Fantasy hockey's ZeroG strategy: Why you shouldn't draft a goalie early

Waiting until the later rounds to draft a goalie can pay big dividends in fantasy hockey. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Waiting until the later rounds to draft a goalie can pay big dividends in fantasy hockey. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As fantasy hockey season rapidly approaches, players should consider employing the #ZeroG draft strategy. I coined the "ZeroG" moniker myself, but the basic strategy behind it is one that has long existed among the top fantasy hockey minds: don't spend an early draft pick on a goalie.

The reasoning is that goalies are too unpredictable year-to-year relative to their forward and defensemen counterparts, and you're more likely to sink your season drafting an unpredictable netminder early on than you are by taking a skater in the same round.

I've studied goalie finishes versus their ADPs for the past two seasons, and I believe ZeroG is in fact the strongest draft strategy for the vast majority of leagues. I would not say it's the only strategy that can work or anything quite so binary, but in a game where we're all searching for that edge that puts us just a little ahead of the competition after draft day, ZeroG is a way to get a leg up from the start.

Goalies Are Inherently Replaceable

So where did ZeroG come from? As I mentioned, avoiding goalies early in drafts is no recent phenomenon. A lot of sharp fantasy players that I've discussed the strategy with have in fact been employing it in some form or another for many years.

My personal "aha" moment came when I first studied end-of-season goalie ranks relative to their draft day ADP following the 2020-21 COVID-shortened season. The results were staggering: there was nearly no benefit in terms of end-of-season finish to drafting a goalie ranked 1-14 by ADP versus goalies ranked 15-28. I followed that up by conducting the same study after the 2021-22 campaign, but found different results. ADP lined up much better with end-of-season goalie ranks this past season, making drafting goalies in earlier rounds much less of a minefield than it was the previous season.

But even though goalies were more predictable this past season, I personally found great success employing a ZeroG strategy across all of my leagues. The reason for this is pretty simple: even when goalies are more predictable, they are still very replaceable.

Let me explain what I mean via some examples. This past season saw Anton Forsberg and Ville Husso emerge as league-winners after the halfway point of the season. These are goalies that went undrafted in nearly every league, but after taking over their respective teams' nets they returned elite-level results at the position. The season before, it was Mike Smith and Jack Campbell.

The point is that every season we see two or three netminders emerge as fantasy goldmines that you can pluck straight from the waiver wire and ride to a championship. It's a phenomenon you just don't see at the skater positions.

It's not limited to the late season, either. I rostered James Reimer and Jonathan Quick in a lot of places in the first half of last season, and they outperformed guys who required big draft-day investments like Robin Lehner and Darcy Kuemper during that time period. Using waiver wire adds to continually rotate through goalies that are running hot is a very viable strategy, and the advantage it affords you in the rest of your lineup is considerable.

Jonathan Quick was a solid fantasy hockey contributor for stretches last season and didn't require much draft capital. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
Jonathan Quick was a solid fantasy hockey contributor for stretches last season and didn't require much draft capital. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images) (Codie McLachlan via Getty Images)

Opportunity Cost of Early Goalie Picks

One of the greatest advantages the ZeroG strategy offers is not related to goalies at all. When you take a goalie with an early pick, there is an opportunity cost associated with that pick. Opportunity cost represents the "what if" of taking a certain player. The higher the pick, the higher the opportunity cost because there were more valuable players also available to draft at that pick. And early round skaters are some of the safest plays in the game, returning value year after year.

So when you avoid goalies in the early going, you can build a core roster of elite (but also safe) skaters that should lead to you dominating your league at all skater positions, while doing just fine at the goaltender position via the Reimers and Hussos of the season (whoever they might be).

When is “Early” and Who Do We Target?

So what does this look like practically? What round am I finally allowed to take a goalie in? Who should I target later in drafts? I advise anyone who asks my opinion to avoid putting a hard and fast rule on which round is "OK" to take your first goalie in. Instead, think about goalies by way of tiers.

Most agree the top tier of goalies this year is the duo of Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The next tier gets murkier with highly-regarded-but-not-truly-dominant starters like Juuse Saros, Thatcher Demko, and Jacob Markstrom. In the next tier you have starters with bigger question marks, like Elvis Merzlikins and Jordan Binnington. And beyond them you get into tandems (Jeremy Swayman/Linus Ullmark, Alexandar Georgiev/Pavel Francouz) and starters on bad teams (John Gibson, Carter Hart). My mantra is to simply avoid spending more draft capital on goaltenders than the others in your league. I'm very comfortable going into the season with Merzlikins as my No. 1 and Gibson as my No. 2.

When you avoid taking goaltenders early, you also avoid the mental block that prevents you from dropping them if they underperform. In the above example I just gave, I would have no qualms dropping Merzlikins or Gibson a few weeks into the season for whoever the new hotness is — maybe Kaapo Kahkonen takes the reins in San Jose and gets hot early, or maybe an injury to a starter propels an untested backup to early season production.

I often say I have no interest in predicting goalie performance, only finding goaltenders who will pay off if they play well. I am interested in whether a backstop is likely to get the lion's share of starts; if they are, I will try them out and perhaps they hit and I have someone I can ride with for a number of weeks (or months). If not, I'm moving on to the next one.

Being nearly agnostic about predicting goalie performance has allowed me to focus on finding those who are getting the number of starts required to turn into a league-winner if they happen to go off. It's a strategy that leads me to the Forsbergs and Hussos of the league each and every year, and I think it will pay off in spades for you this season if you are willing to grind the waiver wire to keep churning through these goalies until you find that gem.

Nate Groot Nibbelink is the creator of Apples & Ginos Fantasy Hockey and the originator of the #ZeroG draft strategy. You can find him pontificating about obscure fantasy hockey strategy topics in the Apples & Ginos Discord Server or on Twitter @applesginos.

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