Best Centers: 16-20

16 – Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom’s 86 points last season were the most by the Swede since 2009-10, when he put up 101 in his third NHL season. If there was Book on Backstrom, the second paragraph would tell you how he’s so unfairly miscast in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow – which I don’t entirely agree with, I feel the overwhelming consensus within the game is Backstrom is a pretty special player. He’s one of the game’s best playmakers, which is shines brightest on the powerplay, where he anchors one of the top man-advantage units in the league. Backstrom’s 35 powerplay points in 2016-17 led the league on a unit that boasted a 23.1 percent success rate, which was tied with the Penguins for third in the NHL. Since 2011-12, when a concussion cost Backstrom 40 games, he’s missed just seven games, playing all 82 games (or in the case of 2012-13, 48), in four of five seasons.

17 – Jack Eichel

Like I said earlier, the Sabres have one of the better cores in the league. Eichel is the crown jewel. After a high ankle sprain cost him nearly two months to begin last season, the 20-year-old put up 57 points in 61 games, with 36 coming over the final 31. He needs to improve on the draw (35.7 percent on faceoffs) but make no mistake about it, Eichel is on the verge of breaking out as a superstar in this league.

18 – Aleksander Barkov

Best player on a young, talented Panthers team and in short time will be one of the best players in the league. Injuries limited Barkov to 61 games last season but he still managed to put up 52 points. The Fin is the Panthers most dynamic player, who drives play on the ice while taking a bulk of the tough defensive assignments for Florida. The Panthers have their top two centers in Barkov ($5.9 million) and Vincent Trocheck ($4.75 million) locked up through 2021-22 at $10.65 million per year. That’s one of the biggest steals in the league.

19 – Leon Draisaitl

What impact Connor McDavid may or may not have on Draisaitl’s numbers are irrelevant. This kid can flat out play. No, he’s probably not producing 77 points or getting a $68 million deal without McDavid in front of him, but at the end of the day he’s a great two-way forward with few holes in his game. Oilers are setting themselves up nicely with him and McDavid together going forward.

20 – Tyler Seguin

Since being traded to the Stars from the Bruins in 2013, Seguin has 306 points, which ranks fifth in the NHL. To take it a step further, teammate Jamie Benn (who is third in points over that span) had 193 points in four seasons prior to Seguin’s arrival, which was tied for 54th in the league over that span. His creativity and speed in the open ice is among the best in the game.

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Best Centers: 11-15

11 – Mark Scheifele

The magic date is February 18, 2016. Since that day – which lord knows in Winnipeg was probably a cold, dark, bone-chillingly frigid day – Scheifele has assembled a 49-67-116 line in 105 NHL contests. Only Connor McDavid (37-86-123) and Sidney Crosby (56-65-121) have a higher offensive output over that span. I’ll admit that putting Scheifele as the NHL’s 11th-best center feels like a low-ball ranking. This is an elite-level player.

12 – Claude Giroux

A guy who has been a workhorse and point producer over the past seven or eight years. Giroux has 548 points going back to the start of the 2009-10 season, averaging 73.4 points per 82 games. He’s missed just 10 games over that span, regularly playing in the neighborhood of 20 minutes per night. A player in the running for the second-best faceoff man in the world (yes, Patrice Bergeron is in his own class).

13 – Ryan Kesler

I liken Kesler to Boston’s Brad Marchand. You put up with the occasional dumb penalty for all the other great things he does. While the consensus sometimes seems to be that the 33-year-old is not the player he once was – from what could simply be a case of ageism – he’s still bringing it. Another guy in the running for second-best faceoff man in the world, Kesler has won a league-high 1,213 defensive zone draws since being traded to Anaheim from Vancouver in 2014. Kesler, who averaged 21:18 of ice-time last season, was the only forward in the NHL to average 2:30 of both powerplay and shorthanded time in 2016-17. Kesler is expected to be out until December as he recovers from hip surgery, and Anaheim will be worse off as a result.

14 – Ryan Johansen

Ironic that Kesler and Johansen are right next to one another after their no-love-lost battle in the Western Conference Final last season. But in all seriousness, Johansen is going to be a superstar in this league for many years to come. Over the last four seasons, the 25-year-old has posted 60 points every year while missing just two regular season games. The Predators win the Stanley Cup if he doesn’t go down with a thigh injury in the Western final.

15 – Ryan O’Reilly

If the Sabres had a better supporting cast, they’d be a slam dunk for the playoffs because there’s not many top-two center/top-defenseman/goalie tandems in the league than the one that exists in Buffalo with O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Robin Lehner. Eichel called O’Reilly Buffalo’s Bergeron over the summer, and that’s a spot-on assessment. O’Reilly – who has led all NHL forwards in time on ice per game in each of his two seasons in Buffalo – does everything for the Sabres, playing in high-leverage situations and taking virtually every key faceoff. O’Reilly was the only player besides Bergeron to finish with a faceoff win percentage above 58 percent among players that took more than 1,500 draws last season.

