams you think will make the final or even the semifinals, you target players from those teams. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because you’ll need a contingency plan in case of that first-round upset. Generally I’ve found that the more fantasy teams participating, the less effective hedging is as a strategy.
Jack Choros makes a compelling argument as to why Rick Nash should be the first pick in your playoff pool. After all, the Rangers are being considered by oddsmakers to be the favorite to win it all this season (OddsShark). But if you plan your bracket showing a different team winning the Stanley Cup, then pick players from that team.
Playoff rankings are incredibly difficult to compile because of the added element of the team’s playoff run. So if you see any discrepancies in rankings (players that you believe are ranked too low or too high), then exploit them. One site that I went to had Manny Malhotra ranked in its top 50 playoff performers. I realize that the Canadiens could go deep into the playoffs, but Malhotra had only four points all season! That’s something that you have to fix when you rank your players.
Above all, remember to have fun. Usually to me, playoff pools are secondary to the team that I’m cheering for in the playoffs. But playoff pools provide an added element of interest should my favorite team get eliminated early or miss the playoffs entirely.