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First Word: Middles for the Ages

Who in NHL history had the best bunch down the middle? That's up to personal opinion, but here are five of the top center cores the league has ever seen.

Whippersnappers, take note of these signs you’re getting old: 1. You groan involuntarily during routine exertion. 2. You start caring about inconsequential minutiae, like the girth of your cutlery. 3. Your eyebrows flow in the wind. 4. You refer to people as whippersnappers.

Another symptom you might experience is nostalgia-itis, a frequent default to “back-in-the-day” thoughts. I’m a sufferer. Take our Countdown, ranking the 31 NHL teams’ groups of centers.When the idea was floated, I began mental Googling some of the best I’ve seen in my time. Then I did some research to corroborate or refute my memory (mushy-recall syndrome is another telltale sign of aging) and came up with a top five since 1967 expansion.

The list is based on success as a group during an entire and specific season, not about career achievements or a playoff run. For example, the 1991 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins eventually had Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier and Jiri Hrdina/Randy Gilhen down the middle. But Lemieux lost two-thirds of the year to back issues, Francis was acquired at the trade deadline and Trottier was nearing twilight. The Hall of Famers were brilliant in the playoffs, but the club finished seventh overall in the 21-team league, and aside from Lemieux’s Conn Smythe Trophy, none were in the running for major honors.

The following top five groups all won Stanley Cups and were in the top third of the standings in the regular season. I limited groups to one season, to avoid multiple Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier entries, and included each foursome’s composite era-adjusted point total, based on data provided at hockey-reference.com.

1986-87 Edmonton Oilers. Not Gretzky’s best individual season, but combined with the contributions of Messier, Craig MacTavish and Mike Krushelnyski, this stands as the best single-season foursome of the past 50 years. The Oil cleared the field in the regular season by 11 points. Gretzky claimed his eighth Hart, seventh Art Ross, seventh first all-star berth and fifth goal-scoring title. Messier, who some were calling the best all-around player in the world, was third in the scoring race and second to…wait for it…Gretzky in playoff points. The two, along with MacTavish, a prominent checking center and faceoff whiz, combined for 15 shorthanded goals. Krushelnyski could score and settle scores, providing valuable depth down the middle. Era-adjusted points: 322.

1995-96 Colorado Avalanche. Joe Sakic was in his prime, and Peter Forsberg had a bust-out sophomore season, giving the Avs ostensibly two first lines. The duo finished third and fifth in league scoring, each topped 100 points and helped Colorado to a second-place overall finish. Notably, it was also the only time they played all 82 games in the same season. Sakic continued his dominance in the playoffs, leading the pack with 18 goals and 34 points en route to the Conn Smythe. Mike Ricci, who missed 20 games during the regular season due to injury, had completed his transformation from No. 4 overall draft pick in 1990 and budding star to elite defensive forward. He anchored the third line and was highly effective in the playoffs, collecting 17 points in 22 games in a shutdown role. Savvy veteran Troy Murray was the perfect role player in the four-hole, contributing vital leadership and faceoff acumen. Era-adjusted points: 273.

1971-72 Boston Bruins. The Big, Bad Bruins finished first overall by 10 points, and the slot strength of Phil Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Derek Sanderson was a major reason why (yes, a guy named Orr helped, too). The early 1970s was still primarily three-line hockey; Ivan Boldirev only got into 11 games that season. Esposito was the era’s dominant center, leading the league in goals and points, recording a league-best 16 game-winning goals (nine more than anyone else) and earning the first all-star team berth. He also led playoff scoring and was third in Hart Trophy voting. Stanfield, an underrated pivot with a hard shot and soft hands, finished fourth in the NHL in assists and anchored what was considered the best second line in the league, playing between Johnny Bucyk and John McKenzie. He was a Lady Byng contender. Sanderson had evolved into a dangerous two-way center, leading the NHL with seven shorthanded goals. Era-adjusted points: 272.

2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins. This group is a bit of an outlier because they were middling through the first half of the season and finished eighth overall after responding to a mid-year coaching change when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien. Evgeni Malkin enjoyed one of his best seasons, winning the Art Ross, placing second to Alex Ovechkin in Hart voting and being named the first-team all-star center. Crosby rebounded from an injury-ravaged 2007-08 to finish third in NHL scoring and all-star voting. Emerging third-line force Jordan Staal, who got his career back on track following a tough sophomore campaign, supported them. He placed third in team scoring behind his superstar teammates. Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy gobbled important fourth-line minutes. Talbot cemented his place in Penguins history when he scored both goals in a 2-1 Game 7 triumph over Detroit in the Cup final. Era-adjusted points: 269.

2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. Four centers, four future Hall of Famers. So why aren’t they No. 1? Steve Yzerman missed 30 games with a knee injury, Igor Larionov turned 41 and Pavel Datsyuk (not yet in the Hall, but he surely will be) was a rookie. Sergei Fedorov was the mainstay, finishing second in team scoring. While none had his best season, as a group they contributed mightily to the Wings’ runaway Presidents’ Trophy year, one in which they cleared the field by 15 points and had a goal differential 29 better than the No. 2 team. A club laden with superstars is etched in all our memories, unless you’re foggy and old, or a whippersnapper. Era-adjusted points: 222.

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