If given the option, you should not differentiate between centers, left wings and rights wings in your fantasy league. Grouping all forwards into one position is the default option for ESPN leagues, and it's the better way to play the game. There, I said it.
Why? The line has become too blurred. Many players take faceoffs but don't play center. Many wings play a traditional center role on the ice. Many teams use a strategy that deploys players into various positions. Some lines have two "centers" and decide who will play the role based on the situation.
But the biggest problem is that positional eligibility is a flawed system when it comes to fantasy hockey. There are no clear rules for the roles, and positions can change. It's definitely a much bigger problem when it comes to left versus right wing, and I could see an argument for having a league that separates centers and wingers. But overall, the best way to lean in to the problem is to eliminate it.
Because when it comes right down to it, the output from the positions isn't that different.
Let's take a sample of all forwards who scored at least 40 points last season and see if we can draw any conclusions. There are 118 players who potted 40 points. The mean average of their total faceoffs is 437, so we will use that as a cutoff to separate the players into two groups. There are 48 with more faceoffs than the mean and 70 with fewer.
The combined average stat line from the players with more faceoffs is 23 goals, 35 assists and 58 points. The combined average stat line from the 70 players with fewer faceoffs is 23 goals, 31 assists and 54 points. Different? Yes. But different enough to not be considered marginal? Four assists certainly feels marginal.
Now let's take the same 118 players and separate them by center eligibility in ESPN leagues. Of this group, 67 are eligible at center, and 51 are not. The average stat line of the eligible centers is 22 goals, 35 assists and 58 points (rounding here, so that doesn't add up exactly, I know). That's very close to the faceoff leaders from the above example. However, this time, the averages of the winger-only group are 23 goals, 29 assists and 52 points. That's six fewer assists but one more goal. Maybe that's more than marginal -- but not by much.
An important reminder: The eligibility system for any fantasy league is flawed. This group of eligible centers includes Patrick Kane, Filip Forsberg and Artemi Panarin, who combined for three faceoffs won last season. Heck, Panarin has taken 23 faceoffs in his career.
The human element of position eligibility further levels the playing field for any discernible difference we might be able to find by breaking down statistics.
What did we learn here? Is there enough of a difference to think something can be gained by targeting centers versus wingers? I think the overall lesson is that a forward is a forward is a forward -- if you look at the players purely from a statistical basis for the major categories.
Where we start to see some separation is when you get past the goals, points and special teams. There is a clear bias toward wingers for hits and a clear bias toward centers for blocked shots, though blocked shots are more of a bonus given that most forwards get so few of them. But mixing those categories into your fantasy team requires a deft touch, as it's rarely the right move to plug Ryan Reaves and his 316 hits into your roster and call it a day. Even that separation of centers and wingers shouldn't be a huge part of your draft day plans.
If you can't change your league's settings, you have to roll with the punches. That might mean drafting some players into your center slot and other players into your wing positions.
For the reasons named above, you don't need to overthink this. A forward is a forward, and unless your league uses faceoffs as a scoring category, you can approach the forward group the same way, regardless of roster requirements.
There is enough multiple-position eligibility among the top players in the league that you can target stats and skill, turning your attention to the position requirements for only your last few picks. Don't think too much about the position a player has unless he doesn't fit into your lineup. Target overall production, and pivot to thinking about positions when your roster starts to fill up.
What I will say is that centers are less fluid on the depth chart than wingers. It's easy -- mostly because there are twice as many of them on a line or team -- to move wingers around on the depth chart for spark. But not many teams have a No. 3 center worth elevating in position.
With that in mind, it might be better to scoop up your centers a little earlier in the draft than your wingers because centers are less likely to emerge midseason. We can say with confidence that right now, barring injury, we know the No. 1 and No. 2 centers who will keep that role for 23 of the 31 NHL teams this season. It's likely that the other eight teams will have things locked down fairly early in the season.
