By Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With the 2020-21 NHL regular season coming to an end, Yahoo Fantasy takes a look at what the first round of 2021-22 fantasy hockey drafts could look like, courtesy of RotoWire's Jason Chen.
There's not much debate at the top of the list. Where it gets dicey is after the first four or five picks, where league settings will affect player rankings. There are categories and position scarcity to consider, and throw in an expansion draft and a flurry of offseason moves, the list can be very fluid.
But if there's anything we learned this season, it's that the league is flush with scoring talent, there are potentially huge opportunity costs to drafting defensemen early, and goalies are voodoo.
Still, it's never a bad idea to plan ahead, so here's a very early look at next season's top 12:
1. Connor McDavid, C, Oilers
If it hasn't been made abundantly clear, McDavid is the best player in the league. Entering Monday, McDavid's 68 assists alone would rank third in overall scoring. This was like back in the day when fantasy leagues permitted managers to only draft Wayne Gretzky's assist or goal totals. I've run out of words to describe how utterly insane McDavid's offensive production has been this season, and regardless of what you think of his two-way play, his scoring has been so otherworldly anything other than unanimous wins for the Hart and Lindsay trophies would be grounds for an inquiry.
Long story short, he's the consensus No. 1 pick, and it's not like the Pacific Division is going to be that much tougher than the one-off North Division.
2. Auston Matthews, C, Maple Leafs
Since entering the league, Matthews has scored 198 goals, the second-highest total during that span. Only Alex Ovechkin has scored more with 205 goals, but Matthews' career is really, only just beginning while Ovechkin will be 36 when the 2021-22 season starts.
Matthews has also done it with frighteningly good efficiency; he's just one of 20 players to record more than 1,000 shots during that span and his 16.2 S% is the best among them, a clear sign of an elite finisher.
3. Leon Draisaitl, C, Oilers
There should be some debate about who to take third, but you can't go wrong with Draisaitl for two reasons: first, he's legitimately good, ranking second in the league with 1.49 P/GP and he won the Hart, Lindsay, and Art Ross Trophies last season; and second, he gets to share the ice with McDavid and play a lot of minutes because the Oilers' forward depth is so weak.
4. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Avalanche
You could make a strong argument for MacKinnon at No. 3. He's the best player on arguably the league's best team, but Draisaitl should get the edge because the Avs play in a much tougher Central Division and MacKinnon doesn't get to play as many minutes. The Avs' offense flows through MacKinnon, but they have such a balanced lineup they don't need him to do everything.
5. Mitch Marner, RW, Maple Leafs
Look at the list of top-10 scorers in the league and you'll notice there are three pairs of teammates. There are four if you pair Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, but he ranks 16th. It's rare to see any one player carry a team by himself nowadays, though that's not a shot at Marner, who's an elite player in his own right. Playing with Matthews obviously helps, but the last three seasons, Marner trails only McDavid in primary assists with 118 in 195 games, according to evolving-hockey.com.
6. Mikko Rantanen, RW, Avalanche
The sixth slot is where a lot of debate will begin but, as you may have noticed, the top-six slots are taken by the top-three duos in the league. It's a product of coaches keeping pairs together and rotating a third wheel until they figure out the right combo. Rantanen gets the edge because his line with MacKinnon and Landeskog is tried, tested, and true. According to Natural Stat Trick, Rantanen ranks third in xGF/60 in all situations (min. 500 TOI), behind only MacKinnon and Landeskog. When healthy, Rantanen has 40-goal potential, which already puts him in the top 2 percent of the league.
7. Artemi Panarin, LW, Rangers
It's just hard to argue against Panarin's track record. Not many wingers can carry an offense on their own, but the last four seasons are enough proof. He's scored 322 points during that span, and he's hardly had much help, outscoring the second-highest scorer on his Blue Jackets and Rangers teams by an average of 17 points. Despite the front office turmoil, the Rangers are still an up-and-coming team loaded with talent, and presumably scoring goals will be easier once Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere develop into stars.
8. Brad Marchand, LW, Bruins
Marchand developed from a complimentary two-way winger to an elite scorer, and it's pretty remarkable he did so later in his career; his age — he turned 33 on Tuesday — is really just a number and not a sign of potential decline. Putting aside all biases against his antics, since becoming a point-per-game player in the 2016-17 season, Marchand trails only McDavid and Draisaitl in points scored and is one ahead of Patrick Kane even though he's played 21 fewer games. Marchand's been carrying the Perfection Line as Patrice Bergeron's offense declines and David Pastrnak tries to be more consistent from game to game.
9. Patrick Kane, RW, Blackhawks
Kane is another player whose offensive production still puts him in the elite tier despite his age (32). He's played a ton of minutes for the young Blackhawks and likely will continue to do so, and the future should be even brighter as Alex DeBrincat, Pius Suter and the new wave of talent continues to improve.
10. Aleksander Barkov, C, Panthers
Depending on your league settings, Barkov could rank much higher because he's by far the best in the dot among centers on this list. It certainly feels like the Panthers outperformed this season, but Barkov's play has been excellent by almost every metric, and among forwards with 500 TOI in all situations, he ranks ninth in xGF/60 and 17th in CF/60, according to Natural Stat Trick, and that's without Jonathan Huberdeau on his line for much of the season.
11. Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Lightning
Vasilevskiy is the only non-forward to make this list because he's heads and shoulders above everyone else in a position fraught with risk. The Atlantic Division should be tight at the top but the bottom three teams — Buffalo, Detroit, and Ottawa — are expected to be bad to mediocre, and that gives Vasilevskiy a lot of easy matchups. Goalies are difficult to predict from season to season, but he's been the shining example of consistency and should be the first goalie off the board.
12. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Lightning
We really won't know what we'll get from Kucherov until the playoffs begin because he sat out the entire season due to injury. But we still have to respect the former scoring champ and MVP, and he'll still be very much in his prime next season at 28. Kucherov may have claimed this spot out of reputation alone, but it's potentially a great value pick if managers can draft him late in the first round or top of the second round.
Honorable Mentions: Sidney Crosby, C, Penguins; Sebastian Aho, C, Hurricanes; Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Panthers; David Pastrnak, RW, Bruins; Mark Stone, RW, Golden Knights; Alex Ovechkin, LW, Capitals