Fantasy hockey preview: How to draft your centers

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If there’s an argument to be made to separate the forward positions in hockey for fantasy roster construction, the crux of that argument is made around the validity of the center position to stand on its own.

I’m not saying there is a good argument to be made; my stance is clear from previous positional previews that the best fantasy world is an all “F” forward fantasy world.

But I get it when it comes to centers. They are the position from which an offense is built. They are the foundation for roster construction in the NHL. It doesn’t matter how great your wingers are, a hockey team needs a one-two punch at the pivot position (or at the very least a very good one) in order to build an offense.

There is also the categorical element to argue, as centers are the only position other than the goaltender that get a statistic of their own. Yes, defense owns the blocked shot, but it’s not exclusive to them in the same way that a faceoff belongs to the centers.

But, as always, the flawed piece of the implementation for separated positions comes from the human element. There exists no superior listing of which position a player truly plays most of the time. We can count faceoffs to see who is a center and who is not, but trying to keep tabs on left wing or right wing, or which players are playing center enough to qualify … it’s a messy business.

Why, for example, does Leon Draisaitl get eligibility at LW? Let’s throw out the power play for this point, as Draisaitl and McDavid played more than 50% of their five-on-five ice time with each other last season. Draisaitl took 917 faceoffs at five-on-five, while McDavid was at the dot for 879. We don’t have an easy breakdown of which player was the “center” when they played together unless you had the time to eyeball all 469 minutes.

So why does Draisaitl get the LW tag and McDavid does not? Did McDavid play center more than Draisaitl? That’s what you see watching the games, sometimes. But try to find a way to quantify that.

For example, on Dec. 9, 2022, the Oilers played the Wild; Draisaitl and McDavid were both on the ice for 21 faceoffs. How many did each take? It’s unclear without digging through the play-by-play. McDavid had 23 faceoffs that game and Draisaitl had nine, so probably McDavid took most of those 21 when they were together.

Another example: On March 20, 2023, the pair were on the ice for 12 faceoffs. Draisaitl finished the game with 29 faceoffs and McDavid with 13. This one probably leaned the other way for which player was the “center” when they were together.

As I said, it’s a messy business.

Strategy

But it’s a business we have to wade through. And it’s important to do so.

Five of the top 10 players for fantasy points last season were eligible at center. For the top 100, it was 37 that can play center. Of the top 250 players in fantasy points, 30 percent of them are eligible at center — despite the center being one of five positions and one of six players on the ice at any given time.

Centers score fantasy points.

Part of the phrasing above is key though: “eligible” at center means that in ESPN.com leagues you can put them there. It doesn’t mean they are a center. But eligible is good enough when it comes to your roster construction.

There are some questionable cases, like Roope Hintz. Is he the center? Or is Joe Pavelski the center on the Stars top line? Pavelski took 689 faceoffs, while Hintz took 479 (while missing nine games). Should they both get the center tag? Neither?

There are also no-question cases, such as Carter Verhaeghe and his 41 total faceoffs last season. He should not be eligible at center, but you can put him there. There are others as well, such as Anders Lee or Troy Terry, and the game at ESPN.com doesn’t remove position eligibility once launched. Positions can be added, but taking them away in-season is not something we do.

Regardless of which players you opt to acquire for your fantasy team, the key thing with centers is to strike early and often. There is stability built in for those players that are true centers. They line up on scoring lines and they stay there all season. Teams seek a No. 1 and a No. 2 center and a rarely blessed with a No. 3, so there is little to no instability for their position on the depth chart. Oftentimes, the No. 2 center gets elevated as the fourth forward on a team’s top power-play unit, too, as their puck control comes into play.


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Offseason recap speedrun

Turning to this year’s rankings, let’s quickly recap some of the key offseason changes at center. As I said already, this position is all about organizational stability, so change is minimized at the position.

We lost a generational one in Patrice Bergeron, who was both fantasy-friendly and defensively all-world. And with both Bergeron and David Krejci retiring, the Boston Bruins have a lot of work to do in order to find a one-two punch down the middle.

The next biggest swing was the Los Angeles Kings acquiring Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Winnipeg Jets, giving them a counterweight to Anze Kopitar and leaving the Jets with a hole on the second line — likely to be filled by Gabriel Vilardi.

