Every armchair fan in Canada figures they know the best players in the NHL. But we asked a blue-ribbon panel of experts, drawn from among a dozen members of the Toronto Media Hacks hockey pool, for their opinion. As will nearly three million other Canadians, they’ll gather this weekend to draft their teams. By The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek and David Shoalts, Pierre LeBrun, (ESPN, TSN), Elliotte Friedman (CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada) and Scott Burnside (ESPN).
Eric Duhatschek: Gentlemen, thank you for joining me to discuss fantasy sports, which is growing in leaps and bounds. I don’t completely understand the psychology behind it, but virtually every office across the country will assemble in the coming days, if they haven’t already, to draft their hockey pools. Some will be for large sums of money and others just for bragging rights. We five get to play together thanks to commissioner Pierre LeBrun, who runs the greatest pool in the history of fantasy sports ($150 entry and $2 per transaction). Let’s start with a basic question: Why do we do it?
I play for two reasons. There is still a little bit of the 14-year-old in me, who wants to win everything, and because I care about winning, or at least not embarrassing myself, I pay far greater attention to the minutiae that’s easy to overlook – scores, stats, up-and-comers, injuries, who’s hot, who isn’t, what games are on this week. It forces me to follow the NHL and its feeder leagues far more closely than I otherwise would.
Scott Burnside: My interest and participation in fantasy sports goes back far longer than my career as a sports writer. At various times I’ve been partnered with my younger brother and other colleagues including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. I feel bad for Chris because even though we are partners I run roughshod over him when making moves, which I feel compelled to do on an almost daily basis. I have no illusions about whether I’d make a good NHL general manager. In fact, I have no illusions about whether I’m a good fantasy owner but I figure if I’m in it I’m going to make moves. And I love the idea of competing against colleagues even though there’s nothing worse than hearing about someone else’s fantasy team. In the end, they all pale in comparison to my team’s trials and tribulations.
Pierre LeBrun: I think the day I stop being in a pool is the day I’ve lost my passion for the game. Like you said Eric, it’s the 14-year-old in you and I feel the same way. Plus, the way in which we run our fantasy league is like being an NHL GM in many ways, with a salary cap and player salaries affecting how we fill out our rosters on draft night. For the life of me, though, I can’t figure out why Scotty and Elliotte are still in our pool given their performance in it over the last few years. On behalf of Eric, David and myself, thanks for the donations, boys.
Elliotte Friedman: I agree. It’s fun and it keeps you up-to-date on what’s happening with individual players. The other thing is that – on a very minor level – it gives you some idea of how a GM must think. I really enjoy the drafting/auction part of it, finding a good free agent and making trades. I also like the challenge of finding “loopholes,” like trading for future considerations a couple of years ago. (Pierre might not agree, because it forces him to make rule changes.)
Of course, I’m bored by changing the lineup every day, which is why I never do as well as I should.
David Shoalts: I do this because I’m a seriously disturbed person who enjoys being overcome with impotent rage. Like the time three years ago, when I was a strong second in the pool and managed to land Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff at the trade deadline. First place and all of your money wasted. Of course, that was the year both Brodeur and Kiprusoff played like Vesa Toskala in March and April, and I faded like MySpace. Not that I’m bitter. Also, as a basically lazy person, it forces me to keep up with the league in more detail.
Duhatschek: I’m constantly surprised by how some – not all, but some – of the players we cover like to talk about pools. Most of them played fantasy hockey themselves growing up. A lot of them will tell you at, say playoff time, their friends drafted them, or didn’t draft them. I once told Jarome Iginla that I had him on my fantasy team and he immediately apologized and promised to do better. Pierre, I think there’s a rule in your pool, isn’t there, that you are obliged to draft Claude Giroux, who like you, hails from Hearst, Ont.?
LeBrun: Mr. Giroux is one of my keepers this season. I expect a bounce-back season from my fellow Hearst native. It is funny to tell players that you own them on your media fantasy team and see their reaction. I once had a player who, when told it was a rotisserie-type format with salaries, was disappointed with how cheaply I got him. He felt he was worth way more. And I admit that once I’ve completed my actual work duties in terms of interviewing coaches, GMs or players, there might be the odd time I’ll try to glean a bit of fantasy info from them during idle chit chat at the end of conversations.
It’s what makes our fantasy league so unique: every member of the pool has access to NHL players, coaches, etc. It’s the main reason I formed this media-only fantasy league. Everyone has the same competitive advantage. One thing about being in a pool with non-media guys is if you won the pool, they would say it was because you had special access to NHL sources, and if you didn’t do well in the pool, they’d chastise you for not doing well despite being an “expert.” You couldn’t win either way. In this format, we’re all people covering the game. It’s fantastic from that perspective.
Shoalts: A few years ago, Pierre and I were in the San Jose Sharks dressing room. In the weeks prior, I traded Joe Thornton as part of a multiplayer deal. Pierre and Thornton have a good relationship and they were joking around. The subject of fantasy leagues was raised. Thornton said he hoped Pierre had him in the pool and Pierre said, no, Shoalts got him first. I looked at Thornton deadpan and said: “Yeah, but I traded your sorry ass.” Since Thornton is a kibitzer, he laughed and said he hoped I got someone good. To which my only possible response was: “Are you kidding?”
