By Ryan Dadoun, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
When it comes to preparing for fantasy drafts, a lot of emphases is understandably put on the later rounds. That's where the most deviation is going to be on a draft-to-draft basis and picking an underrated player late who goes on to have a great year can put you ahead. However, for those strong late picks to push you over the edge, you need to build a solid foundation in the early rounds.
With that in mind, let's explore who you should take with your first-round pick, depending on where you end up in the draft.
These recommendations are based on a 12-team league, but you can easily adapt this advice to smaller or bigger formats. Also, please note for each selection, I'm going to assume the recommended pick is taken. If you have the sixth overall pick, but my recommendation for the third is still available, take my choice for the third overall selection.
Pick No. 1 — Recommendation: Connor McDavid
It's not that McDavid is guaranteed to be the best overall player in 2022-23, it's that he's the closest thing to a surefire bet among the cream of the crop. Outside of his clavicle injury during the 2015-16 campaign, McDavid's managed to stay remarkably healthy and has recorded at least 30 goals and 97 points in each of his last six campaigns. Combine that with the fact he's easily led the NHL in points-per-game (1.47) over that span and he's a boring choice for first overall, but nevertheless the best option.
Pick No. 2 — Recommendation: Leon Draisaitl
Draisaitl doesn't have quite as impressive a track record as McDavid, but it's not a significant gap. Over the last four seasons, Draisaitl has averaged 1.42 points per game to McDavid's 1.59. Draisaitl tends to do a bit better than McDavid when it comes to scoring goals and like his Oilers counterpart, he's managed to stay healthy throughout most of his career. He also has LW eligibility in Yahoo leagues, giving him a little extra flexibility.
Pick No. 3 — Recommendation: Auston Matthews
It's easy to recommend a player who scored 51 goals in 50 games in 2021-22, even if that stat does come with the caveat that it's not a true 50-in-50 because it ran from Nov. 24-April 9 as opposed to over the first 50 games of the campaign. Matthews finished with 60 goals and claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy for a second straight year. He's run into moderate injury troubles and he's not as complete of an offensive force as McDavid or Draisaitl, but Matthews is the top goal-scoring threat in the NHL.
Pick No. 4 — Recommendation: Cale Makar
Makar's first three seasons have been unreal and even if it turns out he's peaked — which is highly unlikely — we're still talking about a defenseman capable of providing around 30 goals and 80 points in a season. It's that goal production that makes Makar such a rarity. Adam Fox, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi might challenge the UMass product in terms of points this season, but the fantasy manager who takes Makar will be getting the projected top blueliner in terms of goals.
Pick No. 5 — Recommendation: Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon broke out in 2017-18 and hasn't looked back. Over his last five seasons, he's averaged 1.31 points per game, which puts him in the same ballpark as Draisaitl (albeit with fewer goals) and behind only Nikita Kucherov and McDavid overall. However, while he's averaged out to be in the same realm as those three, he hasn't had a truly standout campaign — at least by the incredibly high standards set by those peers. MacKinnon hasn't finished better than fifth in points in any one season and he's only reached the 40-goal mark once compared to McDavid and Draisaitl's three times and Matthews' four.
This isn't to put MacKinnon down, it's just to note why he's listed below those players in my recommended draft order.
Pick No. 6 — Recommendation: Igor Shesterkin
Goaltenders in general are riskier than forwards or defensemen. That said, if you can anchor your team with an elite goaltender, you'll be saving yourself a lot of headaches in the long run. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a worthy option at this spot due to his long track record of success on an elite team, but I can't help but think Shesterkin's time is now. After showing a lot of promise, Shesterkin truly broke out in 2021-22, making him the clear-cut choice for the Vezina Trophy as well as a contender for the Hart. For a goaltender to even be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy is rare and it highlights just how dominant Shesterkin was last season. The 26-year-old netminder could perform at that level again in 2022-23.
Pick No. 7 — Recommendation: Kirill Kaprizov
Another emerging star who lived up to the hype last season, Kaprizov has become the centerpiece of the Wild and their best forward since … honestly, ever. He doesn't have the track record that some of the other forwards on this list boast, which pushed him down a bit, but consider that 108 points last season was better than what Matthews and MacKinnon have ever done, and his 47 goals surpassed the career-highs of McDavid and MacKinnon.
Pick No. 8 — Recommendation: Andrei Vasilevskiy
While I believe Shesterkin has surpassed Vasilevskiy, both are superb options. Vasilevskiy has shown a level of consistency you rarely see in a goaltender. From 2017-18 through 2020-21, he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy every season, and although he finished short of that mark in 2021-22, he still had an amazing campaign. Vasi's also been an ideal source of wins thanks to the elite Lightning team playing in front of him.
Pick No. 9 — Recommendation: Mikko Rantanen
Rantanen falls into the category of safe but not exciting. He set career highs with 36 goals and 92 points through 75 games last season, which is enough to make most players envious, but it falls a little short of some of the other forwards I've highlighted, and even some which I'm ranking below him. Still, Rantanen has been reliable, averaging 1.14 points per game over his last five campaigns. The still-undrafted first-round players who could do better than him all come with a bit more risk. Given the average output of a first-round pick, ending up with a dud can devastate your team. For that reason, you typically want to hedge toward safe bets in the first round.
Pick No. 10 — Recommendation: Nikita Kucherov
If there's one exception to the safe-bets rule, it's Kucherov, though he's a bit tough to place. When healthy, he's as good as they come, but the problem is he hasn't been healthy over the past two campaigns. He, unfortunately, missed the entirety of the 2020-21 season and was limited to just 47 games last year. If you draft him, you can't be sure how many games you'll get, but if he does stay healthy, you could be getting a player on the same level as McDavid.
Pick No. 11 — Recommendation: Alex Ovechkin
Another gamble … sort of. Logically, you'd assume a player who will be 37 years old going into the 2022-23 season would be at risk to decline, but Ovechkin has defied logic thus far. He reached the 50-goal milestone for the ninth time in his career in 2021-22. You can't ignore his age, but you also can't ignore his long track record of success.
Pick No. 12 — Recommendation: Roman Josi
Who the best defenseman to pick after Makar is a matter of some debate, but I lean towards Josi. His 96 points last season was the most by a defenseman since Phil Housley in 1992-93, but Josi has had more than just one good year. He's surpassed the 50-point mark on six occasions and won the Norris Trophy in 2019-20 with 65 points in 69 games. He likely won't match Makar in terms of goals, but Josi is a serious contender to lead all blueliners in points in 2022-23.