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Center Stage: Backstrom, Spezza back to old tricks

by Matt Cubeta
Every Wednesday during the season, 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.

With nearly three weeks of the NHL season in the books, it's time to take a look at the top fantasy players at the center position according to standard fantasy leagues. Three weeks is still not a gigantic portion of the season, so you'll notice that we continue to show patience with our updated center rankings. However, we can begin to put more faith in some players' hot or cold starts -- guys like Jordan Staal, Vinny Prospal and Jamie Benn, for example.

You'll also notice that our updated center rankings will differ from Yahoo! League ratings because we're projecting how we expect players to perform for the remainder of the season -- Yahoo's rankings are based on what they've done up to this point. For example, Steven Stamkos remains our top-ranked center going forward, but in Yahoo! Leauges, Stamkos is currently rated 20th among centers.

With that said, let's take a look at the top-five performers at the center position up to this point. You'll see one player is finally living up to expectations, another is performing like he did last year, another is rebounding like we hoped he would, and the other two are reaching the expectations that many of us have had for the last couple of years.

We're talking about Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Nicklas Backstrom and two centers that we'll be hearing from for many, many years to come: Claude Giroux and John Tavares.

Spezza has been talked about for years as being one of the more gifted players in the NHL, and he is certainly showing off that talent in the early parts of the 2011-12 season. After netting his second power-play goal of the season in Tuesday's shootout win, Spezza now has a stat line of: 5 G, 7 A, minus-2, 2 PIMs, 6 PPP and 27 SOG in nine games. Spezza extended his goal-scoring streak to four games and has 8 points in his last four contests. The Sens center posted three straight 87-plus point seasons from 2005-2008, so this kind of production isn't exactly abnormal -- the big question will be whether he can stay healthy. For now, if you've got him on your team, continue to ride him as a No. 1 center.

Nicklas Backstrom
Center - WSH
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 10
SOG: 22 | +/-: 0
Backstrom is back! Well, at least for now, anyway. The Capitals' middle-man is currently the third-ranked fantasy hockey center in standard Yahoo! Leagues -- coming in at 13th among all players. In seven contests, the Swedish center has posted 2 goals and 8 assists, with 7 of those points coming on the power play (second in the NHL to Daniel Sedin). This fast start is quite a big difference from last season, when Backstrom posted just 1 goal and 3 assists in his first seven games. There's a very good chance a return to somewhere near his 101-point output from 2009-10 happens again this season.

Sharp is coming off an outstanding 34-goal, 71-point season, and while he's actually playing the wing for the Blackhawks, he has eligibility for all three forward positions. Through eight games, the second-ranked center in Yahoo! Leagues has totaled 3 G, 5 A, a plus-4, 18 PIMs, 2 PPP and 30 SOG. The clear outlier in his stat line is the 18 PIMs, which you should not expect to continue at this rate -- 14 of them came in one game against the Stars (last year he finished with 38 and the year before 28). Sharp is a terrific asset for any fantasy owner and should reach the 30-goal, 65-point plateau again this season -- start him regularly.

Giroux is right behind Backstrom and ranked fourth at center and 14th overall in Yahoo! Leagues. The talented playmaker has been extremely reliable with points in six of his eight games, and 5 goals and 5 assists overall. His only struggle so far has been his minus-1 rating, but we can expect that to improve soon enough while playing on a high-powered Flyers squad.

Tavares is the fifth-ranked center and is simply tearing it up on the ice. He has been the complete package to this point: 6 G, 4 A, even rating, 8 PIMs, 4 PPP and 26 SOG. He's clicking extremely well playing on a line with Matt Moulson and PA Parenteau, and let's not forget what the addition of Mark Streit on the point is doing for all these Islanders forwards -- Streit has 5 helpers in seven games and is a clear quarterback on the power play.

That's what the top five players look like in standard Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues, but clearly we feel those things will change a bit as the season progresses. Let's take a look at some key guys that have moved up or down in our updated rankings:



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 last week. (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

NOTE: Patrick Kane recently gained C eligibility in Yahoo! Leagues

Players that dropped out of our previous rankings: Jeff Carter (IR), Tomas Plekanec, Paul Stastny
Evgeni Malkin -- While Malkin didn't move up or down in our rankings, what really matters is that he returned to the ice for the Penguins on Tuesday against the Islanders. No one questions his talent, it's just a matter of him staying healthy. He received 19:19 of playing time in his return after missing five consecutive games while centering a line with James Neal and Steve Sullivan on the wings. Malkin was unable to find the score sheet, but he still chipped in three shots on goal and saw 2:53 of power-play ice time. Geno has 4 points in the four games he's played in so far, and you can expect point-per-game numbers whenever he's on the ice for the remainder of the season.

