The Center-Only Eligible Player: Rightly or Wrongly Undervalued?

by Rick Roos on July 6, 2016
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  • The Center-Only Eligible Player: Rightly or Wrongly Undervalued?

The center-only eligible player: rightly or wrongly undervalued in fantasy hockey?

 

As with my column about embracing or avoiding Band-Aid Boys, the stakes here are arguably more significant than a normal Cage Match column, as more players are directly involved, so let’s dive in!

 

What is positional eligibility, and why/when does it matter in fantasy hockey?

 

The vast majority of leagues require that poolies form their rosters while factoring in positional requirements for skaters. In some cases, that means just forwards and defensemen, while in others its centers, wingers, and defensemen. But most often (to mimic actual NHL rosters) it’s centers, left wings, right wings, and defensemen. It’s also common for forwards to be “eligible” at more than one position in fantasy (again, the idea being to mimic “real life” hockey), in which case they can be slotted in line-ups at any of the positions for which they’re eligible, with the possibilities being C/RW; C/LW; LW/RW; or even C/LW/RW.

In leagues where positions matter, multi-positional eligible forwards are coveted due to roster flexibility. Beyond that, they can give poolies an advantage in certain scoring categories; for example, a center that also has LW or RW eligibility can beneficially provide FOW production from LW or RW.

 

Why do center-only eligible forwards traditionally get a bad rap from poolies?

 

Most notably, center is the deepest position among fantasy-worthy forwards. According to nhl.com, the 25th highest point total among centers in 2015-16 was 58, versus 46 for the 25th LW and 47 for the 25th RW. It’s a similar story for the 50th highest point totals by position (47 for C, 32 for LW, 31 for RW) and the 100th highest (27 for C, 9 for LW, 7 for RW). Also, among forwards, centers have the lowest percentage of fantasy-worthy players eligible at multiple positions, as looking at average draft position for 2015-16 Yahoo leagues, 34 of the top 89 center-eligible players were eligible only as centers, versus 24 of the top 92 LW eligibles being LW-only and 25 of the top 83 RW eligibles being RW-only.

Armed with this knowledge, it would seemingly make sense not only to wait to draft centers – opting instead to stock up on limited commodities (i.e. wingers) – but also, when it comes to drafting centers, trying to first grab ones eligible at RW and/or LW. But here’s the key question – do these approaches make sense? Are center-only eligible players wrongly being given short shrift in fantasy? Should they be more highly valued, or at least less undervalued? That’s what I’m here to try and find out.

 

Gathering data, and seeing what its tells us

 

So – in leagues where forward positions matter, we know the reality is center-only eligible players don’t have as much value as centers that are otherwise as productive and also eligible as a RW and/or LW. The key words in that sentence, however, are otherwise as productive; if somehow center-only eligible players are, in general, providing enough added production beyond what multi-positional centers bring to the table, then I think we can agree that would tilt the scales to an extent where center-only players should be more favored than they are now or at least no longer be looked upon as poor fantasy values.

The good news is we can examine data to help us reach a conclusion on this issue. How? By scrutinizing those top 89 drafted centers and seeing how they fared in key fantasy hockey categories, comparing the performance of the 34 center-only players with the 55 who qualified as C/LW, C/RW or C/LW/RW. The way I’ll do this is dividing the 89 into groups according to their average Yahoo draft position, separating center-only eligible players from the multi-positional players within each group. Here’s the breakdown:

 

Group

Center-Only players in group

Multi-positional players in group

1 (i.e., drafted 1-18)

8

10

2 (i.e., drafted 19-36)

6

12

3 (i.e., drafted 37-54)

6

12

4 (i.e., drafted 55-72)

8

7

5 (i.e., drafted 73-89)

5

12

 

To obtain more reliable data, I removed those who didn’t play at least half the season (i.e., 41 games). That subtracted three players, all from Group 4, which is why that group has only 15 in it. Also, for all comparisons (except one), as I do in Cage Matches I used per game averages; that way the results were a better measure than just totals, which of course would be heavily influenced by games played.

Important Note – For ease of reading, I’ll refer to centers eligible only at center as “COEs” (center-only eligible) and centers who were also eligible at RW and/or LW as “MPEs” (multi-position eligible).

 

Comparison #1 – Games Played

 

Group

Average Games Played for COEs

Average Games Played for MPEs

1

73.3

73.0

2

70.3

74.2

3

75.5

75.2

4

72.3

76.0

5

74.0

76.3

 

For every group, MPEs averaged more games played than COEs. This was mostly because although there were nearly twice as many MPEs as COEs, it turned out MPEs and COEs both had the same total number of players (15) who appeared in fewer than 70 games in 2015-16.

 

These results surprised me, as my thinking had been that also playing wing potentially exposes MPEs to chippier play along the boards and thus a higher risk of getting hurt. Then again, although COEs might play a somewhat more finesse-based game, they’re also perhaps more vulnerable to open ice hits and to groin injuries as well. Either way – there was a small but still clear edge for MPEs over COEs.