The Colorado Avalanche have brought on some projects to try and find someone to line up behind Nathan MacKinnon on the second line, including Ryan Johansen, after the Detroit Red Wings stole away J.T. Compher.

The Nashville Predators have a new look at the top with Ryan O’Reilly, while Josh Norris should be healthy for the Ottawa Senators and Sean Couturier should be healthy for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Logan Cooley, Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli, among other youngsters, will try to assert themselves.

Beyond all that, the landscape should be pretty similar to where we stood at this time last season.

Top-tier guys I like

Jack Hughes, C, New Jersey Devils: Heading into September, I have five of the top seven fantasy players eligible at center. Hughes clocks in at No. 13 overall, seventh among players eligible at center. But the sky is the limit here. The Devils wings got an upgrade by adding Tyler Toffoli, but also through virtue of Timo Meier having the full offseason as a Devil. Jack will also have his brother, Luke Hughes, on the defense this season. Jack is still only 22 years old and finished the 2022-23 season 18th for fantasy points.

Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins: I have him ranked at No. 40 right now, but haven’t yet really dove into what the addition of Erik Karlsson might mean for this Penguins team. Crosby finished the 2021-22 season 49th in fantasy scoring and ticked up to 27th last season, but at the age of 36 we should be building in some deterioration for each subsequent season. That said, adding the reigning Norris Trophy winner to an already-potent power play could be the key ingredients for a fountain of youth elixir — at least that’s surely what the Pens are banking on here.

Mid-tier guys I like

Nick Suzuki, C, Montreal Canadiens: The Habs didn’t do a lot of upgrading this offseason, but a relatively healthy squad will be an upgrade after the array of injuries suffered by the lineup last season. Suzuki stayed healthy, but didn’t have a lot of help on offense by the end of the campaign. Cole Caufield is primed for a proper breakout and Suzuki is locked in at the top of the lineup with him.

Josh Norris, C, Ottawa Senators: The Senators don’t have any question marks for their top six, losing Alex DeBrincat but gaining Vladimir Tarasenko in the offseason. Norris finished 85th for fantasy points in the 2021-22 campaign before an injury derailed last season for him. True success might hinge on Norris securing a role on the Sens power play, but the recipe is there for the baking.

Matt Duchene, C, Dallas Stars: Two years removed from a 43-goal, 86-point season, the Nashville Predators paid to be rid of Duchene. The Stars didn’t wait long to lock him back up at a lower rate. Now, Duchene won’t drive offense on his own, but on a quality team like the Stars he has potential to land in the right spot in the lineup to better replicate his 2021-22, rather than his mediocre 2022-23. He’ll be very available at fantasy drafts and I think he’ll have value on this Stars team that still hasn’t peaked.

Sleepers I will live and die by

Ivan Barbashev, C/W, Vegas Golden Knights: He has no right to be eligible at center, but he is. Running to the Stanley Cup on the top line helped pad Barbashev’s resume for the coming season. While a spot on the top power-play unit may not be in the offing, regular ice time with Jack Eichel can go a long way to securing consistent fantast value.


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Emergency back-end pick who might work out

Nick Schmaltz, C/W, Arizona Coyotes: There will be a lot of fantasy prospecting taking place on the Coyotes ranks this season. Logan Cooley and Dylan Guenther are looking for top-six action, and Matias Maccelli and Barrett Hayton are poised for better things. But don’t forget about the existing commodities that will be in the mix, including Schmaltz. For four seasons running, Schmaltz has checked in between 211th and 258th for total fantasy points. But he’s had stretches mixed in there — including in the 2021-22 season — where he scored as frequently as anyone in the game. Through in some youthful hope around him for the coming campaign and Schmaltz could be a fantasy asset.

Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season

Bo Horvat, C, New York Islanders: Sure, he finished 48th among all players for fantasy points last season. But most of that damage was done when Horvat was with the Vancouver Canucks. Horvat had 31 goals and 54 points in 49 games with the Canucks, but only deposited seven goals and 16 points in 30 games with the Isles. A healthy Mathew Barzal likely improves Horvat’s outcomes on Long Island, but not enough to consider him among the top tiers of centers.





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