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Center Stage: Surprise starts stealing early attention

Wednesday, 10.12.2011 / 12:41 PM / Fantasy Hockey Draft Rankings, Advice and Analysis

By Matt Cubeta - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Center Stage: Surprise starts stealing early attention
It's easy to get frazzled with hot and cold streaks early in the season, but the centers you expect to perform well usually do in the long run.
Every Wednesday during the season, NHL.com fantasy hockey expert Matt Cubeta will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy centers in our weekly segment: "Center Stage." From updated center rankings to guys you should keep a close eye on and much more, Cubeta will be your fantasy center expert all season long.

In standard Yahoo! Fantasy Hockey Leagues, the top-ranked centers currently are: David Legwand (8th overall), Anze Kopitar (10th overall), Craig Smith (11th overall), Jordan Staal (12th overall) and Jason Spezza (13th overall).

Legwand has totaled 2 goals and 3 assists in just two contests, with three of those points coming with the man advantage. His teammate Smith has 2 goals and 2 assists in two games, as well as seven shots on goal.

While many of you probably know who Legwand is, he's not a player that's been on most fantasy radar fors quite some time -- he hasn't recorded more than 44 points in each of the last four seasons. Smith is a 22-year-old rookie that had never appeared in an NHL game until this season and was drafted in the 4th round in 2009 -- most of you have probably never even heard of him. We all know who Kopitar and Spezza are, and Staal is a name we've all grown to love -- thanks largely in part to his brother Eric, but maybe this is the year Jordan finally breaks out.

The reason for telling you who the top five players are is that you shouldn't start panicking and making a bunch of rash managerial decisions. Don't go dropping Ryan Getzlaf for a guy like Legwand just because the Ducks captain didn't record a point in Anaheim's two Premiere games. We're not even a week into the season -- you need to trust you're drafting skills and attempt to stay patient. Steven Stamkos, our top-ranked center going into the season, has yet to find the back of the net in his first three games -- he's currently ranked as the 49th overall player, 22nd among centers. Obviously, Stamkos will be just fine.

The NHL season is a long one, and you cannot start judging players based on one week of action. Of course we should still take note of these players that have gotten off to hot starts -- centers like Legwand, Smith, Luke Adam, and Jason Arnott. Keep an eye on them and follow their progress in the first few weeks of the season. Find out what line they're skating on, if they're receiving power play ice time, how often they're shooting the puck per game and anything else that might show whether this guy is off to a fluky start or if it's something he might be able to continue doing.

When looking over our updated fantasy rankings, you won't see too many big changes this early in the campaign -- Stamkos is still our top guy despite his rather slow start. Again, we need to see these hot starts carry on for more than just a week. We all love that sneaky-good early pick-up, but it's hard to find that player that can keep it up for a full season.

Lastly, for those of you that were lucky enough to land Sidney Crosby and or Ryan Kesler in your fantasy draft, get ready to activate them! Crosby is meeting with doctors later this week to determine whether or not he's ready to participate in full contact practice, and if given the green light for that, his return could be approaching sooner rather than later. As for Kesler, he could be back in the lineup in the next five or six games. This is a nice little bonus for owners that spent early draft picks on both Sid and Kesler, as both of them appear to be returning earlier than what was expected during most draft days.

TRENDING UPWARD

TOP 30 FANTASY CENTERS

These modified re-rankings are based on expectations of the season going forward (including injuries). The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from preseason. (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). Note: positions are now dictated by how they're labeled in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues.
*dual position eligibility in Yahoo! Leagues

- Marleau and Pavelski were previously ranked only at wing to start the season

Players that dropped out of our previous rankings: David Backes (RW only in Yahoo! Leagues), David Krejci, Paul Stastny, Mike Ribeiro
Anze Kopitar -- After posting 73 points in 75 games last season, Kopitar has picked up right where he left off before he went down with an injury. In two Premiere games so far, the Kings' 24-year-old superstar has recorded 3 goals and an assist, with a plus-2 rating, 2 power play points and 8 shots on goal. What's important to notice is that Kopitar seems to be finding that magic he had last year with Justin Williams -- Williams has notched the primary assist on two of his three goals. The Kings are clearly prepared to ride their top two scoring lines and it's been evidenced by the amount of ice time they're getting-- Kopitar received 24:34 of playing time in the first game and then 21:45 in game two. The Slovenian-born center has also averaged 4:16 of power play ice time per game, a sign of good things to come for sure with a power play that features Kopi, newcomer Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson on the point. Continue to rely on Kopitar as a potential top-10 overall player in fantasy hockey this season.

