Welcome back for my second installment in this series as I rank the top 20 centers for fantasy hockey in 2020/21. You can view my previous post on centers 16-20 here. 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 just want to clarify that I am using Yahoo’s position eligibility to determine who qualifies as a center for 2020/21. Let’s kick it off with #15:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a classic case of a player breaking out to the next level with the help of some superstar teammates. Nugent-Hopkins took his game to a whole new level in the new year, scoring 37 points in 29 games from January onward after managing a much more pedestrian 24 points in 36 games prior. It’s pretty easy to figure out what clicked for “Nuge”, too; he was put on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto that exploded down the stretch. While I’m not in love with Yamamoto for 2020/21, we all know what Draisaitl is capable of and there is evidence to suggest that Draisaitl benefited just as much from Nugent-Hopkins as Nugent-Hopkins did from Draisaitl. Interestingly, Nugent-Hopkins’ goal rate did not change from his 2018/19 campaign and he actually had less secondary assists/60 in 2019/20 than the previous year. Given this newfound success and the fact that the Oilers were winning games with the Nuge/Draisaitl combo, I’m betting on RNH to complete his first point-per-game NHL campaign in 2020/21:
Sebastian Aho is the centerpiece of the Hurricanes’ offense, a legitimate #1 center in the league after posting his second straight season within spitting distance of finishing at a point-per-game. His IPP held constant at 70%, but he saw a huge spike in shooting percentage up to 18.4%. I don’t anticipate that rate holding, but I do think Aho can settle in as a 15% shooter, especially since a) he improved his individual scoring chances for/60 rates in 2019/20, and b) he was due to shoot better on the PP in 2019/20 and he did. I’d feel better if I knew that Aho was going to play consistently with Andrei Svechnikov instead of Nino Niederreiter next year, but Aho is capable of putting up a point per game pace regardless. I have him just under that pace in 2020/21:
Here’s where I might make some enemies. Mika Zibanejad has inspired a ton of brand new fanboys with his torrid goal scoring pace of 2019/20, including that unforgettable five-goal game against the Capitals on March 5th. That game is going to be fixed in a lot of fantasy managers’ minds come draft time next year, especially considering how close to the end of the season that game came. If you want Zibanejad on your team in 2020/21, you’re going to have to pay up as if he’s going to score 50 goals, and that’s just not going to happen. Warning signs are written all over his profile. The IPP is a career high by 5 points, the shooting percentage is astronomical and 7% higher than the last two years, and he’s produced chances at the same rate before but never scored at this rate. It’s ok to be more bullish than I am, but Zibanejad has also missed 10 or more games in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Lastly, his two most common linemates (Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider) both produced more shots for/60 away from Zibanejad than with him. Maybe Zibanejad has suddenly morphed into a superstar goal scorer at 26, but his 2017/18 underlying stats were better than this year and that resulted in 47 points. I can’t help but feel that Zibanejad is one of the most high risk/high reward players in fantasy for 2020/21, and at the top of a draft that’s not something I can get behind.
Sidney Crosby. What can we say that hasn’t already been said? It genuinely pained me to project him outside my top 10, but my projection process won’t let me get him up any higher. Crosby posted another casual 1.15 PPG season in 2019/20, albeit in just 41 games due to injury. But there were some warning signs in those 41 games. First up is an outlandish 84% IPP after he averaged just 72.4% over the previous four seasons. That would be one thing, but his individual chances for rates have declined every year since 2016/17, down to career-low levels this season. There is hope that playing with Jason Zucker instead of Dominik Simon (seriously, Crosby has had some of the worst wingers a superstar center has ever had to deal with) can boost Crosby’s production, but the underlying stats say Crosby is declining from best player in the world to merely great.
Patrice Bergeron gets a lot of love as one of the best two-way centers in the game, with a record four Selke Trophies under his belt. But playing alongside David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand puts him in a unique position to put up a ton of points at the same time. In fact, Pastrnak and Marchand both suffer greatly in producing 5v5 shots for without Bergeron, an interesting stat that belies the conventional descriptions of Pastrnak and Marchand as the offense of the line while Bergeron provides the elite defense. Bergeron is a strong candidate to improve his scoring totals due to a baffling IPP drop in 2019/20. His mark of 51.85% represents a 17% drop from the 69% marks he posted in both 2017/18 and 2018/19. When you play on a line with Pastrnak and Marchand, 17% is a lot of points. While Bergeron’s individual chances for rates were down slightly, his team scoring chances for/60 were up in 2019/20 so there isn’t much of an excuse as to why Bergeron’s production dropped off so badly other than just plain bad puck luck. Bergeron does represent a bit of an injury risk but the upside of that line is quite tantalizing. I rank him at #11 while still projecting him to miss 9 games in 2020/21:
Now that centers 11-15 have been revealed, let’s put them side by side and I’ll explain the rankings a little bit:
Nugent-Hopkins is a clear step down from the other four in my opinion just because he’s never scored at this rate before. While I don’t see it as a flash in the pan and his upside is pretty good playing with Draisaitl, I’ll always give more credit to players who have done it before and will do it again. Aho versus Zibanejad was tougher; Aho represents more of a consistent sure thing while Zibanejad has shown his ceiling is higher. At that point it more depends what you value more – the floor or the potential. Crosby and Bergeron were close, but Bergeron provides more shots and a substantially better plus/minus.
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