Yesterday, NHL Network released its full list of the Top 20 Centers in the NHL right now. I have a lot of thoughts about this list, and to be honest, not many of them are nice. There’s a lot wrong with it in my opinion, particularly in the top seven, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on. You can find the full list here.
The Placements I Disagree With Are…
Pretty much the only placement I agree with in the top seven was Connor McDavid at number one. Sidney Crosby should not have been all the way down at number four. Draisaitl and MacKinnon are not better centers than Crosby. They’re just not. Also, Auston Matthews has absolutely no business being at number five. Jack Eichel should not have been below Matthews. Patrice Bergeron was too low at number seven.
Also, this is not about the top seven, but Steven Stamkos probably shouldn’t have been outside the top ten, although to be honest, I’m not sure who I would’ve kicked out of the top ten to move him there. Maybe Barkov since Stamkos had a much better offensive season, but Barkov is better defensively. So, it’s a tough call.
Also, calling Leon Draisaitl the third-best center in the league irks me, as he spent 47% of his 5v5 playing time (stat via Evolving Hockey) as one of McDavid’s wingers. Yes, they are technically right in calling him a center, as that means he spent the majority of his time away from McDavid, and likely as a center since that’s what he’s registered as. But, it still bugs me. Even though he had an insane season and who he played with didn’t seem to matter, considering how much time he spent as a winger this year, I feel like it’s hard to call him the third-best center in the league. This is especially true considering he’s not the strongest defensively, and that’s a huge part of being a center, but more on that later.
Games Played Shouldn’t Matter
One of the big things this list always seems to consider is games played. I’m pretty confident that’s a big reason Crosby fell as low as he did. But, in my opinion, the number of games someone plays should never matter when judging how good they were. It is not their fault if they miss games due to illness or injury, and it doesn’t take away from how good they are when healthy. The amount of games a guy plays in a year has absolutely no effect on their talent level. None. So it shouldn’t matter when evaluating their performance.
Let’s use Crosby for example. He had 23 points in his first 13 games back after returning from hernia surgery. 23 points in 13 games. That’s 1.77 points per game after missing ten weeks due to a sports hernia injury and surgery. Let that sink in. He had 47 points in 41 games total (1.15 PPG) this season and considering he wasn’t even close to 100% for the first two months, that’s really good. Plus, he did all of this while being one of the best two-way centers in the league (which is a criminally underappreciated aspect of his game given the fact that he’s never been nominated for a Selke Trophy). Yet, because he missed 29 games, people want to say he’s not still the second-best center in the league. I just can’t wrap my head around that.
Being a Center is Not All About Offense
Another thing that bugs me about how the center list is made is how much emphasis is placed on offense. Yes, centers are forwards, so offensive production is really important. But, as a center, you’re not just responsible for putting up points. Centers need to be defensively responsible and in the defensive zone, they’re supposed to act as the third defenseman.
So, when evaluating a center’s performance, their two-way play has to be taken into consideration as well, not just their offensive numbers. If they aren’t willing to suck it up and backcheck as hard as possible and then do the defensive dirty work, they aren’t a good center. It’s certainly much more fun to score than do that (trust me, I know, I’ve played center for nine, coming up on ten, years), but it’s really important. Otherwise, you end up outnumbered in front of the net, or your winger has to step out of their position, which leaves a point open, which tends not to end well either. So, yeah, playing good defense is one of the most important parts of being a center. It needs to be weighed heavier than it is.
How I Would Rank The Top Seven
Now that you’ve read all my complaints about how things shook out for this list, here’s how I’d rank the top seven.
- Connor McDavid
- Sidney Crosby
- Nathan MacKinnon
- Leon Draisaitl
- Jack Eichel
- Patrice Bergeron
- Auston Matthews
McDavid, Crosby Best Two Players in the League
There’s simply no doubt in my mind that Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are the top two centers (and players for that matter) in the NHL right now. Some would argue they’re pretty much interchangeable, given McDavid is better offensively, while Crosby is better defensively. But, I think McDavid is the better player right now, so that’s why he’s number one and Crosby’s at two.
Draisaitl a Better Player, MacKinnon a Better Center
As for MacKinnon and Draisaitl, as I said above, I have a hard time calling Draisaitl the third-best center in the league. I’m even struggling a bit with putting him at four. He only spends about half his time as a center, and he’s not super strong defensively. But, he more than made up for his defensive lapses with his offense this season. So, I decided to put him at four. As for putting MacKinnon above him, even though Draisaitl is a better player overall, MacKinnon is a better center (and it’s his full-time position). So, I think he deserves to be above him.
Jack Eichel: Really Good on a Really Bad Team
Now here’s where things got a little tricky for me. I would love to say Bergeron is one of the top five centers in the league. There’s a strong argument for it too. At 34 years old, he produced at nearly a point per game pace this season (56 in 61, 0.918 PPG) while being the best two-way forward in the league. As impressive as that is, I need to give the upper hand to Eichel this season. He had 78 points in 68 games (1.14 PPG) this season while playing on the Sabres. Plus, he’s an excellent two-way player, which is important for a center.
If you pay any attention at all to the NHL, you know the Sabres are bad. Really bad. These past few years, they’ve started off really strong and given their fans a false sense of hope. But then, come November, something happens and they go crashing down to the league’s basement and stay there for the rest of the season. So, the fact that Eichel did as well as he did considering the complete lack of support he had from his team is incredible. In fact, he should’ve been nominated for the Hart Trophy this season. The fact that he wasn’t is, in my opinion, pretty conclusive proof that if your team doesn’t make the playoffs (or, in the case of this season, the play-ins), you aren’t getting nominated for, let alone winning, the Hart. Should it be that way? No. But is it? Unfortunately yes.
Matthews Still Improving Defensively
So, that leaves Bergeron on the outside looking in at number six for me. Lastly, I have Auston Matthews at number seven. And no, I didn’t drop him this low just because I don’t like the Leafs. As talented as Matthews is offensively, he is still not a great two-way player. He’s getting better, but he’s not at the level yet where I’m willing to call him a top-five center in the league. The reason I have him below Bergeron is his offensive production this season (70 points in 60 games, 1.16 PPG) wasn’t enough to make up for how much better Bergeron is defensively. Also, yes, I recognize I still ranked Draisaitl in the top five despite his defensive lapses. But, he also had 110 points in 71 games this season (1.55 PPG). That goes a lot further in making up for defensive lapses than Matthews’ stats do.
In short, I think there’s a lot wrong with this year’s NHL Network Top 20 Centers list, particularly in the top seven. Games played and offensive production seemed to play too heavily into the rankings this season, which skewed the results. Games played really shouldn’t be considered, and offensive production shouldn’t be weighed much (if any) more heavily than defensive prowess for centers. But, obviously, I have no say in these lists, so there’s nothing I can do but complain about it, unfortunately. They did pretty well on the Top 20 wings list this year, and hopefully, they do decently with the Top 20 defenseman and Top 10 goaltender lists, which will be released in the coming days. As for the centers, here’s hoping they do better next year.
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)