Unlike in prior seasons, where I feel the need to spell out my argument with the fallibility of dividing wingers and centers into separate positions in fantasy hockey, the statistical output from the 2021-22 season has left me with a mic-drop level stat.
Folks, your faceoff leader from the 2021-22 campaign is listed as a winger. So is the player that finished third.
If they aren’t exclusively centers in the NHL despite taking the most faceoffs, then who really is?
We’re good? We can move on? Good.
Whether it’s correct or not to do so, many fantasy leagues still do require you to draft and deploy players at center or wing, instead of just forward. So there is still some merit in looking at how the position is distributed in our early projections.
But even if your league doesn’t make that separation (good on you), there are some takeaways here when it comes to analyzing the position.
The biggest one is volatility and consistency. Centers are the engine for scoring lines. They drive the value. Successful NHL teams build their lines from the center and work their way out. You get a one-two punch down the middle and the rest of your scoring lines will work themselves out.
That focus in the league brings some consistency to the fantasy game. Whereas a winger can shift up and down the lineup, a team’s first- and second-line center will more or less be solidified for the season in the early going. Outside of injuries or other significant shake-ups, the players slotted in to play pivot on the top two lines will be there for the balance of the campaign.
This is both an argument for drafting your centers a little earlier than your wingers, but also perhaps for drafting more centers than wingers if your league doesn’t differentiate between the positions for your active roster.
Sure enough, despite there being twice as many winger positions in the NHL as centers, we have 38 eligible centers and 45 eligible wingers inside the top 100 in the latest ranking.
Further evidence? Of the top 300 fantasy points earners across the 2021-22 season, 91 were centers and 135 were wingers. And remember, on paper, there are two wingers for every center, so that gap should be wider if all things were created equal. The gap is even smaller for the top 100 point earners, with 37 centers and 43 wingers.
If your league does still separate the positions, don’t forget there are some clear discrepancies to get some additional centers into your lineup. This is, of course, if you buy my argument about their consistency over wingers.
Leon Draisaitl, Elias Lindholm, Claude Giroux, Ryan Hartman and Mikael Granlund are what you might call a center in winger’s clothing. They are eligible at wing in the ESPN game, but are clear-cut centers in reality. After all, Draisaitl is the one who led all players in faceoffs last season. When did he have time to arguably earn wing eligibility? If you are going to suggest that, despite leading the league in faceoffs, his time spent on the ice with Connor McDavid is enough to give him a position on the wing, then the logical conclusion of that argument is that every center in the league should be wing eligible and this whole discussion then devolves into a snake eating itself.
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Top-tier guys I like
First, we’ll establish some tiers here, since there really are only two players in the top tier, everyone knows who they are and you can flip a coin as to your preference.
McDavid and Auston Matthews might outproduce the center in third place by 25 percent. They almost did last year and could easily do it again. They are your top tier.
After that there is a spot you could cut a tier off after Sidney Crosby that includes Nathan MacKinnon at the top. Not all of this tier is created equal and I’d much prefer to have MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov or Mika Zibanejad on my team than take some of the risk that comes with J.T. Miller repeating, Jack Hughes taking a step or Jack Eichel recovering fully.
But there is one player in this group that stands out.
Sebastian Aho, C, Carolina Hurricanes (ranked 37th overall, 12th among centers): It’s hard to believe Aho just turned 25 this summer. Still very much in the heart of his prime, the Canes’ top center now has Brent Burns on the point for the power play and Max Pacioretty already locked in as a February lineup booster. With his fantasy points per game in a rising trajectory in every season he’s played, Aho is the right age and in the right spot to push even higher and turn in a season that could earn top-10 overall value with only modest improvement to his output. And even if he doesn’t, you’ll still be getting top-30 overall value as his floor.
Mid-tier guys I like
Mid-tier definitely depends on your league size. Roope Hintz is my 13th-ranked center, which means he’d be a second center in a 12-team fantasy league, but overall he still clocks in at 50th among all skaters. That doesn’t feel like mid-tier yet.
For shallower leagues, I will offer up these morsels as mid-tier options.
