How do you build a winner in the NHL today? You could start with an elite netminder like Henrik Lundqvist, or a deep and versatile defense like Boston's. Nothing wrong with those choices. But if the action this summer reveals anything, it's that strength down the middle is the defining characteristic of a championship-caliber club.
Watch the peerless group of four centers that were dressed by the Kings on their way to the Stanley Cup last season and it's clear that's where other teams struggled to keep pace.
The response this summer has been dramatic. Teams that didn't quite match up sacrificed treasure or futures to fill their gaps. The Ducks added former Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler to back up Ryan Getzlaf. The Blackhawks found just enough cap room to sign Brad Richards to create magic with Patrick Kane. The Stars imported Jason Spezza to support Tyler Seguin.
All that action has created a shift in the balance of power.
So, who's on top now? We looked at the presumptive top-four centers on each team—with the understanding that some players will move in and out of the position—to see which club will dress the most impactful group of pivots in the coming season.
There's no topping this firepower. The league's MVP and leading scorer followed by a former MVP gives the Penguins an unbeatable 1-2 punch. The serviceability of Sutter and Goc in depth roles is a bonus. Now if only the Pens could do something about those wings...
Blame the Kings for the escalation of the arms race in the Western Conference this off-season. This group keyed L.A.'s run to the Cup with their ideal blend of size, strength, scoring touch, experience and depth. Richards may be slowing down a bit, but beyond that it's tough to find a weakness.
Thornton remains one of the best playmakers in the game, accounting for 157 assists during the past three seasons (second to Claude Giroux, 158). Couture is a dynamic and versatile two-way player, and Sheppard and Desjardins have matured into reliable role players. The presence of convertible wingers Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau gives the Sharks more depth than any other organization. And as a team they were 52.8% on the draw last season, second-best in the league. Tough to match that.
Getzlaf and the newly acquired Kesler give the Ducks a combination of skill, mass and nastiness that no other club can match down the middle. Each could benefit offensively from the presence of the other. Cogliano can make things happen with his speed, but he's grim death on the draw. Thompson replaces Mathieu Perreault on the roster, but he's a downgrade in terms of offense and possession.
No Paul Stastny? No problem. MacKinnon moves to the middle full-time to take his spot on the second line. The Calder Trophy winner and Duchene combine to give the Avs the second-best array of speed and skill at the position, with the potential for significant growth this season. O'Reilly is a premier checking center who could play out the schedule with his eyes on another contract. If they were a little saltier on the draw (just 49.5%, 18th in the league), Colorado's dazzling young talent might rank even higher.
It was just two years ago that Dallas trotted out Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott as its top centers. Now look at 'em. Seguin is on the verge of superstardom after a breathrough season that saw him finish fourth in league scoring with 84 points. Spezza should thrive in the two-hole away from the fiercest checking. Eakin brings speed and tenacity and Fiddler epitomizes junkyard dog hockey. It's a well-balanced group with upside.
Selke Trophy winner Bergeron is arguably the best second-line center in the league, a possession monster who drives play quickly and efficiently out of Boston's zone. Krejci is a solid, if unglamorous No. 1, always reliable without the puck when his offense dries up. Soderberg has tremendous potential. His big body and great offensive instincts could make him an impact player as he gains more experience. Campbell needs to bear down in the circle, but he's a diligent depth forward and a terrific penalty killer.
Despite a clear difference in production, there's no denying that Toews rivals Crosby as the league's top center. He won 884 draws last year, trailing only Bergeron and Antoine Vermette, and can carry the offense. Richards is the latest to try to fill the second-line job, but his playmaking sets him apart from the other pretenders. Shaw is developing nicely in his role, especially with his play away from the puck, and Kruger brings speed and efficiency in the circle (56.7%).
Back to full health, Stamkos should regain his standing as the most dangerous sniper down the middle. Johnson is coming off a Calder-finalist campaign, but has to prove he can avoid the sophomore slump, as does Killorn. Boyle was a terrific add in the off-season, giving the center corps the size it lacked, along with a great penalty killing presence and a strong record on the draw (52.9%).
