Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's finally time to draft your fantasy hockey roster and the difficult decisions start right from the get go. Who do you select at No. 1?
OK, the obvious answer is Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby. Certainly not a bad option, but is it the best one?
Here's what you have going for you if you go with "The Kid." Last season he led the league in scoring with 104 points (36 goals, 68 assists). He's the favorite to win the Hart Trophy (7/4 according to Bodog), an award he's won twice before, including last season.
But Crosby doesn't come without risk. Although he played 80 games last season, he's averaged just 61 games a season over his career and 44.75 games over the past four seasons. He's already had to work through the offseason to rehab from a nagging late-season wrist injury.
But if not Crosby, who else would you, could you choose?
Below I'll offer up four other possibilities and evaluate them.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh -
Crosby's teammate is a prolific scorer who has averaged more than a point-a- game in seven of his eight NHL seasons. Last season he posted 72 points (23 goals, 49 assists) in 60 games. It's the 60 games that is the problem. He hasn't been much more durable than Crosby, averaging 64.7 games-per-season over his career, so if you are going to gamble on a Pittsburgh center, it might as well be the best one. Plus Malkin has already missed part of training camp with an undisclosed injury. Cross out Malkin.
John Tavares, New York Islanders -
Tavares has all the talent in the world, but not the supporting cast that Crosby and Malkin have in Pittsburgh. Plus he's coming off a knee injury suffered in the Olympics and hasn't played a meaningful game since February. Tavares had already accumulated 24 goals and 42 assists in 59 games before the injury and was on his way to career-best totals until then.
Also concerning is a plus/minus rating that has yet to see the plus side of the ledger on a team with two new goaltenders while both Crosby and Malkin have averaged plus double-digits over the past three season. Scratch Tavares.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay -
Stamkos is the next great center and an elite goal scorer. Unfortunately, he played just 37 games last season due to a broken leg. He did return last season and into the playoffs, but obviously wasn't healthy. He says he is almost 100 percent now.
Over the past three seasons he's scored 114 games in 167 games. That's a much higher scoring percentage than Crosby. At 24-years-old he's just hitting his peak. Of concern is that he won't have Martin St. Louis on his line this season as the winger now plays for the New York Rangers. On the other hand he will likely be playing with the very skilled Jonathan Druin (79 assists with Halifax last season) after the 19-year-old returns from a thumb injury. Stamkos is a viable option, though playing alongside a rookie is a bit risky.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington -
We saved the best for last. Why is Ovechkin the best? Because unlike the four players already talked about, Ovechkin is not a center. He's the best winger in the business. High-scoring centers are available around the league, but wingers who lead the league in goals are a rare breed. Ovechkin led the league in goals last season (51) and in the shortened 2012-13 season. In fact, he's scored 422 goals in 679 games. He's also led the league in shots on goal in eight of his nine NHL seasons, another fantasy category.
There is one glaring problem with choosing Ovechkin above Crosby. It's an ugly -35 rating from last season. That's a number that simply can't be ignored because it's so bad that fantasy owners could lose the category because of it. On the other hand, his five-year average plus/minus is plus 5.6. So the question is why was he so bad last season? It's not exactly a secret that Ovechkin isn't the best defensive player in the world, but in this case I believe it was a fluke number based on the rest of his teammates having trouble scoring in 5-on-5 situations. If his teammates start scoring again and the goaltenders play up to expectations then Ovechkin's plus/minus should return to "normal."
Given a return to average production levels by his Capitals teammates, Ovechkin is a viable fantasy option ahead of Crosby because of his added value as a winger.