Nicklas Backstrom -- As we stated earlier, the real Backstrom is back, and his fantasy owners certainly aren't complaining about it. Despite subpar production for his standards last season (18 goals and 65 points), the Capitals center was still drafted on average with the 11th pick going into the season and third among all centers, behind only Stamkos and Henrik Sedin -- clearly the fantasy hockey nation had complete faith Backstrom would return to his 101 point-type season from two years ago. And so far, Backstrom has delivered for those that spent an early pick on him. Backstrom has primarily centered Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer, but Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin are sometime sprinkled in with Ovi and Backstrom -- all is well as long as the two superstars remain together.

Tyler Seguin -- Seguin, the sixth-ranked center in standard Yahoo! Leagues, has been someone we've loved since seeing him burst onto the scene in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. All he's done so far this season is post 3 G, 6 A, a plus-7, 4 PIMs, 2 PPP and 27 SOG in eight games played. His plus-7 rating is tied for the NHL lead with Dion Phaneuf and Matt D'Agostini. The newly-formed line with Milan Lucic and Chris Kelly seems to have found some early chemistry -- we don't care who Seguin skates with as long as he keeps putting up point-per-game numbers.


Brad Richards -- His Rangers' debut got off to a solid, typical, Richards-like start -- he posted 5 points in his first five games. However, in his last two contests he's been held pointless and has posted just two shots on goal. While 5 points in seven games isn't exactly bad, it's not at all what his fantasy owners were hoping for. Richards is one of the League's elite playmakers, but with coach John Tortorella constantly shuffling up the lines, it's hard to even tell if Richards will stick on the same line with teammate Marian Gaborik. Perhaps the Rangers' upcoming six-game homestand will get Richards going, as he'll be making his Broadway debut on Thursday against the Maple Leafs. If you have him on your team, stay patient and hope he and Gaborik remain on the same line all season.

Eric Staal -- It hasn't been pretty for Staal in his first nine games of the 2011-12 season. While his 30 shots on goal rank ninth in the League, he has struggled in every other stat: 3 G, 2 A, minus-9, 4 PIMs and 4 PPP. Not what you like to see from a guy you drafted as your team's No. 1 center. Surely Staal will bounce back at some point, but we have to worry a bit. His minus-9 rating is the worst in the NHL, but the even more alarming issue is who he skates with. After starting the season with Jeff Skinner and Chad LaRose, Staal's most recent and frequent linemates this season have been Tuomo Ruutu and Alexei Ponikarovsky. With exception to Skinner, these players are primarily grinders and more like third-line players, not top-liners. Staal has had great success in years past while skating with under-the-radar caliber players, but so far in 2011-12, things aren't working out for him. Have faith that he'll rebound, but it might be wise to lower your expectations based on the Carolina captain's slow start.

Tomas Plekanec -- Like the Canadiens, Plekanec has gotten off to a rough start in the early parts of this season. Through eight games, the Montreal middle-man has just 2 goals, 3 assists, a minus-2, 2 penalty minutes, 2 power-play points and 29 shots on goal. Plekanec opened fantasy eyes everywhere after posting 70 points in 2009-10, but he then regressed to just 57 last campaign. The realistic season seems more like the ladder and that's what should be expected this year. He does average 55 penalty minutes per season over the last three years, which is a nice bonus for fantasy owners, and his 21:28 of ice time per game and 4:08 with the man advantage indicate that his production should increase, but for now, Plekanec should be benched until he shows signs of snapping out of this early skid.


Steve Ott -- The Dallas tough guy is doing more than just being an enforcer for the Stars this season. In addition to his 25 penalty minutes, the 2000 first-round draft pick has posted 2 goals, 5 assists, a plus-4 rating, 2 power-play points and 21 shots on goal in nine games. While he's a guarantee to rack up tons of penalty minutes for your team (he's averaged 155 PIMs per season over the last four years), he's also looking like a player that could chip in around 20 goals and 50 points -- not bad for a guy that was drafted on average with 168th pick in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues. The biggest reason for Ott's increase in his production is the line he's skating on -- he's currently playing alongside Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. He's also receiving 19:32 of ice time per game, which is up from his 17:09 per game last season. All in all, Ott should be relied on as a solid No. 2 fantasy center for the remainder of the season -- you gotta love guys that can get you penalty minutes and points.
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