Surprisingly, the 'Canes posted the fourth-best team face-off performance at 52.6%. They'll miss Manny Malhotra and his team-high 59.6% mark at the dots, but McClement, who was Toronto's top face-off man, should be able to fill in. The Staals are coming off a down season in which their play suffered both with and without the puck, but they have the size, skill and experience to turn things around. Lindholm is a smart, two-way talent who could take a big step forward in his development this season.
Hart Trophy-finalist Giroux is one of the game's best all-around centers, and Couturier has established himself as an exceptional defensive presence who contributes even when his offense dries up. The same can't be said for Schenn, whose career-best year was marred by long bouts of ineffectiveness. Lecavalier has slowed to the point where he's likely to be dealt. If he goes, rookie Scott Laughton may get a look on the fourth line.
Koivu isn't the player he once was and Granlund isn't yet the player he will be, but both can be effective in top-six roles for a middle-of-the-road team. Brodziak struggled last season, losing his third line spot to Haula. The rookie showed real promise in the playoffs, chipping in offensively as well as bringing the speed and energy you'd expect out of the role.
If he's fully healthy, Tavares will work himself back into the Hart Trophy mix. Grabovski was a terrific depth add in free agency. He won't be a big scorer, but he'll bring tempo and tenacity to the third line. Cizikas quietly emerged as a solid depth center. The question mark is Strome—a legitimate top-six talent, he has to prove that he can handle the two-way rigors of a second-line role. If he's not up to the task, Frans Nielsen, coming off a career year, likely slides back into the mix.
When healthy, Datsyuk is as sublime as ever, a game-changing talent unlike any other in the league. Helm's had health problems, and he skated in just 42 games last season. He can impact a game with his speed but, like Datsyuk, he has to stay in the lineup to make the magic happen. Sheahan was a revelation, bringing offense and solid possession numbers (56.4% Corsi) when everyone expected him to be a defensive-minded banger. Can he match or top that? And can Weiss bring anything … anything at all? There are too many questions to rate them higher, but no group has more upside if everything comes together.
That breakthrough season (33-30-63) was nice, but more will be expected of Johansen in 2014-15. His physical tools and supporting cast should help him approach a point-per-game. The Jackets were a top-10 face-off team with this current group, so possession won't be an issue. Dubinsky, Anisimov and Letestu combined for a solid 50 goals and 123 points. Not bad, but there's room for improvement.
It's too early to pinpoint exactly how this group will shake out, but the early assumption is that free agent addition Stastny moves to the top line and David Backes slides over to the wing. Stastny lacks the ideal size of a No. 1, but if he finds chemistry with his Olympic teammate he could have a huge season. Berglund is rumored to be on the block, but if he stays, his size will be valuable. Lehtera is an unknown quantity, but he had success with Vladimir Tarasenko in the KHL. Ott steps in for Vladimir Sobotka (recently departed to the KHL) as the whirling dervish of misery on the fourth line and a situational face-off artist.
No Brad Richards. No Brian Boyle. It'll be a different look down the middle for the Rangers next season. Stepan and Brassard should be better for the experience of their Stanley Cup run, but neither should be expected to ramp up his scoring. Moore is as steady as they come in the four-hole, a veteran who takes care of his own end first but has the ability to chip in. The wild card is Lindberg, a 22-year-old rookie who finished second in scoring for Hartford (AHL) last season. If he struggles, look for veteran Chris Mueller to step in. He can lock things down, but the offense takes a hit.
The addition of Malhotra (59.4%) gives the Habs the intimidating presence in the circle they lacked last season. Eller struggled during the regular season, but showed his potential for dominance during the playoffs. He could be a difference maker for this group. At 31, Plekanec looks like a player in decline, putting pressure on Desharnais to become more of an offensive catalyst. That might be asking a lot of a player whose career high is 60 points.
Playing in Phoenix mutes the excellence of Vermette, who is a wizard in the circle (1,005 wins, second only to Patrice Bergeron) and a clever offensive player (24 goals). Gagner was a fantastic add, especially at the price, but he has to prove that he can handle a No. 1 workload. Hanzal and Vitale provide solid depth, though Hanzal will be hard pressed to match last season's career best 15 goals and 40 points.