Best Centers: 6-10

6 – Ryan Getzlaf

Getzlaf has quietly put together a Hall of Fame resume since coming into the league in 2005. He’s recorded at least 57 points in every 82-game season going back to his second NHL season of 2006-07 (in which he helped the Ducks win their only Stanley Cup). Last season he put up 73 points in 74 games and led Anaheim to the Western Conference Final for the second time in three seasons. Personal prediction for Getzlaf this upcoming season – more goal scoring. Getzlaf has shot at a rate of just 8.9 percent over the last two seasons. That’s bound to turn around at some point.

7 – Anze Kopitar

Kopitar (52 points) failed to hit the 60-point threshold in an 82-game season for the first time in his career last year, his minus-10 rating was his lowest since 2008-09, his third year in the league. However, his possession numbers were on par with what they’ve been in years past, though his goals-for – which usually hovers in the 60-percent range – dipped to 50.34 percent last season. So there’s little to worry about with Kopitar, he’s still one of the best pivots on the planet and one of the premier workhorses up front, seventh in the NHL among forwards last season with 20:45 of ice-time per game, his 1:54 of shorthanded time per night the most among 32 forwards that averaged 3:00 of powerplay duty on a nightly basis.

8 – Jonathan Toews

Toews bounced back from a rough first half last season and helped the Blackhawks secure the top seed in the Western Conference, posting a 14-22-36 line in his final 33 games. Toews’ possession numbers were down while his goals-for percentage was 54 percent after four seasons north of 60. The dip in his numbers are probably more to do with what Toews has around him than Toews himself. Having old running mate Brandon Saad back in 2017-18 should help get those numbers back up.

9 – John Tavares

Someone who’s done a lot without a whole lot. Tavares is fifth in the NHL in points (483) and goals (211) since 2010-11. He’s one of four forwards to average more than 20:30 of ice-time per game since the 2013-14 season and one of the league’s premier powerplay options. It’ll be interesting to see what Tavares does running alongside Jordan Eberle this upcoming season.

10 – Steven Stamkos

The last eight seasons for Stamkos has been a tale of two four-season spans. The first four – starting with scoring a league-high 51 goals in 2009-10 and ending with him putting up 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season – Stamkos was challenging Sidney Crosby’s mantle for the best player in the world. He never missed a game, and the led the NHL in goals (185) and points (340) over that span of time. The script has been flipped over the last four, missing 115 games as he can’t seem to escape the freak-injury bug that has befallen him since, from the broken tibia he suffered in 2013 to the blood clots late in 2015-16 to the meniscus tear that limited him to 17 games last season. With all that said, in his only healthy season (2014-15), Stamkos played all 82 games, scoring 43 goals and leading Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup Final. The 27-year-old remains the face of the Lightning and one of the game’s premier players. Hopefully the luck turns around for him soon.

Best Centers: 1-5

So here we go. Best 20 centers in the league. I’ll be putting these out in increments of five (so 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20), and I’ll top it off with the best of the rest. I’ll do the same thing on Tuesday with wingers, defensemen on Wednesday, and goalies on Thursday.

Without further ado, you’re best five centermen in the league. Don’t @ me.

1 – Sidney Crosby

When it’s all said and done, Sidney Crosby will be a top-5 player of all time. Right now he’s in the group of 5-10 guys in the running for the guy behind Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Howe. If he wants to, he can lead the lead the league in goals – he won his second Rocket Richard Trophy last year. He can lead the league in assists – he had a league-high 68 apples in 2013-14 and while his 84 helpers in 2006-07 (his second year in the league) was eight off the pace of Joe Thornton’s 92 that season, it would’ve led the league every year since. He’ll out-work, out-grind, out-skill you. There’s nothing he hasn’t won. Oh, did I mention he just turned 30?

2 – Connor McDavid

McDavid is the man trapped in the chasm between Crosby and the rest of the league. He’s inching his way closer to No. 87. Like Crosby in 2006-07, McDavid picked up his first Art Ross Trophy in his sophomore NHL season with his 100-point campaign last season. The 20-year-old is one of five NHLers to record triple-digit point totals since 2010-11, joined by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Daniel Sedin.

3 – Evgeni Malkin

If Crosby is Gretzky, Malkin is Messier. A guy who will go down as one of the top 15-20 players ever, a guy who can go off on his own and lead a team to a Stanley Cup. Malkin has two Art Rosses of his own and after his performance last spring en route to Pittsburgh’s second straight title, as good a case can be made that he should have just as many Conn Smythes.