Kevin Fiala, C, Los Angeles Kings (ranked 64th overall, 21st among centers: No, he’s not a center, he just plays one on TV. Fiala took all of 15 faceoffs last season (losing 11 of them), but he’s still eligible for the role on your team. But that’s not the reason I like him. The Kings have all the pieces for multiple scoring lines this season and Fiala is in position to find himself on the top one — however it shakes out. The fact that Fiala pushed past 2.00 fantasy points per game last season while getting fewer than 50 percent of the looks on the team’s top power-play unit is mighty impressive. Give Fiala a clear path to top ice time and we should see new career highs.
Trevor Zegras, C, Anaheim Ducks (ranked 98th overall, 36th among centers): With so much focus on him, even as much as to garner a share of the EA Sports video game cover this year, it’s kind of a shock to realize he didn’t do much for fantasy last season. From a standpoint of fantasy points, you would have been better off last season with Ivan Barbashev or Clayton Keller. The Ducks had a lot of turnover in their top six, with Zegras’ main linemates from last season — Sonny Milano and Rickard Rakell — both out of the picture now. Zegras will have quality linemates to select from, whether it’s Adam Henrique and Troy Terry or Mason McTavish and Frank Vatrano. But there is little doubt the offense will orbit around him this season, which is in stark contrast to his rookie campaign.
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Sleepers I will live and die by
This is a strongly worded section head that, if taken literally over the years, would mean I’m writing this from the grave.
But the idea is to take a low-percentage shot on a player no one else is on that I can logically get behind having a big year. The point is to highlight someone in a good spot that you might not be thinking of otherwise and present an argument for them.
With that said …
Kent Johnson, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (ranked 299th overall, 96th among centers): I know I’m not alone on this one. Johnson is currently landing on a roster in 3.5 percent of ESPN leagues heading into September. The logic is dead simple: The Blue Jackets have secured two of the most talented goal scorers in the league on the wing and are desperate to find the appropriate center to complement them. Boone Jenner has been serviceable-if-unspectacular with scoring line roles over the years and Jack Roslovic hardly showed us much with ample opportunity last year. The Jackets have Johnson and Cole Sillinger, both drafted in the first round in 2021, to serve as centers to build around. It may not be this season that Johnson breaks through, but it also might be.
Emergency back-end pick who might work out
This selection should be like the sleeper above when it comes to notoriety, but should also be all about a solid floor for production — with less heed paid to the ceiling.
Dylan Strome, C, Washington Capitals (ranked 253rd overall, 85th among centers): Heading into September on rosters in fewer than 10 percent of ESPN leagues and with an ADP (average draft position) just marginally ahead of the basement that’s tracked (227.5, with 230 essentially equating to undrafted), Strome is a sneaky-good pick for the coming campaign. Why shouldn’t he get a chance to play center with Alex Ovechkin? The Capitals will be without Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson to start the campaign, which means all bets are off when it comes to constructing the lineup.
Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season
This being the fourth iteration of this preseason positional guide we’ve done at ESPN, it’s only dawning on me now just how hyperbolic the section heads really are.
Am I going to avoid this player in “every” draft? No necessarily. There is always a jumping in point that can be reached to make even the most doubtful of doubters hold their nose and make a pick.
But I don’t think he’ll fall far enough for that situation to arise.
J.T. Miller, C, Vancouver Canucks (ranked 14th overall, fifth among centers): What a dream season Miller put together in 2021-22. He was the third-best center after Matthews and McDavid, notching 216.8 fantasy points. It’s just too much to expect that again. His ADP going into September is 19.7, which requires him to be selected ahead of Barkov, Steven Stamkos, Kyle Connor and David Pastrnak. While I let the statistics help guide the rankings and still have him slotted in at 14th overall, I would never take him there. Miller posted 2.71 fantasy points per game last season, which is just a massive spike past the 1.93 and 2.32 he managed in the seasons prior. I’d much rather be debating the merits of taking Miller versus John Tavares or Roope Hintz, but I don’t think he’ll ever fall that far.
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