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Center Stage: The top tier -- Malkin, Stamkos, Giroux

Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 12:44 PM / Fantasy Hockey Draft Rankings, Advice and Analysis

By Matt Cubeta - NHL.com Staff Writer

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.

Is there any debate about who the top three centers in the NHL are this season?

Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux have been the clear-cut top tier centers for fantasy owners in 2011-12. The three players have been in that respective order for the last seven weeks in our "Center Stage" rankings, and there has been no need to change them at all.

At the start of the 2011-12 season, Stamkos was actually our top center, with Evgeni Malkin ranked fourth and Claude Giroux much lower at No. 14 -- Henrik Sedin and Pavel Datsyuk were ranked two and three at the time.

While Sedin and Datsyuk both have spent a little time in that elite tier, for the most part this season has belonged to Malkin, Stamkos and Giroux -- and deservedly so.

TOP 40 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. (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). Note: Positions are dictated by how they're labeled in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues.
*dual position eligibility in Yahoo! Leagues
** was listed on IR in last week's rankings

Players that dropped out of previous rankings: Paul Stastny, Tomas Plekanec, Steve Ott, Mikhail Grabovski

Injured: Jonathan Toews (DTD), Nicklas Backstrom (IR), Vincent Lecavalier (IR), Andy McDonald (DTD), Mikko Koivu (IR), Alexander Steen (IR)
Malkin is the No. 1 overall fantasy player in Yahoo! Leagues and has delivered the most well-rounded fantasy season of any player. He's also the only player in the NHL to record at least five points in multiple games -- he has done it four times this season (Giroux and Sam Gagner have each achieved the feat once). His 43 goals are second among all players, his 50 assists are fifth, his plus-18 and 62 penalty minutes are nothing to complain about, his 29 power play points are second and his 300 shots on goal lead the NHL. We knew this kind of production existed -- he did have 106 and 113 points in back-to-back seasons from 2007 to 2009 -- but after injuries derailed his previous two seasons, it sure was good to see him get back to his old self this time around. He has been the No. 1 fantasy player for just about the entire season and will likely carry that honor heading into next season.

Stamkos is currently the No. 5 overall fantasy player in Yahoo! Leagues, and really, there's just one flaw in his stat line -- his plus-3 doesn't rank among the game's most valuable fantasy players. Stamkos' 50 goals are seven more than Malkin (who's 43 are second among all players -- as we previously stated) and he's just two goals away from setting a new personal best with 10 games still remaining (51 goals two seasons ago). He's on pace for an absurd 56 goals, which would be the most since Alex Ovechkin potted 56 back in 2008-09. Stamkos also has 66 penalty minutes, showing he's not just a point producer. Going into next season, there won't be a safer choice for a 50-goal campaign than Stamkos -- who has proven that he's an extremely consistent goal-scorer with immense upside.

Giroux is currently the No. 6 overall fantasy player in Yahoo! Leagues and while he didn't come out of nowhere, fantasy owners probably didn't see this kind of season coming. Giroux's 26 goals might not jump out at you, but his playmaking ability has made him one of the most valuable fantasy pieces. His 58 assists are tops in the NHL, as are his 35 power play points, which are six more than Malkin, who ranks second. Giroux has been so unbelievable this season that he's clearly vaulted his teammate Scott Hartnell into the upper echelon of fantasy players. Giroux is just 24 and has seen his point production increase from 27 points as a rookie in 2008-09 to 47, 76 and now 84 this season -- perhaps next season he'll surpass the 100-point mark.
 
TRENDING UPWARD:

Sidney Crosby --
Well that was quick. After proving he's clearly healthy and already back to his dominant ways, Crosby has moved all the way up to the No. 4 center rank. In his first game back he posted 2 helpers and then followed that up with 3 more assists against the Devils in his second game back. He was held pointless against the Flyers but then erupted for 4 assists against the Jets Tuesday. He might not be scoring goals, but I don't think his fantasy owners are complaining about anything -- they're just glad he's back. Start him always and expect him to carry your team down the stretch.

Pavel Datsyuk -- Like Crosby, Datsyuk also recently returned from injury. Unlike Crosby, his return hasn't been quite as loud. Datsyuk returned this past Saturday after missing three weeks of action and scored a goal against the Sharks. He was held pointless in his second game back, but remember, he made a speedy recovery and it could take a few games for him to get comfortable again. Datsyuk is an elite player that, like Crosby, could lead your team to the promised land.

Anze Kopitar -- If it weren't for the return of Crosby and Datsyuk to our rankings, Kopitar might have found himself among the top five this week. He has shown major signs of consistency recently with at least one point in 10 of the last 11 games -- he's also in the middle of a four-game goal-scoring streak. Kopitar seems to be playing with more confidence and if the Kings are going to make the playoffs, they'll need their best player to continue to perform at this level.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Jason Spezza -- Spezza has been one of the most productive fantasy players of the season, but his fantasy owners are hoping he makes a quick recovery from his current illness to help their team during the most important time for fantasy hockey. Spezza has 75 points in 73 games but prior to the illness, had been in a bit of a slump with just 3 points in the previous seven games. The Senators have relied on him all season long and he's delivered in boatloads, so hopefully he'll return soon and start scoring at that point-per-game rate we've come to expect.

Jonathan Toews --
Toews missed his 14th straight game on Tuesday and his fantasy owners are surely missing his production. With the Blackhawks in the middle of a four-game winning streak and 8-1-1 in their last 10, they are clearly in no rush to bring back their captain -- which is horrible news for anyone that has him on their roster. At this time, we're not sure when he'll return (maybe with a couple of games remaining to have him ready for the playoffs), but with time running out in fantasy leagues, it's getting close to the point where he might be droppable, which would free up a roster spot that's currently being wasted by Toews.

Tomas Plekanec --
It's been a disappointing season for the Montreal playmaker. While he has a chance to exceed the 35 assists he posted last season (he currently has 32), he'll likely fall short in every other category, with the biggest drop-off in the plus/minus category -- he was a plus-8 last season and a minus-20 this year. Plekanec hasn't had a multi-point effort in his last 16 games, he has just 2 goals over his last 15 and only 4 points in the past 11 -- he should not be relied on down the stretch.

KEEP AN EYE ON...

Tyler Ennis -- After registering 20 goals and 49 points as a rookie for the Sabres last season, many pegged Ennis as a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2011-12. Unfortunately he struggled out of the gate with no points in his first seven games  before going down with an injury at the end of October that would see him miss all of November. He made a quiet return during December, but since the end of February, Ennis has started to play the way many of us hoped he would this season. He's currently in the middle of a five-game point-scoring streak (4 G, 5 A) and has thrived while skating on an energetic line with Drew Stafford and newcomer Marcus Foligno. Ennis is available in 59 percent of Yahoo! Leagues and has center and left wing eligibility.

TOP 100 FANTASY FORWARDS

RANK TEAM PLAYER
1. Sidney crosby
2. Steven Stamkos
3. Corey Perry
4. Alex Ovechkin
5. Evgeni Malkin

CUBETA'S COMPLETE TOP 100 FORWARD RANKS