Friedman: I once had seats at a Toronto Blue Jays game right next to the visiting bullpen (at Exhibition Stadium). Yankees pitcher Ed Whitson, who does not fondly remember his time in New York, was on my team. He was warming up and I yelled to him how he was on my fantasy team and needed him to do better. I was about 14. Looking back on it now, I must have sounded like the biggest idiot ever. So I never bring it up.
Duhatschek: Elliotte and I have had a history of trades. Two years ago, I really needed a goaltender and Elliotte kindly offered me Tim Thomas, who at the time was playing great for the Bruins and was coming off a Stanley Cup win. But he wanted some of my good young talent and I consented to give him three players, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was on his way to the rookie-of-the-year award (and would have won, except he got hurt). Soon after the trade, Thomas refused to join the Bruins at the White House; got involved in that whole wrangle, and basically couldn’t stop the puck for a month. I finished just out of the money.
But last year, Elliotte and I made a massive 15-player trade – my prospects for his vets – and a day after, Elliotte texted to say the newest member of (my team) the Mad Hats, Henrik Zetterberg, had just had a five-point night. I think I reeled in the leader a week later, and ended up winning. So thanks, Elliotte, I owe you. Although I just checked your roster and I’m thinking a lot of those guys – Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Keith Yandle, Ryan O’Callahan, at very attractive salaries – would look pretty good on my team this year.
GMs in the gridlocked NHL can’t seem to make any kind of trades. We can make Sam Pollock blush with the sorts of seismic deals that we can pull off.
Friedman: Don’t forget our salary cap no longer exists after the draft, so it’s much, much easier. There is no way real GMs would make the kinds of trades we do. One similarity: Just as NHL GMs get comfortable dealing with certain brethren, we do, too. There is one guy in our league who is a great guy, but is just exasperating to deal with.
Shoalts: Elliotte, I have no problem making trades with Mike Zeisberger (Toronto Sun). All it takes is a little patience and the right social setting. I won the pool, or was at least solidly in the money one year after a blockbuster 10-or-so-player trade with him. It was completed around one in the morning on a cocktail napkin in Tom Reid’s Hockey Bar in St. Paul. As Elliotte said: we don’t have the same restrictions as NHL GMs but it’s fun to try and think like them in handling your team. We are vulnerable to the same faults as some GMs. In my case, it is developing an attachment to a player who should have been dumped long ago. I also argue, in vain with the people like LeBrun who are in charge, that we should be allowed to be as ruthless as some GMs.
Nothing beats the pleasure I felt in the days before everything was instantly on Twitter. In a Globe and Mail hockey pool Eric also belongs to, a morning phone conversation revealed a star player had blown out his knee and was done for the season. I hung up, ran down to the other end of the newsroom and traded him to our justice reporter, Kirk Makin, for another star player. The glow had not worn off when the wire report came out and Makin started screaming. Nobody bought my argument that pools are supposed to imitate the behaviour in the NHL and the commissioner nixed the trade.
LeBrun: Toughest part of my job as league commissioner is deciding whether to approve trades you guys make. A journalist trying to cheat? I always want to make sure there’s no side deal involved. I actually gave some thought to not approving that 15-player trade because I felt there were too many players involved. Which reminds me, new rule for this season in our fantasy league: eight-player maximum on any trade.
Shoalts: Like none of your trades have never stunk to high heaven.
Friedman: When Pierre talks is talking about “side deals,” that was me. The one year, I actually paid attention on a day-to-day basis and finished in the money, I made a trade with the stipulation I’d send that owner a certain player before the next season. People freaked.
Duhatschek: That’s a pretty clever gambit, Elliotte. I’m surprised Pierre wouldn’t have allowed it on the basis of its creativity. Our commissioner is irrepressible on this topic.
Last week, I’m in Banff talking to the New York Rangers’ Brad Richards about his upcoming season. It was great, so old-school, just me and (TSN’s) Jermain Franklin. You could actually have a conversation. Anyway, I thank him afterward and as I’m leaving he says, “Oh by the way, Pierre texted me this morning and told me I should tell you to trade him Shea Weber in the pool.” Unbelievable. Now, Pierre is actually enlisting NHL players now to help him win.
Shoalts: I love how LeBrun claims he only occasionally talks to players, coaches and GMs about pool moves. He grills the pants off them every day, and then runs to our transactions wire. He spends so much time on this pool you’d think he was single. Being single, by the way, is a huge advantage in a pool. Madam takes a dim view when you’re sitting in front of a hockey game with your laptop out at 9 o’clock at night.
Duhatschek: Let’s get into some specifics for readers who have drafts coming up. I know nobody is going to give away their best secrets, but let’s talk about how to deal with a player like Jason Spezza, the new Ottawa Senators captain. Anybody who pays only half-hearted attention won’t find Spezza on the leaderboards because last year, injuries limited him to five games. But the year before, the last time the NHL played a full season, he was fourth in the league in scoring. So where do you put Spezza? And how do you integrate all the players who missed time because of injuries last season into your lists?
