No more chilly reception for fantasy hockey leagues

On Fantasy Sports

Commentary

September 21, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Columnist

With baseball races winding down and the NFL in too much of a formative stage to offer much fodder, I'm in the mood to take a sojourn from the big two of fantasy sports.

This whimsical state has led me to investigations of fantasy cricket and fantasy World Cup in the past. But let's keep it a little more mundane this time.

Fantasy hockey gets almost no attention.

It's been around since all the other offshoots of Rotisserie baseball began popping up in the late 1980s. But even among diehard sports fans in this town, you never sidle up to the bar and have a buddy say, "So, Ilya Kovalchuk really did me right with those two assists last night."

Just wouldn't happen.

On ESPN.com's list of fantasy sports, hockey sits sixth, below soccer and golf. And that seems about right when measuring this nation's esteem for the sport.

But I've always wanted to like hockey more than I do. Those guys kill themselves physically and they do something that's entirely unlike anything else in sports. I mean, I can shoot a basketball, but I can't begin to control a piece of hard rubber on a glassy surface while trying to skate and worrying that a 230-pound defenseman will smash me into a hard wall.

And Sega's NHL video games got me through college. I think Jeremy Roenick was one of my five favorite athletes for a while because his video likeness carried me through so many pitched battles with my buddy Dan.

But hockey's very difficulty is what makes it hard to watch. Because there are so many factors working against beautiful hockey plays, they don't happen that often in a given game. And that makes the sport harder to appreciate for a layman such as me.

OK, sorry for the tremendous digression. I've always seen fantasy sports as a vehicle to enrich one's engagement with an already beloved subject. But as I learned with my World Cup squad, it's also an avenue to connect with a sport that has eluded one's fancy.

So I'm playing fantasy hockey this season. It seems as good a time to start as any. Rule changes led to a higher-scoring NHL last season. And young stars such as local attraction Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby stand ready to take over.

Where to start, where to start? First, I need to figure out the rules.

Goalies are rewarded for wins and ties, save percentage and goals-against average. Those are only three of the 10 categories overall, so they're not on as equal footing as pitchers are in baseball. But there are fewer of them, so they're plenty valuable.

Everyone else gets credit for goals, assists, plus-minus rating, short-handed and power-play goals, shots on goal, penalty minutes, and points by defensemen.

So an ideal wish list for the first four or five rounds would include a top-10 goalie, a high-scoring defenseman and two goal-scoring forwards. Goons are available later though I'm guessing penalty minutes are kind of like steals in baseball and can turn some fighting specialist into freak fantasy stars (the Dallas Stars' Brenden Morrow seems to be the Juan Pierre of this group).

It seems that the Calgary Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff is the top player on many draft boards, which is bad, because I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Mr. Miikka before yesterday morning.

Oh, and he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie last season. And he set a modern record for goals-against average in the 2003-04 season. Yeah, he's good. I probably should have known him before now.

I have heard of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. He's the Russian kid who spurned his contract with a team back home to play for the Penguins. I've heard some hockey folks call him the best player in the world or at least the best outside the NHL. So he's an exciting fantasy prospect.

Parsing the offensive players is interesting. Crosby and Ovechkin are obviously valuable because they produce points individually. But they have the potential to be dragged down by their plus-minus ratings because they play for below-average teams. That team factor is a wild card I'm not used to. I guess it's kind of like looking at schedules and offensive schemes when drafting in football.

That means guys like the San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton, Ottawa Senators' Dany Heatley and Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal might be more attractive targets.

Penalty killers such as the Atlanta Thrashers' Marian Hossa and Senators' Daniel Alfredsson also have added value because the scoring counts short-handed goals.

Hmmm, there's certainly enough nuance to this game that it could be pretty interesting. For anyone interested in following me after the fantasy puck, I recommend checking out Fantasyhockey.com. I learned a lot about the game in my first 30 minutes on the site.

I'll be back to football next week, probably with a column about not panicking. Let's hope I win a few games this weekend so I will not, in fact, be panicking.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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