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Fantasy Hockey: The NHL's Top 25 Forwards for a Keeper League

Mark HillierContributor IIDecember 30, 2016

Fantasy Hockey: The NHL's Top 25 Forwards for a Keeper League

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    It’s never too early to start thinking about your NHL fantasy hockey draft, especially if you are joining a keeper league. The players you draft in the early rounds of the first season are going to form the core of your team for years.

    Taking some time over the offseason to map out your draft day strategy could make the difference between a dynasty or living in the basement of your league for eternity—besides, you don't want to be that guy.

    You know, the one who doesn't show up for the live draft, forgets to pre-rank their players and loses interest by Christmastime.

    With that said, there are a few simple rules to keep in mind:

     

    1. Draft young. You need to think long term when drafting in a keeper league. It might be tempting to just take the highest point-leaders in each category from the previous season, but if those players are likely to retire in the next few years, then they are a wasted pick. In the age of the salary cap, post-clutch and grab hockey, the NHL is getting younger and faster, and many impact players are stepping right into the NHL from junior.

    2. Reduce your risk, and draft durable players. While a career-ending injury can happen at any time, you should look at the games played over the past few seasons to find the players who are most likely to not miss too much time in the future.

    3. Draft all-around fantasy hockey monsters. The best fantasy players do everything; they play in all situations and put up numbers across all the categories in your league. There's not much sense in drafting a player who scores only on the power-play and is a minus-26 on the season.

    4. Draft "franchise" players. The best players to build your fantasy team around are the same players whom NHL teams build around. These are the players who make the other players around them better, not the ones who only produce when playing with players better than themselves. Look for players under long-term contracts for big-time money who have already proven they perform at a high level even when they are not in the final year of their contract. Consistency, stability and longevity are key.

    5. Think with your head, not your heart. While you may be in love with that new third-line center your favorite team just signed, save him for the later rounds. In all likelihood, he will still be available, and the opportunity cost of taking him in an early round is just too great.

     

    While most "top" lists go from last to first, I don't know any fantasy hockey draft that does, so this list is starting with the best. Here are the top 25 forwards for a fantasy hockey keeper league.

1. Steven Stamkos

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    That's right, I said Steven Stamkos.

    Before you stop reading hear me out.

    Any casual fan can draft Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin with the first overall pick. These two superstars are such obvious choices that I'm not even going to include them on this list.

    Chances are you won't have the first pick,—or even the second—but even if you do, I'm going to give you some reasons to pick Stamkos instead.

    Crosby is coming back from a serious concussion which makes him a high-risk pick. We all hope he returns better than ever, but the risk is still there.

    Ovechkin is still young at age 25, but that is still four years older than Stamkos. That's potentially four years closer to retirement for Ovechkin and four extra years for Stamkos to help you dominate your league.

    And as exciting as Ovechkin is to watch, his game is all about speed, power and reckless abandon. As he gets older, he's going to have to adapt his style, or he may just burn out too early.

    Stamkos, at just 21 years old, already has three years of NHL experience under his belt. An offensive juggernaut, he has scored 119 goals and added 113 assists in 243 regular-season games played. When you exclude his 79-game rookie season, Stamkos has not missed a single game and has scored more goals (96) in the past two seasons than any other NHL player. This kid has yet to scratch the surface of his potential.

    You might get a few extra points with Crosby or Ovechkin in the short term, but with Stamkos, you are getting a low-risk, high-reward, long-term investment. Think of Steven Stamkos as your NHL fantasy hockey retirement plan.

2. Corey Perry

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    Corey Perry has finally arrived as perhaps the most complete fantasy hockey player in existence. The only player in the NHL last season to reach 50 goals, Perry also had 48 assists, played in all 82 games, finished third overall in points and had a whopping 104 penalty minutes.

    Perry's point totals have increased in each of his six NHL seasons. At age 26, this Hart Memorial and Rocket Richard Trophy winner is just entering his prime.

3. Evgeni Malkin

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    Arguably more skilled than both his teammate Sidney Crosby and his countryman Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin managed 85 points on his way to the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2006-2007. Malkin continues to be considerably better than a point-a-game player, scoring 418 regular-season points in only 352 games.

