Hockey

#NHLTopPlayers: Top 20 Centers

(PhatzRadio Sports / NHL.com)   —-  Winning important face-offs, leading rushes up the ice and setting up teammates are hallmarks of a top center. NHL Network experts chose the top 20 centers in the League for a special program that premiered Sunday as the first in a nine-part series leading up to the regular season. Here is the list:

 

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1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

For the second straight year, McDavid tops the list of best centers, and for good reason. The 21-year-old led the NHL in scoring the past two seasons, winning the Art Ross Trophy with 108 points (41 goals, 67 assists) in 2017-18 and 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists) in 2016-17. The back-to-back winner of the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player as voted by the NHL Players’ Association, McDavid had three hat tricks last season, including a four-goal game (Feb. 5 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning). Despite missing 37 games with an injury as a rookie in 2015-16, McDavid ranks third in the NHL in points in the past three seasons (256), behind Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (263) and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (271).

“That perfect skill set for how the game is played today, it’s all about speed,” NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson said. ” He is so far and away the best 5-on-5 offensive player that he has to be number one. Not yet great and powerful like Sidney Crosby, but five-on-five he’s so much better than anyone else at creating offense in that situation, which most of the game is played in, that he has be number one on this list.”

2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Crosby had 89 points (29 goals, 60 assists) in 82 games last season, finishing tied for third in the NHL in power-play points (38) with teammate Evgeni Malkin behind teammate Phil Kessel (42) and Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets (40). Crosby, who turns 31 on Tuesday, led the NHL in goals (44) and tied Kane for second in points (89) behind McDavid (100) in 2016-17, when he helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup for the second straight season. Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2016 (19 points) and 2017 (27 points).

“Sidney Crosby does everything,” NHL Network analyst E.J. Hradek said. “That’s why it’s hard to put him behind anybody, because you want him in all facets of the game. …Face-offs, he started his career he wasn’t very good, he worked at it, now he’s one of the best face-off men in the National Hockey League. He took the second most face-offs in the League last year and he won a good share of them.”

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The 98 points (42 goals, 56 assists) he had in 2017-18 ranked fourth in the NHL and were the most he had in a season since 2011-12 (109). Malkin had 14 power-play goals and seven game-winners, including a five-game goal streak (nine goals) from Jan. 25-Feb. 6. The 32-year-old had 26 multipoint games, including 12 when he had at least three points. A three-time Cup winner, Malkin has scored at least 33 goals in six of his 12 NHL seasons.

“He is as talented as any player there is in the League, and he plays with Sidney Crosby so some people might want to criticize [him], but we start looking at points per 60 [minutes], yeah, he’s first,” Johnson said. “He’s No. 1 in the League, he’s just so, so good.”

4. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

Injuries didn’t stop Matthews from an impressive second NHL season in 2017-18. He followed up his Calder Trophy-winning season (40 goals, 29 assists) with 63 points (34 goals, 29 assists) in 62 games. Matthews was plus-25, had 13 power-play points and scored five game-winning goals for the Maple Leafs, who set Toronto records for wins (49) and points (105). The 20-year-old ended the season on a 10-game point streak (seven goals, seven assists).

“He does just about everything you could ask of a player to do and he’s such a young guy,” Hradek said. “Injuries were the only thing that haunted him last season, but wow, he’s a big-time player.”

5. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

MacKinnon took his game to new heights last season with 39 goals, 58 assists and 97 points, shattering his previous NHL bests of 24 goals, 39 assists and 63 points. His 12 game-winning goals tied for the NHL lead (Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning), and his 32 power-play points tied for 12th. MacKinnon, who turns 23 on Sept. 1, was the Hart Trophy runner-up as NHL MVP to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall last season. He had a 14-game point streak (13 goals, 14 assists) from Feb. 24-March 22 and a nine-game point streak (eight goals, 11 assists) from Dec. 29-Jan. 20.

“He could always skate, but now everything else is catching up to his incredible legs which get him going so fast, but he has the hands to go with it and a shot as well,” Johnson said. “He’s very dangerous and not going anywhere on this list.”

6. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Kopitar increased his points total by 40, from 52 in 2016-17 to 92 last season (35 goals, 57 assists), the 10th time in 12 seasons he’s led the Kings in scoring. He had 27 power-play points, scored six game-winning goals and took the third-most face-offs in the NHL (1,816), winning 983 (54.1 percent). Kopitar, who turns 31 on Aug. 24, won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the NHL and finished third in Hart Trophy voting last season. He led NHL forwards in total ice time (1,810:58) and ice time per game (22:05).

“Everything runs through him in [the Kings zone],” Hradek said. “Every important face-off, every penalty kill, it all runs through Kopitar. From those kind of numbers, wins the Selke, amongst the League leaders in scoring, he deserves a spot in the top 10.”

7. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele had 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists) in 60 games, including NHL career highs in power-play goals (eight), power-play points (16) and rating (plus-19). The 25-year-old’s 14 goals in the 2018 playoffs (14) were second to Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (15), and his seven goals on the road in the Western Conference Second Round against the Nashville Predators are the most in one playoff series in NHL history.

8. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Bergeron is one of the best two-way players in the NHL, having won the Selke Trophy four times in the past seven seasons. He scored 30 goals in 2017-18, the third time in the past five seasons he’s reached that total, and had 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in 11 playoff games. The 33-year-old won 57.3 percent of his face-offs (784, 12th most in NHL) despite missing 18 games because of injury. Bergeron was plus-21 and has had a plus rating each of the past 11 seasons.

9. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars

Seguin scored 40 goals for the first time in his NHL career last season and has scored at least 33 in four of the past five seasons. He had 78 points in 2017-18 and has had at least 72 in each season since 2013-14. Seguin had 14 power-play goals, six game-winning goals and 25 power-play points. His 335 shots on goal were second in the NHL behind Ovechkin’s 355. The 26-year-old also won 54.9 percent of his face-offs (790 of 1,440).

10. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs

Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1, had 37 goals and 84 points in 82 games for the New York Islanders last season, one shy of his NHL career high in goals and two shy in points, each set in 2014-15. He led the Islanders in scoring in seven of his nine seasons with them and finished second twice. The 27-year-old had 30 power-play points in 2017-18 and has scored at least 24 goals in each NHL season.

“He makes things happen every time he steps on the ice and he’s also an underrated goal-scorer,” Johnson said. “I think a lot would think of him as a playmaker, underrated goal-scorer, which factors into him being a top-10 centerman on this list.”

11. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

After missing 65 games because of a knee injury in 2016-17, Stamkos returned in a big way last season. His 86 points were his most since he had 97 in 2011-12, and his 59 assists were an NHL career high. Stamkos had 15 power-play goals and 33 power-play points to help the Lightning earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with 113 points. The 28-year-old had 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 17 playoff games for the Lightning, who lost in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

“On Tampa, with the players around him, you need a triggerman,” Johnson said. “The hardest thing to do in the League is to score goals. He does that just about better than anybody, so that’s why he’s still in and around the top 10, even as he’s fought through some of these injuries.”

12. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

The 26-year-old had a breakout season, with NHL career highs in goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov had 30 power-play points and scored eight game-winning goals. He scored in overtime in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Penguins to advance the Capitals to the conference final for the first time since 1998. Kuznetsov led the NHL with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in the playoffs to help Washington win its first Stanley Cup championship.

“He’s just taken step after step after step, and I think we saw even a bigger coming-out party in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year,” Hradek said. “I just love the way this guy thinks the game, and he’s able to carry the puck through all three zones. He is not afraid to take it, bring it up the ice and attack.”

13. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

Barkov, who turns 23 Sept. 2, scored 27 goals and led the Panthers in assists (51) and points (78). He led the NHL in shorthanded goals (five) and was second in average ice time per game among forwards (22:04), one second behind Kopitar. He took the fifth-most face-offs (1,697), winning 908 of them (53.5 percent), and finished fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy.

“He had more shorthanded goals than some teams did this past year …” Johnson said. “He’s the heir apparent to Bergeron, Kopitar, the next great two-way centerman.”

14. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom has been one of the top centers in the NHL for several seasons. He scored 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) in 2017-18, the fifth straight season he’s had at least 70. His 284 assists since 2013-14 lead the NHL, and his 168 power-play points are tied for first with Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. Backstrom, 30, had 23 points (five goals, 18 assists) in 20 playoff games to help the Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season.

“He’s so smart and he’s a great playmaker,” Johnson said. “One of the great playmakers of his era. Terrific on the power play, working that half-wall for the Washington Capitals. He’s also one of these guys that plays well 200 feet of the ice, an underrated player.”

15. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

Eichel missed the first five weeks last season with an ankle sprain but averaged almost a point per game after returning (64 points in 67 games). The 21-year-old had 18 multipoint games, including three with at least four points. It was the third straight season Eichel had at least 24 goals, 20 power-play points and four game-winning goals.

“He’s an elite offensive centerman,” Johnson said. “He can do it all. … He’s not afraid to think outside the box and do some different things and try to create offense that way.”

16. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

Barzal’s first NHL season was one to remember. He led the Islanders and NHL rookies in scoring with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists), 14th in the NHL. The Calder Trophy winner dazzled with his passing ability, finishing fifth in the NHL in assists. The 21-year-old had three five-point games, the first rookie to do that in 100 years (Joe Malone, Montreal Canadiens, 1917-18).

“He was so much fun to watch because [he’s] such a great skater, up all over those edges,” Hradek said. “Just the way he can make things happen.”

17. William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

Karlsson was arguably the biggest surprise of 2017-18, when he scored 43 goals (third in NHL) and had 78 points in 82 games; he entered the season with 18 goals and 50 points in 183 NHL games. He led the NHL with a plus-49 rating and was tied for second in shorthanded goals (four). Selected by the Golden Knights from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, Karlsson helped Vegas win the Pacific Division and advance to the Stanley Cup Final, when it lost to Washington in five games. The 25-year-old had 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 20 playoff games.

“He played in all situations and [for] a lot of the centers on our list, some of those guys played 21-22 minutes,” Johnson said. “Vegas, with the way they did things last year, he was only playing about 18:30 a game and he still put up these great numbers.”

18. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

After he had 14 goals and 34 points in 2016-17, Couturier had 31 goals and 76 points last season, each an NHL career high. He won 52.8 percent of his face-offs (529 of 1,001) and scored six game-winning goals. Couturier, 25, had an SAT percentage of 53.17 and was on the ice for 147 more shots-for than shots-against, which ranked first on the Flyers. He was the runner-up for the Selke Trophy.

“When you go from 15 [goals] as your previous high and you more than double that, up to 31 … he’s young enough to believe with that group around him, he’ll be pretty consistent next year and have another good year,” Johnson said.

19. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks captain was limited to 56 games last season because of injuries but had 61 points (11 goals, 50 assists) to finish second on Anaheim behind Rickard Rakell (69). Getzlaf had six games with at least three points, including two with four, in 2017-18 and has at least 50 assists in four of the past five seasons. The 33-year-old ranked second on the Ducks in face-offs (849) and face-offs won (406) last season.

20. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Draisaitl had 70 points (25 goals, 45 assists) in 78 games, one season after he had NHL career highs in goals (29), assists (48) and points (77). He was a force on special teams with 11 power-play points (six goals) and four shorthanded points (three goals). The 22-year-old also led the Oilers in face-off winning percentage (56.1).

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