Head-to-head category leagues are distinctively fun in that one goal, one shot, one single digit of a goals-against average, can end up nailing down that particular field and, in a best-case scenario, the weekly victory. In the absence of weighted points or formulas, the game’s category giants can indeed serve as fantasy royalty. Through that scope, here’s a view of those who shine in one aspect of the fantasy game while, mostly, maintaining a strong enough presence otherwise. Since I’m including categories from ESPN’s Standard H2H game and otherwise, managers in Roto leagues and points leagues should also find the following useful enough.
Beyond the recognized hotshots – Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak – there are a host of other prolific goal-scorers from which to choose in the early stages of your draft. Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen “quietly” scored 55 this past season, while Tampa’s Brayden Point busted through the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career. Ever-soaring Sabre Tage Thompson could very well do the same in a healthy, full campaign. After losing most of last season to injury, Josh Norris is again in position to fill the back of the net for the Senators. While, in the “best shape of his life” after refurbishing his diet, Andrei Kuzmenko intends to better his mark of 39 with Vancouver. I also like Alex DeBrincat to rebound and light it up again in his new digs in Detroit.
Not that you need the hot sell on this character as a fantasy asset, but Nikita Kucherov is an assists machine. Tossing in another 83 this past season – not hit personal best, mind you – the Lightning winger was only beat out in this category by Edmonton’s top superstar. Toronto’s Mitch Marner similarly functions as a perennial gem in this category, exceeding the 60-assist mark on three occasions to date. Blues forward Pavel Buchnevich is my top sleeper pick; as soon as the 28-year-old can string together a full, healthy season – this year, maybe? – he’ll pot 50. While Calgary’s Nazem Kadri qualifies as my favorite bounce-back candidate in the field of serving up helpers. On the blue line, 10 defensemen exceeded 50 assists in 2022-23, including Josh Morrissey and Mikhail Sergachev, with Quinn Hughes leading the charge.
Would it surprise you to know that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins collected 53 points on the power play this past season, accounting for half of his equivalently noteworthy total of 104? A remarkable feat, even when considering his on-ice company (McDavid, Draisaitl) with the extra skater. As a later-round draft selection, Toronto’s John Tavares merits a little extra love in fantasy category leagues that reward such special teams’ production. The experienced center remains poised to compete again on a top unit with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. I’m also all over Taylor Hall as a new Blackhawk alongside rookie center Connor Bedard (and whoever else elbows their way onto that No. 1 assembly) in Chicago. Defenseman Quinn Hughes again presents as a champion power-play commodity with the Canucks.
All else being equal between prospective draftees, J.T. Miller boasts a little extra swagger in fantasy leagues that reward scoring short-handed. Tied with teammate Elias Pettersson – who you’re drafting earlier for reasons beyond earning points on the penalty kill – for the league lead with nine in 2022-23, Miller is a proven performer in this category.
If requiring another reason to prioritize drafting Nathan MacKinnon over other fantasy heavy-hitters, consider that the elite Avalanche forward finished second in shots on net in 2022-23, despite playing only 71 games. That works out to a whopping 5.16 shots/contest, even bettering standout league-leader David Pastrnak. Toss in his 1.56 points/game, and MacKinnon emerges as a delectable third option once Edmonton’s two virtuosos are off the table. In fact, the 28-year-old actually equaled Leon Draisaitl in earning an average of 3.3 points/contest in ESPN’s standard fantasy competition this past season. His formidable haul of shots certainly helping out in bolstering that figure.
Devils forward Timo Meier is another shot-happy standout who still may be kicking about once other fantasy targets are secured. In great company on a team headed in the right direction, New Jersey’s highest-paid forward is in superb position to pace out at a point/game for the first time in his career – a solid fraction of those points counting as goals.
Jack Hughes, F, New Jersey Devils
Brady Tkachuk, F, Ottawa Senators
Alex Ovechkin, F, Washington Capitals
Roman Josi, D, Nashville Predators
Noah Dobson, D, New York Islanders
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This is where defenders like Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb earn their fantasy keep, despite contributing less in production-driven departments. After leading the league in blocked-shots this past season – and it wasn’t close – with 244 through 77 contests, Martinez offers fantasy managers a significant edge in nailing down this category, week in and out. Meanwhile, McNabb provides a stronger one-two fantasy punch by blocking more shots than anyone aside from his aforementioned teammate, while also providing an excessive number of hits. If shopping for assets who kick in a little more across the fantasy board, New York’s Jacob Trouba and Montreal’s David Savard serve as such standouts.
