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Central Division’s Best: Centers

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Ranking the Best Centers in the Best Division in Hockey

Winnipeg Jets v Minnesota Wild
Mikko Koivu and Mark Scheifele
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It is August, and since the Wild couldn’t come up with the spare change necessary to trade for Jeff Skinner, there isn’t a lot of Wild news to break down and analyze. Freed from the grind, we here at Hockey Wilderness decided to break down the best players in the Central Division by position to see how the Wild stack up and what we have to face in the upcoming season. We’re calling this series the Central Division’s Best, and look for a break down of position groups over the week. Fittingly, we will start with the Centers of the Central Division.

Methodology

Before we get to the results, let’s talk about the process. The writers here at Hockey Wilderness ranked who they thought the best players were in each position group, and we used those results to come up with the final rankings below.

How each writer voted will vary from writer to writer, but here is what I considered when casting my ballots. Basically, I thought about who I would want on my team. I looked at production by the players, with a heavy recency bias but giving weight to proven performers. Did someone have a break out year? Great. Does anything in their background show that this could be consistent going forward, or does it look like a flash in the pan? Finally, I looked to see if the player appeared to be the product of being on a good team or a good line or if he was the guy doing the heavy lifting.

The hardest part for me to reconcile was how to value a defensive center like Mikko Koivu against an offensive monster like Eric Staal. Staal’s numbers speak for themselves, but Koivu, and players like him, are also incredibly valuable. I also went back and forth on how much to weigh age when comparing players.

Rankings

1 - Nathan MacKinnon - Colorado Avalanche

When this project was proposed, I thought coming up with the best center in the division would be harder than it ended up being. I put Nathan MacKinnon at number one and I’d bet that was a unanimous decision. The Avalanche have been so terrible the past couple years that you could be forgiven for forgetting that MacKinnon was a first overall draft pick in 2013 and a Calder Trophy winner. While he’s always been fun to watch and clearly had the skills, 2017-18 was the season he put it all together. He put up 97 points (38g + 58a = 97p), was a Hart Trophy Finalist, revitalized Gabriel Landeskog, ignited Mikko Rantanen, and dragged the Avalanche to the playoffs the same year they traded Matt Duchene for essentially futures. He did this while posting possession stats north of 56% and playing with a mediocre defense corps.

MacKinnon uses his speed to break down defenses and create space for his wingers. He’s a playmaker first and foremost, but he also has a nasty shot that not only keeps defenses honest but makes them regret giving him any extra time or space. If you can stomach watching the Avalanche be happy, the highlights below show just what MacKinnon is capable of doing (warning, the Wild start getting owned around the 4 and half minute mark.)

MacKinnon is what a dominant center in 2018 looks like, fast, smart, and controls play. Worst of all for Wild fans, MacKinnon is still only 22 and is signed at a very reasonable cap hit of $6.3 million until 2022-23. Look for MacKinnon to terrorize the Central for a long time to come.

What can the Wild learn? Drafting early in the first round is a good thing to do every once in a while. Dynamic skill is hard to come by, and the draft is really the only way to get an elite, young center like MacKinnon.

2 - Tyler Seguin - Dallas Stars

If MacKinnon is in a tier by himself, I had Seguin and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele in the next tier jockeying for second. Seguin is the proven NHL producer and veteran who you can count on. Scheifele is the young whippersnapper who is....just one year younger than Seguin. Edge to Seguin.

Seguin has been in the league so long you forget he’s only 26 years old and still in the prime of his career. In 2017-18, he had a 40 goal season while playing under Ken Hitchcock who is not, shall we say, known for letting offensive stars flourish. Seguin also managed to maintain his positive possession stats while increasing his defensive zone starts. Despite a stellar season, the Stars faltered and failed to make the playoffs. The Benn - Seguin - Radulov line was electric, but the Stars were really a one line team. In order to succeed, will this productive trio have to be broken up and will Seguin continue to thrive without one or both of his elite wingers? I’d wager yes, but it’ll be interesting to see especially as Seguin enters into the final year of his contract.

What can the Wild learn? Always trade with Peter Chiarelli. Seguin had some off ice issues such as “being young”. Dallas bought low on a former number 2 overall pick with incredible skill and they have been rewarded mightily.