Looking at possible fantasy takeaways, for the most part COEs and MPEs drafted in Groups 3-5 missed fewer games than those in 1 and 2. That perhaps supports the idea of less elite players perhaps trying to play through minor injuries, and/or top players benefitting from a few extra “bumps and bruises” days off here and there. It’s also in keeping with the recent trend of teams who’ve already clinched playoff spots resting their more elite players for the last game or two of the season.

 

Comparison #2 – Goals

 

Group

Average Goals Per Game for COEs

Average Goals Per Game for MPEs

1

0.342

0.349

2

0.272

0.280

3

0.318

0.284

4

0.216

0.216

5

0.178

0.225

 

This was closer than I’d have imagined, as I figured COEs would be less inclined to score goals (focusing instead on dishing pucks). But it turns out COEs equaled or bettered the per game goal outputs of MPEs in two different groups. And if we add the rates of all groups, the gaps between MPEs and COEs is fairly small. Thus, for this category, the data helps bolster the value of COEs at least somewhat as compared to preconceived notions.

 

In terms of fantasy takeaways, although rates didn’t decrease in a straight line from group to group, there was a clear drop from the first group to the second for both MPEs and COEs, validating that top goal scorers are indeed a very limited fantasy commodity among centers and should be drafted early. In a similar vein, the rate for the top group of COEs was nearly twice that of the bottom, while the drop off was less steep for MPEs but still pronounced. Long story short, decent goal scorers among centers are likely tough to find after the top 50 eligible at the position have been picked.

 

Comparison #3 – Assists

 

Group

Average Assists Per Game for COEs

Average Assists Per Game for MPEs

1

0.506

0.534

2

0.485

0.382

3

0.450

0.380

4

0.364

0.364

5

0.454

0.342

 

This was a flip-flop of goals, as MPEs won or tied in two groups. To me, this was more surprising than COEs doing decently in goals, as one would figure assists are the bread and butter of COEs, including pass-first COEs like Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro. This is a big strike against COE value.

 

Interestingly, unlike with goals the results did drop with each group, with the exception of a jump in Group 4 for COEs (likely owed to only five players in the group). Also, although COEs only had more assists per game in three of the five groups, there was a very small drop off from their rate for Group 1 versus Group 5, which seemingly validates that poolies can safely wait in drafts before trying to fill their team’s assists quota.

 

Comparison #4 – Shots on Goal

 

Group

Average SOG Per Game for COEs

Average SOG Per Game for MPEs

1

2.589

3.094

2

2.220

2.403

3

2.406

2.353

4

1.811

1.968

5

2.209

2.116

 

Much like with goals, I figured this would be a slam dunk for MPEs, as some of those same pass-first COEs also tend not to be inclined to shoot the puck very much. But when the dust settled, COEs held the edge in two groups, albeit not the exact same two groups as goals (3 &5 here, 3 & 4 in goals), equating to a somewhat better than expected showing for COEs.

 

What does this tell us for fantasy purposes? With the highest rates – especially for the MPEs – being in the top Groups, it validates the principle that to score more (like top drafted players do) centers need to shoot more. But we also can notice the drop off for both COEs and MPEs wasn’t too steep from Group 1 to Group 5, suggesting SOG can be addressed later in drafts if need be.

 

Comparison #5 – Power Play Points

 

Group

Average PPP Per Game for COEs

Average PPP Per Game for MPEs

1

0.242

0.315

2

0.270

0.230

3

0.258

0.149

4

0.152

0.154

5

0.211

0.158

 

Although the edge here goes to COE, the data was all over the place. Somehow COEs in Group 2 and Group 3 fared better than Group 1, while Group 5 was quite close to Group 1. The data for MPEs was more straightforward, with a big drop initially and then similar numbers.

 

In terms of fantasy takeaways, this seems to prove it’s more difficult to reliably draft for PPP. Moreover, it underscores the need to dig deep when doing PPP research, as I was surprised how many top drafted COEs and MPEs (e.g., Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Nathan MacKinnon, T.J. Oshie, all selected, on average, among the top 26 center-eligible players) not only didn’t fare well in this category for 2015-16 but also had a history of not so stellar PPP performance. In short, when it comes to drafting centers for this category, do your homework, but also cross your fingers.

 

Conclusion – COEs are rightfully undervalued in fantasy

Of course I’m not suggesting this data is 100% reliable or conclusive; after all, it’s based on fewer than 100 total players, only factored in a year of statistical data, and all groups comprised 5-12 total players. That being said, the results from the five category comparisons suggest that, overall, it’s likely proper for poolies to continue to assign center-only players comparatively less value in fantasy hockey leagues where positional eligibility matters.

But remember – as with any fantasy advice, your mileage may vary, such as based on your league’s scoring categories, its roster sizes and requirements, as well as the drafting/trading tendencies of your fellow GMs. Also, with any “rule” there are exceptions; for example, last season a number of center-only players provided excellent value in relation to their draft spot, like Jason Spezza (on average, the 41st center eligible player drafted in Yahoo leagues), Mark Scheifele (51st center eligible player drafted), Paul Stastny (78th), and Mikko Koivu (84th) to name a few.

As always, the best advice is to draft and trade to build a fantasy team with the best mix of “sure things” and players with sound cost vs. value. Hopefully this column has helped you in that quest for 2016-17, and beyond.