Fantasy Hockey draft debate: Choosing between stars

Alex Ovechkin is coming off a down year, but remains among the top draft options due to his immense ceiling. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sasha YodashkinRotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

We’ve all been there. Left with a seat too far back in the draft, where the first-round fantasy picks aren’t cut and dried, or paralyzed in an auction by having so many stars available to you, you don’t know who to go after. It’s not always easy to choose among the league’s elite players, so allow me do the heavy lifting for you by comparing and contrasting your top choices at every position.

Center: Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby 

Crosby has the better team around him and is more aggressive in creating for himself while still setting up linemates, but McDavid should be the consensus top pick after leading the league with 100 points in just his second NHL season last year. At only 20 years old, the 2015 draft’s first overall pick likely isn’t done growing his game yet, and he could well make the jump from 30 goals to a figure approaching Crosby’s league-leading 44 from a year ago. Both have overwhelmingly positive ratings since they dominate possession when on the ice, but McDavid beat Crosby by double digits in that department with a plus-27 finish in 2016-17. The youngster is still growing his reputation, so referees don’t give him as much preferential treatment as they do Crosby, but that one little perk is far from enough to close the gulf in value between them. He’s still a superstar, but Crosby’s days as the consensus No. 1 player in hockey are over.

[Now’s the time to sign up for Fantasy Hockey! Join for free]

Left Wing: Jamie Benn vs. Alex Ovechkin

Both of these guys are coming off down years in which they saw their goal totals drop off by at least 15 compared to 2015-16, but they remain the cream of the crop due to their immense ceilings. Benn’s Stars made major offseason improvements with the additions of Alexander Radulov and Ben Bishop, while Ovechkin’s Capitals took a step back this offseason with the departures of Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and rental Kevin Shattenkirk. That said, both sets of changes could result in improvement — Benn suffered from a terrible supporting cast last year, posting a minus-9 rating on the heels of a combined plus-29 over the previous three campaigns, while Ovechkin seemed to coast through many games under the assumption that the elite squad around him had things covered. Let’s get to the bottom line, though: Benn’s average output over the past four years is 34 goals, 81 points, 65 PIM and 25 power-play points. That’s amazing, but Ovechkin’s 2016-17 saw him fall only one goal, 12 points and 15 PIM short of that production while recording one more point with the extra man… and that was considered a massively disappointing campaign for him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ovechkin bounce back over the 50-goal mark for the eighth time at age 32, as his 313 shots last year were still good for second in the NHL behind Brent Burns. For this reason, he gets the narrow edge over Benn despite being four years his senior.

Right Wing: Patrick Kane vs. Nikita Kucherov

This is a closer call than you’d think, as Kucherov actually had six more goals and 10 more power-play goals as well as slight advantages in both rating and penalty minutes over Kane despite missing eight games last season. He’s also almost five years younger than Kane, who’s about to turn 29. Despite all those advantages, the Russian winger will rightfully come off draft boards just a bit later than his American counterpart. Kane produced “only” 89 points in 2016, but his 106-point effort in the previous campaign shows that he has a realistic chance of leading the league in scoring despite seeing talented linemate Artemi Panarin depart in an offseason trade. Kucherov’s 85 points last season were a career high, so it’s possible (although maybe not likely) that he regresses back to his mid-60s production from previous years. While Kucherov has a better argument in keeper leagues, Kane ultimately holds a slight edge in most formats.

[Fantasy Hockey draft kit: Rankings, busts and more]

Defenseman: Brent Burns vs. Erik Karlsson

Both of these blue-line studs score like elite forwards without giving up much on the defensive end, but Burns had a noticeable statistical edge last year and is likely to repeat that feat with a more offensive-minded Sharks team. Although Karlsson enjoyed a long run as fantasy’s top defenseman, Burns has caught up to and surpassed him thanks to his emphasis on putting the puck in the net. Additionally, Karlsson appears set to miss a good chunk of the season’s first month thanks to recovery from foot surgery, which makes the decision much easier. Both of these guys will give you huge point totals, with much of that action coming on the power play, but even a fully healthy Karlsson would fall short of Burns’ value because 300-plus shots and a goal total approaching 30 seem like near guarantees for the latter; the Swede has only once so much as neared 300 shots, and he’s never come close to 30 goals.

Goalie: Braden Holtby vs. Carey Price 

Matt Murray and Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky are also in the conversation, but Holtby and Price are the consensus top two at their position. Even with Washington expected to take a small step back after winning consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, Holtby should still push for his fourth consecutive 40-win season. Considering his worst GAA and save percentage since that streak started are 2.22 and .922, respectively, it’s tough to argue against the 28-year-old being the first goalie off the board. Holtby’s 48-win 2016-17 campaign is slightly edged out by Price’s 2014-15 peak of 44 wins with a 1.96 GAA and .933 save percentage, but such spectacular ratios are hard to achieve year in and year out; Holtby’s win totals, on the other hand, have been quite reliable. Montreal’s netminder finished strong by holding 15 of 19 opponents to two or fewer goals after Claude Julien took over behind the bench last year, but the coach’s desire to limit Price to roughly 60 starts is enough of a limiting factor to push Holtby just above him.