Head-to-head category leagues are their own flavor of fun in that one goal, one shot, one measly digit of a goals-against average, can singularly nail down that particular field and, in some cases, a weekly victory. With no weighted points or formulas in play, fantasy’s precious category giants can indeed serve as king. In that view, here’s a look at those who excel in one aspect of the fantasy game while maintaining a strong enough presence otherwise. ESPN’s Standard H2H categories include goals, assists, power-play points, penalty minutes, plus/minus, average time-on-ice, shots, goalie wins, goals-against average, and save percentage. For fun, I also included blocked-shots, faceoffs won, short-handed points, and shutouts. Managers in Roto leagues – and points leagues for that matter – should also find the following of use.
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Apart from the league’s next-level trio – Auston Matthews and that elite pair in Edmonton – there are other premium goal-scoring assets who could actually be available slightly later in your fantasy draft. Consistently finishing in the Top-10 in goals, Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets scored 98 in his past 209 games, dating back to the beginning of 2018-19. New York Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad is another hot commodity in category competition, or in a points league that rewards goals at a premium, as a bounce-back candidate after his sluggish first half to last year’s outlying season. Recovering from COVID-19 at the onset, Zibanejad scored three goals in his first 27 games, then 21 in his final 29. Now that’s quite a jump. Then consider how additionally inspired Alex Ovechkin will feel in chasing Wayne Gretzky’s goals record of 894 in the first of his fresh five-year deal. Ovechkin must average 33 goals per season, over the five, to eventually break The Great One’s tally. Betcha he scores 40 this year to start.
See also: Mikko Rantanen, F, Colorado Avalanche; Alex DeBrincat, F, Chicago Blackhawks
Skating with Auston Matthews, winger Mitch Marner will continue to pile up the helpers with ease, maybe even at a record-setting rate. After underperforming in last springs’ playoff run, the Maple Leafs star will feel extra motivated to make amends. Somewhat quietly, New York’s Artemi Panarin collected 41 assists in 42 games this past winter, galloping at an assists/game clip second only to Connor McDavid. Panarin – who could also easily put 30 in the net himself – sits 32nd in ESPN’s preseason rankings. Although ranked all too high at 13th, Florida Panthers playmaker Jonathan Huberdeau has been a constant presence a-top the assists table for some time now. On the blue line, Ranger Adam Fox and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals are your go-to’s in leagues that treasure helpers equal to other stats, whether in H2H or Roto competition.
See also: Tyson Barrie, D, Edmonton Oilers
While Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are in a class of their own when it comes to making hay with the man-advantage, there’s little chance either one will be available beyond a hot minute in any fantasy draft. But Jonathan Huberdeau should be. After finishing fifth in power-play production in 2019-20, the Florida Panthers winger wrapped up 2020-21 in fourth place, behind only McDavid, Draisaitl, and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. And that was without defenseman Aaron Ekblad – an exceptionally effective member of the top unit – for a good part of the season. Coming off the most fruitful campaign of his substantial career, David Perron is another special teams standout. The St. Louis Blues forward sits sixth over the past two seasons with 48 power-play points in 127 games. Perennially underappreciated (ranked 102nd this preseason), Perron once again presents as a valuable mid-round draft asset who punches well above his fantasy weight.
See also: J.T. Miller, F, Vancouver Canucks; Tyson Barrie, D, Edmonton Oilers; Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche
If needing another reason to invest in Brad Marchand, the feisty Boston Bruins forward has cumulatively led the NHL in shorthanded points since 2010-11 with 51 and the competition hasn’t been close. His seven SHP’s earned this past truncated season also left all others in his gutsy dust. If debating between Marchand and another forward of otherwise perceived equal fantasy value, ride with the guy who offers this rare bonus every once in a while. Particularly in H2H category play.
See also: Sebastian Aho, F, Carolina Hurricanes; Mika Zibanejad, F, New York Rangers
If there’s any reason I mightnot fully adore competing against my friend and ESPN colleague Sean Allen is that he too does not, to his credit, undervalue Max Pacioretty as a fantasy asset like most of the hockey-appreciating universe. Pacioretty finished sixth in shots/game with 3.6 this past season, in third place the previous with 4.3/game, and has reliably done the same most other years. Dating back to 2010-11, the Vegas/Montreal sniper has averaged 3.6 shots/game through 725 regular-season contests. Oh, and he scores too, contributing nearly a point per match-up in his past two campaigns with the Golden Knights (a good number of them goals). Don’t let Pacioretty – who’s somehow ranked 89th this preseason – pass you by if still available in the early-mid-rounds of your own draft. He’s worth a reach.
See also: Brady Tkachuk, F, Ottawa Senators; Brendan Gallagher, F, Montreal Canadiens; Jakob Chychrun, D, Arizona Coyotes
Before wading into whether Alec Martinez could replicate his unicorn season as a prolific shot-blocker and scorer, I’ll remind you that the Vegas defender has never reached such statistical heights simultaneously in a career spanning more than a dozen years. To be clear, I like Martinez as a fantasy asset. I just don’t like him as much as his current ranking suggests.