    At only 25 years old, Malkin's long-term potential reward outweighs any risk posed by his recent injuries. It has been reported he will be heading into training camp this year in the best shape of his life. If so, he could very well dominate the league in 2011-2012.

4. Daniel/Henrik Sedin

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    I still can't tell the difference between the Sedin twins. They are two hockey players who share one brain and one slot on this list.

    I've been told that Daniel is the goal-scorer and Henrik is the playmaker. Take your pick between them, or pull a Brian Burke-style trade and get both. Either way you will be rewarded with loads of points.

    They won't help you in the PIM category, but they make up for it in the plus-minus category; they combined for a plus-56 last season.

5. Jonathan Toews

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    In just his second NHL season, Jonathan Toews became the third-youngest captain in NHL history at age 20.

    A year later, he would become the second-youngest captain—behind Sydney Crosby—to win the Stanley Cup. If that was not enough, Toews also won Olympic gold for Canada and added the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP to his resume.

    Now approaching point-a-game territory at only age 23, Captain Serious is not even close to reaching his prime.

6. Eric Staal

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    Eric Staal is the model of consistency. In seven NHL seasons, he has missed exactly 14 regular-season games, with 12 of those coming in one year. Apart from his rookie season, he has never had less than 70 points and 50 penalty minutes, and only dipped below 30 goals the year he missed those 12 games (he also managed to score 29).

    An Olympic gold medal winner and Stanley Cup champion, Staal has yet to hit his ceiling.

7. Ryan Getzlaf

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    Ryan Getzlaf can hurt you in any number of ways. At 6'4" and 220 lbs, Getzlaf has amassed 415 points and 417 penalty minutes in just 430 regular-season games.

    An ultimate competitor, Getzlaf knows how to win. Like Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews and Eric Staal, Getzlaf is a member of that elite club of Olympic gold-winning Stanley Cup champions.

8. Henrik Zetterberg

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    At age 30, Henrik Zetterberg is one of the oldest players included on this list. Given his impressive resume and potential for future durability, he still deserves top 10 status.

    In addition to being the lowest-drafted Conn Smythe Trophy winner in NHL history (210th overall in 1999), this Stanley Cup and Olympic gold winner holds the Red Wings' franchise record for goals (13) and points (27) in a single playoff season.

    Over eight NHL seasons, Zetterberg is just under a point-a-game with 555 regular-season points in 586 games and is a ridiculous plus-171.

9. Mike Richards

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    To say I was shocked when I heard the Philadelphia Flyers traded away captain and franchise player Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings would be an understatement.

    Stunned, is more like it.

    There have been a lot of rumors floated as to the reason(s), but only Flyers GM Paul Holmgren knows for sure. He must have a plan, because his future with the Flyers will hang on it.

    Up to this point in his career, Richards has really only had two outstanding seasons (by fantasy hockey standards) of 75 and 80 points. However, this is a heart-and-soul kind of guy who plays in all situations and is much bigger on the ice than his size suggests.

    Richards scores goals,—and sets them up even strength, on the power-play or short-handed—racks up the penalty minutes and won't hurt your plus-minus either. He is one of the best overall fantasy hockey players out there. Grab him if you can.

10. Brad Richards

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    Yet another Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner in the top 10, Brad Richards is an assist machine. In 772 regular-season games, Richards has 716 points, 496 of which are assists. It won't hurt his stats to have a healthy Marion Gaborik on his wing.

    Having just signed a lucrative nine-year contract with the Rangers, Richards will be the centerpiece in New York for the foreseeable future.

11. Zach Parise

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    Zach Parise was well on his way to superstar status in the NHL when he injured his knee early last season.

    In each of his first five NHL seasons, he had never played less than 81 games. In the previous two seasons before getting injured, Parise was the New Jersey Devils' MVP, scoring a total of 83 goals and 93 assists.

    It will be interesting to see what a healthy Zach Parise can accomplish if he develops some chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk.

12. Ryan Kesler

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    After last season's grueling playoff drive, there are questions regarding the health of Ryan Kesler.

