Ah, the pivot. Any conversation about a deep, contending NHL team seems to hinge on the centermen the team boasts down the middle. So it goes in the NHL, so it goes for fantasy hockey. If you want to compete for the title, you are going to need a few good centers.
It shouldn't be hard to secure them. In fact, they are kind of hard to avoid at the top of drafts -- fifteen of the top 30 players on the ESPN rankings are centers, including six of the top 10. But what you don't draft early, you will be able to draft late, as 97 of the top-300 players have center marked as their position.
Here's a look at the center position from a fantasy standpoint.
For those who may be more familiar with fantasy football, I like to compare centers to running backs. (In my mind, wingers are receivers, goalies are quarterbacks and tight ends are defensemen.) Like running backs, the center position is deep, but extremely top-heavy. The position is dominant at the top of fantasy drafts and includes some values driven more by role than talent. Depending on your league setup, you probably want to come away comfortable with your starting centers, while also possessing a few dart-throws on the bench. There is nothing wrong with starting your draft out by picking center-center in the first two rounds if the value presents itself.
There will be injury and there will be underperformance at all fantasy positions, but the value for center can change with the stroke of a pen on the coach's depth chart. Stash a few players that have talent and are just waiting for their opportunity. Not all centermen are the catalysts for their line's offense, such as Sidney Crosby or Anze Kopitar. Many will rely on their deployment for value, such as Sean Couturier (being with Claude Giroux) or Sean Monahan (with Johnny Gaudreau). Is it going to be Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov playing the most with Alex Ovechkin this season? Role will determine which player is the better pick in fantasy.
Leagues that don't differentiate between the forward positions are still going to find themselves taking as many centers as wingers. Once you get outside the first few rounds, wingers catch up to centers. The top-101 players includes 21 left wingers, 24 right wingers and 38 centers for a near-perfect balance. Of course, you are going to want to adjust how you value centers if your league uses different scoring. Aside from the obvious faceoffs category that gives them more value, centers as a whole tend to fit the playmaker mold more than the sniper. That means more assists and points, but fewer shots and goals. That isn't true to the individual level, but as a broad generalization, it will stand up to scrutiny.
If you aren't picking some of the elite centers at the top of your draft, you'll need a couple of extra projects at the end of your bench who could emerge. Like running backs in football, you can handcuff players to roles or draft them with the hopes that a role opens up. It's a little more fluid, because a lot of centers will play on the wing, while some wingers can step in at center during an injury. That said, late in your draft is a fine time to stash a Derick Brassard, Adam Henrique or Tyler Johnson. Injuries ahead of them on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks or Tampa Bay Lightning depth charts would open up significant opportunities -- and their production will probably be more than passable in the meantime. You can also target players who have a chance to center a scoring line for the first time, such as Jack Roslovic, Elias Pettersson or Alexander Kerfoot, in the final few rounds just to see what develops through training camp and the preseason. There will be lots of free agents to grab when the puck drops in October.
Top-tier centers I like
John Tavares, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 5 overall, No. 3 center): I hesitate to use the word "desert" to describe the spot Tavares was in because he's had some quality linemates over the years with the New York Islanders, but perhaps "scrub land" is a suitable biome. Certainly, he has never played with the combination of quality linemates, power-play accomplices and depth-chart support that he will play with this season in Toronto. From the emerging sniper Mitch Marner, to Auston Matthews and William Nylander, to the quality depth provided by Nazem Kadri and the veteran presence of Patrick Marleau, this Maple Leafs team will offer Tavares surroundings like he's never had before. He's my favorite bet for 100 points not named Connor McDavid.
Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 18 overall, No. 10 center): With injuries plaguing two of Stamkos' past five seasons, it's understandable he gets a little lost in the overall shuffle. But I see a player with top-five overall upside and a floor that is still top 20. Stamkos is only 28 years old, and while his game changed a little last season (fewer goals and shots, way more assists), the end product was still elite for fantasy. The scary part is wondering what would happen if he put together new playmaker Stamkos with the old 60-goal Stamkos. Such an amalgamation would dominate all things fantasy. He'll still be with Nikita Kucherov, while Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde will offer plenty of distraction to opposing teams as secondary scoring. Stamkos is a fantastic value if he's your second center in drafts, but can be a C1 if you draft another position in the first round.
Midtier centers to target
Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins (No. 53 overall, No. 22 center): Take this injury discount to the bank. Yes, Bergeron is rehabbing groin surgery heading into the season, but he's expected to be better in time for the season to start. Bergeron finished with the best points-per-game pace of his career last season, scoring 63 points in 64 games. He missed those 18 games because of a lingering groin injury that they took care of with surgery this offseason. Bergeron is still a top-20 talent for fantasy and will return C1 numbers with health on his side.
Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets (No. 59 overall, No. 26 center): Scheifele's per-game statistics last season were easily equal to his 2016-17 season when he was a top-20 fantasy talent. I think the Jets' power play is getting better and I have no qualms about Scheifele's health going into this season. He's a C1 for me and I think 90 points are on the table. If you can get him as a C2 because of his ranking, that's a bonus.
Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres (No. 64 overall, No. 29 center): There is little doubt that Eichel's talent is off the charts. Despite his ankle troubles the past two seasons, he's managed 121 points in 128 games with 495 shots on goal. Of course, his team context has made him minus-38 in that span, but the Sabres did a lot of upgrading this offseason and the end result is supposed to make this team competitive. With a good team around him, Eichel could vault into the top-10 fantasy assets and never look back.
Honorable mentions: Brayden Schenn (No. 66 overall), Sean Couturier (No. 71) and Sean Monahan (No. 99) would be my other favorite targets to fill out your center spots before you get out of the top-100 players.
Nico Hischier, C, New Jersey Devils (No. 122 overall, No. 45 center): Hischier had a rock-solid rookie campaign under circumstances that leave him plenty of room to grow in Year 2. The biggest area of growth will almost certainly come on the power play, where Hischier put in a lot of minutes on the secondary unit last season but almost no time with the first one. A boost to the primary power-play group should tack on a ton of offense to what Hischier already provides at 5-on-5. He's still only 19 years old, but Hischier passed every test last season and looks ready to serve as the primary sidekick for Taylor Hall on and off the man advantage.
Late-round pick to consider
Jack Roslovic, C, Winnipeg Jets (not ranked): Bryan Little has been an adequate No. 2 center for the Jets since they were known as the Atlanta Thrashers. But he's better suited for a third-line role when the team is a true competitor. The Jets are in go-for-it mode right now, and rather than go into the playoffs with Little in the top six, they traded for Paul Stastny last season. Stastny is gone and the replacement for the second line -- which is stacked with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers -- will have to come internally. That basically leaves Little as the fallback, with hopes that Roslovic can earn the job. Roslovic was dominant in the AHL last season and held up just fine as a fill-in at the NHL level when called upon. He's 21 heading into this season and has one of the more plum jobs around seemingly for the taking.
Avoid in drafts at current value
Vincent Trocheck, C, Florida Panthers (No. 27 overall, No. 13 center): I think Trocheck maybe went underrated for too long and this ranking is some kind of overcompensation to make up for the past disrespect. Even when everything went beyond perfect for Trocheck last season, he was barely a C1 for fantasy and just slipped into the top 40 overall players. So, yes, he came close to this ranking level last season, but it's not like he's expected to take another step forward. In fact, if anything, Trocheck is more likely to step back. He's still the No. 2 center on the Panthers behind Aleksander Barkov. I'd love to have Trocheck on my team, but at a cost outside the top-50 picks. It doesn't look like he'll last anywhere near long enough for me to have shares, and I don't like the odds of him returning early third-round value.