Geek of the Week: Centers to Target in Bangers Leagues

by Ben Burnett on September 29, 2019

The center position presents an interesting value proposition in any fantasy draft. The deep player pool means a greater number of higher-end centers are available deeper in drafts than any other position group. Based on Yahoo’s average draft ranks, of the first 50 picks in most drafts this year, 18 players are center eligible. Cs are also the most plentiful position-group on the waiver wire, meaning drafters can often wait several rounds before grabbing their first C-only player, and still stock up quite well at the position.

However, there are also a number of players who are going underdrafted because of their single-eligibility at center. For the last time this pre-season we’ll look at centers worth targeting in banger leagues. Because so many quality centers are available, the players I list here will be owned in most leagues, but this column will explain why it’s worth reaching a bit to make sure you get them. Whether it’s because of their excellent category coverage, or because they are just plain underrated, these players are worth reaching for a few rounds ahead of where they’re currently being drafted.

Dylan Larkin (Yahoo Average Draft Position 122, C 32; Fantasy Hockey Geek rank 23, C 8)

The first piece of advice I’m going to impart here isn’t even specifically for bangers league managers, it’s for every fantasy hockey player: Go out and draft Dylan Larkin. Seriously. Last year Larkin’s average time on ice jumped by two full minutes. He became one of the most heavily-deployed forwards in the NHL, playing nearly 22 minutes per night.

With that jump in ice time, Larkin put up 32 goals, 73 points, and 287 shots in 76 games. I wouldn’t count on a further bump in deployment this year, but I would expect more time next to Anthony Mantha, his partner during the second half of the season, when Larkin played at a point-per-game pace. The Red Wings’ power play also has plenty of room to improve. Larkin’s 15 power-play points were a career-best in 2019, while playing over 55 percent of the team’s minutes. He will get all the opportunity he needs to best those numbers in 2019-20, though there is risk that the Red Wings will be unable to provide him enough support to put together high-end power-play production.

While Larkin isn’t a perfect play in peripheral leagues, his production is competent in most categories. Over the past three years Larkin has averaged 60 penalty minutes and 76 hits per 82 games. Unlike many of the players discussed over the past few weeks in this column, Larkin won’t necessarily win you weeks with his banger-league prowess, but he’s being so underdrafted it’d be a disservice not to mention him here.

Mika Zibanejad (Yahoo ADP 92, C 27; FHG 36, C 11)

The New York Rangers got a steal when they turned a 28-year-old Derick Brassard into 23-year-old Mika Zibanejad and a second-round pick. Since then, Zibanejad has broken out as a true 1C in the NHL. Last year, Zibanejad also established himself as a multi-category stud in fantasy hockey leagues.

Zibanejad’s numbers in 2018-19 (30 goals, 44 assists, 47 penalty minutes, 236 shots, 134 hits, 23 powerplay points, and 66 blocks) compare very closely to another recent breakout candidate: 2017-18 Vincent Trocheck. That year, Trocheck put up nearly identical point totals, while providing slightly better category coverage. As a result, Trocheck was a top 30 pick in many drafts last year. So why is Zibanejad, coming off a year with Trocheck-lite numbers, with a new elite LW on his line, and several other attractive pieces for the Rangers’ top powerplay, going just inside the top 100? It’s a crime in bangers leagues. Zibanejad should be gone before pick 75 in all leagues.

Vincent Trocheck (Yahoo ADP 139, C 38; FHG 67, 16)

Speaking of the best sleeper in 2017-18 drafts, Trocheck is not getting the respect he deserves in many leagues. Despite missing 27 games last year, the Panthers’ 2C still produced high-end banger league stats prorated to a per-82 game pace with 81 penalty minutes, 167 hits, and 62 blocks. His 51-point pace may pale compared to the 75 he scored in 2017-18, but you could likely excuse him for coming back slow after what looked like a season-ending ankle injury last year.

The one downside for Trocheck coming into 2019-20 is he may have lost his job on the top powerplay unit. Between Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Frank Vatrano, Henrik Borgstrom, and Keith Yandle, there are only so many mouths to feed in Sunrise.

While the drop off in point production may be enough to deter some owners, that risk is baked into Trocheck’s ADP at this point. He’s going in the 12th round in 12-team leagues, and with a 50 point floor, a pathway to 70+, and incredible peripherals, Trocheck is a steal in multi-cat leagues.

More quick hits:

Pierre-Luc Dubois (ADP 156, FHG 94) has a Larkin-esque opportunity in Columbus as the #1 C at all strengths. Dubois provides excellent category coverage with plenty of opportunity for increased minutes on a Columbus team that lacks fire-power up front.

Nazem Kadri (ADP 163, FHG 122) should be moving from 3C PP1 duties in Toronto to 2C PP1 duties in Colorado. He could make plenty of hay as the net-front player cleaning up rebounds on what should continue to be an excellent power play in Denver.

Ryan Johansen (ADP 172, FHG 117) is underrated in hits leagues, puts up elite assists, and is going undrafted in nearly half of Yahoo pools. He may wind up on line two and be waiver wire fodder, but if you sacrifice center depth early, and want to make up for it late, RyJo is a high-upside play.

A few names I’m looking at in deeper leagues:

Dual-eligible C/LW Nick Foligno hasn’t been an excellent point-producer since his sudden one-time breakout in 2014-15. But John Tortorella has historically given him plenty of run on the top powerplay unit, and lord knows there’s lots of ice time to go around in Columbus after the departure of several key players. And hey, it doesn’t hurt that Foligno averages 55 penalty minutes, 188 hits, and 59 blocks per-82 games over the last three seasons.

A lower body injury isn’t enough to deter me from grabbing Sam Steel in deeper leagues. The young center was still working as pivot to Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell before going down with what has been dubbed a short-term injury by media.

I could be convinced to take a late-round flier on Derek Stepan given the line combos the Coyotes have used of late. Stepan has been centering at least one of Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel in his past few pre-season appearances, and the three forwards played together in one game. I’m still interested in Nick Schmaltz, but Stepan is a fine pick in the late rounds of deep drafts, as there is some obvious upside there.

That will be it for the 2019 draft previews from the Geek of the Week column. Starting next week we’ll get into some in-season information and have new stats (!!!) to pour over. You can follow my work on Twitter at @avgtimeonice.