3 - Mark Scheifele - Winnipeg Jets

I’ll be honest, I have, in the past, confused Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele with his teammate Nikolaj Ehlers because they were both good and young and Winnipeg really wasn’t worth paying attention to so I didn’t invest the energy to figure out which was which. Scheifele made sure everyone outside of Winnipeg, myself included, learned his name when he was a point per game player in an injury shortened 2017-18 season (23g + 37a = 60p in 60 games played) after putting up 82 points in 79 games in the 2016-17 season.

Nashville Predators v Winnipeg Jets - Game Four
Mark Scheifele, not Nikolaj Ehlers
Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images

Scheifele is the poster child for the Winnipeg approach of drafting and developing players internally and being very, very patient. After being drafted 7th overall in 2011, Scheifele didn’t break into the league in a meaningful way until 2013-14 and didn’t top 50 points until 2015-16. I’m also told he had a very good postseason this past year with 14 goals and 6 assists in 17 games played, but I have blocked the Jets’ playoff run from my memory.

What can the Wild learn? Patience. Maybe give prospects the time and space they need to develop. If you like the player, trust him and you will be rewarded. While his ceiling is nowhere near as high as Scheifele’s, my hope is that the Wild follow this advice with Joel Erikkson Ek, a good player who had an underwhelming rookie year.

4 - Ryan Johansen - Nashville Predators

Johansen is a player who is often overlooked and undervalued by people who don’t watch him night in and night out, myself included. His 54 points (15g + 39a = 54p) in 79 games is solidly “good not great” territory, but you dig a little deeper and you see that he controls play to a tune of 53% at even strength while taking a fair share of neutral and defensive zone starts. He gels so well with Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg that they account for one of the “Best Lines in Hockey”. He’s only 26 years old, but makes a hefty salary of $8 million per year through 2024-25. Whether you believe he is the driver or a passenger on that line, you can’t argue with the results. Since the Nashville Predators acquired him in the 2015-16 season, they have gone on to the Stanley Cup final and won a President’s Triophy.

What can the Wild learn? If you have a glaring need, overpaying to fill it isn’t the worst thing in the world. Is Ryan Johansen worth $8 million a year? I would say no. Is solving your first line problems so you can steamroll the league worth $8 million a year? Absolutely yes.

5 - Eric Staal - Minnesota Wild

Cards on the table, I had Eric Staal as the fourth best center in the central division and RyJo ranked fifth. I valued Staal’s point total (42g + 34a = 76p) and considered Johansen a product of his wingers. However, upon further reflection, putting Staal above Johansen runs counter to my own methodology. Staal is 7 years older than Johansen, had an even strength possession percentage of 49.43%, got to play with Zucker and Granlund for much of the year, and his goal and point totals are outliers from his recent performance (thanks to a shooting percentage north of 17%). All of this is to say that maybe his incredible 2017-18 season is not repeatable.

That being said, 42 GOALS. Staal tied the franchise record and looked good doing it. Breakaways, tap ins, short handed goals, he did it all. Staal also served as a fixer for much of the year. If a winger wasn’t producing, Boudreau put him with Staal for a couple games and his game would come alive (notable exception, Tyler Ennis). Staal has done all of this while on possibly the most team friendly, non-ELC in the league. If you’re drafting a keeper league, maybe you go for a younger center like Johansen, but if you’re drafting for one year, I’d take Staal.

What can the Wild learn? Sign good players to good contracts. Don’t be fooled by accounting stats. Look at the player and his game and make informed bets.

6 - Jonathan Toews - Chicago Blackhawks

Jonathan Toews is overpaid, overrated, and it is my life goal to prove Mikko Koivu is actually better. And yet, Toews is honestly the 6th best center in the Central Division. Toews has never scored less than 20 goals a season (even when a season is shortened due to a lockout) and is a safe bet for 25-40 assists per season. He does this while also playing against opposing teams’ top competition and while rarely playing with his team’s best winger (Patrick Kane). In addition to winning three cups, Toews has won a Conn Smythe Trophy, the Selke Trophy, and the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award which is a thing that actually exists. Is all of that worth $10.5 million a year through 2022-23? Absolutely not. But we are not here ranking the best contracts in the Central Division, just the best Centers and Toews deserves his spot here.

