Why elite centers are the NHL's most precious commodity

Nikita Nesterov (L) of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks skate for a loose puck during Game Four of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois (AFP Photo/Bruce Bennett) (Getty Images/AFP)

The first-line center position was once the most recognized spot in hockey. This is true from years of research and science. Well, it’s not really that detailed.

From 1972-73 through 1995-96, a non-center won the Hart Trophy just three times.

Since then, centers have won the Hart seven times.

Does this mean their value has waned? Not at all. In fact a center is more valuable than ever before.

They are multi-layered, multi-zone organisms. You cannot have a second-line center playing 1C minutes and expect to win a Stanley Cup.

There are just different ways to measure their importance than the past. 

“The game is so quick today that there’s as much responsibilities put on the centermen as being put on the defensemen,” Calgary coach Bob Hartley said. “As much as we want our defensemen to jump into the play, we want our centermen to be the first forward back. There’s a big deal of conditioning that goes into that position.”

This past season, Jonathan Toews’ CF Rel% 5-on-5  was at  plus-3.84 according to Natural Stat Trick – best on the Blackhawks amongst regular players. Anze Kopitar was plus-4.68, third on the puck-possession heavy Kings. Patrice Bergeron was plus-9.78 on the Bruins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both in positive territory at plus-5.27 and plus-3.91, respectively.

In the age of advanced stats and analytics, a center who can control the pace of the game and keep the puck in the other team’s zone is vital. And a middleman doesn’t have to have high-level point success like Crosby, Malkin or Steven Stamkos to do this, though hitting about 60-70 points in a season is probably the norm for an elite 1C.

You need a first-line center who can skate. You need a first-line center who can play well in all zones. You need a first-line center who can win over 50 percent of his face offs, or at least that's a nice bonus. 

“I think it’s one of those positions that are kind of hands on. You touch basically everywhere,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. “You have to be in the defensive zone, you have to kind of support everywhere, you have to support the defenseman, you have to support your wingers and be the kind of the player who takes care of all that.”

Said Islanders center John Tavares, “I mean a centerman is around the puck a lot. A lot of things go through someone who is down low in the defensive zone for a lot of coverage and breaking out through your own zone through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone.”

Toews has played Kopitar and Bergeron in the playoffs. Against an elite center, you’re not going to just have to battle him in the offensive zone. The compete factor goes all over the ice.

“They don’t give up anything,” Toews said of the two other 2015 Selke Trophy finalists. “They work as hard as they possibly can and they don’t give up an inch out there.”

There are other skaters at different positions who have been recognized recently to a high degree. Wingers have won four Hart Trophies since 2008 – three for Alex Ovechkin and one for Corey Perry. Patrick Kane could have been a Hart Trophy possibility this year had he not gotten hurt in February.

Also, it’s hard to say defenseman Duncan Keith wasn’t more important as Toews for Chicago’s Stanley Cup win this year. 

But even those who play in other spots understand the importance of a strong center foundation to overall team success.

“I usually just come back to the zone, stop at the top of the circles and let (Tyler) Seguin do everything,” Stars left winger Jamie Benn said. “But it’s a lot of special players coming down the middle. They can pretty much do everything.”

Centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2015 NHL Draft are seen as potential building blocks – not just because of their offense, but because the Oilers and Sabres won’t need to worry about strength down the middle for the next nine years at least – those two will leave Edmonton and Buffalo at some point dadgummit!

The Arizona Coyotes took  center Dylan Strome with the No. 3 pick in 2015, probably in part because of his position. Seriously, who wants Noah Hanifin? 

Remember when defenseman Seth Jones fell in the 2013 Draft to Nashville at No. 4? That was in part because Colorado wanted to take the draft’s best center, Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 pick and the Panthers wanted a middleman in Aleksander Barkov at No. 2. We still don’t know what Tampa was doing with winger Jonathan Drouin over Jones at No. 3, but that’s another story completely. 

To make a cross-sport reference having a top center in your lineup for the long term is almost like the Indianapolis Colts scoring the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft when first Peyton Manning was available and then Andrew Luck. They’ve mostly had success with either QB in the lineup. When you can pencil in an elite player at an important position every game, everything goes much easier.

“I think in every sport if you’re strong up the middle you’re usually a strong team,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “The center icemen seem to be the catalyst, usually offensively. They’re the guys who have the puck the most and make maybe the most decisions on the ice based on the number of touches they have in a game.”

Find the right guy to plug in at center 82 nights out of the year and watch your success grow. It’s the best way to build in today’s NHL. 

Here is a list of first-line centers who have won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout:

2006 – Eric Staal

2007 – Andy McDonald

2008 – Pavel Datsyuk

2009 – Crosby

2010 – Toews

2011 – Bergeron

2012 – Kopitar

2013 – Toews

2014 – Kopitar

2015 – Toews

- - - - - - -

Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!