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Center Stage: Gauging the value of unknown talent

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.

We all know about the big-time surprise players this season -- the Joffrey Lupuls and Brian Elliotts of the NHL -- but what about some of the lesser-known shockers from the first two-plus months of the season?

In today's Center Stage we're going to take a look and compare a player that you might not realize is having such a good season with players that are far more well-known and usually produce at a high level. We will present you with the stat lines for the three players without telling you who they are -- and then we'll reveal the players and explain the comparison. We'll start with centers today and then move on to left wings and right wings on Thursday and Friday.

Player X: 29 games -- 11 G, 12 A, minus-7, 18 PIMs, 5 PPP, 96 SOG
Player Y: 27 games -- 8 G, 14 A, even, 20 PIMs, 9 PPP, 74 SOG
Player Z: 23 games -- 7 G, 13 A, plus-2, 30 PIMs, 9 PPP, 59 SOG

Despite different game totals, all three players have very similar point production. While Players Y and Z have a much better plus/minus rating and solid power play production, Player X clearly shoots the puck more. Player X happens to be Carolina sophomore Jeff Skinner, Player Y is Nashville rookie Craig Smith -- who, if it weren't for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, would likely be the rookie of the year front-runner (following Skinner's path) -- and Player Z is veteran Danny Briere. Coming into the season Skinner was rated 49th in Yahoo! Leagues, Briere was rated 52nd and the unknown Smith was rated 501st among all players. Now Smith is currently rated 51st with Skinner at 65th and Briere at 54th -- all three proving to be quite valuable so far.

But the big question is who would you rather have? We have to expect Smith's production to tail off a little bit at some point, but there is a good chance he will end up providing similar value to Skinner and Briere for the rest of the way.

Skinner has continued to show off his talent, but playing for Carolina is crushing his rating and he's not producing on the power play like he did last year (18 PPP). Briere plays for a powerhouse team in Philly and should continue to see heavy power play ice time, but skating on a line with Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds at even strength doesn't scream dominance and could result in a sub-25 goal season.

On the other hand, Smith has been red-hot (5 points in last three games) skating on a line with Mike Fisher and Martin Erat and is a power-play machine with over 40 percent of his points coming on the man advantage. As a rookie Smith is averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game, but a 60-plus point season with solid penalty minute and power play production sounds more than respectable for the youngster.

We don't recommend dealing Skinner or Briere straight up for Smith just yet, but we do believe Smith can be extremely valuable to any fantasy owner going forward.



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 dictated by how they're labeled in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues.
*dual position eligibility in Yahoo! Leagues

Players that dropped out of previous rankings: Valtteri Filppula

Players on IR: Mike Richards
Jonathan Toews -- It's not easy dropping Claude Giroux out from our top-five centers, but Toews certainly deserves the honor. No forward is hotter than Toews, who has 7 goals and 6 assists over his last six games, including a plus-6 rating and 24 shots on goal during that span. His 32 points on the season have him tied for third in the NHL and it seems like Toews could be well on his way to the first 40-goal season of his career -- expect him to be one of the best fantasy players all season long.

Stephen Weiss -- According to Yahoo! ratings, only Steven Stamkos, Toews and Patrick Sharp are higher than Weiss among centers. The surprise line of the season (Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann) continue to put up points at an incredible pace -- Weiss leads the way with 11 goals and 29 points in 27 games. He has 3 goals and 3 assists in his last two games and has also been extremely valuable due to his peripheral numbers -- plus-15, 26 PIMs and 10 PPP. 

Mikko Koivu -- Koivu is known for his playmaking abilities and so far this season hasn't shown anything different -- Koivu has 5 goals and 18 helpers in 28 games for the Wild. He has really stepped up his game recently with 4 of those goals and 9 assists coming over the last 10 games -- Koivu has been held pointless just once during that span as well. He won't help you much in the penalty minute category (8 on the season) and because he's such a great passer he won't shoot the puck a ton (65 shots), but he should end up close to his usual 60-70 points by season's end.


Jamie Benn -- Benn is still the ninth-rated eligible center in Yahoo! Leagues, but he has found himself in his first real rut of the season. After getting off to a tremendous start, Benn hasn't recorded a point in each of his last four games and has just 1 goal and 3 assists over his previous 10 contests. Despite the lack of points recently, Benn is still providing value for his owners with decent penalty minutes (he has 33 on the season), a solid plus/minus (plus-8) and plenty of shots on goal (86). Start him with confidence and look for him to snap out of this slump in the near future.

Joe Thornton -- The usually reliable Thornton has been held without a point in four straight games and is a minus-4 during that time as well -- he also has been held to no shots in three of his previous eight games. After dipping from 89 points in 2009-10 to 70 last season, Thornton may be headed for a steady decline for the remainder of his career. However, Thornton is very capable of erupting for those big night performances that would put him closer to his usual point-per-game numbers, and with plenty of offensive firepower surrounding him in San Jose, he could still have an 80-point season in him.

Jeff Carter -- Sure we can continue to blame Carter's struggles on his early-season foot injury, but at some point we have to address the real matter: Carter just isn't producing in Columbus. In 16 games for the Blue Jackets, Carter has just 3 goals and 5 assists, he's a minus-2 and has only 2 power play points while skating on the team's top line with Rick Nash and Vinny Prospal. Carter has no points in his last four games and is a minus-4 during that span. He's still shooting at a high rate (3.5 per game), but Carter will continue to fall in the ranks until he proves he's back to his old self.


Derek Stepan -- Owned in just 14 percent of Yahoo! Leagues, Stepan's stat line doesn't exactly come off as eye-popping with 5 goals and 16 points in 24 games. However, if you look a little more closely at his situation, Stepan becomes very intriguing. He has stepped into the role as Marian Gaborik's playmaking center -- it was supposed to be Brad Richards, but Stepan has clearly found chemistry with Gaborik. Not only does Stepan have four points in his last four games, but he's also playing the point on the team's top power play unit and averaging 3:14 of PP ice time per game. John Tortorella loves his game and plays the 21-year-old in all the key moments of the game. Stepan had 45 points in his rookie season last year and should come close to 60 this season -- he is definitely worth a flyer if you're in need of a center.
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