Which centers should you target this season?


This space is my annual opportunity for a call to action to end the separation of fantasy hockey forward positions. Too long have centers, left wingers and right wingers been confined to their own slots on rosters. The NHL coaching staff is wise enough to look past any labels that come with a player and realize they aren’t just whatever position that was indicated on a contract they signed. Forwards can play in many positions.

In all seriousness, I’ve done the number-crunching in previous iterations of this article and the fact is that there is no discernible difference in the statistics you will be drafting from your average center versus your average winger in most standard leagues. For the purposes of building your fantasy hockey team in default ESPN leagues, you do not need to trouble yourself with whether a player starts his shifts in the middle of the ice, on the left or on the right. In ESPN default leagues, all forwards are simply listed as forwards. Which is the correct way to run a fantasy hockey league.

Position eligibility among hockey forwards is not like it is in other sports. The puck is bouncing everywhere and most forwards are pretty dynamic in their deployment. But more than that, coaches will use them in different ways depending on the shift. Heck, their line assignments can change during a game multiple times, dictating their use in different positions in each occasion. Most NHL forwards play all three traditional positions at different times in a season, game or even period.

And, because of these blurred lines between positions on the ice and the tendency of teams to list every young forward as a center just because they don’t know any better, translating the actual position a player most often plays to the actual fantasy game is imperfect. If position eligibility is to be believed, Nick Suzuki is going to be really tired this season, as he’s the Montreal Canadiens only center for their top three lines, according to the fantasy game. The opposite problem exists for the Nashville Predators, who boast nine of 12 forwards from their projected opening day lineup that play center.

Unless your league counts faceoffs or another statistics that causes separation, there is no need to focus on the position a player is labeled with.

Strategy

All the above is not to say that a center isn’t different than a winger. They absolutely are and they are absolutely the crux of a winning NHL hockey team. Just like the talking pundits love to repeat, NHL teams need a talented one-two punch at center to win.

But, if you are playing in a standard league with just forward as the position, you don’t need a center to win. Wing versus center? The end result for the fantasy points is a wash. Of the top 200 fantasy point earners from last season, 46 of them are eligible at center in ESPN leagues and they averaged 101 fantasy points. Of the same group, 71 are eligible at winger and they averaged 98 fantasy points. That’s a pretty small margin of difference considering those same players combined for more than 11,600 total fantasy points.

There are a lot of fantasy leagues that still grandfather in a separation of the positions though. And that means you may be in the unenviable position of having to complicate your fantasy draft by worrying about centers and wingers (or, heaven forbid, left versus right wing). There are some things to consider if this is the case.

Most importantly, there is much less volatility at the center position than the wing in the NHL. Teams are always looking for that pundit-pleasing pivot that leads the offense, but finding players to slot next to them is an easier task. During the course of a season, you will see wingers ebb and flow from the scoring lines with the phases of the moon, but it usually takes an injury to make a team use a new center. When drafting, that should incline you to give a little preference to centers early, as fewer will emerge during the campaign.

There is also a positional scarcity to be concerned with if your league breaks things down to left wing and right wing, but we’ll cover more of that in the wingers preview.

Remember that any kind of statistical analysis of centers versus wingers is hamstrung by the very human process of sorting these players into categories. Leon Draisaitl is considered a winger in fantasy leagues, yet he was ninth in the NHL in total faceoffs last season. Drake Batherson, with his 13 total faceoffs, is considered a center.

If your league still does separate the positions, send your commissioner this article. And this one. And this one too.

Top-tier guys I like

Mika Zibanejad, C, New York Rangers (ESPN rank: 21, my rank: 13): In the past three seasons, he’s finished 15th, ninth and 24th in fantasy points among skaters. Considering his horrific start to last season (two goals, four assists in his first 19 games), his finish among the top 15 was incredible. Also considering Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko with both be a year older and wiser in this offence’s top-six forwards, Zibanejad may be ranked low even at my No. 13 spot.

