At the risk of sounding like a freshman humanities student that just finished their first philosophy course, much of life is about continuing education and learning from mistakes. It is simplistic, and oft-repeated, but nonetheless true. This holds water for fantasy sports, and in our case, fantasy hockey.
Maybe your first three picks for 2016-17 drafts were Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, and Dustin Byfuglien. You were probably in contention all year if that was the case. Although, maybe your first three picks were Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Anze Kopitar. You were probably preparing for baseball drafts by December.
Knowing what went wrong is as important, perhaps more so, than knowing what went right. I figure it’s worth looking at some busts from last year and what can be learned about either the specific player, or the nature of their failing to live up to expectations.
One criteria I won’t be discussing is an unforeseeable, catastrophic injury. For instance, Stamkos missed most of the year, and the only other time in his career he had missed significant time was when he crashed into a goalie post. Jonathan Quick had posted seven straight seasons with at least 40 starts, and five of those seven had 60; he made just 17 last year. That’s just bad luck for them, and for fantasy owners. But fantasy owners should not be complaining about missed time from guys like Kris Letang or Evgeni Malkin.
I will also not be discussing players I’ve discussed at length already this summer. For that reason, guys like Tavares, Kopitar, or Corey Perry will not be included.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it. ADP’s, by the way, are aggregated from FantasyPros.
The starting goalie for a team coming off a Stanley Cup run, who posted a .918 save percentage and is still young enough to not worry about decline? What could go wrong!
Of course, one season, one way or the other, doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about a goaltender. That is one reason why I’m very skeptical about drafting almost any goalie early. Carey Price or Braden Holtby? Sure. But it should take years to build up goodwill in the fantasy community among goaltenders just due to the nature of the position. Jones had one season as a starter and was deemed a top-5 fantasy asset among goaltenders, or close to it. That’s… not great.
There were warning signs. Using Ian Fleming’s site Dispelling Voodoo (for those familiar with the HERO charts from Domenic Galamini, they’re similar but for goaltenders), the 2015-16 season for Jones was close to league-average across the board. Not by typical fantasy hockey categories like wins, but adjusted goals saved above average per 60 minutes, high-danger save percentage, and above average appearance percentage.
Sample size was a problem, as mentioned above. He was a career backup until 2015-16, and fewer than 100 career starts and 2550 total shots against for his career going into last year.
We had a goalie who, by non-traditional measures, was just above league-average for one season, his only season as a full-time goalie in the NHL. And he under-performed in 2016-17.
It’s important to note that he wasn’t awful for fantasy hockey – his save percentage of .912 was just below the league average of .913, his goals against average of 2.40 was markedly better than the league average of 2.59, and 35 wins put him seventh in the league. However, he did not come close to living up to his ADP, mainly because of an overreaction to one good season for an unproven goalie.
Lesson: Be extremely wary of one good season from a goalie with no track record.
Scoring 23 goals and 45 points as a teenage rookie, in addition to his performance at the 2016 All-Star Skills Competition, had the fantasy hockey community excited for the next big rookie. Things did not work out at all.
In his sophomore season, Larkin managed 17 goals and 32 points, saw his shots per game drop by over 0.5, and for those in roto leagues with plus/minus, his cratered to minus-28. In every sense of the word of the fantasy game, he was a bust in 2016-17.
The drop in shots is what is concerning. It’s not as if that decline was due to ice time; he was given about 32 fewer minutes in the same number of games from his rookie campaign to last year. Rather, his shots per 60 minutes at five-on-five took a nosedive from 9.41 in 2015-16 to 6.98 last year. His shot attempts came down by about 25 percent as well, so it’s not as if he just couldn’t hit the net. He was shooting a lot less.
His team effect here is obvious, as the Wings went from near the middle of the league in 2015-16 in shot attempts generated at five-on-five to second-worst in 2016-17. But the team alone wouldn’t account for all that. Most every struggled for Detroit last year, but Larkin stood out.
There is still a lot of speed and skill in the repertoire of the 21-year-old, but the team doesn’t look to be improving. At the very least, the defence won’t be better. His long-term future should be fine, but the short-term future is bleak, and it’s not entirely his fault.
Lesson: Beware of non-elite young players on a team that doesn’t appear likely to succeed.
Steen went into the 2016-17 season coming off shoulder surgery, which was an immediate red flag. How much it affected him is tough to diagnose, but he did average his lowest shots per game of his career at 1.54, and that was over a full shot lower than just the year prior.
To call Steen a true bust might be a bit unfair, as he still managed over 50 points, but he didn’t contribute much in roto leagues. With a minus-2 rating and just 117 shots on goal, the 51 points wasn’t enough to make up for his lack of success in peripheral stats.
Even if it was an injury, it wasn’t an aberration of his decline. His shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances per 60 minutes declined from 2014-15 to 2015-16 as well. Perhaps the injuries that have accumulated over his career – he hasn’t played more than 76 games since 2008-09 – but for fantasy, it’s irrelevant. If he’s declining due to age, or due to injury-related factors, there’s a problem going on here.
I suppose there was hope last year that a guy who had scored 57 goals from 2013 through 2015 could recapture his form, but that looks like a long shot. If the young wingers on the team can stay healthy, and with the return of Vladimir Sobotka, there could be a continued loss in ice time as well. Steen was a very solid, and underrated, player for many years. Time catches up with everyone.
Lesson: Offseason surgeries, particularly among aging players, need to be factored into draft selection.
Talking about these players and how they busted is useful for reflection, but also for identifying players in similar positions in the upcoming seasons. Just briefly, here are a few players that fit each of the lessons outlined above.
There are probably some fantasy owners who were frustrated owning the 23-year-old goalie last year, but he did finished the season with a .917 overall save percentage. A young goalie on a team expected to do well next year is going to be drafted highly. It will not as high as Martin Jones was a year ago, but high nonetheless.
Despite that reasonable save percentage, like Jones, Vasilevskiy’s Expected Goals Saved Above Average was poor last year, and high-danger save percentage was just above average. Yes he’s young, but relying on him to be a goalie-1 on a fantasy roster next year is a very big risk.
Let’s be clear – I’m a fan of Rantanen. I think he has a bright future in this league, and in the fantasy game. It could be hard to come by in the 2017-18 season, however.
The team needs to be further stripped down. As constructed, this roster isn’t getting anywhere close to the playoffs anytime soon, so while it’ll be hard to imagine them being worse, I can’t see them getting better in the near-term.
On the bright side, Rantanen could be a running mate for Nathan MacKinnon moving forward. Aside from those two, and Tyson Jost, there’s probably not another “untouchable” on the roster, and this team going into full rebuild mode is not great for Rantanen’s fantasy prospects. He won’t cost nearly what Larkin cost at the table, but at the same time, it’s hard to see him improve too much on this past season in the near-term.
A six-year high of 58 points, in addition to all his peripheral stats, made Kesler a very valuable roto commodity last year. If you were in a league with face-off stats, even more so.
Off-season hip surgery, however, may have the Ducks centre out until the start of the season, and perhaps longer. This is a player who logged monster ice time numbers for the team, and that was a big reason why he got close to 60 points. If he is barely ready for the start of the season, can he play over 21 minutes a game right away?
In addition to the injury concern is that Kesler is turning 33 years old at the end of this month. He has not been typically an injury-prone player, but at that age with a surgery of that nature taking that long to recover, it is concerning. Even if the prognosis is good come the end of September, he’ll be firmly on my Avoid List for drafts.
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