FantasyNHLScience/Statistics

Using expected goals to identify five players to avoid in fantasy this year

Continued news of the NHL season potentially starting in January brings with it the fantasy hockey season as well. With training camps expected to open after Christmas, fantasy drafts and preparations will be fast approaching. This brings the annual tradition of scouring through rankings and lists to find the best sleepers to gain an advantage in your league.

Yesterday, we broke down five forwards who should be targeted ahead of their ADP due to breakout potential, and having the stats to back it up.

On the flip side, we used the same expected goals method to identify five players who should be avoided in drafts this season, at their ADP. On this list we have four forwards and one defenseman. These players significantly outperformed their expected goals in relation to the actual goals they scored, and are unlikely to have repeated success in the 2020-21 season.

Of course, if these players can be had in later rounds, why not take a flier on them, but for the most part, stay clear of these players at their ADP, if you can.

Andre Burakovsky – LW, Colorado Avalanche

Before the 2019-20 season, Andre Burakovsky was a consistent middle to bottom six player, good for an average of 29 points per season. He had three consecutive seasons of 12 goals, and a career high of 17 coming in the 2015-16 campaign.

Las season, Burakovsky was traded from the Capitals to the Avalache for two picks, and exploded for career highs in goals, primary assists, total assists, and points. Much of this success was due to an elevated role with a superior team, and due to injuries to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, exposure to superstar Nathan MacKinnon.

Last season, Burakovsky scored 20 goals, a very solid total, but on under nine expected goals. That delta of over 11 goals was the eighth most in the entire league. The same number as elite finishers like MacKinnon and Steven Stamkos, and more than Elias Pettersson, Kyle Connor, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine.

It’s not unusual for players with elite finishing talent to have more goals than expected goals, but generally this trend is present for multiple season, often across the players’ entire NHL career. For Burakovsky, last seasons +11 finish was a severe outlier. Before last season, his largest difference between goals and expected goals was +5, and his career average was 3.45. A +11 season is just too high to trust, and has greatly inflated Burakovsky’s value heading into this season.

Add in the fact that a healthy Landeskog and Rantanen will limit Burakovsky’s exposure to MacKinnon and the first powerplay unit, and managers who take Burakovsky too high will almost surely be regretting that call as the season rolls on.

It’s important to point out that throughout Burakovsky’s career he’s been a fantasy stats darling. For the majority of his career, he’s been a positive Corsi player with at least 53.4% CF , a positive expected goals player with at least 52.7% xGF, and a positive player in terms of both scoring chances and high danger chances. All signs pointed to Burakovsky having a breakout season when he moved to Colorado, but not this kind of increase this fast.

For a player who is ranked just outside the top 50 forwards and just outside the top 75 overall players on NHL.com, the likelihood of Burakovsky repeating last season, let alone surpassing it, is extremely low.

Burakovsky is a good player, but should not be taken inside the sixth round of drafts. If he’s available after 100 overall, consider taking him, but let someone else reach for him instead.

Mika Zibanejad – C, New York Rangers

Mika Zibanejad might be a controversial pick on this list, but there are good reasons for his inclusion.

When he was a member of the Ottawa Senators, Zibanejad wasn’t a very fantasy relevant player. He was the type of guy you’d pick up off the waiver wire if he was on a hot streak and then be content to drop him once he magic wore off. He was always a good possession player, easily surpassing the 50% mark in Corsi, high danger chances, and expected goals as a Senator. When he moved to the Rangers, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect him to have better counting stats with a change of scenery.

His first year as a Ranger wasn’t anything too special, though. He put up 37 points in 56 games, good for a 54 point pace which essentially the same as the 52 point pace he had the year prior. The season after that was more of the same. A higher goal total at 27 compared to 14 the year before, but still a 54 point pace. Then he exploded.

The season after saw him put up 74 points including 30 goals. A clear breakout season for Zibanejad with career highs across the board, but then with an elevated role on the Rangers last season and exposure to elite LW Artemi Panarin, he set new career highs. 41 goals 75 points in just 57 games. Insanity.

On the surface, this progression doesn’t seem too out of place. He was in Ottawa and plateaued, then moved to the Rangers where he took a couple seasons to get accustomed to the new style and new linemates, and then reached new heights with an elevated role. However, digging into xG we an see some clear red flags, enough that should give managers pause in drafts this season.

In his first six NHL seasons, Zibanejad averaged just under two goals above expected; he scored 105 goals on 93 expected goals. The next season, he scored 30 goals on 20 expected goals, a significant jump from an average of two. And then last season he scored 41 goals on 22 expected goals, a difference of +19.

This increase is massive. To put it into perspective, only two other players had +19 or more goals vs. expected goals last season, David Pastrnak and Auston Matthews. This difference is reserved for the top of the top goal scorers in the NHL. Pastrnak has two consective seasons of at least +16 goals over expected. Matthews averages over 16 goals over expected across his entire career.

Is Zibanejad a good player and a great goal scorer? Yes. But is he at the level of a Pastrnak or Matthews? Probably not.

Therein lies the problem with Zibanejad. Maybe he is a player who can average +10 goals over expected for the next five seasons. But there’s a good chance he wont hit that upper echelon of +19 ever again.

Zibanejad is a category coverer and can help your team in many ways, but he’s currently ranked as the 16th best forward and 18th best player overall on NHL.com. That puts him in second round territory, and ahead of players like Brad Marchand, Pastrnak, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Stone, and many others. That’s just too high for Zibanejad.

If you can get him even in the late third or later rounds, it’s much better value than taking him in the second. Stick to a more proven player, maybe from our list yesterday, rather than hoping Zibanejad can find lightning in a bottle once again.

