Power rankings: Centers of attention …
You can argue the order of importance, but the three most pivotal positions on the ice are goaltender, top defenseman and the No. 1 center.
Teams generally look to stop the puck first, but when you want to turn it the other way it’s hard to do unless you have major skill up front.
Teams without a bona fide No. 1 center seem to advance only so far through the regular season, and more importantly, the postseason.
This week’s power rankings, which appear each Tuesday, take a look at each team’s top-line centerman.
1. San Jose Sharks (25-3-2, Previous: 1) – Joe Thornton hasn’t as much changed his game under Todd McLellan as he has added to it. Thornton is active in front of the net, using his size more than in the past, and remains productive (he’s on pace for 98 points). And he has yet to miss a game as a Shark – 252 in a row and counting.
2. Boston Bruins (21-5-4, Previous: 2) – Marc Savard is arguably the most underrated player in the league, let alone at center ice. It all started to click once the lockout ended for Savard, not the biggest center around but certainly one of the most skilled, especially when it comes to playmaking and dishing the puck. He’s on pace for 93 points.
3. Detroit Red Wings (20-6-4, Previous: 3) – Henrik Zetterberg is the best two-way center in the game. The scary thing is he has less than 400 NHL games and is only 28 years old. Scary, too, for Detroit general manager Ken Holland, who must extend the Swedish star’s contract. Otherwise, Zetterberg could be long gone in the summer to what would certainly be a very high bid.
4. New York Rangers (20-11-2, Previous: 6) – Scott Gomez has battled inconsistency in his two seasons with the Rangers. His minus-10 sticks out this season. He’s not the biggest of players, but he’s viewed as someone who can step up in big games. That’s at least the hope moving forward as New York figures to be in the hunt again this season.
5. Philadelphia Flyers (16-7-6, Previous: 7) – Mike Richards has taken big strides the last two seasons, not only in terms of production but in a presence that has led to him being named captain and awarded a long-term contract. Richards is on pace for 96 points, which would be an increase of 21 over last season’s career high.
6. Washington Capitals (18-10-3, Previous: 9) – Having Alexander Ovechkin on a wing is going to make any center look good, but it’s surprising how little time it has taken 21-year-old Nicklas Backstrom to assume high status among top NHL pivots. Like so many of the Swedes in the NHL, Backstrom is both skilled and mature beyond his years. He’s on pace for 82 points with his point-per-game production.
7. Montreal Canadiens (16-8-5, Previous: 4) – He’s currently battling a foot injury, but Saku Koivu is the cog that makes the fast-paced Canadiens’ engine go. Many have long forgotten that Koivu’s career was threatened in 2001 because of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s an amazing story of dedication and consistency throughout the years, and now that the Habs have a very talented group, Koivu has the opportunity to shine brighter.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins (16-10-4, Previous: 5) – Flip a coin as to whether Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is the team’s top center, but there’s no argument both are on their way to super-super stardom. The two leading scorers in the league, Malkin is on pace for 134 points and Crosby 120.
9. New Jersey Devils (16-9-2, Previous: 10) – It’s sometimes more the fit in the system as opposed to being a top-flight center with the Devils, and third-year forward Travis Zajac is playing that role currently. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Zajac can handle the defensive load, then worry about dishing off to his wingers when the puck turns the other way.
10. Chicago Blackhawks (15-6-7, Previous: 12) – Jonathan Toews is another superstar in the making. He struggled to score goals early this season, but that’s just a snapshot complaint of the big picture. Toews has size, smarts, skill and leadership. There’s a reason why the Blackhawks are so excited about the future and Toews, on pace for a modest 67 points, is a big part of it.
11. Anaheim Ducks (17-11-3, Previous: 11) – Ryan Getzlaf figures to be Anaheim’s man in the middle for many years to come. He has all the tools to be a star in the league. Getzlaf’s size and his shot are his greatest assets, but the team also likes his competitive nature and the chip he sometimes carries on his shoulder.
12. Calgary Flames (16-11-3, Previous: 8) – The top spot is shared by Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow, but most often it’s manned by the 37-year-old Conroy, which tells you all you need to know about the Flames – they resemble a donut with their hole in the middle. They’re both miscast as a No. 1 center. End of story.
13. Vancouver Canucks (17-11-3, Previous: 15) – Henrik Sedin has all the chemistry in the world with his identical twin Daniel, but finding a third player to complement the top duo has been a challenge. Taking some pressure off the Sedins is another reason why the team has been so aggressive in its pursuit of unrestricted free agent Mats Sundin.
