Fantasy hockey draft – Single category specialists

Head-to-head category leagues boast their own unique allure in that one goal, one shot, one single digit of a goals-against average, can suffice in nailing down that particular field and, in some cases, a weekly victory. With no weighted points or formulas in play, the game’s category giants can indeed serve as fantasy royalty. Through that scope, here’s a view of those who shine in one aspect of the fantasy game while, mostly, maintaining a strong enough presence otherwise. As I’m including categories from ESPN’s Standard H2H game and otherwise, managers in Roto leagues and points leagues should also find the following of use.


Goals

All of three players collected 40 or more goals back in the dark scoring ages of 2016-17. Only four the previous season, followed by eight in 2017-18. No small wonder we all scrambled to jam Alex Ovechkin onto our fantasy squads back then.

Thankfully, today’s NHL boasts significantly louder scoring fireworks. Not only did 17 different skaters notch 40 goals or more in 2021-22, but a total of 51 individuals hit the 30-mark. So even if you don’t manage to secure Auston Matthews and his 60-goal potential (or Leon Draisaitl at a close second-best), there’s a host of other prolific producers to help pad your roster.

My slightly under-radar favourites include Filip Forsberg, Tage Thompson, Josh Norris, and Troy Terry. Goals scored is a great category to target in fantasy altogether, as a single puck in the net often checks a bunch of other boxes. Oh, and don’t sleep on Ovechkin again this fall or moving forward. Not until he either leaves the league or catches Wayne Gretzky’s career total. The Capitals sniper could be good for 50 or so every year until then.

See also: Jason Robertson, F, Dallas Stars; Gabriel Landeskog, F, Colorado Avalanche

Assists

I hear that Jonathan Huberdeau guy is worth a little extra attention in this department, having recently collected 85 and all. In full seriousness, the ex-Panther/new-Flame vaults up the fantasy rankings in leagues that reward helpers equally to goals, regardless of with whom he’s competing. Same applies to Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov, New York’s Artemi Panarin, and Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner. Beyond this fantasy cream, don’t sleep on Robert Thomas, who erupted for 0.8 assists/game in his fourth season in St. Louis. Watch the Blues 20th overall draft pick (2017) take his next big leap, in his second turn on a scoring line with wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich. Veteran Jakub Voracek duly deserves light attention in deeper leagues that prize this scoring category. Especially if the 33-year-old sticks on a scoring line within the Blue Jackets revitalized top-six. Voracek won’t put the puck in the net much himself, but he could flirt with 60 assists – at even-strength and on the power play – once more.

On the blue line, eight defensemen exceeded 50 assists in 2021-20, including Quinn Hughes and Kris Letang.

See also: Mats Zuccarello, F, Minnesota Wild; Nazem Kadri, F, Calgary Flames; Rasmus Andersson, D, Calgary Flames

Power-play points

There are no surprises here; those who tend to score in bunches at even-strength are also more inclined to contribute with the extra skater. While Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, along with Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov, remain the best in the power play biz, J.T. Miller, Victor Hedman, and Huberdeau otherwise lead a rich class of perennial contributors.

If digging for minor outliers, Vancouver defender Hughes and Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen score nearly as often with the man-advantage than without.

Looking forward, Ottawa’s new top unit appears much improved, with the additions of Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. Which is promising for all involved, including underrated forward Josh Norris.

See also: Chris Kreider, F, New York Rangers; William Nylander, F, Toronto Maple Leafs

Short-handed points

If torn between drafting Mika Zibanejad and another skater, all else being equal, opt for the Rangers forward in fantasy leagues that reward scoring short-handed. NHL-wide, Zibanejad has been the most consistent in pitching in while on the penalty kill over the past three years.

See also: Connor Brown, F, Washington Capitals


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Shots

Beyond the heavy-scoring-hitters who you’ll draft early anyway – Matthews, McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon – there’s a good gaggle of next-level producers who shoot the puck on net more often than most. David Pastrnak has averaged 4.07 shots/game over his past two seasons with the Bruins. San Jose’s Timo Meier bolsters his fantasy worth after ranking third-overall in total shots (326) in 2021-22. Sens Captain Brady Tkachuk and Jets’ forward Nikolaj Ehlers also overachieve in this category.

On the blue line, Zach Werenski presents as an underappreciated shot-happy gem, who contributes in multiple fantasy veins. And keep a view of when a healed up Max Pacioretty is ready to join his new squad in Carolina, in returning from a torn Achilles tendon. January? Once ready to rumble, the prolific shooter can be relied upon to put up a startling number of shots, game in and out.

See also: Patrice Bergeron, F, Boston Bruins; Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton Oilers; Dougie Hamilton, D, New Jersey Devils

Blocked shots

Defenseman Brayden McNabb of the Golden Knights makes up for other minor fantasy-related shortcomings by dazzling in this defensive department. A league-leading 179 blocked shots this past season, along with 154 hits and 18 points through 69 games, works out to an even 2.0 fantasy points/contest. Not too shabby for skater who was rostered in less than half of ESPN.com fantasy leagues.

Other shot-blocking specialists include Chicago’s Calvin de Haan, Connor Murphy, and Jake McCabe (out until late November). As for those who do it all well, New York’s Jacob Trouba, Vegas vet Alex Pietrangelo, and Moritz Seider of the Red Wings lead a pack of defensemen who block shots on the regular while also checking boxes across the productive board.

