If I was to build an NHL team from scratch, I would start by looking at centers. It’s a tough position play and maybe the hardest to acquire. So today let’s dive into my top 10 centers in the NHL which I ranked using 3 main variables. The first is power-play prowess, which is how well players produce weighted points and shots on the power-play. The second is their offence which considers their ability to drive play offensively, produce points, and draw penalties. The final is their defense, which is a mix of their shot and expected goal suppression, ability to not take penalties, win face offs and takeaways. With these perimeters set there are obviously way to many fantastic centers to make a top 10 list, so let’s start with some honorable mentions.
It was really hard to boil this down to just 10 names. This is why there are so many players I wish I could have included. Starting with Jordan Staal and Ryan O’Reilly who are defensive studs and deserve some love. Then there are rising stars Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon. Both are having fantastic seasons at even strength and could be on this list very soon. Finally there are Vincent Trocheck and Ryan Getzlaf who just really well rounded and under rated centers. All of these guys are amazing players, but not quite good enough to crack the top 10. So with the honorable mentions out of the way, let’s dive into the list.
10 – Mark Scheifele
One of the leauges best point producers kicks off our list. Scheifele does everything you can ask of a big time offensive player. He was 7th in points per 60 minutes last year, making him one of the best at putting up 5v5 points. Pilling on top of the points he also tilts shots and expected goals well in the offensive zone. This offensive prowess sadly doesn’t translate well to the power-play where he is the worst player on this list. This holds him back from climbing farther up this list. In the other end of the rink Scheifele makes a slightly above average defensive player. He is decent at suppressing shots and chances, and doesn’t take so many penalties it’s a determent. All together Scheifele has some clear weaknesses, but I think his offence is enough to put him on this list.
9 – Steven Stamkos
Admittedly I wasn’t going to have Stamkos on this list at all, which I’m sure people would have hated. But recency bias is the best bias so Stamkos comes in at #9. He’s probably the best shooter on the planet because he consistently scores on an incredibly high percentage of his shots. This makes him one of the better goal scorers at even strength, and it translates to great power play results too. It’s also hard to ignore what he has done recently with Kucherov, becoming one of the most dynamic duos in the NHL the past 2 seasons. Sadly, Stamkos doesn’t really drive play and is not a defensive rock like many of his peers on this list. This holds him back from being even higher on the list, but 9 is still pretty impressive.
8 – Anze Kopitar
Kopitar is one of the most complete players in the NHL, and is the type of player coaches dream about. He drives play offensively, puts up enough points, draws tonnes of penalties, and yet these are not even close to his best attributes. Kopitar is a rare breed who does everything well offensively, but does not sacrifice anything defensively to do it. He suppresses shots and chances very well, rarely takes penalties, and wins plenty of face-offs. He has also a very strong contributor on the power-play. There is nothing Kopitar can’t do, which is why he ranks 8th best among the leagues best centers.
7 – Auston Matthews
At number 7 is the under rated Leafs legend, Auston Matthews. Of course I’m kidding, Matthews gets tones of credit and coverage, and he deserves every bit of it. Coming into the league he was supposed to be defensive stud, but we have to start with his offence. Nobody takes a better mix of quality and quantity shots at 5 on 5 than Matthews, which is why he is already the leagues most lethal even strength scorer. He drives play well on his own, however when coupled with William Nylander they are already one of best duos in hockey. Matthews defensive game is basically just average (which is good for a 20 year old) but is boosted slightly above it because he rarely takes penalties. For the most lethal 5v5 scorer he isn’t godly on the power-play… yet. As he improves there I bet he will rise up this list.
One of the more under rated players in the league, Barkov simply does everything well. He a minority on this list because attribute is without the puck. He has only taken 4 penalties playing big minutes in 120 games. To add to this, Barkov has been fantastic at suppressing goals and chances against. Transitioning up the ice is what holds Barkov back. He is good at putting up points and generating shots at even strength and the power-play. Sadly he is not elite in either category which holds him back from moving farther up this list. All together Barkov is a young stud who can do everything, and somehow the Panthers have one of the elite centers on maybe the best contract in the NHL.
5 – Evgeni Malkin
Kicking off the top 5 is one of the best players of my lifetime: Evgeni Malkin. There are no signs that he is slowing down because last year he was the leagues most efficient point producer at even strength, leading the NHL in points per hour. He is among the best at even strength offence, and somehow gets even better on the power-play. There he manege’s a flurry of shots, goals and assists, making him the second best in the NHL over the past three seasons. When Malkin doesn’t have the puck he struggles more than anyone on the list, which holds him back from being even higher. All together his hall of fame offence more than makes up for defensive deficiencies, which is why he is #5 on this list, and a top 100 player in my heart.
4 – John Tavares
There is absolutely nothing John Tavares can’t do at an elite level. Offensively he is almost impossible to stop, almost reaching a point per game pace on his career plus topping it this season. On top of the points, very few are better at generating shots and scoring chances. This is why Anders Lee and Josh Bailey have been able to ride Tavares to crazy results this season. This offence translates incredibly well to the power-play too where he is again among the NHL’s best. The only thing that used to hold Tavares back was his defensive play, but that has steadily improved over the past few season and he is now a capable #1 shutdown center too. If he does hit free agency I could realistically see him getting a max contract, and the leagues 4th best center might just deserve it.
3 – Patrice Bergeron
Everytime the Canadian media thinks they are raving about Johnathan Toews, they are actually describing Patrice Begeron. He is the best defensive forward in the NHL and I don’t think it’s close. He consistently wins so many faceoffs it actually matters, takes few penalties, and suppress shots and chances among the best. All together this is why they may as well just name the Selke trophy after him. Moving up the ice he barley losses a step. He generates plenty of points, and is almost as good at generating shots as he is at suppressing them. On top of all this, he is even more effect on the power-play than he is at even strength offence. When adding these 3 things up this is why corsi king Patrice Begeron anchors the best line in hockey, and #3 on the best centers list.
2 – Sidney Crosby
There is almost nothing original I can say about Sidney Crosby, the greatest grinder to ever play hockey. Although at age 30 he has finally been dethroned, there is still one area where Crosby is king. That area is making the players around him better. Jake Guentzel lead the league in even strength points per hour last year while Connor Sheary was a close 4th. The primary reason for this? Each played over half their even strength minutes with Sidney Crosby. This is why if I could play play wing with any of the centers on this list, my first pick would still be Crosby. He is off to one of the roughest patches of his career, but don’t count him out, he is still the second best center-man alive.
The second you clicked on this list you knew exactly who #1 was going to be. 2017 will go down as the year where Connor McDavid took over as the best player in the NHL. He puts up points at a higher rate than anyone else, and drives shots and scoring chances like only Sid. Furthermore, he draws penalties at an insane rate ensuring the Oilers get plenty of power-play opportunities. Once on the power-play McDavid is one of the best, and once he starts shooting more on the power-play the rest of the league will be doomed. Young players sometimes struggle without the puck, but not McDavid. Given the high pace he plays at offensively, he actually does relatively well at preventing shots and chances again. Add this to the fact he takes very few penalties, and McDavid is a sound defensive player at age 20. All together there is pretty clearly nobody as good as Connor McDavid, which is why he tops this list.
I love lists like this because they are very subjective. Therefor they have a great ability to generate discussion and debate. If you agree or disagree with any of my points or rankings, let me know in the comments or @CMhockey66 on twitter.
Final note, these results were not completely subjective. At the start of this list I mentioned some weighted statistical inputs to rank these players. I made my own modifications to the final results of that to rank the centers.. If you’re interested in the results that I mention multiple times in the rankings, here they are!