Instead, well outside most popular fantasy circles, Connor Murphy of the Chicago Blackhawks captures my attention as a steadily engaged shot-blocker who can still produce on occasion. Murphy finished second only to Martinez in 2020-21 with 2.5 blocked-shots/game, and while he’ll never really light it up, the 28-year-old could still have a wholly respectable 25-30 point season in him, by way averaging near 23 minutes/contest. The Chicago defender is the type of later-round pick (or free agent acquisition) that can not only help nail down one category but likewise pad an otherwise well-rounded fantasy squad. Murphy currently ranks 367th overall, according to ESPN.
See also: Mark Giordano, D, Seattle Kraken; Alex Edler, D, Los Angeles Kings
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To win, they first need to play. Avoiding solid tandem teams, however impressive they may be, is paramount to collecting as many W’s as possible. Then they need to play for teams that win more often than not. That removes another good portion of a pool of otherwise decent netminders. Left over is a crew similar to last season’s, headlined by Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (31 wins) and including then-Avalanche-now-Kraken member Philipp Grubauer (30), Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry (25), and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (24). Joining that impressive company as clear-cut No. 1 goaltenders for reasonably formidable squads is Colorado newbie Darcy Kuemper and ex-Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury in joining an improved Blackhawks team. Fresh from Toronto’s blindingly hot spotlight, Frederik Andersen is a sleepy favourite of mine to play more often than Antti Raanta (sadly injury prone) with the Carolina Hurricanes. And don’t forget Robin Lehner, who takes over the reigns in Vegas.
See also: Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers; Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
Again, there’s no magic formula: Quality netminders who perform far more often than not, for a team that doesn’t give up a too many high-danger shots and scoring opportunities, will earn more shutouts. Last season that was Colorado’s Grubauer (now in Seattle), Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders, Vegas’ Fleury (now in Chicago), and (surprise, surprise) Tampa’s Vasilevskiy. Along with Fleury and Vasilevskiy, I still like Varlamov to secure a handful of shutouts, as long as Ilya Sorokin doesn’t eat into too many starts. If the Seattle Kraken play as stingy and suffocating as they’re constructed, Grubauer could enjoy another nice haul. Again, the former Coyote Kuemper shines as a multi-category fantasy star with his new Avalanche squad.
See also: Robin Lehner, Las Vegas Golden Knights
Depending on the number of starts required in your own league, members of a top-notch tandem team are more serviceable in this category. One terrific performance from Varlamov, for example, could help cement a strong enough SV% to win your week – it doesn’t matter if Sorokin starts the Islanders’ other games. Quality over quantity, right? Skilled goalies who play well for, let’s call them non-playoff teams, can also contribute nicely to this category. Even if Alex Nedeljkovic allows three goals on 40 shots in a loss, that still works out to .925 SV%. And Detroit’s new netminder is still going to win a few here and there.
See also: Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers
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As with SV%, high quality tandem-team members are welcome to contribute in this goaltending vein, but the quality of collective defense out front matters significantly more. The fewer goals allowed the better, whether on 15 shots or 55. Boston’s tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman are appealing GAA assets (at least until/if Tuukka Rask crashes the party in late January), as does Toronto’s one-two punch of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. Aforementioned goaltending heavy weights Vasilevskiy, Grubauer, and Fleury, along with SV% darlings Varlamov and Sorokin, also shine as particularly stingy challengers in net.
No skater averaged more on-ice minutes these past two seasons than the Ottawa Senators’ No. 1 defenseman. Clocking in at 26:07 per game since autumn 2019, Thomas Chabot edged fellow minute-munching heavyweight Drew Doughty by a couple of seconds per contest. Looking ahead, even more sets the young defenseman apart from the veteran in Los Angeles. While Doughty’s most productive years are likely behind him – the 31-year-old isn’t bound for pasture yet, but another 60-point campaign feels out of reach – Chabot remains on the rise as a franchise blueliner for a rebuilding team that continues to improve. Entrenched on a power play with budding youngsters Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris, not to mention Brady Tkachuk (assuming the RFA re-signs), the 24-year-old defenseman should once again near his 0.79 point-per-game rate enjoyed his sophomore season. Outside of plus/minus, Chabot is a fantasy gem that checks a bunch of fantasy boxes beyond ATOI. And he’s likely to be kicking about once other 25-plus-minute d-men are drafted.
See also: Seth Jones, D, Chicago Blackhawks; Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers
Some of us have less time for this fantasy category than others, but to each their own. What can I tell you? Good players on good teams generally boast solid plus-minus ratings. Which leads in to my one bit of related advice: Steer clear of drafting otherwise palatable fantasy assets who play hard minutes on struggling squads. Defenseman Filip Hronek floated a minus-56 over 121 games with the Detroit Red Wings since the start of 2019-20. If plus/minus carries any substantive weight in your league, and Detroit doesn’t appear ready to bust out quite yet, you might want to avoid selecting Hronek this season.
Centers Ryan O’Reilly, Bo Horvat, and Anze Kopitar – solid fantasy assets all around – are worth that little bit more in leagues that reward regular success in the faceoff circle. Of that gaggle, Horvat appeals to me most this season with new winger Conor Garland in town. Alongside the former Coyote, the Canucks captain could enjoy a career year, production-wise
See also: Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins; Jordan Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes
If your league still rewards breaking the rules, Washington’s Tom Wilson – who averaged 2:02 PIM/game in 2020-21 – and Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk catch trouble consistently enough while also contributing to the scoresheet. Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Marchand in Boston aren’t about to win the Lady Byng anytime soon either.
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