See also: Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers; MacKenzie Weegar, D, Calgary Flames; Noah Dobson, D, New York Islanders

Goalie wins

To win, they need to play. More often than not. Avoiding tandem teams, however strong, is vital in collecting as many W’s as possible. Then the team itself needs to be good. As in, playoff-bound good. That eliminates another group of otherwise decent fantasy netminders.

Left over is your crew of usual suspects, headlined by Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros, Jacob Markstrom, Igor Shesterkin, and Frederik Andersen. You can’t go wrong in lassoing any of these top-tier fantasy netminders, inside and outside the scope of wins. I’m particularly keen to see what Andersen might accomplish in his second run with Carolina, if he can stay healthy. The former Leaf/Duck averaged 0.69 wins/start in 2021-22, which is rather striking. That rate works out to 41 victories through only 60 games, which I’ll gladly take any year.

See also: Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins; Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars; Jack Campbell, Edmonton Oilers

Shutouts

Again, you’re targeting quality netminders who perform far more often than not, for respective teams that don’t give up a too many high-danger shots and scoring opportunities. Those are your best bets in the clean sheets department.

Last season, Calgary’s No. 1 of Jacob Markstrom out-blanked all others to the tune of nine shutouts, followed by Ilya Sorokin with seven. I like Markstrom to near that notable mark again with a Flames club that, while altered, might be as strong defensively as this past season. While the loss of Erik Gudbranson hurts some, the addition of Florida export MacKenzie Weegar certainly does not. Not to take anything away from the Flames’ starting netminder himself.

See also: Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers

Save percentage

Members of top tandem teams are more serviceable in this category. For example, a terrific performance from Jeremy Swayman could help build a robust enough SV% to win your week, even if Linus Ullmark starts the Bruins’ other games. And vice versa. In this case, quality absolutely trumps quantity. Skilled goalies who play for teams that face more shots than others – we all know who they are – can also contribute handsomely to this category.

Jets backup Eric Comrie, now of the Sabres, rocked a .920 SV% through 19 appearances with a Winnipeg club that allowed the eighth-most shots in the league. After drafting the game’s best – Shesterkin, Saros, Markstrom, Sorokin etc. – these less popular part-timers are worth keeping in mind as streaming options in leagues with a bit more roster flexibility.

See also: Ville Husso, Detroit Red Wings


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Goals-against average

While superior tandem-team members and a handful of top-tier backups are also welcome to contribute in this goaltending vein, the quality of collective defense out front matters significantly more. We’re back to good goalies on good teams, here – the fewer goals allowed the better, whether on 17 shots or 47. When healthy, Hurricanes’ No. 2 Antti Raanta operates as a superior streaming plug, as does Tampa backup Brian Elliott.

Both members of Boston’s aforementioned tandem are, again, appealing goals-against assets. Of the league’s fantasy elite, Markstrom, Andersen, and Shesterkin all wrapped up 2021-22 with a GAA of 2.22 or below.

Average time-on-ice

Need a heavy does of on-ice minutes? Look no further than Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot, who has led the league with an average of 26:09 accrued since the beginning of 2019-20. Now that the Senators have acquired a bit more firepower up front, Chabot is also likely to see a boost in production this season. Defender Zach Werenski presents as another minute-munching asset worth considering, with additional fantasy upside, along with Chicago’s Seth Jones. Just don’t hook your fantasy cart to the Blackhawks defender in leagues that heavily reward/punish plus/minus. Jones will only hurt you in that department.

See also: Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks; Drew Doughty, D, Los Angeles Kings

Plus/minus

In 2021-22, this category was dominated by a handful of top-notch defenseman on top-notch teams, along with Calgary’s top forward line. While that dynamic Flames unit has since disbanded, the aforementioned high functioning blueliners should continue to chug along well into the black, such as Devon Toews (plus-52), Cale Makar (plus-48), and Aaron Ekblad (plus-38). Further down the rankings, and considerably more gettable in drafts, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin has been a consistent plus-player since 2019. Florida defender Gustav Forsling finished plus-42 after only 71 games, while collecting a respectable haul of 37 points. But if not all that motivated to proactively target players who satisfy this category, at least avoid those who swing the other way. For instance, as alluded to above, Seth Jones (minus-37) of the burn-it-down-and-rebuild Blackhawks could do your fantasy squad more harm than good.

Faceoffs won

Few fresh faces join this select crew, season in and out. Patrice Bergeron fell short of winning a thousand faceoffs by a mere nine, despite playing only 73 games last year. Fellow centers Ryan O’Reilly (Blues), Bo Horvat (Canucks), and Anze Kopitar (Kings) round out the usual gaggle of solid all-around fantasy assets who also perform well, consistently and regularly, in the dot. (As does Edmonton’s Draisaitl, but you’re selecting him top-five for a slew of other valid fantasy reasons.)

See also: Tomas Hertl, F, San Jose Sharks; Elias Lindholm, F, Calgary Flames

PIM

Nashville’s Tanner Jeannot serves as a budding standout in this rule-breaking category, racking up a wholesome 130 minutes in the penalty box this past season. The Sophomore can score too, as demonstrated by the 24 goals and 17 assists contributed his rookie year. Otherwise your usual gang of misbehaving miscreants is led by fantasy faves Brad Marchand, Brady Tkachuk, and Tom Wilson (currently injured) in that they also contribute positively to the scoresheet. New Blackhawk Max Domi appears poised to provide a one-two/points-penalties punch for a Chicago club that’ll need to get scoring from somewhere.

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