Every year fantasy hockey managers enter their drafts, get partway through, and then are faced with a quandary: the next highest-ranked player on their draft list is a player known to miss a significant number of games each season.
The question of pass or draft becomes less about that player’s skill level and more about what level of confidence we can have that they’ll play anything close to a full season’s worth of games. I don’t have a hard and fixed rule around what to do with “injury-prone” players, but I do have some basic guidelines that I have constructed to keep my process consistent from year to year and player to player.
Rule #1: Differentiate between types of injuries
This is some basic common sense. A player who misses 30 games in one season with a broken wrist and 20 games the following year with a high ankle sprain has experienced two injuries that are completely unrelated and I would not consider that player to be injury-prone. But if a player experiences a right hip injury, comes back and injures their left knee within a few games, those could be correlated and the knee could have been injured due to compensating for a hip that was still healing.
If you see multiple seasons of very similar injuries causing prolonged absences from the lineup, then it’s valid to have some concern that lingering issues might cause a player to miss time in the upcoming season.
Rule #2: Disbelieve the “injury-prone” moniker until proven otherwise
In general, I think it’s wise to avoid considering any player “injury-prone” until they’ve conclusively shown over multiple years that they are incapable of staying healthy. For every Evgeni Malkin who routinely misses 15+ games per season, there’s a Kris Letang who mixed in seasons of relative good health among his injury-filled campaigns before missing just five games over the past two seasons. Even in Malkin’s case, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if he put together a 78-game season this year and crushed the expected return on his current Yahoo ADP (average draft position) of 62.1.
Rule #3: Understand the real cost of injuries
There’s a common fallacy in fantasy hockey circles that players who are injured are just dead weight to your roster. But assuming that you play in a league that has IR and/or IR+ slots, that’s simply not the case, as you’ll be able to place injured players in those slots and pick up another player to replace them. So taking the case of Malkin, imagine a season in which he plays 50 games scoring one point per game and for the other 32 games you have to pick up a player from the free agent pool in your league who scores at a 50-point pace (across a projected 82 games). That’s 50 points from Malkin and 19.5 points from the hypothetical free agent for a total of 69.5 points.
Fifty games is an extremely low number of games for any player to play in a given season and I wouldn’t advise anyone to project a player to play that low a total, but in any case the downside risk is nowhere near as severe as most managers seem to think. That leads me to my final rule.
Rule #4: The potential cost is already counted
Simply put, the downside risk is almost always fully baked into any “injury-prone” player’s ADP. We see this in Bryan Rust’s 8th round ADP and Erik Karlsson’s 12th round ADP; there’s almost no downside to taking those players at that cost. Even if they only give you half a season, the combination of their totals plus the replacement player’s totals is almost certain to return value in those rounds. But of course, what’s not considered is the upside case: what if they stay healthy for the whole season? If the cost to acquire is in-line with the worst case scenario, a full season of health is all gravy on top.
Who fits the bill for 2022-23?
This year, Jack Eichel sticks out to me like a sore thumb as an example of a player who is being valued at his floor with a current Yahoo ADP of 43.2. Eichel is a unique case with his neck issues, but after an acclimation period Eichel’s advanced stats down the stretch convinced me that he’s still the same player who was essentially putting up point-per-game (and better) seasons in Buffalo despite a complete dearth of NHL-caliber linemates. For all their struggles last season, Vegas is still a much better team and situation overall for Eichel and he feels like a solid bet for another point-per-game season. If I’m going to be offered an injury discount on a player who finished last season injury-free and has demonstrated a consistent point-per-game ability in bad situations throughout his career, you can bet I’m going to take it.
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