Centers: Best of the Rest

Vincent Trocheck – In a season in which the Panthers were derailed by injuries and bad luck, Trocheck was one of the bright spots. The 23-year-old led the team with 54 points last season, playing big minutes and taking a bulk of the team’s draws.

Matt Duchene – A great player trapped in a bad situation in Colorado. Duchene is one of the most dynamic, creative players in the league and that has shined the brightest in international play.

Logan Couture – The future of the post-Thornton Sharks. He was star of San Jose’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2016, scoring a playoff-high 30 points in 24 games.

Mitch Marner – Played mostly wing as rookie with Nazem Kadri centering, but Marner obviously projects long-term as a pivot. Marner and Auston Matthews will be one of the NHL’s premier 1-2 punches for years to come.

Sean Monahan – Carries the load in Calgary alongside Johnny Gaudreau. Monahan has played all but two games the past three seasons, averaging 28 goals and 61 points over that span.

Evgeny Kuznetsov – Fell back a bit last season from the pace he set in his breakout 2015-16 season, when he put up 77 points. But he’ll be a great player going forward and a wonderful compliment to Nicklas Backstrom in Washington’s top-six. The Caps were smart to lock him up for eight years this summer as a restricted free agent.

Bo Horvat – Horvat’s ceiling might not be as high as some guys on this list, but he’s taken another step forward every year since coming into the league in 2014-15. He might not be an ace pivot on a Stanley Cup contender, but he’s a strong two-way player that’s not easy to play against.

David Krejci – Krejci is one of the NHL’s more underrated players and better playmakers when at his best. Unfortunately, injuries have got the better of the 31-year-old in past seasons (despite playing all 82 regular season games last season). However, he’s going into 2017-18 healthy and will have David Pastrnak at his side, so don’t be shocked if there’s a renaissance of sorts for Krejci this season.

Alex Wennberg – Wennberg exploded for 59 points, 46 of which were assists, last season. The 23-year-old, who just signed a 6-year, $29.4 million deal with the Blue Jackets, is one of the best young playmakers in the league. He has 78 assists over the last two seasons.

Joe Thornton – One of the better centers in league history, Thornton is climbing the all-time lists while still being a major contributor to the Sharks.

Derek Stepan – Stepan has averaged 57.3 points per 82 games since coming into the league in 2010-11, and has recorded 50 points in each of his last four seasons. He’s the best center the Coyotes have had in quite some time.

Nathan MacKinnon – Much like Matt Duchene, a player who will truly blossom when he’s part of a competitive team.

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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.

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.

 

We’re Back!

The first three months of the offseason felt like three weeks and the last three weeks have felt like three months.

It’s OK, if there’s anything I enjoy as much as hockey it’s the sun going down at 9, beaches, lakes, summer beers, and day baseball. So it’s all good.

But hockey is back and it’s time to get down to business. The NHL opens up next week, major junior opened up last week, and college hockey gets underway in few weeks.

I’ll be writing, checking in. How much and how often? That’s up to you to follow and find out.

For this week it’ll be preseason stuff. I’ll be ranking players by position this week – centers on Monday, wingers on Tuesday, defensemen on Wednesday, and goalies on Thursday. Friday will be predictions day.

So follow along. It should be another fun year.

Saint John scoring its way to the top of QMJHL

The Saint John Sea Dogs are on fire, winners of eight straight games to streak to the top of the QMJHL standings. The Sea Dogs efforts were recognized in the most recent CHL rankings, shooting up from eighth to fourth, eclipsing Rouyn-Noranda as the top team from the ‘Q’ in the rankings.

The winning streak moved to eight games on Wednesday with a 3-2 win over Acadie-Bathurst. While the Sea Dogs won, the three goals was the second-lowest offensive output of the streak for Saint John, the lowest coming in a 1-0 win over Chicoutimi on January 20th.

The Sea Dogs have made goal scoring look easy. Saint John has scored 40 goals over the course of the streak, 46 if you include the 7-6 loss the Cape Breton on January 15th, the last time the team has come out on the losing side.

Tampa Bay prospect Mathieu Joseph has led the way with 11 points playing in seven games during the streak, including five goals. He’s on a 27-game point streak going back to October 22nd, and has 61 points in 38 games, his 1.61 points-per-game the highest on the team. Fellow Bolts prospect Bokondji Imama, amidst a breakout year in his second full season in Saint John, has five goals over the eight games to up his season total to 32, which leads the team. Montreal prospect Simon Bourque has 10 points in six games.

Bruins prospect Jakub Zboril has 10 points from the back end, with one-goal, two-point performances in each of his last three games. Ottawa prospect Thomas Chabot, who was the defensive ace of World Junior runner-up Team Canada last month, has six points in six games over the streak and has 27 points in 22 games this season.

Saint John is currently second overall in Quebec with 211 goals, eight goals behind league leader Charlottetown. The Sea Dogs have done so with a strong, balanced scoring attack, with 12 players posting 20 points and 17 with at least 10. Just two players sit in the top 20 of the QMJHL scoring list, none higher than Matthew Highmore, whose team-high 73 points are sixth-highest in the league. The Sea Dogs are also the best in the league on the powerplay, clicking at 31 percent.

It should also be noted the Sea Dogs defend well, with the third-lowest goals allowed in the league at 137.