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.

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Central Division: Still the Class of the NHL

The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of the greatest run of success going back to the Red Wings around the turn of the century. The St. Louis Blues are the the most accomplished NHL franchise to not have a Stanley Cup in the trophy case. The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars are on the cusp of title contention, and the Minnesota Wild might not be far behind.

The Central Division is the best collection of clubs the league has to offer, and has been for some time.

But for how much longer will that be the case?

If you’re wagering, you might want to bet against this division falling off for at least a few more years.

The Chicago Blackhawks are looking to become the sixth franchise to win four Stanley Cups within a decade, the first since the Edmonton Oilers pulled the trick back in the 1980s. The Hawks have three chances to complete that feat, with three titles going back to 2010.

The window in Chicago is even longer. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith; the core of the Blackhawks dynasty, remain fairly young. Kane and Toews have yet to celebrate their 29th birthdays. Keith just turned 33 over the summer. Marian Hossa will be 38 this season and appears to be on the back nine, but Artemi Panarin appears to be poised to take his place.

An interesting fact about the Blackhawk’s reign? They’ve won the division just twice over this six-season run, with third place finishes in each of the last three seasons.

The Blues have finished ahead of the Hawks in the standings each of the last two seasons and bounced Chicago from the playoffs in the Western Conference quarterfinals last season.

Half of the Blues’ eight 100-point seasons have come in the last four 82-game seasons for the Blues; the truncated 2012-13 campaign, in which St. Louis accrued 60 points in 48 games, adjusted to 102-point pace.

“Is this the year for the Blues?” has been a storyline repeated over the past few seasons. The answer has continually been ‘no’.

So..is this the year for the Blues?

We shall see. First, they’ll have to overcome the losses of David Backes and Troy Brouwer; the former the former team captain and a longtime fixture in the St. Louis lineup, the latter a key piece in Ken Hitchcock’s lineup last year, his only one with the Blues.

But there’s still plenty in the tank. Vladimir Tarasenko has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers while Alexander Steen continues to give good all-around production, recording 50 points for the third straight year. Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, and Colton Parayko lead the youth movement. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo goes into his first season with the ‘C’ on his chest, the team’s best player.

The Stars are coming off a breakout season, winning 50 games for the first time since 2007 in 2015-16. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is the game’s premier center-wing combination while veterans Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza lead the way on the secondary scoring front. John Klingberg is one of game’s rising stars on the back line.

The Minnesota Wild could be this year’s Stars, hiring head coach Bruce Boudreau known for taking upstarts like the Wild to the next level. Despite not winning the ultimate prize in parts of 10 seasons in Washington and Anaheim, the 61-year-old coach has left the respective clubs in better shape than when he arrived.

A Stanley Cup would not only be Boudreau’s first, but the first in hockey-crazy Minnesota. It can be done.

A team nobody is expecting to make a run?

That would be the Nashville Predators. Don’t count them out. The Predators made the splash of the 2016 offseason by trading captain Shea Weber for up-tempo defenseman P.K. Subban. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner will slide right in with what will be one of the top blue lines in the league, one predicated on pace and skating while being more than adept without the puck. Ace defenseman Roman Josi is quickly establishing himself as one of the best players in the world.

With Subban, Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis in the back and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and James Neal up front there hasn’t been a team this good, this skilled in Nashville since opening for business in 1998.

Head coach Peter Laviolette has taken two different franchises to the Stanley Cup final.

In Winnipeg, the Patrik Laine era gets underway as the Jets look to avenge a disappointing 78-point season that followed Winnipeg’s first playoff appearance since the franchise moved northward from Atlanta in 2011.

Colorado rounds out the division, and will not be an easy out.

But of course, in this division, nobody ever is.

Blackhawks Could Be Putting New Faith in Panarin to Move Alongside Toews

The top nine is the new top six. At least for now.

It’s been a common strategy in the NHL for coaches to spread out what would be top-six forwards in recent seasons across three lines. It will almost certainly kick up this season after Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan moved top-line sniper Phil Kessel to the the third line last season en route to the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup. Kessel nearly won the Conn Smythe Trophy after being the headliner of the HBK line, skating alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino.

Could Joel Quenneville be the latest to jump on the bandwagon?

Bob McKenzie is reporting that Joel Quenneville plans to spread the best of his forward group across the first, second, and third lines. A coach not known to be afraid of juggling lines and testing out new combinations, he’s willing to go as far as breaking up the left wing/right wing combo of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, which was among the league’s most potent offensive combo a year ago. Meanwhile, first line mainstay Marian Hossa is expected to be moved to the third line to skate alongside Marcus Kruger.

So to summarize: Kane will remain to the right of Artem Anisimov – as he was for a team-high 671 faceoffs last season, according to puckbase.com – while Panarin will move up to skate alongside Toews as Hossa moves to the third line.

Of course, this could mean multiple things.