The more they play, the greater the chance they have at earning those precious victories. Avoiding tandem teams – yes, I’m well aware of what the Bruins accomplished last year, not an easily repeated trick, I promise – is key to collecting as many victories as possible. It also helps if the team is good. That excludes a group of otherwise decent fantasy netminders, like Anaheim’s John Gibson. Left over is a quality crew led by Colorado’s Alexander Georgiev and Jake Oettinger of the Stars. Both are going to play and win a ton. You also can’t (likely) go wrong with Igor Shesterkin, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Juuse Saros (if this current iteration of the Predators figures out how to score enough). My top slightly off-radar pick is Joonas Korpisalo. The former Blue Jacket/King is a strong netminder and the Senators are better.
The more they play, the greater the chance they have at earning those ultra-precious shutout victories. In addition to the aforementioned group, Ilya Sorokin deserves special mention after shutting out the opposition six times in 2022-23, despite winning only 31 games for the Islanders. Sorokin’s 2.33 GAA and .924 SV% also helped managers compete in those respective categories.
Members of top tandem teams are more valuable in this category, in that quality starts beat quantity. One terrific performance from such a solid part-timer could result in a stellar enough SV% to help win your week. Think Adin Hill in Vegas, Boston’s Jeremy Swayman, or even Maple Leafs’ dark horse Joseph Woll, if he ends up snatching a good number of appearances away from Ilya Samsonov. Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson – and his .931 SV% in 2022-23 – shines as premiere netminding fantasy asset with the wherewithal to also win an impressive number of games.
Similarly to save percentage, there’s space for solid tandem-team members in the fight to post as low a goals-against average as possible, as long as they compete for quality teams. The quality of collective defense out front matters significantly more. Carolina’s gaggle of quality netminders appeals here, led by Frederik Andersen, and followed by Pyotr Kochetkov. L.A.’s Pheonix Copley sports appeal in this category, along with wins, as the Kings’ new go-to No. 1. The Wild’s Gustavsson – a top-tier fantasy netminder all around, in my mind – should also allow fewer goals than 90% of the rest of the league. Of the NHL’s fantasy elite, only Gustavsson and Linus Ullmark wrapped up 2022-23 with a GAA of 2.10 or less.
Most of your favorite, top-tier blue-line assets are going to rock out this category, along with checking other coveted boxes. To illustrate, last year’s top-eight in ATOI – logging at least 25 minutes/contest – included Cale Makar, Rasmus Dahlin, Erik Karlsson, Miro Heiskanen, and Roman Josi. Beyond the best, Canadien Mike Matheson is worth considering, after logging 24:27 and 0.71 points/game in 2022-23. And don’t forget about Zach Werenski as a healthy-again, minute-munching asset, with additional fantasy upside in Columbus.
Following Patrice Bergeron’s retirement from the game, Sidney Crosby leads the pack as top projected faceoff-winner for 2023-24. Calgary’s Elias Lindholm also rates an extra long look in category leagues that comprise wins in the dot, as does Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner as a mid-tier fantasy asset. And if debating between selecting Nico Hischier and another player of perceived equal fantasy mettle not named Hischier, draft Hischier. Not only is the Devils’ (still) young center just getting going altogether, but he could near 1000 faceoff wins this season as well.
The Tkachuk brothers misbehave enough to warrant heightened attention in leagues that prize a penchant for earning penalty minutes. As does Florida defenseman Brandon Montour, who amassed 107 in the regular season, and continued to spend a good deal of time in the box throughout the playoffs. Due back sometime in November after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, Montour could serve as a valuable roster plug once healthy. After an initial lackluster showing following his trade to Tampa, troublemaker Tanner Jeannot – determined to make more of an impact this fresh round – also merits monitoring in his first full campaign with the Lightning.
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