With every player you consider drafting and every pick you make, you always want to be looking for upside. The key to winning your hockey pool is finding the players that will exceed their point totals of last year. Anybody can look at last year’s scoring stats and pick in that order; that is a great way to go down in flames.

A truth that I learned early on in my hockey pool career was that if a player is ever going to have a breakout season, it would almost always be in his third or fourth year. Of course, this is not true 100% of the time but I have seen many, many instances of this strategy playing out exactly as planned. I fondly remember picking Keith Tkachuk in my 1993-94 hockey pool. It was Tkachuk’s third NHL season and he exploded from 51 points in ’92-’93 to 81 in ’93-’94.

Another strategy that has served me very well is -- never pick a rookie. Yes, some rookies have great years and put up big numbers but the vast majority of rookies do not. For every Teemu Selanne gold mine you hit (132 points as a rookie in ’92-’93), there are many Joe Thornton disasters (7 points in 55 games as a rookie in 1997-98). I would avoid rookies in almost all circumstances.

This season, we do have a different kind of rookie available. We have the greatly hyped, highly heralded, savior of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- Sidney Crosby. He would be the exception to my "no rookie" rule.

Now Crosby could very well turn out to be the next Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. On the other hand, Crosby could also turn out to be the next Doug Wickenheiser or Alexander Daigle. (If you are asking "Who?" I have made my point)

Sidney will go in the first round of almost every hockey pool this season. In those pools where he doesn’t go in the first round, he will surely be claimed within the top 3. This is far too early to pick a rookie, even with Crosby’s credentials. Let the others take Crosby with their first round pick, you play it smart and take a proven producer like Markus Naslund, Joe Sakic or Brad Richards.

As a rookie, Crosby will probably pick up 70 points on the high end and he could earn as few as 25. The upside is not worth the risk of the potential downside. Pick Crosby after he has had a year or two under his belt.

In a straight points pool, always have a copy of last year’s top 300 scorers in your hands. Live with it and keep it handy at all times in the weeks leading up to your draft. Any time you hear an injury update, a contract holdout or somebody lighting it up during the preseason, jot it down by their name on your list. Information is power in a hockey pool so make sure you document everything you hear.

Using your top 300 scorers list, go down the entire list and highlight the players that you believe will make the greatest improvement over last season. Typically, the players that will explode to new levels are the young guns in their third or fourth season, the top-flight players that were injured last year and players who are in brand-new positive situations.

When a sniper goes from a very defensive team to one that plays a more wide-open style, that is who you are looking for. A good example would be when John LeClair went from the stifling defensive system of Montreal early in the 1994-95 season to the more offensive Philadelphia Flyers. LeClair cracked the top 10 in scoring his first year in Philadelphia -- something he never even came close to in Montreal.

Another thing to look for is a good player that has been on a bad team. If his club brings in some new offensive firepower that can lead to some major improvements in point totals. Shane Doan of Phoenix is a classic example of this strategy unfolding. The Coyotes were active during the summer of 2004 securing some skilled free agents. Look for Doan to be a major beneficiary of this influx of talent.

I also look at the style of play of NHL players. I have never been a big fan of the "power forward" for several reasons. The power game leads to more injuries than many other styles of play. Standing in front of the net taking a beating from Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara all season long does take a toll.

Power forwards also tend to spend a lot of time in the penalty box. By definition the role requires that you battle and those battles oftentimes lead to fights. When one of your top picks spends 150 minutes per year in the penalty box, it is difficult for him to score. I would lean more towards finesse-type players.

Players that are can create their own offense are much better picks than those who cannot. This seems quite obvious but it is not always obvious what players are more creative than others. Look for strong skaters that can carry a team. Determination and desire to win are also traits that these types of players possess.

Players that can create their own offense, no matter who they have on their line are guys like Markus Naslund, Ilya Kovalchuk, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.

Passion for the game is another hallmark of a great scorer. Some players tend to have a good season and follow it up with a stinker then they might have another good one then an average one. Some of those players seem to lack the passion and it is reflected in their point totals. I think of Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Bure when I speak of a lack of passion. Sometimes those guys are amazing and other times they seem to be uninterested in what is going on. When you pick them, you are not sure which one you will get.

Depending on when your pool has its draft, pay attention to pre-season scoring statistics. Do not make pre-season scoring your sole reason for picking a player; many times people have been burned by a hot prospect who scored a lot of points in the exhibition games. Pre-season scoring is a supplement to research that you have already done. If you are unsure about a player or you need another piece of evidence to tip the scales either way, pre-season performance can be the information that you are looking for.

If your pool is one that picks goalies, be very careful. There is no goalie stat in existence that is solely the result of the goaltender’s efforts. What I mean is, the team in front of the goalie is responsible for a large percentage of the overall defensive effort. If a goaltender has a great defense in front of him, his numbers will make him look better than he is. If a goaltender has a poor defense in front of him, his numbers will make him look worse than he really is.

I always think of Dwayne Roloson when I speak about goaltending stats. In the 2003-04 season, Roloson had the best save % in the NHL with a .933 yet he didn’t receive any serious consideration for the Vezina trophy. Why is that? Because the voters realized that the Minnesota Wild played such a stifling defensive system and that inflated Roloson’s statistics. Roloson faced far fewer quality shots each night than did a goaltender like Roberto Luongo.

The point of this is, pick a goalie that plays behind a very strong defense. If an excellent goalie gets traded to a lousy defensive team, avoid him. You would be much better off picking a lesser goalie that is in the nets on a great defensive team.

If your pool gives points based on the number of wins a goalie achieves, again, go with a goalie on a very strong team. No goalie is capable of winning a game alone. Goaltending statistics are very misleading because none of them are achieved by the goaltender alone. When picking a goalie, consider the team as much as the individual.

So take advantage of these tips and strategies and I promise that your hockey pool results will improve. Nothing is 100% foolproof and injuries will occur. Sometimes you just can’t get a break - unless it is the leg of your 2nd round pick.

I wish you the best in your draft.