Five things: Talkin' 'bout centers

Ryan Lambert
July 17 2014 09:00AM

1. Got me thinking...

Earlier this week there was a bit of debate about whether Jonathan Toews was worth $10.5 million annually, when no other player in the league (besides Patrick Kane, but that's almost beside the point) makes more than about $9.5 million.

It led me to wonder about Toews' place in the game, and just how good of a center he really is. From where I sit, Toews is a little overrated; people calling him the best player in the world are raving lunatics. He might not even be a top-3 center in the league, because it's hard to argue he's better than Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Anze Kopitar at the very minimum. Not that I necessarily would, but you might even include Ryan Getzlaf or Claude Giroux in the mix, because I'd argue the production just isn't there for Toews on a season-by-season basis.

The usage chart from this season illustrates why: Toews plays the toughest competition, but his zone starts are by far the easiest, and his points still lag somewhat. All things being equal, I'm pretty comfortable saying that he's third- or fourth-best at his position in the league. That being said, given where the league is going these days, I'm also comfortable saying that's worth a $10.5 million cap hit for a contract that expires when he's 34.

But because I would put at least one and maybe two centers from the Flames' division ahead of Toews in terms of overall quality, that led me to think about what a war the Pacific is going to be down the middle this season, and where everyone ranks.

Obviously rosters aren't set yet, but from where I sit the breakdown is pretty clear, and teams can be divided into three groups. Frankly, and disappointingly for Flames fans, the division is top-heavy to say the least.

2. The top tier

There are three giants in this division in terms of overall quality, and you can make a pretty reasonable argument that it's because of how good they are in the middle of the ice.

For me, San Jose has the best center depth not only in the division, but probably in the entire league (I'd say Chicago or Boston gives them a run for that money). Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture is a trio that's been able to lay teams low for years, and while rumors that Thornton will be traded persist, we must currently operate under the impression that he's still their No. 1. Doug Wilson would be a fool to pull the trigger on such a decision, quite frankly. This is probably on par with the Penguins' old triumvirate of Crosby/Malkin/Jordan Staal in terms of out-and-out dominance. Andrew Desjardins is their No. 4 and he's pretty good for that role.

Next is Los Angeles, third mostly on the strength of Kopitar being a world-beater and Jeff Carter being very, very good as well. Jarret Stoll is a fine No. 3 if that's all you're using him for — and he took more draws for the Kings than anyone but Kopitar last season, so that's more or less it — and having Mike Richards as your No. 4, expensive and potentially declining already though he may be, is something remarkable.

Anaheim, and the gap between the two got a whole lot slimmer this year. Ryan Getzlaf backed up by Ryan Kesler is nothing to joke about, and Andrew Cogliano or Rickard Rakell could make for a decent No. 3. What's interesting, though, is the center depth the Ducks are actually losing at the bottom of the roster. Swapping out Nick Bonino for Ryan Kesler was a great idea, but Anaheim shed Saku Koivu and Mathieu Perreault, and still haven't brought back Dan Winnik, if they want to. But when your top two is that good, it might not matter as much.

3. The middle tier

Next is Vancouver, which has admittedly taken a step back. There's a huge gap between the top three and everyone else, obviously. They still have Henrik Sedin, who's better than anyone any of the teams below them have down the middle, and the rest doesn't look so great. This is a team turning out its pockets after the first line comes off the ice. Bonino, Shawn Matthias, and Brad Richardson are their four highest-paid centers at this point, with Kesler and Mike Santorelli leaving town. That's a pitiful bottom two, and one has to imagine a decent-sized step back for Bonino in terms of production this season as well. Having Sedin, though, really really papers over some serious concerns. Not-having John Tortorella does as well.

Calgary is, I think, fifth in the division here. They arguably have the worst No. 1 in the division in Matt Stajan — because let's face it, they're never giving a no-scoring possession driver like Mikael Backlund top-line minutes — and after Backlund, who I think is great, the bottom falls out. It's Sean Monahan, who will need to take a huge leap in development to be an actual difference-maker instead of one propped up by shooting percentage, and a mishmash of mediocre fourth-line options. Take your pick from Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma, or maybe Paul Byron if they actually use him as a center. None make a particularly big difference, or spruce up the general low quality.

4. The bottom tier

We're left, then, with two teams in Arizona and Edmonton which have disastrous situations in the middle.

