The ESPN default game doesn't delineate between the forward positions. I believe this to be the correct format, as the NHL has evolved to a place where many centers are wings and many wings are centers. While some players will stick to a position and play there for the majority of their shifts, there are many more who don't (and don't even get me started on left wing versus right wing).
But we all play within the confines of what our fantasy leagues have established, and many still break down the forward positions into center, left wing and right wing.
What does a center do for your fantasy team? Nothing different than a winger will do in the standard categories. Eight of the top 20 forwards in both goals and assists were centers, while the remaining 12 were wingers. That's about what you would expect since there are twice as many wingers on the ice at any given time.
What about other categories? Eight of the top 20 forwards for power-play points were centers; Ten of the top 20 for plus/minus; Three of the top 20 for penalty minutes; and 14 of the top 20 for average time on ice. You can see we get some discrepancy in the PIM and ice time categories, where wingers tend to be more penalized and centers are on the ice more.
You want productive forwards on your fantasy squad and you want to fill the positions required of you, but you don't need to target "centers for assists" or "wingers for goals." Just concentrate on targeting the "players for stats" and only focus on hitting those position requirements at the back end of your draft. In the early to middle rounds, don't sweat position.
What is different about center and makes it an attractive position for your team to target is the stability. While wingers can slide up and down a depth chart with ease and whim, not many centers are demoted or promoted during a season.
Barring injury, we can say with confidence that the No. 1 and No. 2 centers for almost every NHL team are settled now and will stay that way for the bulk of the season. I have questions for the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, but would be comfortable telling you who the top two centers for the other 25 teams will be next April.
Of course, an extension to that logic is that if injury or personnel changes do occur, there is a clear opening for a player who is not fantasy relevant to become so in a hurry. While you should target steady, consistent centers near the top of your draft, upside prospects and down-the-depth-chart centers are great to stash on your bench.
Centers like Cody Glass, Sam Steel, Tyler Johnson, Nick Bjugstad and Henrik Borgstrom are just some examples of a player who may not have fantasy relevance if all goes well for his respective team, but should injury occur, they would be vaulted into a position of prominence.
Top-tier guys I like
John Tavares, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 21 ESPN ranking): I have Tavares firmly in my top 10, with him flirting with my top five overall for fantasy this season. Mitch Marner or no Mitch Marner, Tavares' role as top dog for the powerful Leafs offense is established. Tavares was a dominant fantasy hockey asset well before he was playing with Marner and will remain so even if this stalemate doesn't end. Tavares worked well as a one-two punch with Auston Matthews last season, with the duo combining their power on the power play. The offense from the blue line gets an upgrade with the addition of Tyson Barrie. And Tavares still gets to work with two of William Nylander, Andreas Johansson, Kasperi Kapanen and Alexander Kerfoot until Marner is back and/or Zach Hyman is healthy.
Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers (No. 22 ESPN ranking): You can almost feel Barkov's eventual explosion as a superstar fantasy player coming. Setting aside Joe Thornton's campaign as a 23-year-old, Barkov, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon are all coming off the best season by a center at that age since the 1990s. MacKinnon, however, is slotted in as the No. 2 overall player on the ESPN rankings, while Barkov is down at No. 22. For two players the same age, with similar stats and an arguably better team context for Barkov, the gap is too wide. I won't quibble with MacKinnon as a top-three pick, but I don't think Barkov should be at the back end of the second round, either.
Mid-tier guys I like
Taylor Hall, W, New Jersey Devils (No. 41 ESPN ranking): Yes, Hall remains eligible at center in the ESPN game. An MVP one-year removed, Hall has certainly had his fair share of injuries, but he's back on the ice again following knee surgery after he was limited him to 33 games last season. While you have to build in some discount for the related risk, down in the 40s is way too much by a half.
Elias Lindholm, C, Calgary Flames (No. 65 ESPN ranking): Did you know that Lindholm took more faceoffs last season than Sean Monahan? While it doesn't seem as much as a given because Monahan has been tied to Johnny Gaudreau for seasons now, Lindholm is an essential element to the Flames top line. While its a fool's errand to bank on the plus-30 repeating, Lindholm's other stats should hold or improve from the career highs he set last season.
Mika Zibanejad, C, New York Rangers (No. 101 ESPN ranking): The reinforcements have arrived! Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko alone offer an enormous upgrade to the Rangers depth chart - even if neither of them line up with Zibanejad for regular shifts at even strength. And don't forget Jacob Trouba offering an improvement to the power play. Zibanejad finished last season ranked 59th overall on the ESPN Player Rater, and I think that improves this season.
Sleeper I will live by and die by
Phillip Danault, C, Montreal Canadiens (No. 215 ESPN ranking): Quietly, but firmly, Danault has made himself a staple at the top of the Canadiens depth chart. Only six players in the NHL won more faceoffs last season. While this role keeps him separated from Max Domi at even strength, there is enough talent to support two lines of scoring for the Habs. He's unlikely to usurp power-play time either. While all this may sound negative, the recipe added up to a top-150 finish on the Player Rater last season.
Emergency back-end pick who might work out
Colin White, C, Ottawa Senators (not ranked): It doesn't matter how scorched the earth is for an NHL team, goals are going to happen. We saw it last season with an equally depressing Senators depth chart when Matt Duchene poured in 58 points in 50 games before the trade deadline. White turned in a perfectly respectable full-season debut with 41 points in 71 games, while playing a minimal role on the depth chart until late in the campaign. He's re-upped for a six-year contract extension and basically inherits the role of No. 1 center for the club. Thomas Chabot and, possibly, Erik Brannstrom offer a bright future on the blue line and the Sens will surely cobble together enough wing talent to flank White. Take him at the end of drafts ... just beware the plus/minus.
Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season
Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 5 ESPN ranking): Nothing against him, but not this high. Unsigned contract aside, Point would have to improve upon his 41 goals, 92 points and plus-27 from last season. He's in an ideal spot to take a run at those numbers again, but not to blow past them and return top-five value. If he's there at the start of the second round, I'll start thinking about it. But 20 power-play goals on an almost seven percent increase in shooting percentage for the season doesn't scream repeatable.