Jason Spezza -- We all know about Spezza's talent -- he's a former No. 2 overall draft pick that recorded 90 points in just 68 contests in 2005-06, then followed that up with 87 points in 67 games and 92 points in 76 games the next two seasons. Of course he hasn't been quite the same since that 2007-08 season and posted just 57 points in each of the last two seasons -- granted he didn't appear in more than 62 games each campaign. So far this season Spezza has 1 goal and 3 helpers in three games -- numbers we're very familiar with when the Ottawa center is healthy. But that's the big question with Spezza -- can he stay healthy? All we can do is sit and hope, because if he does avoid the injury bug, Spezza could turn into the steal of the draft for his owners. While there isn't much talent surrounding the 6-foot-3 forward, Spezza still has the ability to rack up points on any given night. Ride him while he's hot and pray for him to stay healthy.

Jordan Staal -- As stated earlier, Staal is currently ranked as the 12th overall player in Yahoo! Leagues -- a ranking that likely won't remain that high all season long. However, Staal is making the most out of his current situation in Pittsburgh. With Sidney Crosby still recovering from his concussion injury and Evgeni Malkin currently day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, Staal has taken over as the team's No. 1 center -- and he's shown his ability with 1 goal and 3 assists in four games. Not only is he putting up points early on in 2011-12, but he's also posted a plus-2 rating, taken two minor penalties, notched 1 power play point and has fired 10 shots on goal. Staal is currently receiving just over 20 minutes of ice time per game, with nearly four minutes of that coming on the man advantage. While Staal's role may diminish a bit when the Penguins' superstars return to action, he will still likely find himself on one of the top two lines, which should return a solid fantasy season to his owners.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Danny Briere -- While Briere remains in the same ranking position, his 2011-12 campaign is off to a little bit of a slow start. Sure it's only two games without a point, but look a bit more closely and you might get a little discouraged. After averaging 3.19 shots per game last season, Briere has only managed 3 total shots on goal in two contests this season. His overall ice time is also down a minute per game, but he has averaged 4:42 of power play time -- which is a great sign for this season, but obviously we need to see him start to produce with the man advantage. Of course this is a very small sample size and Briere is still going to be a very productive player, but regardless of the slow start, a repeat of his 34-goal, 68-point season from last year might be hard to achieve.

Matt Duchene -- The Colorado youngster slips a few spots in the rankings this time around, but have faith and expect him to turn it on soon. In two games for the Avs, Duchene has no goals and one assist to go along with an even rating and five shots on goal. Last season Duchene scored just two goals in his first 18 games and still ended the year with 27 goals, so perhaps the 20-year-old is just a slow starter. One major negative to look at through the team's first two games is that Duchene's ice time is down from 18:56 last season to just 16:08 this season. Hopefully this won't be the normal, but it's a little surprising to see a talent like Duchene receive such little ice time this early on. Hold on to Duchene and expect him to get going soon enough.

David Krejci -- The Bruins center dropped out from our top 30 rankings because of two reasons: he's off to a little bit of a quiet start with just one point in three games for the B's and because he's currently listed as day-to-day due to an undisclosed injury. He suffered the injury at practice on Tuesday and did not travel with the team for their game against Carolina on Wednesday. His status remains up in the air for their next game at Chicago on Saturday. Krejci bursted onto everyone's fantasy radar because of his big performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year -- 23 points in 25 games en route to a Stanley Cup Championship. But it should be known that he isn't the greatest fantasy asset -- he doesn't score a ton of goals (22 is his career high), he doesn't record a lot of penalty minutes (28 is his career high) and being that he's a playmaker, he doesn't shoot the puck too frequently (157 is his career high). Don't go dropping the 25-year-old center, but make sure you keep your expectations in check.

KEEP AN EYE ON...

Take a guess at who plays on the top line alongside Rick Nash and Jeff Carter in Columbus. That's right, it's veteran Vinny Prospal. With center and left wing position eligibility, Prospal is a player certainly worth owning in nearly all fantasy leagues right now -- and he could even crack our top 30 rankings if he manages to stay healthy this season. With 2 goals and 1 assist in three contests so far, Prospal seems to have found some early chemistry with his new linemates. The 36-year-old has also added four penalty minutes and six shots on goal, and while he hasn't recorded a power play point yet, you can be assured that it's coming -- Prospal is receiving over 5 minutes of power play ice time per game in 2011-12. Prospal is currently available in 70 percent of Yahoo! Leagues, so fantasy owners need to take notice and scoop him up before it's too late.
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