NHL fantasy experts’ top 10: Who should you draft with your first-round pick?

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Alright, you’re sitting in your lobby, you see the clock counting down, you hear the classic SportsCenter chime that tells you you’re on the clock now. But who do you take?

With the first overall pick, do you take reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, or scoring machine Connor McDavid?

How early do you take Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy? Do you take defenseman Brent Burns at the turn?

We asked our expert panel what their first round looks like, as well as their vote for the top picks. Our panel includes ESPN fantasy hockey writers Victoria Matiash and Sean Allen, senior NHL writer Greg Wyshynski, NHL national writer Emily Kaplan, hockey prospects and draft analyst Chris Peters, and ESPN fantasy hockey editor Ben Arledge.

Here’s our look at those first round picks, ten to match a standard ESPN Fantasy Hockey league. First-pick selections were weighted with ten points, second-pick selections were given nine, third-pick eight, etc. The points were then added up to give us a final top-ten ranking. Auston Matthews was a huge gainer in our voting relative to the rankings. Read below for each expert’s individual picks and a brief explanation.


Pick Panel

Matiash: Unless armed with a top-three pick, I’m hedging towards selecting Burns in the first round of most conventional fantasy drafts. After the formidable trio of Kucherov, McDavid and MacKinnon, there’s a minor drop-off, in my view, in truly elite potential – no offense to Ovechkin and Co. – followed by a glut of proven producers or budding breakout assets up front. Unreservedly (but respectfully) disagreeing with Sean (see below), I believe the Sharks defenseman skates alone at his position as a true fantasy game-changer. Who else legitimately threatens to average a point-per-game, as he did this past campaign? And Burns hasn’t missed a regular-season contest in five years.

Allen: My pick that differs the most from the ESPN top-300 rankings is the inclusion of Vasilevskiy as a top-five option. If he hadn’t missed a month with a broken foot last season, Vasilevskiy might have played 70-plus games and easily set the all-time record for wins by a 24-year-old goaltender. He’s been consistently the superstar netminder that he was projected to be through two full seasons in the crease. He is still in his prime and still surrounded by a cast that tied the all-time NHL wins record last season. In other words, I have Vasilevskiy as a surefire top pick because he’s leaps and bounds ahead of every other NHL goaltender and that’s the kind of separation that’s worthy of early investment.

P.S.: The lack of a defenseman in my first round is for the equal, but opposite logic to Vasilevskiy. I don’t think there is enough separation at the top of the defenseman heap to give you any distinct advantage. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the first half-dozen or so D-men ended up being No. 1 at the position.

Wyshynski: While I think McDavid out-points both Kucherov and MacKinnon, the margin isn’t large enough to ignore the other two players’ advantages in PIMs and especially in plus/minus, as the Lightning and Avalanche are what the experts refer to as “good” while the Oilers very much look “bad” this season. (I’m also waiting to see what effect coach Dave Tippett has on his young superstar’s numbers.) I have Ovechkin a little higher than most, but find me another players with his level of elite offensive consistency in goals, power-play production and shots combined with nearly unmatched durability. Like Victoria, I rank Burns at the top of the defensemen list, because no one comes close to his shot generation. But I have him on the top 10 bubble due to some plus/minus concerns (Sharks goaltending still sucks) and life on the point after the departure of Joe Pavelski, human deflection machine.

Kaplan: I probably deviated the furthest from ESPN’s projections, but this is who my gut says will have a monster season. Alex Ovechkin is coming off 49 and 51 goal seasons. No boo boos from a bike accident can slow this guy down. I live in Chicago so I’ve watched Kane closely over the last two years and I can’t help but marvel about how he’s truly not dependant on linemates. He simply produces and shows no sign of regression entering his age 31 season. And Matthews? Big year for him. Give the kid the C and let him flourish.

Peters: I’m with Emily on the Auston Matthews train. A lot of it centers around the hope that he’ll stay healthy this year and he escapes a few tougher matchups as teams have to also focus on the Mitch Marner and John Tavares combo that was so dominant last year. Matthews also should get more time with William Nylander, who I’d also expect a bounceback year from and could be a good late pick up for some value in fantasy drafts. Despite injury and lack of familiar linemates for big chunks of the year, Matthews was seventh in goals per game in the league. In terms of natural progression for Matthews, I think he’ll get closer to 0.60 goals per game, and lead a contending Leafs team to the next level. It’s an aggressive play, but he’s a guy I’d be jumping at pretty early.

Arledge: The two names that appear to be a little different for me here are Tavares and Stamkos. Tavares is ranked outside the top 20 in our universal rankings, but he scored 47 goals last season in his first year with Toronto, adding 41 assists, 19 power-play points and 286 shots on goal. I think the ceiling is even higher. Stamkos, meanwhile, hit 45 goals and 98 points, along with a ridiculous 40 power-play points. The upside with both of these talents is too high to pass on, even for a goal-scorer like Alex Ovechkin. And perhaps even more valuable are their high fantasy floors, a commodity you’ll be seeking in the first round.

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