Some aspects of hockey never change even as the game evolves. For instance, if you control the middle, you control the game. It doesn’t mean you always win, but it surely increases your chances. So which NHL teams, from top line to fourth, have the centers who can make that kind of difference?
There are many perspectives on what makes for a good center. Playmaking is paramount. Scoring is important. Making everyone on the ice around you better is necessary. Winning face-offs to control the puck, especially late in games is often overlooked or dismissed. Then there are the intangibles and leadership skills that may not show up on the scoresheet, but keep a team in sync and moving forward.
So, what teams are the best down the middle this season? Before I get to my top ten, I feel compelled to mention a few teams of note.
The Boston Bruins are solid at center but the injury to Patrice Bergeron takes them out of the conversation. The Florida Panthers are top heavy with two studs in Vincent Trocheck and Aleksander Barkov. The same can be said for the Vegas Golden Knights who feature William Karlsson and Erik Haula, but not enough after that to make the list.
#10 Philadelphia Flyers (35-25-11)
The revival of the Flyers this season starts in the middle. Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, who each netted 14 goals last season, have 26 and 29 respectively this year and a combined 148 points (92 last season). Giroux has won 59% of his face-offs and the team’s current 4 centers are at a combined 54%.
#9 Nashville Predators (46-14-10)
Numbers don’t always tell the full story. The Preds’ centers don’t put up the kind of numbers that have fantasy hockey players flocking, but with the return of Mike Fisher, this foursome is excellent on face-offs and strong in stature and leadership. Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino take a back seat to very few teams when healthy.
#8 Anaheim Ducks (35-24-12)
Like Nashville, the pedigree of this foursome goes way beyond their point totals, although Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are capable of putting up big numbers. The addition of former Devil Adam Henrique gives this team another dangerous weapon. Rounding out the group is 35-year-old veteran Antoine Vermette whose face-off skills are still remarkable (almost 60 percent). They are a consistent group with loads of big-game experience.
#7 New York Islanders (30-30-10)
Rookie sensation Mathew Barzal gives John Tavares another major player at center for New York. Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas are steady, solid veterans, who on a better and deeper team would be much more noticeable and productive.
#6 Washington Capitals (40-23-7)
Third and fourth line centers Lars Eller and Jay Beagle form a nice compliment to the always productive Nicklas Backstrom and rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is a bad face-off guy who needs to improve in that regard to help elevate this group further up the ladder.
#5 Edmonton Oilers (30-35-5)
The team is not living up to its expectations but it’s not due to a lack of talent in the middle. Connor McDavid is dreadful on face-offs (42%) but a truly elite player everywhere else on the ice. With Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Strome, this group of four has netted 86 goals and 128 assists.
#4 Winnipeg Jets (42-19-10)
If you include the injured Mark Scheifele, who should be back soon, this group is rock solid both on the score sheet (54-104) and in the face-off circle (54%). Paul Stastny was a really nice pick-up and longtime Jet Bryan Little has been a model of consistency. It’s no secret why the Jets have the fifth-most points in the league.
#3 Toronto Maple Leafs (42-22-7)
The Leafs, down the middle, are young and fast with studs Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Nazem Kadri. They also have a good veteran presence with career Leaf Tyler Bozak and newly acquired Tomas Plekanec. The unit of four has a combined 80 goals and 106 assists and are a solid face-off team.
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning (48-18-4)
Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point were already a good cast of centers. The addition of J. T. Miller at the deadline was a solid pick-up. This group can do it all. They have combined for 92 goals and 144 assists and the best may be yet to come.
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins (41-26-5)
Sidney Crosby, the player that so many people love to hate somehow always seems to have the puck on his stick and find a way to win. He has plenty of help down the middle with future Hall-of-Famer and Hart Memorial Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin, as he’s having one of his best seasons of his career. The addition of Derick Brassard gives them another proven playoff performer and Riley Sheahan rounds out the field with a team best 54% face-off rate. As two-time defending champion, the Pens are still the center of attention and it all begins at the center of the ice.