Crosby still on top, Malkin vs. Stamkos, and more.
I have a few general rules when it comes to building a team in a fantasy hockey keeper league. One of the more important ones is to not plan beyond a two-to-three-year window. You are not building a real NHL club, and too often I see poolies place too much emphasis on youth and prospects instead of trying to add players who could help win now.
Using this rule, take a look at your team(s). Can you realistically say you will have a shot at winning the league at some point within the next two or three seasons? If not, time to scrap the rebuild and start adding proven NHL talent.
Keeping the two-to-three-year window in mind, I have compiled a list of the top 10 keeper league centers to own (assuming standard keeper league rules and scoring categories). Using the scope, the long-term upside of these players is balanced with their NHL readiness.
This list is in order, which means that I wouldn’t trade the fourth player straight across for the fifth player, and so on. I was asked to clarify by what “standard categories” means, so here is the league format that I am basing my selections on:
- 12 to 15 teams
- Start 4 C, 4 LW, 4 RW, 6 D, 2 G (5 Bench)
- G, A, +/-, PIM, PPP, GWG, HITS, SOG
I put an emphasis on offensive categories. They are harder to find in the draft – it is much easier to scoop up a PIM/HITS type of player on the waiver wire (Matt Martin, Derek Dorsett) than it is to get a player who fills the G/A/PPP categories nicely.
Like Ray Shero, Crosby’s concussion issues don’t scare me off enough to bump him from the top spot on this list. He’s as close to a sure thing for 100 points each season as you are going to get. The concussion issues still have to factor in to his fantasy value, but Pittsburgh investing over $100 million in his health and future speaks volumes as to their level of confidence in him remaining healthy.
Crosby does everything extremely well – shoot (51 goals in 2009-10) pass (386 career assists in 434 games), and step his play up in big games (90 points in 68 career postseason games). The hype surrounding him back in 2005 was incredible, but he has arguably surpassed even the highest expectations people had for him. If you own him (and didn’t trade him during the past year and a half), get ready to be rewarded for your patience.
The great Malkin or Stamkos debate has been a focal point in the DobberHockey community for the past few years. Stamkos is the most prolific scorer in the game, he is younger than Malkin, and he is more durable, too. However, Malkin quieted most of his doubters with an incredible performance in 2011-12. With a big power forward winger on his side for the first time in his career (James Neal), Malkin scored a career high 50 goals, added 109 points (the second highest total of his career), and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. He also had 70 PIM, a very solid total for a star player (in fantasy circles, his undisciplined play is a bonus). From last year’s list:
“When at the top of his game, he is arguably a better player than Crosby and Ovechkin. Malkin skates like Sergei Fedorov, and he handles the puck like Jean Beliveau. He’s not gritty or overly physical, but like his countryman Pavel Bure, he’ll fight back if provoked.
Stamkos hit the magical 60-goal mark in 2011-12, and set a career high in points with 97, too. He has missed only three games in his four-year NHL career, all in his rookie season of 2008-09. Like Crosby, he combines an incredible work ethic (on and off of the ice) with his elite talent. The combination is deadly. Stamkos’s training regime with Gary Roberts and company is legendary. He came in to the league as a skinny guy, and in only a few years he has packed on some serious muscle.
The difference is noticeable – once he is done growing and developing, Stamkos is going to resemble a power forward on the ice. He doesn’t play a physical game, but he uses his size to create separation from opposing defenders. How high can he go with his goal total? 70? 80?
4. John Tavares
Did you expect Tavares to rank so high on this list? Ahead of more proven players like Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Claude Giroux? Like Stamkos, he has proven his durability (only three missed games in his first three seasons in the league). His year-to-year progression is why many (myself included) are so high on the former 1st overall pick. Off the ice, Tavares has quickly matured from a shy rookie to a confident leader. On the ice, the offensive skills have always been there, but he has improved his skating and all-around play immensely. Tavares recorded 54 points as a rookie, 67 as a sophomore, and 81 in his third season.
Many around the league are wondering if PA Parenteau will miss playing with Tavares now that he is in Colorado. The answer is obviously yes, but it isn’t a one way street. The crafty Parenteau was a great fit for Tavares – it is rare to find a pure playmaker who plays the right wing in the NHL (Patrick Kane and Martin St. Louis are probably the best examples). The Islanders have a few options to replace Parenteau on the wing with Tavares and Matt Moulson – Kyle Okposo, the recently-signed Brad Boyes, or the underrated Josh Bailey, who has been converted to wing from center.
