2021 Fantasy hockey draft - guide to wingers

Goals, shots, hits. Everything Alex Ovechkin does on the ice scores points for your team. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you read the positional preview for centers, you'll know the initial message will be the same. Don't separate the forward roster spots in your league into different positions. In the center preview, we looked at how little difference there is in the key statistical categories between centers and wingers. And also discussed how positional eligibility is somewhat arbitrary and far from an exact science in today's NHL.

This message goes double for those considering splitting right wing and left wing.

While I maintain making forwards one roster position for your fantasy league, I admit there is room for having centers and wingers separated in some circumstances. But please don't take the extra step to separate left wing and right wing. The terms are nearly meaningless in the NHL with the exception of the five seconds preceding and following a face-off. And even then, players will line up according to the situation and who they are on the ice with in the moment. There are no tethers keeping players on the left or right side of the ice.

I'll present the statistical argument in a moment, but first, keep in mind, the positional eligibility assigned to players is a human effort that is flawed. Eligibility comes often from handedness and contract/roster details posted by the team. It usually has little to do with the on-ice product and depth chart. Not that it would be much better if it did, with players moving from spot to spot on the ice.

Again, the argument here is to lean into this imperfection in the system and make your league use forwards as a position as opposed to center, right and left wing. Or, at the very least, just center and wing, which is a little better when it comes to eligibility.

Let's take the same 118 forwards that scored at least 40 points last season that we used in the centers preview. Of them, 88 are eligible at a wing. Of those, 67 are eligible at left wing, 56 are eligible at right wing and 35 are eligible at both. Furthermore, 32 of them are only eligible at left wing and 21 are only eligible at right wing.

I've listed five different ways to group these 88 players (left, right, both, left only and right only). The average stat lines produced by those five groups all fall in the same range of 22 to 24 goals, 30 to 33 assists and 53 to 57 points. In other words, no matter how you break them down, the average production is pretty close to being on par last season. (And also really close to how the centers performed as a group -- a forward, is a forward is a forward.)

But just to double-down on this point with the most basic of splits: the 67 players eligible at left wing averaged 23 goals, 32 assists and 55 points, while the 56 players eligible at right wing averaged 23 goals, 31 assists and 54 points.

So, if it's not too late, have a chat with you leaguemates about turning those LW, RW and C spots into F for the coming season. And, if they balk, consider a compromise of W and C to start.


Separating the wings into left and right is a product of the same bygone era that awarded positive fantasy points for penalty minutes. Oh, don't get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for racking up those PIM and miss the days when fights would be a strategy in your league. But they are gone. Many systems, including ESPN.com, have now done away with PIM as a standard category because it just doesn't make sense anymore -- from both a social and statistical standpoint. The tide has turned and fighting in hockey is almost washed away.

Fantasy hockey players from those same early days would do well to also cast aside the tradition of left and right wing. But not everyone is ready for change, so you do need to be prepared if your league manager is making you fill both a left and right wing roster position.

As evidenced by the above breakdown with the left and right wingers from last season, there are more players eligible at left ring (67) than right wing (56) among the top scorers.

Furthermore, of the players projected by ESPN.com to score 120 fantasy points next season, 18 are eligible at left wing and 14 are eligible at right wing.

One further: the player eligible at left wing projected to rank 50th in fantasy points is projected for 99.6 fantasy points, while the same player for right wing is projected to score 97.2 fantasy points.

So, yes, things do tip slightly in favor of the port side. But it's not enough for the boat to be at risk of capsizing. There isn't enough difference to focus on one or the other in your draft.

From a strategy perspective, the best thing you can do at winger is make sure to load up on some pet projects or sleepers. While there isn't a lot of turnover at center during the season, wingers can change from game to game, or even shift to shift. There are twice as many as centers and they are what a coach uses to change up lines and provide a spark in the offense.

While the majority of teams have a No. 1 and No. 2 center already penciled in, you wont see many teams with all four scoring-line wingers set in stone. And, you'll find even fewer with each players' specific spot on those scoring lines already established.

You can afford to take a chance on drafting some wingers a little later, miss your mark and still find a replacement during the season. It's not quite a revolving door, but they do come and go.

Top-tier guys I like

Alex Ovechkin, LW/RW, Washington Capitals (No. 4 ESPN ranking):

The change to the default ESPN.com scoring system for fantasy hockey might as well be called the "Ovechkin system." Scoring, shots on goal, special teams and hits drive the points, and Ovechkin is heroically productive in those categories. Age be damned with this scoring change, as it puts fantasy production squarely into Ovechkin's wheelhouse.