Tyler Seguin, C, Dallas Stars (ESPN rank: not ranked, my rank: 26): He’s going into his age 30 season, so he’s not a spring chicken anymore, but there should be plenty of gas left in the tank, especially for a sniper. He doesn’t even need to return to the Seguin of old to be among the top scorers in the league, as I’ve put him down for 2.2 fantasy points per game (FPPG) next season; For context, he’s bettered that by a fair margin in three of his past five healthy seasons. The Stars offense evolved last season in his absence, but there is still room for a Seguin-driven scoring line and his role on the power play.

Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (ESPN rank: 103, my rank: 34): He’s averaged 2.48 FPPG during the past six seasons and we can chalk up his 2.02 last season to the absence of Nikita Kucherov. During 2018-19 and 2019-20, Stamkos averaged 2.61 FPPG over 139 games. I’ve given him a conservative 2.33 FPPG for the coming season and that still puts him top 40 – assuming he can avoid pulling a Stamkos and getting injured. There is that to keep in mind, as he’s missed a decent chunk of three of the past five seasons.

Mid-tier guys I like

Bo Horvat, C, Vancouver Canucks (ESPN rank: 77, my rank: 59): He isn’t as flashy as Elias Pettersson and doesn’t have the same upside, but for consistency and reliability, I prefer Horvat among the Canucks centers. The team managed to upgrade its scoring lines again with the addition of Conor Garland and the arrival of Vasily Podkolzin, so there are more than enough weapons to be shared on two lines.

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils (ESPN rank: 238, my rank: 73): We saw some sparks from Hughes in the early going last season, but he wasn’t a fantasy factor by the end of the campaign. But the Devils are looking to get competitive again and have brought in some weapons to change the game. Most importantly, Dougie Hamilton will give the team a viable power-play quarterback for the first time in Hughes’ short career. I’m banking on a quasi-breakout campaign from Hughes. He’ll have further to go in the future, but I do think he’s a season-long fantasy commodity for the present.

Sleeper I will live by and die by

Alex Wennberg, C, Seattle Kraken (ESPN rank: not ranked, my rank: 232): With Yanni Gourde injured to start the season, Wennberg gets his first chance to be a No. 1 center since 2016-17. That was a while ago, admittedly, but a 22-year-old Wennberg led the Blue Jackets top line with Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to collect himself a breakout 13 goals and 59 points. His ice time would start dropping the next season with the arrival of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Wennberg never came close to that total again. But the door is wide open here, the same way it was for William Karlsson with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The Kraken have some weapons on the wings, including Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle. Offseason shoulder surgery for Gourde — Wennberg’s only competition for the top center role — should mean he has some time to establish himself.

Emergency back-end pick who might work out

Nolan Patrick, C, Vegas Golden Knights (ESPN rank: not ranked, my rank: not ranked): Chemistry-wise, there is no arguing Chandler Stephenson fits in well at the top of the Knights depth chart. But skill-wise and traditional center-wise, he is not what you would normally expect at pivot for a Stanely Cup-contending team. Patrick, while bringing with him a fantastic pedigree prior to his time in the NHL, has shown very little in the league to date. Injury wiped out an entire season and he looked lost on the Flyers last year. But somewhere deep down, he is still the dominant two-way center from the WHL that made the Flyers take him second overall in 2017. I do not expect much here, but if there is one place in the NHL where a bust center has an opportunity to find his game, it’s with the Golden Knights.

Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season

Roope Hintz, C, Dallas Stars (ESPN rank: 33, my rank: 45): I still like Hintz as a fantasy asset, as evidenced by my No. 45 overall ranking for him, but I don’t want to pay more than that and would ideally pay less. The return of Seguin as an offensive catalyst doesn’t likely help Hintz, in fact, it could hinder him. I don’t expect the offensive to mainly feed through the line of Hintz, 37-year-old Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson again this season. There will still be some power-play work and scoring here, I just don’t see Hintz matching last year’s explosion — which he would need to do to earn a No. 33 ranking.



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