(Rankings are based solely on players' projected performances in 2011-12. Please note that players are listed at their official position when the rankings were created.)
In keeping with tradition, there isn't a weak link among the league's top centers. It's a deep, talented bunch. You could persuasively argue the superstar credentials of Nos. 1 through 20, and you could also make a strong case for the inclusion of any of the five honorable mentions.
Sidney Crosby(notes), despite missing the second half of last season due to concussion symptoms, deserves to skate into 2011-12 as the league's premier pivot. Long live The Kid, right? It would be a devastating blow to the Pittsburgh Penguins and the entire NHL if Crosby continues to be plagued by health concerns, but the silver lining to that worst-case scenario is the fact the Pens boast two more marquee middlemen in Evgeni Malkin(notes) (No. 6) and Jordan Staal(notes) (No. 20). And there's a raft of other elite centers, from Pavel Datsyuk(notes) in Detroit to Jonathan Toews(notes) in Chicago to Henrik Sedin(notes) in Vancouver to … well, the list could go on and on. But we had to cut it at the top 25, plus five honorable mentions.
Honorable mentions: Paul Stastny(notes), Colorado Avalanche; David Krejci(notes), Boston Bruins; Joe Pavelski(notes), San Jose Sharks; Jason Spezza(notes), Ottawa Senators; Stephen Weiss(notes), Florida Panthers.
20. Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins: A two-way force and he's only 22. He's really a No. 2 center, but on the Pens he's a checking demon who can score 25 goals.
18. Patrice Bergeron(notes), Boston Bruins: A key contributor to Boston's Cup win, he's overcome the concussion problems that once threatened to derail his career to develop into a complete player. Can play, and excel, in any situation.
12. Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings: The ex-Flyers captain shouldn't lack for motivation. Look for a big year on the West Coast.
9. Joe Thornton(notes), San Jose Sharks: Don't expect another scoring title or MVP award, but that's an acceptable tradeoff for improved playoff performances. The window of opportunity to win a Cup is closing, but it hasn't shut yet.
6. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: Combination of size and skill allows Pittsburgh's "other" franchise player to take over games. The prognosis on his February knee injury is encouraging.
5. Steven Stamkos(notes), Tampa Bay Lightning: When he's on, he joins Crosby, Ovechkin and Co. in the conversation as the game's best player. The kid just needs to be more consistent, more of a factor in every game, to reach the highest level.
4. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks: He's the playmaking twin, not the goal-scoring twin.
3. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: Heart and soul of the 'Hawks is a big-stage star who leads by example.
2. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings: You know, he just might be the best all-around player in the game today.
1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: Yes, we're making the big assumption that the face of the NHL will be fully recovered from the concussion issues that caused him to miss the second half of last season. Why? Because the alternative is too awful to acknowledge.
Sam McCaig is the NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Canada
Photo credits: Getty Images