Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
So where do we find the best fantasy hockey players year after year?
Well, how much time do you have?
Seriously. That's the question you should be asking. Time on ice, a measure that often gets buried under other statistics like scoring or plus/minus, matters. In the fantasy game, it's what separates the strong from the weak.
Think it's a coincidence that the NHL's leading scorer, Sidney Crosby, has averaged more playing time than any forward in the league this season? Not a chance.
Of the ten forwards in the league averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time this season, only Vancouver center Ryan Kesler (second in minutes played) has tallied fewer than 30 points. And that's only because his line-mates, the Sedin brothers, have been so darn effective (77 points between them this season).
Of course, this is a bit like the chicken and the egg argument. Are these guys putting up good numbers because they play a lot or do they play a lot because they put up really good numbers?
Indeed, it's rare to have a bad player seeing Crosby minutes. The closest example we have to this is with New Jersey center Travis Zajac.
To clarify, calling Zajak a "bad player" is a bit harsh. "Replaceable" would probably be the better adjective. This is a guy who posted 67 points in 2010 and has been extremely durable (with the exception of one season) throughout his eight-year career.
But the numbers don't lie. While Zajak ranks 21st among forwards in time on ice (20:25 per game), he's only 161st when it comes to points scored (19 points in 42 contests). Certainly there's a bit of under-performing going on here.
Fantasy owners need to be aware of what kind of player they're dealing with. A valuable team contributor and a first-rate fantasy contributor are often completely different things. Ottawa left wing Colin Greening illustrates this point perfectly.
Greening is a good hockey player. Notice I didn't put the word "fantasy" in front of hockey player. Greening, who has been healthy and active for all 45 of the Senators' games this season, has never scored more than 17 goals in a season. Barring some epic Space Jam scenario where the skill set of Sidney Crosby consumes Greening's body, it won't happen this year either.
Yet he remains on Ottawa's top line because he's a physical presence. Greening's 148 hits this season are the fourth-most in the NHL. Without that toughness, without that intimidation factor that Greening brings, the Senators might be even further back in the Eastern Conference standings than they already are.
But that's enough about Greening. Most of you already know not to have him on your fantasy team. Alex Ovechkin, on the other hand, is someone all fantasy owners know about. He's leading the league in goals for the second straight season.
As you might have expected, Ovechkin is among the league leaders in ice time at just over 21 minutes per game. Turns out, it's a bit of a double-edged sword. The Capitals have been struggling to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference, probably because they're allowing almost three goals per game (2.95 GA/G average is seventh-worst in the NHL).
The team's inexplicably poor defense has led to a ghastly -17 rating for Ovechkin, which has no doubt been exacerbated by the huge minutes he's been putting in all season. I'm sure this deficiency has not been lost on Ovechkin's fantasy owners.
But if a less than stellar plus/minus rating is the worst thing that can happen from being on the ice all the time, I'm sure fantasy owners can live with it. Especially when it comes without any real injury risks.
I'll explain. Of the ten forwards averaging 21+ minutes of ice time this season, only Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk has competed in fewer than 40 games. So if wear and tear isn't an issue, why not play these guys as much as possible?
Unless ... the heavy minutes eventually take their toll later in the season.
Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case, at least not recently. The top-20 forwards when it came to ice time last season all played at least 36 games, with all but two playing 40 or more. Remember, the 2013 season operated on an abbreviated 48-game schedule due to the lockout.
The season before that, Minnesota's Mikko Koivu was the only forward in the top-ten in minutes played who skated in fewer than 77 contests. So unlike in some sports, particularly baseball with its recent emphasis on pitch counts and inning limits, the link between injuries and increased playing time doesn't appear to exist.
So don't worry that one of your favorite players is going to burn out. In fact, you should be rooting for them to play more minutes, especially if you have Matt Duchene on your roster.
Duchene has been the best scorer on his team with 38 points in 40 games this season.
Yet the Avalanche don't appear to be all-in on their talented youngster. Right now, Duchene is averaging just 17:59 a game and is buried on the team's second line.
Bobby Ryan, who was just snubbed by the U.S. Olympic team, can relate. Despite leading the team in goals scored (18), Ryan has barely played 17 minutes per game this season. Luckily for fantasy owners, the Ottawa coaching staff is starting to get the message. Ryan has been on the ice 19 minutes or more twice in his last three contests.
Time is money, people. And who doesn't like having a little extra coin in their pocket?