Most, if not all, agree that Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid is worthy of the first overall pick in fantasy hockey drafts this season. He tallied 100 points last season en route to the Hart Trophy, and there is plenty of reason to expect more of the same — if not even more production in 2017-18.
Still, once McDavid is off the board, the next few picks get foggy. Despite his 44-goal season, is Sidney Crosby still worthy of a top-two selection? Braden Holtby was outstanding, but can his numbers justify taking a goaltender in the opening three picks? Have we seen enough from Nikita Kucherov yet to make him a top-three pick? Are defensemen Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson worthy of top billing?
To help sort through the options in those opening three picks, our fantasy hockey experts offer up their top-three choices in fantasy drafts this season.
Sean Allen, fantasy hockey columnist
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers) and No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): The fact is that this top two are on a very level playing field, and you arguably can’t pick the wrong player at No.1 or No. 2. Let’s approach it category by category for McDavid and Crosby. They posted reciprocal fantasy value in the goals and assists categories last season — we’ll call that a wash. Shots on goal are nearly a dead heat, and penalty minutes for both are negligible — wash and wash. McDavid had 27 power-play points, while Crosby had 25 — wash. That leaves us with plus/minus and average time on ice, two statistics that should never wholly inform your fantasy hockey decision-making because they are both fickle and depend largely on the rest of your team’s makeup. Great — really makes this easy. The absolute deciding factor here that gives McDavid the edge is his age. McDavid is 20 years old. Hockey players tend to peak at 24 to 25 and remain at their best until closer to 30. McDavid hasn’t peaked, and Crosby, 30, is going to be approaching the downhill slope sooner than later.
No. 3 Jamie Benn (LW, Dallas Stars): You might rightly question this call. But this is a decision that comes from opting to be safe with an important pick. Going down the list of the top-ranked assets by the ESPN Fantasy Hockey game-makers, Benn is the next one on the list after McDavid and Crosby who doesn’t give me at least a slight pause. Holtby? I’m not keen on the Caps’ offseason nor taking a goalie this early. Patrick Kane? He was great before Artemi Panarin arrived but not top-three great. Brad Marchand? I don’t like picks this early that are reliant on linemates. Nikita Kucherov? I’m not sold on the dynamic with Steven Stamkos yet. Carey Price? See Holtby, Braden. Matt Murray? See Price, Carey. Brent Burns? When you look at the list of seasons by defensemen at 32 or older who have scored 60 or more points, it’s 79 percent Hall of Famers (22 out of 28 seasons), and I’m not sure Burns is on that level. Sergei Bobrovsky? See Murray, Matt. Then we get to No. 11 on the list, Benn. He’s right in his prime at 28 years old, with Tyler Seguin at his side and wise old Ken Hitchcock now at the helm. Benn is one year removed from three consecutive campaigns during which he averaged 85 points.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey columnist
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): The NHL’s contemporary standout generational talent was also this past season’s most productive player — banging out 100 points in all 82 games, all the while proving he could perform at the highest level with a variety of linemates. Even if Leon Draisaitl ends up securing the second-line center role in Edmonton, McDavid will manage just fine with new winger Ryan Strome, or whomever else subs in on his right side. Given the option, why would you select anyone other than the reigning Hart Memorial/Art Ross trophy winner? Especially at only 20 years of age.
No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): If the most dynamic scoring forward of the here-and-now (McDavid) is spoken for, I’ll happily settle for the league’s 1b at the age of 30. Averaging 1.19 points per game through 2016-17, often alongside rookie Jake Guentzel and/or sophomore Conor Sheary, Crosby has yet to show any signs of slowing down.
No. 3 Jamie Benn (LW, Dallas Stars): Enduring an ‘off’ year hampered by the late-summer recovery from core muscle surgery, and a midcampaign foot injury, Benn still managed to collect 26 goals and 43 assists in 77 games. He previously amassed 89 points through 82 games in 2015-16, and 87 points without missing a contest the previous campaign. Which also speaks to the 28-year-old’s history of physical reliability. Even though Blackhawks sniper Kane tempts as a flashy fantasy asset, the loss of linemate Panarin to Columbus is a concern, while the potential addition of winger Alexander Radulov to Benn’s line — along with center Seguin — projects promisingly. Bonus bit: If my fantasy league rewards goalie stats at a premium, I’m also seriously thinking about reaching for Montreal’s Price early. Not Holtby, not Murray — Price.