David Pastrnak, LW/RW, Boston Bruins (No. 30 ESPN ranking):

Too much injury discount -- especially with the start of the season still in flux. Pastrnak is a top-three player when healthy and the amount of time he will miss remains undetermined. As for the situation on the ice: There will come a day when the strength of Patrice Bergeron fails to make his linemates among the best in the league, but today is not that day. Will the absence of Torey Krug hurt a little on the power play? Yes, but only a little. Pastrnak is still a part of what might be the best line in hockey and he'll get the points deserving of a much higher pick -- even if he does miss a couple of weeks.

Mid-tier guys I like

Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames (No. 82 ESPN ranking):

Last season in this space, I listed Gaudreau among the top-tier guys I liked. The bloom has withered a little, but I am still backing the Gaudreau camp. It's just cheaper to do so this season. His connection with his linemates remains strong and intact. He is 27 years old and popped off for 99 and 84 points in the two seasons prior to last year's sub-par performance. The Flames expect more, Gaudreau expects more and he is going to get the opportunity to provide more. I'd take him around pick 60 to get my discount and expect him to be among the top 50. Two seasons ago he was top 30.

Brady Tkachuk, LW/C, Ottawa Senators (No. 102 ESPN ranking):

This is way too low for what Tkachuk supplies. He'll remain the focal point of a rebuilding offense that should take a step forward. He shoots a ton, plays special teams and likes to throw body checks -- all things that collect fantasy points. Last season, he outscored Anze Kopitar and Elias Lindholm in this format. I think he should be ranked closer to No. 70 -- and that might be conservative.

Evander Kane, LW, San Jose Sharks (No. 119 ESPN ranking):

You see a theme here? A player with a solid scoring touch at the top of his team's depth chart for special teams with a propensity for shots and hits. Kane fits the description. Logan Couture missed a key month and half last season that likely had an impact on Kane's totals -- whether they would have still been playing on a line or not. Either way, Kane should be locked in with Couture this coming season.

Sleeper I will live by and die by

Robert Thomas, C/RW, St. Louis Blues (not ranked):

Even if Vladimir Tarasenko wasn't poised to miss the start of the season, I don't see a world in which Thomas doesn't find himself on a scoring line for the Blues. I know the "production" statistic, which is basically points divided by time on ice, is rather obscure to look at, but I like it to measure which players getting minimal ice time deserve more. I often look through for players who are playing in most games but fewer than 15 minutes and still hang around on the leaderboard (which is mostly just full of the top players). Jakub Vrana led the group last season, but Dominik Kubalik, Adam Gaudette and Thomas were right behind him. Of the four, only Thomas will be presented an opportunity to move up the depth chart at the start of the season.

Emergency back-end pick who might work out

Kasperi Kapanen, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins (not ranked):

I feel like it was 2014 when the idea first entered our heads that Kapanen might make a fine winger for Sidney Crosby one day. It took a few years for him to find his way back to the Penguins, but here we go with Kapanen poised to play wing for either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin this season. For a player with almost zero special teams time and often punching up from the Leafs third line, Kapanen showed quite well in his time in Toronto. While there is still some debate about him having a role on the top power play, he should shine much brighter as a locked-in member of the top lines.

VII. Bust concern I am avoiding in every draft this season

Leon Draisaitl, C/LW, Edmonton Oilers (No. 1 ESPN ranked):

This isn't about Draisaitl paying back his draft slot as No. 1 overall, as I think there's a better than good chance he does. However, I'm less confident he will do so than I would be with Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid or even Alex Ovechkin. While Draisaitl and McDavid will propel each other to glory on the power play, it is very much looking like the days of them consistently lining up together at even strength are coming to an end. Even last season, they were split up about halfway through the year and remained apart. It was better overall for the Oilers and will arguably continue to be as long as they have the pieces to ice two solid lines instead of one super scary one. And the question we need to answer as we look at rankings that have Draisaitl and McDavid at No. 1 and No. 2 is: How many times did Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both turn in top-10 fantasy seasons in the same year? Once? Maybe three times you weren't disappointed by what one them did when the other popped off? But having them both play on separate lines and turn in a top-five or even top-10 season? It was one time and it was more than 10 years ago. If there not on the same line, I'm not putting all my eggs in the same basket as two centers on the same team.