4 – Patrice Bergeron

The three aforementioned guys are in a class of their own. Bergeron is the best of the rest. Name something you need – Bergeron can do it. He gives you offense (61.2 points per 82 games in his career), he can win a faceoff (in fact, he’s won a league-high 7,524 faceoffs since 2009-10, which is nearly 1,000 more than runner-up Jonathan Toews over that span), he drives play, and he plays in every situation. The greatest quality of Bergeron? His ability to raise the level of the players around him at all times, from flanking Sidney Crosby for Team Canada to carrying his black and gold sidekicks over the years from Marco Sturm to Brad Marchand. It’s what he’s done best since his rookie year when he was part of a line comprised of an 18-year-old Bergeron along with Michael Nylander and Sergei Samsonov that carried Boston in the second half of the 2003-04 season.

5 – Auston Matthews

Don’t trick yourself into thinking the gap between the top pick in the 2015 draft (McDavid) and the 2016 draft (Matthews) is a wide one. Matthews is Sidney Crosby with a few more inches. He’s a big body, he grinds, he protects the puck as well as anybody, and just seems to do everything at will. He scored four goals in his first NHL game, he scored 40 in his rookie season. Matthews scored a league-high 30 goals at five-on-five last season. The Maple Leafs are the team that’s going to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada and it’s the Good Scottsdale Boy that’s going to lead them there.

 

Second Look: Sabres complete third-period comeback against San Jose

The misfortunes in Buffalo continued on Tuesday night for the San Jose Sharks, blowing a 4-1 third period to lose in overtime.

The loss marked 17 losses in 19 games for San Jose in Buffalo. The Sabres scored three times in a 2:28 span, beginning with Ryan O’Reilly’s powerplay goal with 10:57 to play. Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo followed the next two scores to tie the game before Kane scored again in overtime on a feed from Jack Eichel.

The third period has been a weakness for the Sharks this season. San Jose is a minus-six in the third this season, compared with a plus-one in the second and a plus-24 in the first. The Sharks 55 goals allowed in the third period is tied for seventh-most in the NHL with Calgary.

The Sabres, meanwhile, are plus-two in the final 20 minutes of regulation in addition to being 6-5 in overtime. Buffalo has seized the extra point in four of its last five overtimes.

Amateur Hour: How Harvard could (but probably won’t) win the Beanpot

One of these years it’s going to happen. Either Harvard or Northeastern is going to win the Beanpot.

The last 24 Beanpots have gone to either Boston University or Boston College, the silver chalice not leaving Commonwealth Avenue since 1993, the last time Harvard took home the trophy. Northeastern hasn’t won since 1988.

We were guaranteed at least a 50 percent chance of the title returning to Harvard Square or Huntington Avenue, as Harvard and Northeastern faced off in the Beanpot semifinal on Monday night. The Crimson won, 4-3, and will represent the two historic have-nots of the tournament, which combine for just 14 of the 64 titles and carry a collective 53-year Beanpot drought. Harvard will play for the title for the first time since 2008 against BU, which has an event-high 30 titles but has won just once since 2009. The Terriers punched their ticket with a 3-1 win over BC in Monday’s nightcap.

While neither Harvard or Northeastern have won in generations, the two schools have been knocking on the door for years. One of the two schools have appeared in the final in six of the last nine years, with three of those title games going to overtime. Both schools have been fairly competitive over that span, in and out of the national rankings, winning conference championships, and making appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

This Harvard squad has the goods to bring the Beanpot across the Charles River to Cambridge for the 11th time in the tournament’s history. The Crimson run four solid forward lines, with two exceptional top trios of Ryan Donato-Alex Kerfoot-Lewis Zerter-Gossage and Luke Esposito-Sean Malone-Tyler Moy. On the back end, Adam Fox has been one of the top rookies in the nation, his 26 points fourth among defensemen in the country.

The Crimson play a strong north-south game, with a good deal of speed and skill up and down the lineup. They’re strong on possession, with a 54 percent even strength Corsi-for, according to collegehockeynews.com, with the fourth-best powerplay nationally, at 26.5 percent.

Of course, it’s no secret what Harvard is up against. BU is the most talented team in the country. The Terriers are also the youngest, at 20.5. That’s a full year younger than the Crimson, whose roster averages out at 21.5.

The BU roster is highlighted by four players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft in Kieffer Bellows, Dante Fabbro, Clayton Keller, and Charlie McAvoy. Netminder Jake Oettinger could be a fifth this June, a favorite to be among the first 31 names called in the upcoming draft in Chicago. Eleven players of whom are property of NHL teams dot the roster.