The Lubomir Visnovsky acquisition helps Tavares quite a bit, as the two will feature prominently on the top power play unit on Long Island. Visnovsky is one of the best at running the point in the league, and he will be missed in Anaheim by the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
“His statistics only tell part of Tavares' story this season. Despite a 13-game goal drought, Tavares has been a consistent force on the ice on every shift. When his line is on, there's an anticipation that something - goals, shots, an aggressive forecheck, a breakaway - will happen in the Islanders favor. It's not an exaggeration to say that he has not taken a minute off in any game this season. His skating, always thought of as his biggest weakness, and his strength on the puck have improved by leaps and bounds thanks to a new off-season training regimen (just ask Max Talbot and Nazim Kadri, two recent opponents who tried to knock Tavares off the puck only to end up watching him skate away while sitting on their butts).”
The man they call “G” was the best hockey player in the world for stretches of the 2011-12 campaign. He made Flyers fans quickly forget about Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, seamlessly stepping in and centering the top line. Giroux is the best player on one of the best teams in the league. He does all of the little things well, too. He competes hard (an incredibly bland and overused statement, but it describes him perfectly), and he consistently makes opposing goaltenders look foolish.
Like Tavares, his year-to-year improvement has been amazing. He has gone from 27 points (in 42 games as a rookie in 2008-09), to 47, to 76, to 93. Along the way, he has become a leader on the Flyers, learned a new position (center), and held his own in head to head matchups with Crosby and Malkin many times.
Don’t wear out the replay button:
Nick Backstrom played in only 42 games in 2011-12 for the Caps. To say that Washington missed him during his absence would be a severe understatement. He sustained a concussion after receiving an elbow from Rene Bourque in early January, and it took Alex Ovechkin almost an entire calendar month after the hit to pass Backstrom for the top scoring spot on the team.
Backstrom finished with 44 points in 42 games, and was the only Capital to score at or above a point-per-game pace. It will be interesting to see how his role changes with the Mike Ribeiro acquisition. The Capitals have had a need for a second line center for a few years now, and the Backstrom injury magnified the problem. Marcus Johansson hasn’t settled in as an NHL center yet, and he may move over to the wing on a full time basis pretty soon. Some are speculating that the team may pair Ribeiro and Ovechkin together in an offensive role, and this would give Backstrom’s line a bit more defensive responsibility (again, just speculation).
Like most Capitals, Backstrom stands to benefit from the coaching change. Dale Hunter was a defensive coach who played his grinders more than his scorers. Adam Oates comes in after spending a few years working with Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and the rest of the New Jersey forwards. He knew his way around the offensive zone during his playing days, as well.
Backstrom is starting to live up to the Peter Forsberg comparisons bestowed upon almost every skilled young Swede. Like Forsberg, he combines incredible vision and hockey intelligence with impressive strength and underrated grit. The 24-year-old won’t fill the PIM category, but he’ll do more than enough elsewhere to warrant his ranking here.
7. Henrik Sedin
Henrik Sedin slides down a few spots from last year after a disappointing 2011-12 season. Durability and consistency are hallmarks of his game – he has led the league in assists for three straight years, and he hasn’t missed a game since the 2003-04 season. His 81 points in 2011-12 was his lowest output since 2007-08, and his 113 shots on goal was his lowest total since 2005-06. He is on the wrong side of 30, and this fact alone sends many poolies running for the hills. Learn to embrace the proven veterans, and you will be rewarded. The Sedins have another two or three years left at an elite level. Both are cerebral players who rely less on physical gifts (speed, strength) and more on intuition and craftiness.
Henrik is fifth among all active players with a career plus-minus rating of plus-181. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault uses a zone start strategy more than any other coach, and this is great news for poolies who own a Sedin (or Alex Burrows). More than any other players in the league, Vancouver’s top line starts their shifts in the offensive zone. His 576 career assists places him sixth all-time among active players, behind the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne (please return, Teemu).
Henrik doesn’t score much (his 29-goal season in 2009-10 looks like an outlier at this point), and he isn’t known for his truculence (although he takes a lot of stick infractions). However, reliability and consistency are really important qualities to consider in fantasy hockey, and he scores top marks for both.
