• It may seem easy to ride shotgun with the NHL's top centers, but there's more to it than just having your stick on the ice at the right time.
By Daniel J. Friedman
April 02, 2017

Every dollar counts in a salary cap world, which has made re-signing players a more difficult task for NHL teams.

Always willing to cast themselves in the role of armchair GM, fans will use whatever justification necessary to pay—or not pay—certain skaters or goaltenders.

Wingers that play with elite level centers like Sidney Crosby or John Tavares, in particular, are easy targets, because the idea that anybody can step into their skates and replicate their production is fairly supportable—at least on the surface.

For example, Jonathan Cheechoo went from leading the league in goals with 56 in 2006-06 to the minor leagues in a span of just four seasons, the deciding factor being a separation from Joe Thornton, who still passes the puck better than most players in the NHL today.

But for every Cheechoo, there are a number of players who’ve been able to maintain solid and productive careers. Chris Kunitz, who has ridden shotgun with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, and with Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, is one such example. He suggests there’s an element of truth to the theory in focus.  

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“It is kind of accurate,” Kunitz says with a chuckle. “They obviously make everybody around them better. That’s what makes them so good at hockey; they have the vision and wherewithal to be able to draw defenders towards them and create space for their linemates and teammates on the ice. The game goes at a slower pace for most of the elite players in the league, and it does make it easier to play with a guy like that.”

Still, Kunitz explains, the idea that he and others in similar situations are merely byproducts of their centers is a complete fallacy and something he tends to block out.

“I’ve always looked at the game as a team sport,” he says. “You go out there and you try and help your team win. There are elite players on every team that get the majority of the points because of the way they play, and you need other people to fill in certain sports to make the game go. I try and play my style of game and just remind myself that you’re playing there because (the coaches) think there’s a connection or correlation between you and how that player plays.”

Anaheim Ducks forward Patrick Eaves, who has crossed tracks with the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in Dallas, now finds himself in a similar spot since being traded in February. He’s currently on the Ducks’ top line with Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, and has helped get the team’s top offensive unit going.

Eaves acknowledges that having elite linemates has certainly been a catalyst for his 30-goal season. Like Kunitz, however, he knows it’s not a one-way street.

“I think our games help each other’s games,” says Eaves. “I think they compliment each other. Those guys do some special things, and I have the ability to go get them the puck and get in scoring areas. You’re gonna get some very good looks just because of their natural ability, but sometimes you get paired with another skilled player and your games don’t compliment each other and it doesn’t work. Sometimes you find that chemistry and you run with it.”

Sabres winger Matt Moulson was a consistent 30-goal scorer while playing alongside Tavares during his Islanders tenure from 2009-14. Since his arrival in Buffalo, he’s also spent some time on a line with  phenom Jack Eichel.

For Moulson, there’s more to playing with a star center than perhaps meets the eye.

“When playing with guys like that, there’s a lot more thinking involved,” he says. “Rather than just working hard, they expect you to be in a place at a certain time. They have a picture in their head of what they’re trying to accomplish out there, and expect you to be on that same thinking level as them, even though some of the things they’re trying to do are maybe a little different and at a higher level than you might be able to do yourself.”

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Alternatively, Eaves suggests, it’s the players who have more simple games that tend to mesh well with elite talents.

“Sometimes, a simple player helps him be more creative and gives him that ability to make those plays,” he says.

The bond between center and winger is initiated by their coaches, but it’s forged through confidence and reliability. It is dependent on a connection that is almost telepathic in nature, the messages being sent back and forth with vulcanized rubber.

“You have to gain their trust of them knowing where you’re gonna be or understanding the way you play the game,” says Kunitz. “I don’t know if there’s any one skill set that correlates with them. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of good teammates and I don’t know if it’s the style of game you play or of it’s the trust factor that you get in your linemates when you go out there doing the same things over and over. Hopefully, it’s a little bit of both.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for someone riding shotgun with a world-class pivot is to find the right balance in terms of puck distribution and efficiency.

“You want them to have the puck at all times,” says Kunitz. “You’re always looking and looking for them. But part of it is understanding when you can give them the puck and trying not to do it too much, even though they always have that demanding look in their eyes. You need to have the patience to not force them the puck.”

The same holds true on the opposite side of the spectrum. A winger that wants the puck often may not necessarily take advantage of his situation or utilize his star center as often as he should. Moulson postulates that, in order for a line to have proper chemistry, it requires an element of unselfishness.

“When you hear ‘you could put anyone with them,’ I don’t think there are too many people that can’t play with them,” says Moulson. “It’s just that certain guys are gonna have a little more chemistry with them. They want to have the puck in their hands; they want to be the ones making plays and the plays going through them. So, it definitely helps to have someone that doesn’t want the puck as much or is looking to get them the puck.”

As it turns out, there’s much more to it than keeping one’s hockey stick on the ice and waiting for good things to happen – a rebound, a fortuitous bounce or a perfectly-threaded pass – whatever opportunities may materialize. A winger is still a key cog in the machine, and the play doesn’t end once Crosby or Tavares has the puck on his stick.

“You’ve gotta get them the puck and then get open to get it back,” says Moulson. “I feel that’s something I’ve always been good at.”

Players like Kunitz, Moulson and Eaves will take the production however they can get it, but no matter the source, they know they still have to do their part to make it work, even if they don’t always fully comprehend what it is their linemates are trying to make work.

“They see some things that I can’t see because they’re elite, but my ability to get them the puck or get in front of the net creates space for them,” says Eaves. “If you give those special players time and space and they have the puck on their stick most of the night, it’s gonna be a good night for the line. I just try to play a simple game, and they can fill in the rest.”

People tend to experience many highs and lows throughout their lives, and hockey players are no exception to that. Often times, these developments have the potential to elicit an unnatural response or behavior change. It’s very easy to imagine someone getting a promotion at work and letting that get to their head, and winding up on the top line can have that type of mental effect.

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“The challenge is remembering why you’re there,” says Kunitz. “(The coaches) obviously put you there because they think you can excel at that spot on the ice with those players, and you have to go out there and perform. You don’t want to change your game and pretend you’re a different player just because you’re playing with some of these star centermen.”

So, can anybody really play with Crosby?

“I don’t think there’s an exact formula, or else GMs would be figuring it out by now,” says Eaves. “You’ve just gotta see what works.”