Having “too many centers”

What do Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Jeremy Welsh, Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash and Zac Dalpe have in common? They're all natural centers and only three of them have stayed that position throughout their careers. There's a good chance that at least 50% of the forwards currently in the NHL have played center at one point in their careers and most teams like to stock up on guys who can play this position. The Hurricanes are sort of in this "dilemma" as they have a lot of natural centers on their roster and it's not a terrible position to be in. Most centers have experience playing on the wing and can be moved over if needed and a lot of them, like Patrick Kane, end up as wingers for most of their careers.

Another natural center who has experience on the wing is Carolina's first round pick Elias Lindholm, who many have penciled in as the third line center for next year. He is a natural center, but spent most of last season as a right winger for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. I'm not sure what the reason was for moving him over, but Lindholm did not take a lot of draws and spent most of last year flanking one of Brynas' top two lines. Some Canes fans didn't see the point in adding another center with the Staal Brothers locked up of the next few years, but Lindholm has experience playing other positions and may not stay a center forever. The same could also be said for the Staal brothers, who have also been moved around a bit during their careers. 

What is the motive behind moving a center to wing, though? The Hurricanes aren't going to make Lindholm a winger just because they can, not if he is a good fit as a center and they aren't going to do that with the Staal brothers either. A common misconception is that a player will be moved over from center if he is bad at taking draws or is more of a goal-scorer than a play-maker. Winning faceoffs is only part of the job for a center, though and there is no rule saying that a center has to be a play-maker of his line (see John Tavares & Jeff Carter). The responsibilities of a center stretch to all three zones and it requires someone with strong hockey sense and a decent two-way ability to play this position.

In addition to taking draws, a center is usually the first guy back in the defensive zone when on the back check and he is also the one who helps dictates where his linemates are supposed to go while playing in the offensive zone. A center doesn't have to be the primary puck-handler on his line (see Tyler Bozak & Phil Kessel), but he is an important part of what type of play his team will run. A center who is more of a goal-scorer (Steven Stamkos) will probably move towards the center of the ice while his linemates work along the boards. However, someone like Ryan Getzlaf or Nicklas Backstrom will likely go along the half-boards or behind the net to set-up a play instead. This normally depends on the team's system and forechecking strategy, though. 

For years, Eric Staal was the team's main puck-handler and play-driver on the first line but that changed a little last season with the addition of Alexander Semin. Staal is still responsible for being the first guy back in the event of a turnover, but Semin was leading a lot of team's rushes into the zone last season, which allowed Staal to find open spaces and get more scoring opportunities than he had in some recent seasons. Staal still did most of the things you would expect from a center, though and one thing he has gotten considerably better at is winning draws.

Staal was a notoriously bad faceoff guy for most of his career, but this part of his game has improved a lot over the past two seasons. He was actually one of the team' best draw takers last year, which is somewhat encouraging. Staal won a higher percentage of his even strength faceoffs than most of the team's regular centers  and was also very good on the power play.

  ESFO% PPFO% PKFO%
E. Staal 52.4% 53.5% 41.2%
J. Staal 49.9% 58.9% 45.1%
Nash 44.6% 55.6% 22.2%
Jokinen 61.4% 47.8% 55.0%
Brent 49.3% 71.4% 60.9%
Dwyer 31.4% 50.0% 50.0%

Winning faceoffs is only part of the equation, though which is why you'll see a lot of players stay at center despite not being able to win faceoffs and vice versa. Jussi Jokinen is an excellent faceoff guy but had issues as the Canes third line center because he was being used with weak linemates, which sort of decreases his value as a center. You want your centers to make the players around them better and while Jokinen is a good player, he isn't the type who can elevate the play of his linemates. Put him with wingers who can score and he is golden (see Skins & Finns line), but he'll have issues putting up offense if he is used with grinders like he was before being traded to Pittsburgh. This why he was s better fit as a winger in the Canes top-six rather than the third line center, or at least that was the case last season. Jokinen's strong faceoff prowess and defensive acumen were still there, but his point-production dwindled because he couldn't develop chemistry with a revolving door of linemates. This is what separates him from other great centers.

Staal had trouble with faceoffs and defensive play in his early years, but he stayed at center because he did everything else so well, especially in the neutral zone and along the boards. He could still produce offense and give the Hurricanes first-line level production at even strength despite playing with wingers who weren't exactly ideal. Guys like Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Jiri Tlusty and even Jussi Jokinen himself had career seasons playing alongside Staal and it's just a few examples of how his offensive value as a center made up for his flaws in other areas.

However, there were times when Paul Maurice would move Staal to the wing to help him break out of a scoring slump and this is another reason why I think it's never a bad idea to have a lot of centers. As I said earlier, Staal is not the best defensive player, so moving him to the wing gave him a little more freedom to roam and be aggressive in the offensive zone while someone like Brandon Sutter took over the defensive responsibilities that came with playing in the middle. The Canes didn't exactly have the personnel to do this often, but it was experimented with a few times in the past and it wouldn't surprise me if they try it this season if he falls into a rut. I could actually see Staal moving to the wing full-time as he gets older with Lindholm or Jordan taking over the 1C role, but that may not be until years down the road. Still, the option is there because the Hurricanes currently have three excellent players who can play center.

This can also be applied to the lower lines, especially when it comes to taking defensive zone draws. Many teams liek put two centers on the same line in the event that one of them gets kicked out of the circle. The Bruins had a lot of success doing this, as their roster has no shortage of centers. Their third and fourth lines usually consistented of two or three pivots, which really helped them in terms of faceoffs. It also gave their roster a lot more flexibility, as they could move things around more often than other teams when a shake-up was needed. While Patrice Bergeron & David Krejci stayed at center for most of the time, guys like Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell got moved around a little bit. There were even some games where they moved Krejci to wing with Kelly or Seguin taking his spot on the first line.

Last year's Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, have also been known to play around with their center depth. Two of their best wingers, Patrick Kane & Patrick Sharp, are natural centers and they've also moved around guys like Andrew Shaw and Jamal Mayers over the last couple of years. The New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators are also are a couple other successful teams who have had to move guys around due to having depth at center.

The point here is that having a lot of centers gives your team versatility and that's never a bad thing. This is why I was a fan of drafting Elias Lindholm, even though he probably won't get above the third line in his rookie season. He showed this past season that he is willing to play a different position and had a pretty solid year for an 18-year-old outside of that, so the option to move him over is there. The Hurricanes can also do this to help round out their bottom-six depth. Riley Nash, Jeremy Welsh, Nathan Gerbe, Brett Sutter, Nicolas Blanchard and a couple other players in their system are all natural centers and shouldn't be constrained to the fourth line pivot spot if they're good enough to make the team.

We've seen other teams role more than one center on their fourth line and have it turn out well, so there's no sense in at least not trying it with the bottom-six. With the team being close to the cap, you want to make the best out of what you have and if that means having a couple extra centers then so be it.

 

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