The fight for or against penalty minutes as a standard category for fantasy hockey has become pretty polarizing. But the holdover from traditional fantasy hockey setups that riles me up even more is the delineation between left wing and right wing. Why on earth do we do this?
There is no difference between the right wing and left wing position when it comes to the game of hockey. We don’t have left defense and right defense as positions, so why do we have left and right wing? Not to mention the fact that most players can flip sides with relative ease and often do so from game to game, or even shift to shift.
But this isn’t about changing the world, and you have to live within the confines of your fantasy league’s settings — but, honestly, it’s something worth bringing up to your commissioner. This is about how to approach the position of winger for your draft.
The ESPN standard game uses just the forward position — no specific center or wing spots — but there are an array of different league setups you should be prepared for.
Generally speaking, wingers drive your fantasy stats in the goals, points, shots and power-play categories but can sometimes hurt in penalty minutes and ice time. It’s not true for all but can be painted on wingers with broad strokes. Depending on your league setup, you are going to need/want a handful of wingers throughout your lineup. If your league doesn’t separate the forward positions, they should still play prominently into your draft strategy to address scoring.
Things get a bit trickier if your league, as many do, still separates the left and right wingers. Based on the top-300 ranking, left wing is a little stronger at the top. Jonathan Marchessault is the eighth-best left winger on the board at No. 24 overall, while Jakub Voracek is the sixth-best right winger at No. 25 overall.
There are 21 left wingers in the top 100 and 24 right wingers. If your league still does this separation of the wings, you can put an early-season emphasis on some guys who will start the year with eligibility at both left and right wing: Alex Ovechkin, Wayne Simmonds, Teuvo Teravainen, Dustin Brown, Pavel Buchnevich and James Neal. There are others, and more players will surely get additional eligibility at some point, but these guys will give you some early-season flexibility if they play into your draft plans. Just don’t reach for them (except Neal, who is way undervalued at No. 256 overall). In that same vein, the list of guys eligible at a wing and center includes Claude Giroux, Filip Forsberg, Artemi Panarin, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho, Joe Pavelski, Rickard Rakell, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Clayton Keller, Travis Konecny, Ryan O’Reilly, Kevin Fiala, J.T. Miller, Anders Lee, Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk, among others.
Ideally, you want to fill out your wing with as many players with power-play duties as possible. When picking in the later rounds, use the likelihood of a player being on his team’s first power-play unit as a tiebreaker. Lines will be somewhat fluid throughout the season, so don’t put too much stock into players who are projected to be on a line they haven’t been on before, whether it’s with a new team, new teammate or anticipated promotion. Yes, I love the idea of Valeri Nichushkin lining up with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but until it’s working out in the regular season, it’s best not to overreact with the projected value for Nichushkin or Alexander Radulov.
The same goes for players like Neal (although, again, with his ranking so low, why not?), James van Riemsdyk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Mike Hoffman, O’Reilly, Jeff Skinner or rookie Andrei Svechnikov. New faces in new places don’t always pan out. I’m not saying avoid them, just don’t overpay. Coaches can be fickle with their depth charts.
Top-tier wingers I like
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets (No. 28 overall, No. 13 winger): Laine deserves and will probably get more ice time than his 16:29 from last season. He is everything he was billed to be and more, scoring 80 goals and firing 445 shots over his first two seasons. With a couple of extra minutes per game, we are basically looking at Alex Ovechkin production that you can get in the second round.
Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (No. 37 overall, No. 16 winger): It’s not as if he’s old, but it’s starting to feel like Tarasenko needs to have that superstar season we’ve been waiting on sooner than later. He turns 27 this season, and while he’s maintained elite status, he’s only had the one season (2015-16) where he pushed into the top 10 for fantasy. The ability is there, no question, but Tarasenko has suffered somewhat from the injuries and slumps around him with the Blues. If St. Louis has better luck on the injury front and can push its power play to the next level, Tarasenko should be able to use the added power-play value to push back up into the superstar threshold.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (No. 46 overall, No. 18 winger): With 2016-17 behind him as an aberration, Gaudreau should be commanding more respect at the draft table. He could also benefit from an improved power play for the Flames, and the addition of veteran Neal should help fill the void at wing on the top line. The hope here is that Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin can fill the void left by Dougie Hamilton on the point. I’d take Gaudreau a round or two higher than his current ranking and be confident in the result.