For that consistency alone in leagues that separate the positions, I think a slight focus on locking down some good centers early is a wise move. But I don't think it's a deal-breaker. It's something to keep in mind, especially if you know your leaguemates don't trade a lot. Most of the quality centers will be on someone's roster coming out of the draft.
Top-tier guys I like
Do we need to say more here than simply "Taylor Hall?" Eichel is a game-changer on the ice, and he has been doing it with an OK supporting cast until now. Hall brings an MVP-caliber asset to Eichel both at even strength and, perhaps more importantly, on the power play. Eichel's 27 power-play points last season were good, but moving up another tier in that department takes him into the top five overall fantasy players. With Hall, Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin leading the man advantage, the Sabres should move up from 20th in the league in power-play conversion.
Forced apart from Mark Scheifele for the bulk of last season because of the injury to Bryan Little, Wheeler should be back on the wing this year, thanks to Paul Stastny's return to Winnipeg. That's the role that provided him with back-to-back 91-point seasons before the previous one. Although he's no spring chicken for the NHL at 34, he's the type of physical player who should remain effectively elite for a season or two. I'm leaning closer to top-15 status for Wheeler, as opposed to outside the top 25.
Midtier guys I like
Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets and Taylor Hall, C/LW, Buffalo Sabres (No. 40 and No. 42 ESPN ranking):
This is an extension of my liking of Eichel and Scheifele. It goes without saying that I also expect their partners in crime to perform better than projected.
I don't have any massive insights into Kopitar here, other than to point out that the Kings will be a better team with some fresh blood and a set coach this season. Coupled with the fact that Kopitar was a top-40 fantasy player last season, I don't see a reason to bump him outside the top 50. He and Dustin Brown have a rhythm together, and Alex Iafallo complements the duo. Only two other lines generated more shot attempts for (Corsi) last season. Even if the only fresh blood is Gabriel Vilardi for a full season (and not Alex Turcotte or Arthur Kaliyev), the Kings' secondary scoring will be improved and will take some pressure off.
Even though he played the role last season, this will be the first campaign Henrique enters with the No. 1 center role cemented. Ryan Getzlaf outpaced him for total power-play time last season, but it should be Henrique leading the forward ranks this season. Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell have made for ideal linemates, and the trio should rank among the improving lines in a second season together.
Sleeper I will live by and die by
The Golden Knights have their original dynamic trio intact in the form of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The departure of Paul Stastny this offseason leaves a golden opportunity for Glass to slide up the depth chart as the new center for Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, two dynamic wingers who love to put the puck on (and in) the net. Glass has been on the NHL fringes for a couple of seasons now, so it's easy to think he's a bit older, but he's still only 21 and waiting for his first real opportunity. This should be the season he gets the chance to flash his No. 1 center chops. (Sorry, I know the depth chart will look different, but I still consider whichever line has Pacioretty and Stone to be No. 1 here).
Emergency back-end pick who might work out
The No. 1 and No. 2 center for the Wild from last season have been cleared out, and the fresh options are by no means of No. 1 center pedigree. Could Marcus Johansson do a passable job? Sure, he has filled in on scoring lines in the past and done well. But passable isn't what the team will be looking for. Would Nick Bonino fit the role? Not really. He's settled in as one of the better No. 3 centers around. Does Eriksson Ek have the potential to be a No. 1 center? He might. That was certainly what he was touted as in his prospect days. This is especially exciting with the expected and long-awaited arrival of superstar prospect Kirill Kaprizov, who has the potential to be a game-changing winger out of the gate.
Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season
I love that Miller blossomed with more responsibility on the Canucks' top line, but I don't think I'm ready to take him as a top-25 player after one season. Elias Pettersson makes his linemates special, and Miller fit right in with Pettersson and Brock Boeser. But everything went absolutely perfect for Miller to score like he did last season, and taking him as a top-25 asset means you expect another season of perfection. There are several names ranked behind him whom I'd add to my team before I would consider Miller. He's not a complete bust by any means, but I won't have him on any of my teams ranked this high.