Matthew Coller, ESPN Insider hockey writer
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): If you have the top pick in your fantasy draft, don’t overthink this. Pick McDavid. Last year’s success proved that the league won’t be able to adjust to McDavid or find ways slow him down. Plus, players of his ilk — the Lemieuxs, Gretzkys and Crosbys — usually reach their prime somewhere between ages 23-27, which means that last year’s Hart Trophy-winning season was just the beginning for the Oilers’ young center. He’s going to keep dominating. It would be a huge surprise if he doesn’t rank No. 1 in points again.
No. 2 Nikita Kucherov (RW, Tampa Bay Lightning): The Lightning had a very disappointing 2016-17 season, but Kucherov established himself as one of the league’s elite offensive players. There was nothing fluky about his 40-goal, 45-assist campaign, as the Russian winger saw an increase in his ice time and upped his shot rate from 2.7 to 3.3 per game. With Stamkos back on the power play, we could see Kucherov’s league-leading 17 power play goals take a dip, but he should still be among the elites in goals and points this year.
No. 3 Jack Eichel (C, Buffalo Sabres): Because the Sabres struggled last season and he missed time due to injury, Eichel’s terrific offensive season went under the radar. He produced 57 points in 61 games on a team that had troubles scoring at even strength. The former No. 2 overall pick averaged more than four shots per game, which is Alex Ovechkin range. With a new head coach in place and a more talented roster, the Sabres’ star center could elevate his production over a point per game.
Emily Kaplan, ESPN.com hockey writer
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): “I’m not a goal scorer, I’m more of an assist guy,” McDavid told ESPN.com. He’s right that he shells out assists like few others — and his goal tally isn’t too shabby either. In his first season playing a full 82 games, McDavid won the Hart Trophy with 100 points (30 goals; 70 assists). Should the 20-year-old stay on a line with Draisaitl this season, expect those numbers to remain steady, if not inflate.
No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): As long as Crosby is healthy, he’s going to put up fantasy points. Even when he misses time, he makes up for it. Crosby led the league with 44 goals last season, despite missing seven games with a concussion. His career 1.31 points-per-game average can’t be overstated.
No. 3 Patrick Kane (RW, Chicago Blackhawks): There’s debate on whether Kane helped inflate Panarin’s stats last season. The truth is, Kane produces with any linemate; he’s a master at dishing assists, and getting his own chances too. The Blackhawks traded Panarin to get their old band back together. The one constant has always been Kane, and the 28-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.
Paul Grant, ESPN.com hockey editor
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): The kid’s fortitude is made of steel, so much so that even the expectations of a whopping contract extension, a stellar sophomore season (Hart, Art Ross) and a surprising playoff berth won’t weigh down the captain.
No. 2 Brent Burns (D, San Jose Sharks): An unusually early playoff exit and no World Cup will add up to the bearded one bagging big points again both out of the gate and down the stretch.
No. 3 Auston Matthews (C, Toronto Maple Leafs): A 40-goal rookie such as Matthews often falls down the crevice of a sophomore slump the following season, but with coach Mike Babcock, a year under the belt of the young team around him and no ‘C’ on his sweater just yet, the Leafs’ center has what it takes to keep the momentum rolling.
Tim Kavanagh, ESPN Insider hockey editor
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): I’ll acknowledge the argument to stick with the player who’s been dominating fantasy hockey for the past several seasons (when healthy), but the torch has officially been passed. If I’ve got the No. 1 pick in my draft this fall, I’m taking about 3.8 seconds to nab the Oilers’ captain. While Crosby has perfected the art of being the “world’s greatest grinder,” McDavid does things on the ice that no other human can do. He’ll continue to amass crazy point totals this season and beyond, and the risk for serious injury is not as high as it is for Sid, given the latter’s concussion history. McDavid’s two big injuries? A fractured hand from a fight (he has Milan Lucic around to handle the dirty work now) and a broken collarbone, thanks to questionable contact from Flyers defensemen Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto. In other words, flukes. Don’t overthink this one.
No. 2 Braden Holtby (G, Washington Capitals): When playing in a standard ESPN league, you need your goalie to dominate three specific categories: wins, goals-against average and save percentage. There’s good news and bad news when it comes to that situation as it relates to Holtby. The bad news? The goalie controls only one of those three categories (save percentage). The good news? Since Holtby plays for the Capitals, he’s in excellent shape when it comes to racking up wins — the Caps have averaged 52 during the past three seasons — and generating a low goals-against average, given that the Caps allowed the fewest goals last season (by a 13-goal margin). Oh, and news flash: he’s been well above average in save percentage the past three seasons, to boot. He’s also been remarkably durable, with 201 starts during the past three campaigns. There are some who won’t take a goalie this high, but when you’re getting that kind of reliability, it’s an easy pick.