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 51 overall, No. 21 winger): What’s not to love with the arrival of John Tavares? Marner had to work his way out of the early season doghouse of coach Mike Babcock last season, and to his credit, he absolutely did. The addition of Tavares guarantees Marner an elite pivot at all times and should elevate the power play, in which he should play an expanded role with the departure of van Riemsdyk.
Midtier wingers to target
Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 80 overall, No. 33 winger): It seems counterintuitive to say that Hornqvist should be healthy this season after missing 12 games in each of the past two campaigns. Furthermore, it sounds silly to suggest a 31-year-old veteran with 10 years in the league could push for new career highs. But I’m on board with Hornqvist putting it all together this season. The Penguins need his presence on the power play and, as we know, have plenty of room on the wing in the top six with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle. It’s been nine years since he scored 30 goals, but I have Hornqvist down for a 30-30 campaign and pushing 300 shots if everything goes well healthwise.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings (No. 87 overall, No. 36 winger): I don’t know if the second year of the contract is going to go swimmingly, and I doubt the Kings will be happy with the third year, but it may all be worth it if Kovalchuk still has some pep in his step for this season. The 35-year-old Russian should be motivated to show that he’s still got it. Despite spending the past five seasons in the KHL, Kovalchuk still ranks sixth in the NHL for goals since 2001. He’s looked inspired the past two seasons in the KHL, notching more than 30 goals at better than a point-per-game pace. Playing with Anze Kopitar should prove fruitful for the not-quite-over-the-hill sniper. I’m comfortable taking the risk much earlier than this No. 86 overall ranking and could see myself jumping at him once I’m comfortable with my top five picks.
Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens (No. 94 overall, No. 40 winger): We give a lot of other players a mulligan for a bad season, but the fantasy collective sure seems to be punishing the Canadiens en masse. Although starting with Shea Weber on the sidelines again is foreboding at best, the team should be able to avoid the catastrophic injuries that derailed last season. There’s no reason we shouldn’t bank on Pacioretty to get back to 30-30 and 300 shots.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks (No. 96 overall, No. 41 winger): Well on his way to a 38-goal campaign when his season was ended by injury, Boeser needs to be drafted higher than this. His surroundings on the Canucks are only getting better, and his ice time is going to spike in the post-Sedin twins era. Boeser should make a real run at 40 goals.
Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 271 overall, No. 122 winger): The injury that derailed Palat last season was the result of a slash, and he’s had plenty of time to get back to 100 percent from the resulting high-ankle sprain. His two possible fates in the lineup are a role with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on the top line or a job on the second unit with Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point. Both are ideal positions for Palat to generate fantasy-worthy stats from a ranking that could make him undrafted in many leagues.
Late-round pick to consider
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers (not ranked): The Oilers get pretty thin on the wing when you start poking holes in the lineup: Is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins going to remain a winger? What if Milan Lucic doesn’t bounce back? Can Ty Rattie repeat his late-season run? Does Tobias Rieder push his way into the top six? Is Jesse Puljujarvi ready to break out? With so many question marks around the best player in the NHL, I like the idea of getting a lottery ticket that has a relatively clear path to potential playing time with Connor McDavid.
Avoid in drafts at current value
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (No. 2 overall, No. 1 winger): Not for this price, nope. Ovechkin has finished outside the top 10 on the ESPN Player Rater for two consecutive seasons. While he can be a game-changer in some categories (goals, shots), he has some weaker spots that allow others to be a stronger fantasy play. I’m actually OK with him as the second winger off the board after Kucherov, but I think Ovi should come toward the end of the first round, not the beginning. I think it’s in the realm of possibility that Laine outperforms Ovechkin this season on a stat-by-stat basis (maybe with the exception of shots on goal). I’d rather have Laine given the cost of acquisition here.
Additional note: David Pastrnak (No. 11 overall), Filip Forsberg (No. 13) and Jonathan Marchessault (No. 24) are all ranked for their career ceilings (or higher) and represent a risk to take in the first and second rounds.