It’s time to dive into ranking players by position heading into 2020/21. These projections and rankings may vary over time as the draft/free agency/coaching changes come down, but at least this should give everyone a place to start. Before we get started, I am using Yahoo’s position eligibility to determine who qualifies as a center for 2020/21. Let’s kick it off with #20:
Mathew Barzal comes in at #20 after a 60-point campaign that led the Islanders. He broke onto the NHL scene with 85-point season in 2017/18 that netted him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, but since has been unable to return to that level of scoring. He took a big step up to 20 minutes/game in 2019/20 (up from 18/game in 2018/19), and sustained his chances for rates across that added time on ice. His underlying stats make his pace this season look very sustainable, and he consistently elevated the play of those around him. His linemates for the vast majority of 2019/20 were Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, and with all due respect to them I would be intrigued to see what Barzal could do with some legitimate first line wingers on a more offensive-minded team. With all that said, here’s my projection for Barzal in 2020/21:
Dylan Larkin slots in at #19 for me after a 2019/20 season that many considered a step back for him. Frankly, after looking deeper into Larkin’s season that was I just feel bad for the guy. He dragged Tyler Bertuzzi up and down the ice all year (I could write a whole article just on how useless Bertuzzi is) and lost the only actually good linemate he’s ever had in Anthony Mantha for 28 of Detroit’s 71 games. I tweeted this out earlier today:
That’s right, Larkin outpaced Aho, Point, Marchand, Draisaitl, and McDavid in indivdual chances for per 60 minutes while playing with an overrated third liner and without his best winger for 40% of the season. Larkin feels like another Jack Eichel situation to me, where the player is a legitimate first line talent but the supporting cast is MIA. I’m predicting a rebound season for Larkin regardless of linemates due to big IPP and shooting % positive regressions:
Blake Wheeler fits at #18 for me in 2020/21, a spot he’s consistently held down for five-plus years. He usually carries C & RW position eligibility which is nice flexibility in your lineup. Wheeler had back-to-back 91 point seasons before only managing 65 points last season in 71 games. He’ll be 34 before the new season starts and it’s hard not to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Wheeler. Having said that, Wheeler posted individual and team chances for rates that closely mirrored his established levels. The biggest difference is that Wheeler was only entrusted with 19:19 of ice time per game this year, significantly down from 20:42 in 2018/19. At that decreased level of usage it’s hard to envision Wheeler returning to 90+ points in 2020/21. While I don’t see any signs of a diminishing player in Wheeler’s underlying stats, I project him to come in just under a point-per-game in 2020/21:
Mark Scheifele flies in at #17 on my list as one of the most consistent point-producers of the last four seasons (1.04, 1.00, 1.02, & 1.03 PPG in those four seasons). His 2019/20 17% shooting percentage is actually the lowest of those four seasons but he continued to play at a high level, spending most of the year feeding Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Scheifele’s chances for stats are just as consistent as his point production, and it’s impossible to predict anything but more of the same from him in 2020/21.
Aleksander Barkov has been touted as a pinnacle of two-way center prowess, a defensive specialist plus offensive dynamo in a single package in the vein of a Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar. Barkov had a monster 2018/19 campaign, compiling 96 points in 82 games and putting himself close to the top of many lists like this one for 2019/20. But 2019/20 didn’t go according to plan for Barkov or the Panthers, and while there are some things we can point to, some things about Barkov’s season are downright puzzling. It was easy to predict a decrease in Barkov’s shooting percentage, but Barkov was on pace for more shots on goal and actually had a better season in terms of creating chances for himself and his teammates in 2019/20 than the year prior. The biggest glaring reason for Barkov’s drop in production was his utilization: his ice time decreased 2:21/game, a huge problem for any top-flight scoring threat. I can’t imagine the Panthers don’t go to the offseason and realize that their best chance for success involves playing Barkov at least at a 21-minute level, and I’ve projected him as such:
Now that centers 16-20 have been revealed, let’s put them side by side and I’ll explain the rankings a little bit:
The bottom two lack the point-per-game level of scoring I consider the top three to have. I slotted Larkin over Barzal due to the additional shots & hits (Yahoo standard categories) as well as average time on ice (ESPN standard category). I have Wheeler in third spot due to the decreased usage we discussed above, a trend I don’t see Paul Maurice reversing in 2020/21 especially considering Wheeler’s age. That leaves Barkov and Scheifele, and I gave a slight boost to Barkov simply because I know exactly what Scheifele is going to provide (roughly a PPG) while Barkov has exhibited that 96-point upside and I think his floor is similar to Scheifele’s.
Honorable Mentions: Tyler Seguin, William Nylander, Anze Kopitar, Claude Giroux
I feel Seguin is a player in decline at this point without an A-list supporting cast. Kopitar is a consistent 70ish point player but also has zero supporting cast so he sweats for every point he gets. Giroux looks to be settling into that same range, and experienced decreased usage in 2019/20. With the Flyers winning hockey games this year for a change, I don’t anticipate the coaching staff will change that deployment much in 2020/21. Nylander is by far the hardest player to project out of all 30+ that I profiled while preparing for this top-20 list. On one hand, you have a 15% shooting percentage and 70% that are well above his career averages; on the other, you have a player who generates scoring chances for himself and his linemates at a rate that compares with Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos. I have Nylander scoring 67 points in 2020/21 but he has huge potential if this is his new normal. If Nylander slots back in alongside Auston Matthews for the majority of 2020/21 after spending most of 2019/20 with John Tavares, I’d give Nylander upside to 85 points.
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