LeBrun: I love drafting players on bounce-back years. And I think Spezza will have a monster year playing alongside Bobby Ryan. He’s a no-brainer, top-10 pick among forwards in my opinion. I’d also keep an eye on Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis. The Blues goalie rededicated himself this off-season, stayed in St. Louis the whole summer to train, dropped from 14-per-cent body fat to 8 per cent and has been told by the Blues he’s the No. 1 goalie ahead of Brian Elliott. The Blues want Halak to carry their team, and Halak is in a contract year. Smells like a motivated fantasy netminder to me.
Friedman: Spezza will go for a lot of money because a lot of high-scoring forwards get locked-up and kept. It’s just like the NHL at free agency, there is only so much supply and a lot of demand. When it comes to injuries, the first thing I look at is how often a guy’s been hurt. Is he normally durable? Was this a fluke? Spezza’s last four full seasons saw him play 286 of 328 games. So he’s pretty durable. The second thing is age. He’s 30; not so bad. The third thing is if his injury is something he (or other players) can come back from. You never know with a back problem, but a lot of guys deal with it. I’d take the chance.
Shoalts: The other thing to watch for are the guys who play with someone like Spezza. I have Milan Michalek, who was also a disappointment because he missed half of last season with an injury. But he says he’s healthy now and it looks like he’ll play with Spezza. I’ve got him at four bucks which could be a hell of a bargain but I need to squeeze every dollar on my payroll to free up enough money to renew a bunch of good young players. At four bucks, I’m leaning toward keeping him but any advice would be appreciated.
Duhatschek: When I’m in a pool with civilians, one of the biggest mistakes they make is overreaching for young players coming in. Everyone is determined to find a sleeper or a great bargain. Sometimes, the best bargains are guys that reliably get points year after year, but never go where they should in the draft order. Ray Whitney has been that guy for most of his NHL career. Andrew Brunette was that guy for a long time too. But you’re right Dave – getting the third guy riding shotgun on a great line can pay dividends. Last year, anybody who grabbed Jiri Tlusty because he was playing on the same line in Carolina with Eric Staal and Alex Semin did very well. This year, that guy might be Chris Kreider with the Rangers. For the moment anyway, they have him playing with Brad Richards and Rick Nash.
Friedman: I have Kreider and am extending his contract from $1 to $6 so I can keep him for at least another season, so I hope you are right. If Pierre-Marc Bouchard (New York Islanders) ends up being on a line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson, he might be it.
Burnside: Since I know my colleagues are reading I am looking hard at Sergei Kostitsyn. Okay, so KHL points don’t count. Seriously, I think goalie Steve Mason has a chance to revive his career in Philadelphia and wouldn’t be surprised if he garners a lot of attention at our draft (and a lot of money in salary cap space). In terms of a skater, Tyler Toffoli had a nice turn for the Los Angeles Kings late last season and in the playoffs, and has a chance to see at least some limited power play time moving forward.
Shoalts: Two years ago, P.A. Parenteau was a great $1 player for me when he played with John Tavares. He was still great last season with 43 points in 48 games after he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche and played with Matt Duchene. Those numbers might take him out of the sleeper category but I think he gets overlooked. One caveat for this season: Watch him closely, because one of Patrick Roy’s first moves as head coach was to take Parenteau off Duchene’s line and play him with rookie Nathan McKinnon and Jamie McGinn. That might work out, but chances are Parenteau could end up back with Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly.
LeBrun: Keep an eye on 18-year-old winger Valeri Nichushkin, drafted 10th overall (by the Dallas Stars) last spring. I know he really turned some heads in Traverse City at the prospects tournament earlier this month, and people I’ve spoken with say he could really surprise this year.
Duhatschek: Okay, one final thought. How much of the appeal of fantasy sports is the trash talk that goes on? David and Elliotte have had some memorable exchanges. I would argue David is at his most creative when he posting updates on our website as to the progress of his Northwest High Northwesters and their legendary managerial team. Is that part of the appeal? We don’t spend as much time as we used to, perched on bar stools. Is cybertrashing is the next best thing?
Burnside: It’s a rare podcast that Pierre doesn’t slip in a reference to our standings because invariably he is ahead of me. I always ask him if his pool is one that pays out in October or November. Doesn’t seem to matter come April, though. And frankly there is nothing better than making a deal that vaults you up the standings while simultaneously causing a colleague to implode. Just wish it would happen to Pierre more often. I am also one of those owners who does math on a regular basis and imagines that if all things fall correctly I could still get in the money. Much like the Leafs or Flames refuse to whole heartedly embrace a rebuild. If there’s even the remotest chance, I am happy to spend the money, and sadly for Chris, his money too.
LeBrun: That’s the best part, of course. The egos on press row make it all the more enjoyable when you win our league (which I’ve done three times over the past eight years, but who’s counting?). Mr. Shoalts by far is the master of the trash talk in our league. I bow to his expertise.
Friedman: Unfortunately for Dave Shoalts, his reporting is much funnier than his trash-talking.
Shoalts: Elliotte, you’re just angry that last season I ended your streak of finishing last every year since this pool started.
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