Toews was on pace for a career year in 2011-12 before a concussion sidelined him for Chicago’s final 23 regular season games. Toews finished with 29 goals and 57 points in only 59 games. Projected over a full 82-game season – 40 goals and 79 points. Toews is equal parts goal scorer and playmaker, and he shoots the puck a respectable amount, too. Like Sedin, Toews doesn’t rack up the PIM. His career shooting percentage of 15 ranks him ninth among active players, behind Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby, among others.
At the time of his injury, Toews was leading the NHL in faceoff-winning percentage as well (59.4). Like Backstrom, Chicago clearly missed Toews when he was out. He is their best player, and he contributes positively in so many different ways.
Toews didn’t have steady linemates last season, which makes his point-per-game production even more impressive.
10 SHARP,PATRICK - 25 STALBERG,VIKTOR - 19 TOEWS,JONATHAN
81 HOSSA,MARIAN - 88 KANE,PATRICK - 19 TOEWS,JONATHAN
29 BICKELL,BRYAN - 25 STALBERG,VIKTOR - 19 TOEWS,JONATHAN
9. Anze Kopitar
Kopitar had a decent postseason, didn’t he? He dominated with his two-way play, strength, and elite puck skills. Kopitar should have been a finalist for the Selke Trophy in the 2011-12 regular season (he would have been my winner), as the Kings leaned on him heavily in defensive situations. He went head-to-head against the top opposing players, and usually came out on top.
The Slovenian superstar will have teams kicking themselves for passing on him back in 2005, as he is now one of the truly elite centers in the league. He has scored over 30 goals twice, and has broken the 70-point barrier in four of his six NHL seasons. He has finished with at least 230 shots on goal in each of his past four seasons, as well.
Don’t discount the Mike Richards effect, as now teams have two very good offensive centers they have to focus their attention on when the Kings are the opposition. Teammate Willie Mitchell on Kopitar:
“The best compliment I can give him is that I think he's like [Detroit Red Wings centre] Pavel Datsyuk. He can do so many things offensively for your team, but he also is so good defensively. He's so good down low with his size in helping out the defense. He just plays well positionally. He gets it."
10. Eric Staal
Will Eric Staal be on this list next year? I don’t ask that because I foresee his game going downhill, but because the Hurricanes are going to try him out on the left wing with his brother Jordan playing the center position. Carolina has tried to move Eric to the left wing a few times in past, but they haven’t been able to replace him up the middle for any length of time. Well, that all has changed now with the Pittsburgh trade.
Staal has proven he can be an elite point producer, granted that was way back in 2005-06 (100 points in the regular season and 28 more in the postseason). Since that time, he has broken the 80-point barrier only once. However, he has recorded at least 70 points in seven straight seasons. Consistency is great, and he has proven he has another gear he can reach. Perhaps a move to left wing will be the catalyst for a return to Art Ross contention.
Ryan Getzlaf – A nightmare of a season in 2011-12 bumps Getzlaf off of this list. He has the talent to be a 90+ point player each season, but effort and consistency weren’t there at all last season.
Jordan Staal – after years of heavy lifting in Pittsburgh, Staal will get a chance to shine offensively in Carolina. Can he score 40?
Ryan O’Reilly – might be a surprise to some, but he fits Joe Sacco’s system like a glove. Underrated offensively, oozes intangibles.
Jamie Benn – had him on my LW list, but if he is a center he’s going to be in the top 10 very soon.
Pavel Datsyuk/Henrik Zetterberg – both are phenomenal talents who fall just outside the top 10. Could do a lot worse. Will be interesting to see how their roles evolve with Lidstrom retiring and a lot of young talent coming up through Detroit’s system.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – in points-only leagues, he is a top 10 center in keepers. However, doesn’t contribute enough in other categories yet (don’t forget my three year window of analysis).
Mikko Koivu – has to love the Parise signing more than anyone else. His upside is bumped up from 70 to 80.
Jason Spezza – could have been a Hart finalist in 2011-12. Finally starting to understand his role in the NHL. Few have better hands than he does.
Logan Couture – he’ll be on in the top 10 in a year or two. Does everything very well.
Mikhail Grabovski – doesn’t get credit he deserves for being one of better two-way centers in the league.
Ryan Kesler – needs to bounce back from another significant injury.
Tyler Seguin - considered a RW (placed #7 on my RW list a few weeks ago)
Joe Thornton - was at one time the most dominant playmaker in the game. Not any more. Still a a very good #2 fantasy center, but his game has evolved in recent years (more of a two-way player, which has hurt the production).
The honorable mentions list isn’t exhaustive – if I left someone off, let me know why you would put them there.