What can the Wild learn? Spread out your talent. If you have two players who can each drive a line, let them. Also maybe don’t pay $10.5 million a season for a player that is marginally better than Mikko Koivu.

7 - Ryan O’Reilly - St. Louis Blues

Our old friend Ryan O’Reilly is back in the Central Division after he basically forced a trade out of Colorado to Buffalo where he eventually forced his team to trade him to St. Louis (seriously, what is it with this guy?). After being in the league since 2009-10, we know what kind of player ROR is: a two way player who puts up about 50-60 points and wins a lot of face offs. Those are extremely valuable skills, and with point totals in the range of Johansen and Toews, nearly any team would love to have him as a second line center. Despite taking the plurality of his starts in the defensive zone, ROR managed to post a positive even strength possession number if only barely (50.73%).

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs
“No visor, no problem” - Ryan O’Reilly

I actually disagree with the crowd here, putting ROR outside my top 8. In fact, he wasn’t even my top center from St. Louis, as I gave the nod to Brayden Schenn. O’Reilly is heavily dependent on the power play for his points, scoring 15 of his 24 goals with the man advantage, and his positive even strength possession metrics were his first since 2012-13. Additionally, though I didn’t include this in my rankings, his cap hit of $7.5 million is too high for my liking and his locker room and off ice issues don’t exactly endear him as a player. What you cannot take away from him, however, is his ability to win face offs, which he won at about a 60% clip last year.

O’Reilly is going from a putrid Sabres team to a Blues team that is looking to make some serious noise in the division, so it’ll be interesting to see how he does with a better team around him. O’Reilly is a good player and deserves to be in the conversation for the top centers in the division, just maybe not this high.

What can the Wild learn? Having a solid two way player as your second line center is a great asset, especially if you can have him at a cap hit more reasonable than $7.5 million. Hey, speak of the devil...

8 - Mikko Koivu - Minnesota Wild

Oh Kaptain, my Kaptain, it is good to see you made the top 8. I am an admitted Mikko Koivu fan (#KoivuforSelke) but he deserves this spot. Let’s start with the negatives: (1) Mikko Koivu has lost a step; (2) Mikko Koivu’s point production has declined from a career high of 71 in 2009-10 to 45 in 2017-18; and (3) at 35, Mikko Koivu is old (for hockey).

My response? When your defense is as elite as Mikko Koivu’s, who cares?

Individual defense is hard to judge, especially with the tools and data available to the public. As such, I relied on this excellent piece by Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire posted back in March of 2018. Berkshire relies on data from SPORTSLOGiQ to highlight just how dominant Koivu is in his own zone. Berkshire compared Koivu, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Aleksander Barkov, and Sean Courturier. I encourage you to read the whole article, but in summary, Koivu leads in nearly every category and in some, like at limiting high danger scoring chances, he leads by a country mile.

For most of his tenure in the State of Hockey, Koivu has had to shoulder the burden of being the team’s only elite center, and, for most of his career he did well in that role. Now, in the twilight of his career, he gets to share that burden with Eric Staal by letting Staal lead offensively while Koivu does what he does best, shutting the other team down. Oh and also he chips in 40-50 points as a bonus. All at the reasonable rate of $5.5 million. Now, if he would just go back to his usual shootout move....

What can the Wild learn? Raise Koivu’s jersey to the rafters as soon as he takes it off for the last time.

Conclusion

The Wild have 2 of the top 8 centers in the division, but is that enough for any meaningful success? Do they need a truly elite center to be able to succeed in the stacked Central Division? While having one would certainly help, I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. The Wild have two (aging) good to very good centers on the roster. While Staal and Koivu aren’t enough to bring the Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey on their own, they are not the limiting factor on this roster. With Staal driving a dangerous scoring line and Koivu anchoring an elite shutdown line, I’d argue the Wild’s top two centers are doing their jobs, it is up to the rest of the team to pick up the slack. Especially when combined they make less than $10 million annually.

All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted. All possession percentages and stats are CF% unless otherwise noted.