Special to Yahoo Sports
When it comes to preparing for fantasy drafts, a lot of emphasis 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.
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With that in mind, let’s explore whom you should consider with your first-round pick, depending on where you end up in the draft order.
Pick No. 1 — Recommendation: Connor McDavid, Oilers
If you are fortunate enough to nab the No. 1 pick in your draft, you should run to the podium (or your laptop) and grab McDavid. He’s the unquestioned top overall selection in all formats. He led the NHL in goals (64), assists (89) and points (153) last season. McDavid also won his third Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. He’s a literal cheat code, both in real life and from a fantasy perspective.
Pick No. 2 — Recommendation: Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
Yes, the top two fantasy options play for the same team. Draisaitl posted 50-plus goals (52) for a second straight season a year ago while finishing with a career-high 128 points (in 80 games). Over the course of the past four seasons, a span of 287 games, Draisaitl has 432 points, including 179 with the man advantage. He might not be McDavid, but he’s not far off.
Pick No. 3 — Recommendation: Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche
It’s hard to go wrong with a guy who missed 11 games last season and still finished with 42 goals and 111 points. Both were new career-best marks for MacKinnon, and his 34 power-play points were his most since the 2018-19 campaign. MacKinnon’s 366 shots on goal placed him second in the league. This type of high-end, all-around offensive production is nearly impossible to find. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see MacKinnon finish as the No. 2 fantasy player behind McDavid this season.
If you play in a format that places an emphasis on goals scored, I’m willing to consider Matthews at No. 4 overall. The former 2016 first-overall pick tallied 40 times in 74 games last season despite posting a 12.2 percent shooting percentage, by far his lowest mark to date. Any sort of rebound in that department should result in Matthews finishing with about 50 goals in 2023-24. Toss in well over 300 shots on goal and nearly 30 power-play points and you have a sure-fire top-five pick on your hands.
Pick No. 5 — Recommendation: Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers
Tkachuk’s first season in Florida could not have gone any better. He posted 40 goals, the second straight year in which he reached that plateau while finishing with 109 points in 79 games. There were some concerns that Tkachuk’s breakout 2021-22 season in Calgary was the result of playing alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, but after what we saw last year, that was clearly not the case. Simply put, Tkachuk is one of the best players in the NHL.
Pick No. 6 — Recommendation: Cale Makar, Avalanche
Fantasy managers who spent a mid-first-rounder on Makar a year ago got burned. Not because he played poorly, he didn’t (17 goals, 66 points), but because he missed 22 of 82 regular-season games. Makar is the only defender in the league worthy of a fantasy selection this high. He produces like a top-line forward, which is a massive advantage from a fantasy perspective. His upside is unparalleled among defenders.
Pick No. 7 — Recommendation: Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche
This is where things start to open up. I considered a handful of names for this spot, but I settled on Rantanen, the third member of the Avalanche I have in the top seven picks. The Finn set new career-best marks in goals (55), points (105) and power-play points (37 in 82 games) a season ago. This is an offense to invest in and Rantanen is one of the safest, highest-upside offensive players in the league.
Pick No. 8 — Recommendation: Nikita Kucherov, Lightning
Kucherov’s past injury history is somewhat scary, but it’s important to note he played in all 82 games for the Lightning last year. He averaged better than an assist per game (83) while also adding 30 goals. His 50 power-play points placed him fourth in the NHL behind three Oilers (McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). There’s additional upside here in leagues that place an extra emphasis on assists.
Pastrnak scored 61 goals in 82 games last season. So, why is he so far down the list? Well, he lost his center Patrice Bergeron to retirement, and his team, the Bruins, are a lock for some regression coming off the best regular-season performance in league history. That said, Pastrnak led the NHL in shots on goal last season with 407 — 49 more than MacKinnon. Pasta’s floor is high, and his upside is substantial.
Pick No. 10 — Recommendation: Kirill Kaprizov, Wild
It’s unlikely, but Kaprizov didn’t put up the same type of numbers as the players ahead of him on this list did a season ago, so perhaps he’ll be available early in Round 2. He was averaging well over a point per game (40 goals, 75 points in 67 games) before a lower-body injury cost him most of the final month of the campaign. However, he’s expected to be fully healthy heading into training camp.
Pick No. 11 — Recommendation: Jack Hughes, Devils
The days of getting Hughes at any sort of discount on draft day have come and gone. Forty-three goals and 99 points (31 with the man advantage) in 78 games will do that. Simply put, Hughes is one of the most dynamic players in the league. With a full season of Timo Meier on his wing and the addition of Tyler Toffoli to the Devils offense, Jack should crack the 100-point barrier for the first time in 2023-24.
This feels like the right spot to take the first goalie off the board. Guys like Jason Robertson or Mitch Marner should also be considered but getting the best option at arguably fantasy’s most important position is a huge edge.
So, who is the top guy?
I’m leaning Vasilevskiy despite his subpar 2022-23 season. I have a hard time believing he won’t bounce back this year. That said, Shesterkin is younger and may play for the better team this year. This might come down to a coin flip.