The very top of fantasy hockey drafts this year is rather cut and dry. Connor McDavid is the consensus first pick and Sidney Crosby is the consensus No. 2 selection. Not much to debate on that (unless you’re in a Pittsburgh bar).
But you’ll find some interesting divergence at No. 3, and that’s what we’re going to tackle today. Pete Jensen of NHL.com is here to promote Auston Matthews, while yours truly will stump for Patrick Kane. Declare your winner — or present a different alternative — in the comments.
Jensen in the YYZ: After McDavid and Crosby, there’s no player I’d rather invest in than Matthews, based on fantasy ceiling. He led the NHL in even-strength goals (32) as a 19-year-old rookie, and returns to a Maple Leafs forward group that is absolutely stacked with three strong lines and two potent power-play units.
Matthews played frequently with another fantasy keeper prize in William Nylander (C/RW in Yahoo) at even strength and on the power play last season, and also thrived alongside fellow rookies Zach Hyman and Connor Brown at times. And with the addition of Patrick Marleau, Matthews has a potential left wing with a proven goal-scoring pedigree. I fully trust Mike Babcock, one of the best coaches in the NHL, to find the right combinations. Matthews finished tied for second League-wide in goals with strong power-play point (21) and shots on goal (279) outputs. The sky is the limit once his assists (29) and PPP spike.
Kane’s individual ability is tough to question; he has the most points in the NHL (195) over the past two seasons combined. But as much as we all gave a ton of credit to Kane for Artemi Panarin’s Calder Trophy season in 2015-16, you can’t ignore that Kane’s two most-productive NHL seasons came alongside Panarin. There are a bunch of viable replacement options, including veteran wing Patrick Sharp and young guns Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat to play on Kane’s line. That said, Chicago lost a ton of talent and leadership this offseason (Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Scott Darling, Johnny Oduya), so don’t be surprised if Kane takes a step back.
Considering Chicago was swept in the first round against the Predators last postseason, it’s concerning that the Blackhawks lineup is thinner than in years past. In the tough Central Division, the Blackhawks are one significant injury away from missing the playoffs.
All things considered, it’s exciting to dream about Matthews’ fantasy encore — whether you’re in a standard or keeper league. He’s the highest-upside choice at No. 3 overall.
Pianow counters with Kane: Maybe Matthews has more down-the-road upside, and perhaps that will be the reality in his second season. But floor has to matter in this discussion, too, and there’s a comfort in taking a player like Kane, who’s been uber-reliable though a nine-year career. He was the scoring champ two years ago, and over the last two years he’s 21 points ahead of Crosby and 37 points ahead of third-place Jamie Benn.
I love you like a lost Stastny or Sutter brother, PJ, but I can’t buy the sky-is-falling Chicago narrative. The Blackhawks are currently the fifth favorite to win the Stanley Cup; that’s not a perfect shorthand, but it’s close enough. You want to credit Babcock’s hand in Toronto (and I agree); I’ll play the same card in Chicago with Joel Quenneville. Brandon Saad is back in the second city — a reliable Top 6 forward — and I fully expect Sharp to have a rebound season in his Chicago return. (I am certainly not going to panic over the loss of Darling, a backup goalie, and Oduya, a journeyman defenseman. Hell, they still have Richard Panik.) Bottom line, Kane will have talented playmates, both in even-strength and (especially) on the power play. I won’t sweat the current combinations.
To anyone who sees Matthews and Kane as too close to call, let position scarcity break the tie. The easiest thing to do in fantasy hockey is find a productive center. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take McDavid and Crosby at their lofty perches, but it’s enough to slide Kane over Matthews on my board. I know I can find a strong pivot anytime I want it, but the right-wing board dries up much quicker. When you have the No. 3 pick, don’t pass on the sugar.