The Neutral Zone has officially wrapped. It’s time to move up the ice and head for the net.
Similar to Blue Line Buzz, Left, Right & Center (or LRC, for short) will be a weekly look at the top centers and wings trending up, slipping back, and under the radar. Every once in a while, I’ll throw in a special edition for a change of pace. We’ll break down the players by each of the three forward positions. Some may qualify at multiple spots – check your league to verify.
Starting off well in fantasy can be a confidence boost. Picking up a bunch of early points in rotisserie or notching a couple wins in head-to-head is a good way to announce oneself to the other owners. You should be familiar with the big names, so let’s start the season with a few non-obvious forwards to have in your lineup right now.
Evander Kane, Sabres – Off-ice troubles aside, Kane possesses the talent to excite. Injuries have also slowed one-time No. 4 overall pick, but the recent returns (20 goals and 35 points in 61 games with 91 PIM while averaging 21 minutes) look better than average. And the ex-Jet has sparkled in exhibition contests alongside Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo. If Kane can stay healthy and focused in real life, he’ll definitely reward you in fantasy.
Ryan Spooner, Bruins – A natural center, Spooner has excelled in the preseason on the left side. At 24, he’s already experienced four full pro seasons and took a huge step forward in 2015-16 (49 points in 80 games, including 17 on the power play). As a result, Spooner has been entrusted with more minutes and added responsibility – a second-line gig at even strength and possibly top billing on the man advantage. And look at the poise under pressure. He’s probably only playable at center in most leagues, but should add LW eligibility after a few weeks.
Matthew Tkachuk, Flames – There’s a lot to love about Tkachuk, who like his dad, combines a slick scoring touch (30 goals, 77 assists in the OHL) with the right amount of toughness (80 PIM). That he fell to No. 6 in the draft appears to be fortuitous for the Flames, who can add the former U.S. NTDP star to an already impressive youth core. Maybe Tkachuk doesn’t make it past Game 10, but he’s a lock for Opening Night and will be given all the offensive opportunities he can handle.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – Like Danish compatriot Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg, Bjorkstand is a young stud within an offense ready to break out. But who needs skill when you can score a goal through the back of the net?. He notched 227 points in his final two WHL years and followed it up in the AHL last season with 29 in 51, then 16 in 17 during the playoffs, including the Calder Cup clincher. The 2013 third-rounder looks set to start in the top six and eventually assume a place on the power play.
Charlie Coyle, Wild – The power forward is coming off three nondescript NHL seasons, but has improved steadily in each one (30, 35, 42). If he can stay among the top group of wingers, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder could bump his point totals into the 50s and assert his physical dominance on opposing defenses. Currently listed on the top line, he would be at home on any of the first three. He may have picked up a slight knock last week, but should be ready to go once the first puck drops.
Joonas Donskoi, Sharks – After quietly coming over from Finland last summer, Donskoi exceeded expectations (11 goals, 25 assists) and rewarded management for its patience (after all, he was drafted way back in 2010). He enters this season looking to build on a solid playoff run (12 points, including the winner in Game 3 of the Cup Finals) and is set to continue his rapport with Logan Couture, which should be bolstered by the addition of Mikkel Boedker on the left side.
Frans Nielsen, Red Wings – Dylan Larkin may hog the headlines down the middle in Detroit, but Nielsen is more than capable in earning some print on his own. There’s no doubt that Wings fans (and many others) will miss Pavel Datsyuk and all the skills he brought to the rink every night. The former Islander will never replace the retired Russian superstar, but he can adequately fill the scoresheet, having averaged 51 points the last three years. Does this rush remind anyone of vintage Magic Man?
Paul Stastny, Blues – It may prove difficult to pick out Stastny among the awesome talent up front in St. Louis, but that soon may change. In fact, the former U.S. Olympian has been spotted on the first power-play unit in recent weeks. The scoring has declined since arriving from Colorado, but that was partly because he wasn’t fully fit. If he can stay injury-free, Stastny might once again be included in the discussion of top second-tier centers.
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers – Zibanejad has played in Ottawa all this time (five seasons, 281 games, 151 points), but does he have what it takes to hack it in on Broadway? The early reports hint to the affirmative, as he has already meshed well with a few Ranger forwards; it looks like he’s set to start out as the second-line center (or maybe even the top line) between Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider, possibly portending a bust-out for all three players.