You cannot win the Stanley Cup without a true, No. 1 center. This has been fact since the 2004-05 lockout and the introduction of the ‘new NHL.’ Washington just proved my thesis again and the Capitals actually had two top-line pivots in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. What is a No. 1 center (and how can you have two?), you ask? It’s a bit of a moving target, but in my mind the player must be one of your forward corps’ leaders in ice time and faceoffs (obviously) while also facing solid competition and putting up at least 60 points. Some teams are obvious: Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Edmonton has Connor McDavid, Dallas has Tyler Seguin and so on. But which teams still need a true center and which players are on the cusp? Here’s a breakdown:
Arizona, Carolina, Montreal, New York Rangers, Ottawa, St. Louis
The Blues are the most interesting team here because Ryan O’Reilly is a really good No. 2 center, but so is Brayden Schenn, albeit with a different skill set. Would St. Louis’ depth on the wings counterbalance the lack of a true alpha dog down the middle? There are several good No. 2 guys here, including Matt Duchene, Mika Zibanejad and Derek Stepan.
Might have one
Vegas, Columbus, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Vancouver
How much runway do you need to know your young guy can fly long-term? William Karlsson helped the Golden Knights get to the Cup final with his breakout season, now the question that remains is sustainability. Most folks agree his shooting percentage will come down, but if Karlsson remains as responsible off the puck as he was last season, then he’ll still earn top marks while getting his points. And what about promising youngsters? Nico Hischier centered Taylor Hall’s Hart season, while Pierre-Luc Dubois proved he could hang with Artemi Panarin in Columbus. Matt Barzal will be forced into a tough situation with the Islanders thanks to the departure of John Tavares, but the kid looked pretty good in his Calder season. I also wonder how good Bo Horvat will be once the Canucks’ rebuild begins to show NHL results.
Might need one soon
Chicago, Anaheim, Minnesota, San Jose
Eventually, the Blackhawks will need a replacement for Jonathan Toews. Ryan Getzlaf won’t lead the Ducks forever and Joe Thornton’s time in San Jose is limited, though the Sharks have several options in Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and perhaps most intriguing, young Tomas Hertl. Eric Staal had an awesome year in Minnesota, but he’s had a long career for a 33-year-old. In a couple years, we may need to have this conversation about Pittsburgh, if you can believe it. I’d say the same thing about Los Angeles, but Anze Kopitar just had one of his best seasons ever.
They have arrived
The Flyers are in a weird spot, because they already had a top center in Claude Giroux, but they flipped him to the wing and found magic with Sean Couturier in the middle. So, they were fine to begin with, but the arrival of Couturier as that big, Kopitar-type of center is pretty exciting. In Florida, Aleksander Barkov may be out of the spotlight, but he’s a beast and he’s going to put on a show again this year, assuming everyone’s healthy.
Passing the Torch
Henrik Zetterberg is still pretty good, but the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Dylan Larkin is growing his game at precisely the right time and this could end up being a seamless hand-off, even though the rest of the roster is a work in progress.