This Terriers team isn’t unlike any other of years past. The team plays an up-tempo style. Defensemen like to hop into the rush. Up front, there’s plenty of playmakers, led by Keller, an Arizona prospect that might be the team’s best player. Oettinger has been among the standard bearers of goaltending – a position BU has always taken seriously – with a .937 save percentage, 1.75 GAA, and four shutouts in his rookie campaign.

BU has an upper-hand in the season series with Harvard this season, with a 5-3 win on November 22nd. The Crimson haven’t beaten BU since November 2014, the Terriers winning the last three of the meetings, including a double-overtime win in the Beanpot semifinal two years ago.

Three of the last four meetings have been decided by one goal, two have gone to overtime. Given the Beanpot’s history of one-goal games and extra sessions, there’s a good chance we’ll see another one of these affairs between the two teams.

And we might even witness something that hasn’t been done in nearly a quarter-century.

Other tidbits..

*Lacrosse numbers are being put up in Erie. Alex DeBrincat has 23 points in a nine-game points streak, in which he’s scored eight goals and 18 points over his last five. He has points in 39 of 45 games. Dylan Strome has points in 16 of 17 games. He has 17 points in his last five games, and 41 overall in 17 contests.

*Charlottetown Islander Filip Chlapik scored his 200th QMJHL point with a five-point weekend, including a hat trick in a 13-2 smackdown of Moncton.

*10 goals in 13 games out of the holiday break for Flint Firebird Nicholas Caamano, with four two-goal games in that span.

*Third overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft Pierre-Luc Dubois had four points on Saturday and has 21 points in 12 games since being traded to Blainville-Boisbriand.

*Atte Tolvanen stopped all 75 shots he faced in Northern Michigan’s weekend sweep of Bowling Green, upping his shutout streak to three games. He’s gone 215:49 without allowing a goal.

*Trent Frederic has 23 points in 18 games for surging Wisconsin, which is up to 17th in this week’s USCHO.com poll. He’s second on the Badgers in scoring behind Luke Kunin (26 points).

*As for the Badgers, they’ve won five in a row and are tied with Minnesota for first place in the Big Ten, with 8-2 record in conference play. Wisconsin hasn’t lost in regulation since December 11th.

*In the Nolan-Nico sweepstakes: Nolan Patrick had four assists on Friday night and has points in six of eight games since returning to the ice. He has 23 points in 14 games overall for Brandon. Hischier had five points in a 7-2 Halifax win over Moncton on Sunday. He has point in eight consecutive games and has 14 goals and 28 points in 12 games since returning from World Juniors.

*Minnesota-Duluth retained the top spot in the USCHO.com men’s poll while Denver and BU were second and third, respectively, for the second straight week. Minnesota moved up two spots to No. 5 while Penn State dropped from six to 10. Air Force broke into the poll at No. 20.

*On the women’s side, Wisconsin is the top-ranked team once again, while Minnesota-Duluth follows at No. 2.

Claude Julien out as Bruins coach

It’s a move that been anticipated, debated, and argued back and forth for what seems to be years.

At last, it has happened.

Claude Julien has been fired as the head coach of the Boston Bruins.

The firing comes as no surprise. A coaching change had been discussed as being on the horizon since the Bruins missed the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, which ended a run of seven straight postseason appearances. Now the Bruins are on the verge of missing the playoffs three years in a row for the first time in a half-century, when the B’s missed the postseason eight straight years from 1960-67.

The Bruins front office clearly believed a new voice was needed. That voice (at least for the time-being) will be Bruce Cassidy, elevated to interim head coach. His NHL head coaching experience includes 107 games behind the bench for Washington from 2002-03. He coached the AHL Providence Bruins for five years from 2011-16 before being elevated to assistant coach this past May.

Is Cassidy the right fit? That will ultimately be determined by management this summer. He’s certainly not in a terrible position, with a number of blue-chip prospects in Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jesse Gabrielle, and Jakub Zboril. With that said, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are on the back end of their primes, No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara is at the end of the road while David Backes appears over the hill with four years remaining on his contract after this season. Tuukka Rask, while capable of being a world-class goaltender, has been inconsistent over the last three seasons.

The Bruins were knocked out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture on Monday night, passed by Toronto – which lost to the Islanders in overtime – for third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston and Toronto each have 58 points, but the Leafs have four games in hand. Virtually everyone competing with the Bruins in the standings have games in hand on the B’s, including Ottawa (five), N.Y. Islanders (four), Florida (three), Philadelphia (one), and New Jersey (one).

Few will argue that Julien was the problem. He’s been given a team that has been highly-flawed, with holes up and down the lineup in recent seasons. This season has been no different.

At the same time, not many coaches last a decade. He’s one of just three coaches in Bruins history to coach 700 games. Sometimes you need a change, a new voice. It appears to be the case in Boston.