Bryan Rust – RW, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have the greatest of seasons, but Bryan Rust was a major bright spot. He set career highs in goals, primary assists, total assists, points, shots, and finished with an incredible 56 points in just 55 games.

Rust was a great fantasy asset last season and rewarded managers to picked him up off waivers in a big way. Nobody expected him to be a point-per-game player, and when you add in the fact that he plays the coveted RW position and helps in peripheral categories, Rust was a waiver wire MVP.

The biggest difference for Rust last season compared to those prior was he played with a new centre. Before last season, his most common linemate was Sidney Crosby, an elite player but known for needing a specific type of player to be on his flanks. No offense, but the only reason Chris Kunitz was on the 2010 Canadian Olympic squad was because he had proven he could play wing with Crosby.

Maybe Rust wasn’t a good fit next to Crosby, because he had resounding success with Evgeni Malkin last season. In fact, the chemistry between Malkin and Rust was so potent that they were practically joined at the hip last season. Rust played over 500 more minutes with Malkin than any other forward en route to the best season of his career.

The question heading into this season is if Rust can repeat that success.

Prior to last season, Rust was actually a below average finisher. On average, he scored fewer goals than expected at -0.2 over five seasons. He had three seasons where he was over one goal below expected, and his career high was +3 in 2016-17. Last season he erupted with 27 goals on 18 expected goals, a delta of +9. This is already a huge outlier compared to his previous body of work, but the most concerning part of this statistic is when you prorate it over the full season.

Rust played just 55 games last season. Extrapolating his goals vs. expected goals, he actually finished last season with a delta of +13.

For a player who was a career breakeven for goals vs. expected, a season of +13 is a major red flag. Yes, Malkin is one of the best centres in the league, but for Rust to have that kind of finishing ability in just one season doesn’t inspire confidence that he can do it again.

Currently, Rust is ranked as the 19th best RW on NHL.com. He doesn’t seem like a player worthy of a 1RW or even 2RW on most teams, so he is definitely someone to avoid at his ADP. Other RWs ranked below him like Sam Reinhart, Travis Konecny, Rielly Smith, and Anthony Mantha are just a few players who are better choices than Rust inside the top 20 RWs.

Tom Wilson – RW, Washington Capitals

Tom Wilson has the unique privilege of being a first round pick who averages under 30 points a season, and still gets paid over $5 million every year. That’s because his value lies outside the scoresheet, something that managers should keep in mind when drafting for this upcoming season.

Two seasons ago, Wilson made himself truly fantasy relevant by eclipsing the 20 goal and 40 point marks for the first time in his NHL career. This came in a season when he suited up for just 66 games, so for a pace of 29 goals and 52 points, it really looked like a serious breakout season for Wilson, and sign of good things to come.

Last season, he had an ADP of 60, which is incredible considering how lackluster his career had been to that point fantasy wise. Managers last season, however, were not disappointed by what Wilson did. He finished the season with a similar final stat line has the year prior with 21 goals and 44 points in 68 games. Over the course of a full 82 game schedule, he paced for 25 goals and 53 points, definitely good enough to be fantasy relevant when you throw in his strong category coverage.

However, looking into his actual vs. expected goals, Wilson is another player who might be in tough to have another similar season.

Taking out the previous two seasons, Wilson is a below average finisher scoring two fewer goals than expected on average over those five seasons. The 2018-19 breakout campaign saw him jump significantly to a delta of +6, with 22 goals on 16 expected goals. Last season that delta dipped to +1, much closer to his career average than before.

It wouldn’t be even remotely surprising to see Wilson dip below the breakeven mark this season as his goals above expected level off to his career average. Wilson had a couple solid fantasy relevant seasons and if you were fortunate enough to own him in either season, you struck gold. The likelihood of a third straight season from Wilson is low, and it’s definitely not worth expecting a 50+ point pace or 25+ goal pace from Wilson in 2020-21.

He’s currently ranked as the 11th best right winger on NHL.com. This is way, way too high for Wilson. If you can nab him as your 3RW then great, but he just can’t be relied upon to serve as a 1RW like he’s being ranked.

Zach Werenski – D, Columbus Blue Jackets

The only defender to crack this list, but it’s an important one. To win in fantasy, you need to have reliable scoring from your defensemen. For years, players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns were first round fantasy selections due to how much better they were at their position than the next tier of players, and they provided good value more often than not.

Zach Werenski is starting to be looked at as an elite scoring defender, and he definitely was after scoring a career high 20 goals in just 63 games last season. In fact, Werenski led the entire league in goals by a defenseman last season, and he finished with an incredible 26 goal pace.

Replicating his success last season doesn’t seem awfully likely though, and Werenski is almost certainly ranked higher than he should be heading into 2020-21 drafts.

Over the course of his career, Werenski averaged +2.65 goals above expected, but his season by season breakdown was +1, +5, and +2; the middle season plays a major role in bumping up his career average. He exploded last season with +8 goals above expected, a significant jump from his previous career high of +5. Factor in the shortened season, this prorates to +11, which is a downright massive increase.

He’s still early in his career, but Werenski’s propensity to fluctuate from season to season, coupled with a career average of around 3-4 goals above expected, makes the likelihood of him repeating his excellent 2019-20 season low.

Werenski is ranked as the 13th best defenseman on NHL.com, ahead of Karlsson, John Klingberg, Shea Theodore, and Rasmus Dahlin, among many, many others. There’s no doubt that Werenski will be fantasy relevant next season, but there’s a strong chance he underperforms his ADP. He’s not a 1D and shouldn’t be drafted as one.


Photo Credits: NHL.com

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