The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line that carried the offense much of the year, combining for more than 35 percent of the Hawks points with a combined 225 points. Outside that threesome, there was little continuity across the Chicago lineup. With Quenneville constantly juggling the three other lines, the Blackhawks finished the year tied 20th with Edmonton in five-on-five scoring. The Hawks had never finished lower than 14th going back to 2008-09, Quenneville’s first season in Chicago. This could just be the latest development in the search for that right combination, figuring breaking up last season’s top line could best the best for the four lines as a whole.

But here’s what this could be above all – Quenneville believing Panarin is the option on the wing Toews missed last season and Hossa, who turns 38 in January, someone just not getting the job done and suited best for a third-line role.

And the numbers back it up.

Panarin’s 77 points in 2015-16 was the 12th-highest by a rookie in NHL history, the most for a rookie since 2006-07, when Evgeni Malkin and Paul Stastny recorded 85 and 78, respectively. Patrick Kane, of course had the best year of his career. Of his 46 goals – which surpassed his previous career-high by 16 – 22 of those goals were assisted by Panarin. Twenty-three of Kane’s 60 assists, also a career-high, were Panarin goals. Of course, that could be turned around as Kane assisted on 23 of Panarin’s 30 goals.

Hossa had just 33 points in 64 games last season skating mostly alongside Toews, his worst offensive output in an 82-game season since 1998-99, his first full NHL season, where he notched just 30 points in 60 games. His 0.71 points-per-game over the last three seasons are down from the mark on 0.89 he posted through his first four years in Chicago.

As McKenzie noted, Hossa skating alongside Kruger could create a ‘high-end, two-way checking line’, adding an extra dimension to the bottom six against inferior competition.

We’ll see what it brings.

Why Canada Wins the World Cup

Canada is king.

OK, roll your eyes. Say it’s a tired concept. A take. Apply whatever word you’d like.

Then try to prove it’s not true.

Canada has spent nearly two decades on its perch atop the professional hockey circuit, taking gold medals and world titles what seems to be time and time again. While the none of the country’s seven NHL cities have celebrated a Stanley Cup title since Montreal’s 1993 triumph, a majority of the players whose names have been engraved on Lord Stanley’s cup since then are Canadians.

The Canadian dominance doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

During round robin play of this year’s World Cup of Hockey, the Leafs went a perfect 3-0, tearing through it Group A counterparts; Team USA, Team Europe, and Team Czech Republic by a combined score of 14-3. The nearest peers to its plus-11 goal differential is North America and Russia (who Canada plays Saturday night in the WCH semifinal), with plus-three differentials. North America was the closest to Canada’s 14 tallies with 11, five of which were accounted for by Canadian-born players.

The offense has come from everywhere; nine different players account for Canada’s 14 goals, 16 have recorded at least a point. Not a single goal has been unassisted.

Meanwhile, the all-star blue line corps of Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jake Muzzin, and Shea Weber has made work easy for best-in-the-world netminder Carey Price, who has stopped 61 of the 63 shots that have come his way.

The disaster for Canada that was the 1998 Nagano Games – the first Winter Olympics the NHL sent players to – in which the Canadians failed to win a medal ceded itself to the run of dominance for the country on the international stage. Following those Games, all parties involved got together, aired grievances, buried the medal it didn’t win and moved on, devising a plan and moving forward.

The plan has led to three golds in four Olympics since, only at Torino in 2006 did Canada fail to win gold. The Canadians have also won the IIHF World Championships (a much more watered-down version of the WCH) five times since 2003, after having won it just twice in a 40-year span from 1962-2002.

Lots could happen over the next week between now and when a champion will be crowned, which could happen as early as Thursday. Canada will need to win as many games as they’ve already won to win that crown.

But based off what we’ve seen, there’s no reason not to expect more of the same.

How Canada wins: The X-factor for the Canadians is its fourth line of Joe Thornton, Ryan O’Reilly, and Matt Duchene. Duchene might very well be the most important player on this squad, tied with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews for the team lead with four points. No team can counter Canada’s fourth line. From there, the Canadians just need the best players to be the best players. You know, establish the play, get pucks deep, be heavy on the forecheck, all that stuff.

How Russia wins: The offensive firepower the Russians bring speaks for itself. Starting with Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Evgeny Kuznetsov and working its way down to Pavel Datsyuk, Artem Anisimov, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Nikita Kucherov, its your typical explosive, high-octane Russian lineup. But the player who decides whether Team Russia lives to play another (up to three) days? Look no further than Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is an intriguing case; we’ve seen the best (2013 Vezina Trophy winner) and we’ve seen him at his worst (.908 save percentage in 37 games in 2015-16). It’s been Bobrovsky at his best in this tournament, stopping 91 of 96 shots in three round robin games, in which Russia went 2-1. Any hopes of Russia pulling the upset begins with Bobrovsky playing at the level he’s played during this tournament.