    It has recently been reported that he underwent successful surgery for a torn labrum in his hip. With an estimated 12-week recovery period, it is unlikely he will start the season for the Vancouver Canucks.

    Kesler has come back from this type of injury once before in his career though, and there is no reason to think he won't again.

    Considering his combined 148 points and 170 penalty minutes over the past two seasons, this is a power forward who does it all. He can score, pass, kill penalties, hit and drop the gloves when needed. Ryan Kesler is my type of hockey player, and he should be yours as well.

13. Bobby Ryan

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    With three 30-plus-goal seasons in only three years in the NHL, Bobby Ryan is quickly becoming one of the premier power forwards in the game.

    This former second overall pick of the Anaheim Ducks plays on a line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, (Nos. 2 and 7 on this list, respectively) forming perhaps the scariest line in the NHL to play against. If they don't pummel you on the scoreboard, they might just pummel you instead.

14. Claude Giroux

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    Claude Giroux officially arrived on the scene as a future NHL star with 21 points in 23 games in the 2010 playoffs. He was instrumental in the Philadelphia Flyers' remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    Giroux followed that up with a 76-point campaign in just his second full NHL regular season and would further cement his status as a playoff performer with another 12 points in 11 games.

    Many observers believe it is the emergence of Giroux and teammate James van Riemsdyk that convinced Flyers management they could afford to trade away their two franchise star players (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) over this summer.

    Giroux will undoubtedly be expected to take on an even greater role this season, and by all indications, he has all the tools to succeed. An offensively-gifted player, Giroux is also responsible in his own end of the rink and can score on the power-play or short-handed.

15. Patrick Kane

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    At only 22 years of age, Patrick Kane has already racked up 303 regular-season points in 317 NHL games. Small in stature but big in skill, there aren't many better options on the wing.

    While Kane is best known for his 2010 Stanley Cup-winning goal, he has had his share of off-ice distractions. This former first overall draft pick and NHL Rookie of the Year will only get better as he matures.

16. Pavel Datsyuk

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    At 33 years old, Pavel Datsyuk is the oldest player on this list, and the only one born before 1980. If not for his age, this one-of-a-kind puck wizard would easily be in the top 10.

    Although his prime years are likely behind him, Datsyuk has enough pure skill to keep him among the NHL elite for some time to come.

    With an uncanny ability to turn opposing players into pretzels, Datsyuk is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the entire world. In a keeper league, you might be better off drafting a young star ahead of him, but you definitely won't be disappointed watching Datsyuk on the highlight reels as your fantasy points rack up.

17. Anze Kopitar

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    Over five NHL seasons Anze Kopitar has only missed 17 regular season games and has played in all 82 contests three times. At only 23 years old, this alternate team captain of the Los Angeles Kings has 358 regular-season points.

    With the arrival of Mike Richards, the pressure on Kopitar will be lessened. He should be able to eclipse his recent point-a-game clip and sustain it for at least the next five years for which he is already under contract.

    In fantasy hockey there are no sure things of course, but with Kopitar's style of play, he is a low-risk, high-reward pick.

18. Matt Duchene

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    Some (including myself) would argue that Matt Duchene, who was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche third overall in 2009, was actually the best player drafted that year. Duchene, who grew up an Avs fan, was visibly happy at the draft as he watched Victor Hedman go second overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Already drawing comparisons to one of his boyhood idols, Duchene would score one more goal as a rookie (24) than Joe Sakic (23) did in his rookie season with the Quebec Nordiques. The following season, Duchene would again surpass Sakic as the youngest player in franchise history to record 100 points. He would finish the year setting another record as the youngest player to lead the team in points with 67.

    At only 20 years old, Matt Duchene is a rising star you cannot afford to miss in your keeper league draft this fall.

19. Jeff Carter

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    If you are looking for a pure goal-scorer, look no further than Jeff Carter. As a Philadelphia Flyer, Carter has sniped 181 times in just six NHL seasons.

    Carter is one of those players who shoots more than he passes, so if your league keeps track of shots on goal, you should pay close attention. Last season, Carter took 335 shots on net, good for third in the league behind Alexander Ovechkin (367) and Dustin Byfuglien (347), but he scored more goals (36) than either of them.

