Defending PIM, hits and other fantasy “trash” stats

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Beyond goals and assists, differentiating the necessary “treasured” fantasy hockey stats from the “trash” stats can get murky. Penalty minutes and hits are among those that many consider to be fantasy hockey trash stats — scoring categories that are frowned upon as superfluous and inconsequential.

Unless, in reality, you’re a hockey player who’s made a career out of them.

“I don’t think I should have to justify them,” New York Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck told ESPN when asked about hits as a fantasy hockey stat. “It’s one of those things that’s pretty obvious, what physical play can do for a team, the crowd — everything.”

Hits are particularly valuable to Clutterbuck, who is second in the NHL since 2014 in the category with 934 in 244 games. He’s paid handsomely as a bottom-six forward who excels in delivering them.

But in fantasy hockey, they’re part of a collection of “trash stats” whose merits are debated annually when figuring out a league’s scoring. Some of these unconventional categories — probably the kindest way to refer to them in the eyes of critics — are trashed and dismissed because they don’t factor into scoring plays. Others are bemoaned because they seemingly reward illegal behavior. And then some are so random in the context of fantasy stats that having them determine who wins or loses a head-to-head matchup makes the shootout look like a seven-game playoff series in a comparison of their respective valor.

Well, let’s settle it once and for all by taking a look at the varying degrees of trash of fantasy hockey stats — from Clutterbuck’s ever-so-valuable hits category right on down to penalty minutes, the focal point of most fantasy stat debates — defending some of them as worthy and deeming others as indefensible.


Hits

In theory, statistic categories in fantasy sports should revolve around objective actions resulting in scoring plays. Of course, that theory falls apart when you realize a bedrock stat like assists is nearly as subjective as something like hits. Hometown scoring inflation, anyone?

So is a body check a hockey play worthy of fantasy scoring? We cede the floor to Mr. Clutterbuck of Brooklyn.

“If you can do it effectively, I think it’s definitely something that has value,” the Islanders winger said. “There’s definitely value in creating a little fear. It has a butterfly effect. It’s not always what it does at face value. You get a reputation. You pick your spots and you hit guys and you create turnovers and you make people rethink what they’re going to do with the puck.”

Trash or treasured?

Treasured. Physical play is an inherent part of the game and should be rewarded. Sure, players like Clutterbuck and Matt Martin are compiling stats in a very subjective category, but why are they on your team again in the first place? Meanwhile, hits give added value to players like Alex Ovechkin and Dustin Byfuglien, and we’re very much in favor of celebrating the totality of a player’s game.


Plus/minus

Occasionally in this fractured society of ours, people come to an inspiring consensus on a pertinent issue, like how they should now only make funny “Thor” movies.

We’re not quite sure when hockey fans decided en masse that plus/minus was a lazy hack stat that did little to define an individual’s worth — perhaps it was the rise of hockey analytics — but we’re certainly pleased that they did. Because plus/minus sucks. Why this stat is such a mainstay in categorical scoring for some leagues is baffling. Perhaps it’s just a quaint relic that we simply can’t jettison yet, sort of like how candy corn remains a staple of Halloween cuisine despite being inedible.

Trash or treasured?

Total trash. Like, you might as well count “wins” if you’re going to apply a team-oriented stat to individual players.


Wins

Did someone say wins? It’s hard to be critical of goalie stats because, frankly, there are so few of them. Counting “wins” as a fantasy category is standard fare and can be a driving force behind where a goalie is selected when the inevitable run on them starts during your draft.

But like plus/minus, it’s essentially a team stat. Without any offensive contributions from teammates, a goalie can’t win a game. However, there’s a difference. Goalies can have a more direct impact on a win or a loss than any other player, not only due to the nature of the position, but also because they’re on the ice longer than any other player.

Trash or treasured?

Treasured, which we know isn’t going to set well with critics who wince every time “wins” are brought up in an argument for a Vezina candidate. But we have to use something to keep goalies relevant in fantasy.


Faceoff wins

We can agree that the art of winning a faceoff is a laudable facet of hockey. Watching Patrice Bergeron school a hapless foe on the dot can be every bit as satisfying as a picturesque pass or a booming hit. The great forwards who can also excel on the defensive side of the game should be celebrated with fantasy admiration.

But…faceoff wins are a garbage stat.

Trash or treasured?

Trash. First of all, it’s a stat that deals in volume. A player’s success or failure on faceoffs might fluctuate a little, but the number of faceoffs he takes during a game will remain high if he’s the designated No. 1 or No. 2 guy on draws. It’s less about achievement and more about “hey, this guy takes a lot of faceoffs, I shall draft him.”

But more importantly, the more we know about the nature of faceoffs, the more we understand that a loss can sometimes be a win, depending on factors like whether a team is trying to get the puck deep into the attacking zone on a draw. In which case a so-called loss is by design, yet it would be considered detrimental in fantasy scoring. So, that’s not cool.


Short-handed goals and assists

Power-play points make sense. They’re an essential part of elite scorers’ diet of offense and an essential part of determining which players to add to your team. The difference between two options could come down to power-play ice time or the effectiveness of a given team’s power play.

Short-handed points, in the eyes of many, don’t make sense. Despite penalty kills getting more aggressive, short-handed goals remain a rarity. The leading power-play goal scorer is Patrik Laine with nine in 31 games, while Aleksander Barkov (29 games) and Evander Kane (30 games) are tied for the league lead with three short-handed goals. Over a third of the league has given up two or fewer shorties so far. They’re a borderline anomaly.