14. Edmonton Oilers (14-12-2, Previous: 13) – Shawn Horcoff is a very good player, but the Oilers’ situation isn’t much different from that of their Alberta rivals in Calgary. Edmonton would like to have a more natural No. 1 center and let Horcoff slip to maybe a No. 2 role, but for now this is the way it is.
15. Buffalo Sabres (15-12-3, Previous: 18) – The Sabres seem to always feature undersized centers, and turning to the 5-foot-9 Derek Roy on many nights is no departure from the past. If Buffalo wants to get serious about contending in the postseason the team is going to have to get bigger in the middle of the ice.
16. Colorado Avalanche (15-14-1, Previous: 19) – It’s never easy transitioning from a superstar to someone new, but the Avalanche appear headed in the right direction as Paul Stastny eases into the slot filled so many years by the classy Joe Sakic. Stastny has the bloodlines, but more importantly the skill and presence to handle the assignment. Sure, it’s early in the 22-year-old’s career, but all signs point to Stastny being the answer.
17. Phoenix Coyotes (14-13-2, Previous: 21) – The Coyotes acquired Olli Jokinen to fill the middle of a top line, but they have to be thrilled with the accelerated development of 21-year-old, second-year Czech center Martin Hanzal. He has some filling out to do, but that will come for the 6-4 Hanzal, who is on pace for 22 goals and more than 50 points.
18. Carolina Hurricanes (13-12-5, Previous: 16) – Rob Brind’Amour is still probably considered the team’s top center, but it needs to be Eric Staal, who has been struggling to find offensive consistency this season. The ‘Canes don’t have any reason to worry. Staal will get there, and once he does he’ll be there for many years to come.
19. Nashville Predators (15-12-3, Previous: 17) – Jason Arnott is an accomplished veteran with two Stanley Cups, but at age 34 with 998 games played, he’s going to start slowing down instead of speeding up. The Predators are used to doing more with less, and unless David Legwand takes a major step up at mid-career, the team will probably need to address this position sooner rather than later.
20. Minnesota Wild (15-13-1, Previous: 14) – Mikko Koivu, the 25-year-old younger brother of Montreal’s Saku Koivu, may be the most improved player at his position over the last year or two. Koivu was projected to be a solid NHLer, but he appears to be exceeding all expectations. On pace for 85 points, Koivu’s production is even more impressive considering Marian Gaborik hasn’t been there to help.
21. Florida Panthers (14-13-3, Previous: 22) – Stephen Weiss is playing there now, but does anyone think the 25-year-old – who has yet to crack the 50-point plateau during any of his first five full seasons – is the long-term answer for Florida? We don’t think so, either.
22. Los Angeles Kings (13-12-5, Previous: 25) – Obviously, Anze Kopitar, 21, is that special young player every franchise would love to have from the start. It doesn’t seem like Los Angeles’ struggles early in his career is having an adverse effect on Kopitar, who appears mature beyond his years with the skills to match.
23. Ottawa Senators (11-12-5, Previous: 20) – Jason Spezza faces a lot of criticism, an inherent consequence of being the second player chosen in a draft and having to live up to all those expectations. At times, though, the 25-year-old hasn’t helped himself, with his seemingly lackadaisical play. Like his team, Spezza is off to a slow start this year and he’ll have to pick up the pace or trade rumors will pick up steam.
24. Columbus Blue Jackets (13-14-3, Previous: 26) – No, we don’t expect R.J. Umberger to play top-line center any longer than necessary. Nothing against Umberger, one of the more versatile forwards in the league, but the Blue Jackets have to find the answer and they’re hoping that the fast start of rookie Derick Brassard’s career signals they have a worthy candidate.
25. Toronto Maple Leafs (11-12-6, Previous: 27) – The sad truth is third- and fourth-line centers Dominic Moore and John Mitchell have played the position better than anyone on the roster. The bottom line: The team’s top-line center is not even in the organization yet.
26. Dallas Stars (11-14-4, Previous: 24) – The Stars are deep at the position, but it’s hard to forget about Mike Modano when he’s still on the roster. Brad Richards has the potential to fill the top role, and he has assumed more of that responsibility this season as Mike Ribeiro’s offense continues to sputter. It just feels like everything would be better if the Stars could just have a do-over.
27. St. Louis Blues (12-14-3, Previous: 23) – This is a wait-and-see situation as the Blues give their young players a chance to develop. Keith Tkachuk is having a surprisingly good season, despite playing center instead of wing, where he’s more comfortable. Either way, the man in the middle for the future has yet to emerge.
30. New York Islanders (10-18-2, Previous: 29) – Doug Weight – 37 years old, 17 years in the league – has had a great career, but he’s simply holding space until the future comes along. Get out your crystal ball; we don’t know who it is either.