    Finally an undisputed No. 1 center, the question is, how will Carter mesh with his new winger Rick Nash, who is also one of those players who likes to shoot more than he passes? With Nash under contract in Columbus for the next seven years and Carter until 2022, they will have some time to figure it out.

20. Rick Nash

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    Rick Nash is the captain and face of the franchise for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Listed at 6'4" and 216 lbs, Nash has the size and skill that make NHL fantasy poolies salivate.

    However, apart from the 2008-2009 season where Nash scored 40 goals and 79 points in 78 games, he hasn't quite dominated in the way most expect.

    He has also never had the elite center he will have going forward with Jeff Carter.

    At age 27, Nash should be just entering his prime. With some of the pressure lifted off his shoulders by Carter and a little chemistry added in, this could be the start of something special in Columbus.

21. Milan Lucic

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    Milan Lucic is a monster. He is also the best of a rare breed of NHL fantasy players who can put up big points, big penalty minutes and help you in the plus-minus category.

    Some of you might question his inclusion on this list, but if you are in a fantasy league that counts penalty minutes, then you will want a player like this on your team. There are a select few others who can fill a similar role, but at 23 years of age, Lucic is the current premier goal-scoring, penalty minute machine in the NHL.

    While there is always a higher risk of injury with a player like this, you cannot afford to pass him by in your draft. Sure, you could wait until the last round and draft a pure penalty minute guy who only plays five minutes a game and will get you 150 PIMs or more, but this is a waste of a roster spot.

22. Ilya Kovalchuk

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    Ilya Kovalchuk has the skill and fantasy numbers to be in the top five of this list. While he has won me over somewhat from his early years in the NHL, his subpar performance last season has me wondering if he will ever fit into a New Jersey Devils style of system. His massive contract also has me wondering if the Devils won't be hamstrung in their attempts to sign Zach Parise to a long-term deal.

    On the positive side, Kovalchuk's contract pretty much eliminates any flight risk to the KHL that many fantasy owners of Russian stars have to contend with.

    Also, barring the unlikely event that Paul Holmgren gets chased out of Philly for trading away Richards and Carter and ends up taking over for Lou Lamoriello in Jersey, Kovalchuk will be the cornerstone the Devils will build around for years to come whether they like it or not.

    You will have to decide for yourself if this is the player you want to build your fantasy hockey team around.

23. Niklas Backstrom

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    Niklas Backstrom is another player who comes into this season with some question marks.

    Clearly a player of superstar-caliber, Backstrom had 88 points in his second season for the Washington Capitals and 101 in his third.

    However, like most of the Caps last season, Backstrom took a step backward, managing only 65 regular-season points.

    There have been questions about his commitment and his physical shape. At only age 23, this is a very young player though, and he plays on a line with Ovechkin, so his upside is still huge. I think the Caps will be better this year and so will Backstrom.

24. Taylor Hall

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    Taylor Hall, taken first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2010, stepped right into the NHL at age 18. In a shortened rookie campaign, Hall only managed 42 points after suffering a high ankle sprain that ended his season early. If not for the injury, he would have likely given Jeff Skinner a run for his money for the rookie scoring race.

    Hall is a power forward with blazing speed. Expect him to put up bigger numbers year after year.

    Taylor Hall will be the best of a very good young core of players who develop over the coming years in Edmonton, the likes of which have not been seen since the days of Gretzky and Messier.

25. John Tavares

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    The development of John Tavares has perhaps been somewhat stunted playing for the struggling New York Islanders.

    They are, however, a group of highly-talented young NHL players who could do something special under the right circumstances and the right guidance. Tavares is known as a leader and a team-first kind of guy. As he gets better, which he will, so will the players around him.

    If your league doesn't include the plus-minus category or you don't mind the growing pains, Tavares is another franchise player who can help your fantasy hockey keeper team over the long-term.

    That's it for the top 25 forwards for your NHL fantasy keeper league. Stay tuned for Part 2: top 25 defencemen.

     

    You can follow Mark Hillier on Twitter.

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