Trash or treasured?

Sorry, but these are to be treasured.

Selecting a player who excels across the board and has shorthanded prowess, like Barkov, Kane, Logan Couture or Connor McDavid, is rightfully rewarding. Yes, we understand how deflating it is to battle in a head-to-head fantasy smackdown, only to lose the week on a short-handed assist because Victor Hedman‘s inconsequential pass out of the defensive zone was turned into a shortie by Brayden Point. But that’s also ignoring the delightful unpredictability that short-handed scoring lends to a fantasy matchup. It’s a Hail Mary pass that somehow finds a receiver in the end zone, but man-down scoring is at least skill-involved, and you’re rewarded to choosing players that earn penalty-kill time. We love it.


Points

If you score goals and assists as categories, and then also score points as a category. Just … why? You do know goals plus assists equal points, right? Why do you do this? Is redundancy your drug of choice?

Trash or treasured?

Trash. We haven’t seen such a craven, artificial inflation of numbers since the NHL adopted the overtime loser point in the standings.


Save percentage

As previously stated, goalie stats are small in number and high in annoyance. Still, there are a few that are better than others.

For example, consider saves vs. save percentage. Saves are great. Saves are what a goaltender is supposed to make. Shots against are also great because they reward workhorses (without needing that “games started” category) and pump up the value of goalies on terrible teams, a.k.a. those who are left after the dozen or so actually good goalies are gone in the draft or the ones who you’re left sifting through on the waiver wire. Who among us hasn’t side-eyed an Arizona Coyotes or Florida Panthers goalie in the past for that very reason?

But save percentage, as a fantasy stat? Meh.

Trash or treasured?

Trash. The stat has its own issues in real life, like the inability to glean situational or shot quality information. In fantasy, it’s one of those deals where one garbage-time goal against could sully an otherwise sterling effort. So, obviously, if it’s a garbage time concern, it’s got to be a trash stat.


Game-winning goals

If you’re going to take the stance that short-handed points are a fluky anomaly, then you’ve lost the moral high ground to claim that GWGs have any place in fantasy scoring. To wit, the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, 7-2, on Tuesday night. The Oilers built a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period. Two goals from the Jackets in the third period brought them within three. So, defenseman Matt Benning, for making it 3-0, got the game winner in a game where the win was basically secured in the first 40 minutes. Go team.

Trash or treasured?

Trash. Apologies to those with Brandon Saad on their fantasy team who have watched six of his 10 goals “win” games for the Chicago Blackhawks.


Blocked shots

We always imagined Kris Russell‘s friends and family fantasy league only scores blocked shots, thereby making Russell the most valuable player in his league. But we digress. Are they a legitimate fantasy stat? Well, consider this: There are very few defensive stats in fantasy hockey for defensemen, hence the plus/minus crutch. Blocked shots are certainly a way to compare and contrast blueliners without turning them into the de facto NFL tight ends of fantasy hockey (i.e. necessary players who contribute small scoring returns). And yes, Erik Karlsson is Rob Gronkowski in this comparison.

Trash or treasured?

Treasured. One simply can’t make a full defense of hits while also calling blocks trash. Somewhere, John Tortorella approvingly nods.


Penalty minutes

Oh boy, here we go. What else could serve as the grand finale in this debate than penalty minutes, a topic that has sparked many a civil war within fantasy leagues? PIMs are, without question, the most gloriously divisive stat.

But is it a trash category?

The critical take on them is simple: You’re rewarding illegality, and you’re rewarding a player for doing something detrimental to his team. It’s like scoring pass interference penalties for a defensive player in fantasy football. It’s like a professor awarding extra credit to the student who best cheated on an exam. It’s the antithesis of what our society should, in theory, celebrate in achievement.

Trash or treasured?

Treasure! Bear with me, my defense of the seemingly indefensible makes sense. Certain guys have certain roles to play, and there have been some very good players whose role is to not only contribute offensively, but also to play on the edge.

Let’s bring it back full circle to Clutterbuck’s comment on hits: “There’s definitely value in creating a little fear.”

The fact is that not all PIMs are created equally. Tom Wilson taking a dumb interference minor in the offensive zone is not the same as Tom Wilson getting five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct because someone took liberties with sweet Olympic hero T.J. Oshie. The former penalty would likely get him chewed out by Barry Trotz, while the latter likely gets him stick taps from the Washington Capitals bench in appreciation.

This Wilson example brings us to the larger point. He has 15 points in 28 games this season, fifth among Capitals forwards. That might not be enough to get you to select him for your fantasy team, but when you factor in 68 penalty minutes, Wilson is all of a sudden rostered on 27.3 percent of fantasy teams, more than Rick Nash (26.0 percent), Gustav Nyquist (26.0 percent) and Justin Williams (25.9 percent). He follows in the skate strides of players like Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Byfuglien, Scott Hartnell, Milan Lucic and other power forwards who collect points while vacuuming up PIMs.

These players are transformed into more valuable commodities because that time spent in the sin bin, and in the process, the assumed pecking order of coveted players is shaken up, in that the top picks are no longer just a running list of Art Ross candidates each season.

Stats like hits, PIMs and blocked shots are quite predictable, in that we know which players are likely to collect them, and they create new layers of strategy within player management. And they do so without being total trash stats. You know, like game-winning goals or something. Yuck.



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