No. 3 Brent Burns (D, San Jose Sharks): Until something drastic changes, we’re stuck with having to start defensemen in fantasy hockey. And while the nature of the position has changed during the past several years to the point that NHL teams aren’t employing defense-first pylons to the same degree they used to do, being able to claim one of the truly elite offensive defensemen is worth a top draft pick. With Burns and Karlsson still at the height of their powers, it’s really a two-man race here; given that Karlsson is still recovering from surgery to fix a broken foot — and is looking to be in the active lineup “at some point in October” — I’ll take the wild man who’s going to be on the ice from Game 1 for San Jose. It’s important to consider the value of a player over the actual replacement you might consider, and Burns’ rate in that regard is just about as high as anyone’s.
Ben Arledge, ESPN Fantasy hockey editor
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): There really is no good argument against taking the Oilers’ superstar first overall this season. In his age 19 season, McDavid lit the lamp 30 times and reached triple-digit points. His plus-27 rating and 21 minutes of ice time each night further show a lack of fantasy weakness. McDavid is a sure thing at the top of all draft boards, and you could even see improvement on his 27 power play points of last year and perhaps an uptick on his 12 percent shooting, making him far and away the best option at No. 1 overall.
No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): The injury argument continues to hold Crosby back, but the Penguins’ center has missed just 16 games over the last four seasons — hardly anything to seriously downgrade a generational talent who scored 44 goals last season. At 30 years old, Crosby has yet to play a season at less than a point per game, and he will continue to play a significant role for one of the league’s better teams on the top line and power play unit. Don’t let the injury worry keep you from taking Sid here. He’s worth the early snag.
No. 3 Brent Burns (D, San Jose Sharks): For me, this is where the picks start to lose clarity. I really prefer taking a forward this early, but Burns makes it nearly impossible to ignore him here. The bearded blueliner impressed with a 29-goal, 76-point, 320-shot campaign last season, but it was actually the second straight season of numbers of that caliber. I really wanted to give Kane the shoulder tap here for his consistent scoring resume, but Burns’ numbers aren’t far off from those of the Chicago winger, and Burns is doing it from the point. Confidently take Burns here, let the points roll in and look for forwards in the second and third rounds (scorers like Matthews, Vladimir Tarasenko, Seguin, Panarin, and John Tavares should still be available).
Pierre Becquey, ESPN Fantasy editor
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): McDavid is the surest bet for a 100-point season, and his best is yet to come.
No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): Crosby is still in the argument for best all-around player in the world. But not when it comes to fantasy stats.
No. 3 Brent Burns (D, San Jose Sharks): Burns led the league in shots on goal a year after finishing second to Ovechkin. Elite forward stats from the defensive slot? Yes, please! With Martin Jones in net, the plus/minus gains are sustainable and could grow.
Justin Ellis, ESPN The Magazine hockey editor
No. 1 Connor McDavid (C, Edmonton Oilers): The savior of Edmonton grabbed 100 points last season while leading the league in assists and got the Oilers back to the playoffs, probably ahead of schedule. He straight beat Crosby in the points race and took the Hart Trophy — and is the favorite to win it again. He says he spent his summer vacation improving his face offs — his win percentage was 43 percent last season — which makes him even more dangerous. He might say Crosby is the best player in the league, but he’s my first pick.
No. 2 Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins): OK, so let’s get it out of the way: three Stanley Cup wins, back-to-back Conn Smythe trophies, Olympic gold medals, he’s probably the reigning ping-pong champion of the Penguins locker room too. He’s a winner. Also, now he’s 30. Yes, he’s last season’s goal leader and he’s in his prime. But with each new season comes fresh hits — he missed the first six games of last season because of concussions and part of the Penguins playoff series against the Capitals. I’m not gonna be the one to say he can’t get the Penguins another date with the cup, but he’s not my top pick.
No. 3 Brad Marchand (LW, Boston Bruins): Marchand had a spectacular season — his 39 goals, 85 points and 46 assists were career highs. And his points-per-game puts him in the same breath as Marc Savard for Bruins fans. Sure, opposing players love to complain about the — sometimes questionable — hits he throws. And, OK, yes, a sitting president of the United States once co-signed his nickname as the Little Ball of Hate. But Marchand spent at least part of the offseason skating with Jack Eichel, so clearly he can’t be that bad. He cares about the kids. Look for Marchand to build on last season’s shine.