Not the most glamorous group, but the Devils are capable down the middle. At 54.5%, Zajac ranked among the top-15 face-off men in the league. Henrique has the versatility and offensive upside to slide up the depth chart as needed. Elias is aging, but he could benefit from skating between a pair of fellow Czechs.
This is a solid group once these guys get the puck, but they need to figure out how to win a draw. Perreault will help—he led Anaheim with a 52.6% success rate in the circle—but Little, who takes most of the draws for Winnipeg, led the Jets last season with a miserable 47.5% rating. Schiefele should take a step forward in his second full season.
Backstrom is an All-Star caliber pivot, but beyond him lies a black hole. Laich is better suited for the wing, but either he or Evgeny Kuznetsov will have to step in to fill a second-line role if the team doesn't add a natural center prior to the start of the season. MoJo is a natural center, but he’s looked more comfortable on the wing in the NHL. Beagle is a solid depth option, but they have to resist the temptation to ask him to do too much (say, like piloting the first line as he did at times last season).
Sedin is coming off a miserable season that saw him accrue just 39 assists, his fewest in a full campaign since he assumed the first-line job. Bonino had some success in Anaheim, but racked up most of his points on the Ducks' potent power play. Vey was a strong minor leaguer, but is entirely unproven at this level. If he makes something out of this opportunity, and if Sedin bounces back, this unit has a chance to be decent.
With Jason Spezza gone, Turris officially assumes the role of 1C. He's coming off a career season, one in which he was +22 on a team that allowed 29 more goals than it scored, but he'll have to prove he can take the next step without the protection provided by the former captain. Legwand didn't look like he had much left in the tank last season and it's ambitious to expect more of him. Zibanejad has some offensive potential but he has consistency demons to fight. Smith's a solid No. 4, sound on the draw (52.7%) and a steady defensive presence.
Cullen and Gaustad are solid bottom-six vets who drive possession with their exceptional success on the draw—Gaustad finished fourth in the league last season at 58% and Cullen was sixth at 56.7%. But offensively this group doesn't scare anyone. Mike Fisher's extended trip to the IR (Achilles injury) really hurts. The decaying Jokinen and unproven Jarnkrok offer a mismatch that every team will look to exploit.
Toronto's well-noted possession troubles were rooted in an inability to win face-offs, so the loss of Jay McClement won't help a team that finished 25th on the draw. Santorelli can take up some of that slack, but there's no telling what KHL vet Kontiola will bring to the table in terms of possession or scoring. Bozak has chemistry with Phil Kessel, but few other qualifications to be a No. 1. Kadri's consistency and two-way effort continue to frustrate.
For a No. 1 center, RNH didn't generate much in the way of offense (56 points) or possession (a miserable 42.4% on the draw) last season. Arcobello and Lander are placeholders trying to fill roles for which they're not ideally suited. At least Gordon brings some reliability in the circle (56.5%) to compensate for a lack of offense (just 21 points).
No team was worse off the draw last season than the Flames (46.2%), and that right there was the prime reason why they spent so much time chasing the game instead of dictating the pace. Monahan impressed as a rookie but he's still raw, as is Colborne. The thought of facing Stajan and Backlund won't keep opposing coaches up at night.
You can't say enough about Girgensons—the kid is good now and he's going to be terrific when he gets it all figured out. Same with Reinhart, a bundle of potential whose NHL dreams may or may not go on hold after nine games. But the 5-foot-9, 169-pound Ennis is woefully miscast as a first liner, both in terms of offensive production (43 points) and puck possession (a lousy 38.7% on the draw). Cody McCormick isn't a terrible option on the fourth line, but he won't do much to help that 46.8% team face-off rate, either.
There's no 1-2 punch with less experience than Barkov and Bjugstad, and while on-the-job training is critical to the process of developing, it's going to make for some long nights. Putting his contact aside, Bolland's experience and leadership make him a valuable presence in a depth role, especially with those two kids looking for guidance along the way.