Edmonton is better, obviously, simply because they have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is developing into a high-end player. Makes the team better when he's on the ice, has a high skill threshold, that sort of thing. The rest, though, is a well-publicized calamity. The other three centers they have on the roster right now aren't pretty: Boyd Gordon (who actually took more faceoffs than anyone in Edmonton last season), Mark Arcobello, and Anton Lander. I have a lot of time for Arcobello, but he gets softer minutes than you'd like your No. 2 guy getting, especially when you're trying to shield your No. 1 from tough zone starts. Anton Lander, meanwhile, doesn't belong in the NHL. Maybe they keep Leon Draisaitl for that.

And so that leaves us with Arizona. Their No. 1 is either Martin Hanzal or Sam Gagner. Which is bad. Their No. 2 or 3, depending on how they use Gagner, is Antoine Vermette. Their No. 4 is Joe Vitale. All of this is to say that the Coyotes are going to get dominated up the middle against just about everyone in the Pacific. You almost have to feel bad about it.

5. What should we take from this?

Not that entire seasons are won and lost in these trenches, specifically, but center quality usually tells you a lot about team quality. This is not the order in which the teams will finish — because Calgary's headed right to the toilet, for one thing — but it is illuminating nonetheless. I went into this with no real preconceived notions about where I would rank everyone except of course for the obvious "well this group is good/bad."

I was surprised to find how little I liked Arizona, and surprised at how high I was on Calgary. Anyway that's it. Bye.

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Yer ol' buddy Lambert is handsome and great and everyone loves him. Also you can visit his regular blog at The Two-Line Pass or follow him on Twitter. Lucky you!
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#51 Jeff Lebowski
July 17 2014, 03:53PM
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Jeff In Lethbridge wrote:

is it fair to say that getting grumpy in the off season is a sign of withdrawal and addiction?

people are just gonna have to embrace summer, and enjoy it until training camp...

I got grumpy but my blood sugar was indeed low. Oh and I can barely contain my excitement for Flames future.

Bollig plays with JG and Monahan. Hudler gets dealt at some point, depends on Sven, Granlund, Max or someone currently under radar.

Or something else entirely. The kids are pushing through! How can you not be excited?!?

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#52 ?
July 17 2014, 04:01PM
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@Stan

The reason why they lost that series against Philidelphia is because Fleury couldn't make a damn save. He's also the reason why they almost lost the series against NYI a year later, until Tomas Vokoun had to come in in game 5 and save the day.

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#53 MonsterPod
July 17 2014, 04:12PM
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The Toews/Crosby debate could go on forever. I'm just glad they both play for Team Canada.

Matt Stajan is not our #1 center.

SJ has the best centers rivalled by Chicago and Boston?

Chicago has Toews... then they were rotating Hanzus and Shaw in the 2 spot. Hanzus is gone and they scooped B. Richards. I don't see how this group rivals SJ.

Boston? Krejci is really good, but he's not elite. Bergeron is obviously awesome followed by... Soderburg/Kelly? Yes if they still had Seguin.

Just my opinion, but I would put the Kings a close second behind the Sharks. Stoll is a monster on draws, hits, outstanding on PK -- almost a perfect #3. Mike Richards is their #4 who would likely be #1 in Calgary. He had a bad season last year, but I've always liked him and I'm not writing him off yet.

Penguins: Crosby, Malkin, Sutter -- Colorado: Duschene, MacKinnon, O'Reilly -- Detroit: Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Weiss/Helm -- Flyers: Giroux, Schenn, Couturier, Lecavalier.

Toews is a superstar, but Chicago is not really deep at center.

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#54 Baalzamon
July 17 2014, 04:24PM
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@loudogYYC

All I know is I always found it strange that Crosby is a centre that very few wingers can perform with.

That's what's interesting about the Pens--they've been BRUTAL on the wings for years.

I would actually argue the opposite of what you contend here--that wingers suddenly look like studs when they play with Crosby. I mean, no one was mentioning Kunitz as even a possible alternate for the olympic team in 2010, but suddenly, in his 30's after playing regularly with Crosby for a few years, he's a "lock"? That's not a coincidence.

It's kind of ridiculous how much the Penguins coddle Malkin while Crosby has to make Pascal Dupuis look like a legitimate scoring line forward.

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#55 Monaertchi
July 17 2014, 05:09PM
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piscera.infada wrote:
people are just gonna have to embrace summer, and enjoy it until training camp...

Nonsense!

I agree!

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#56 SmellOfVictory
July 17 2014, 05:44PM
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Jeff Lebowski wrote:

Exactly!

I think it is very interesting as to why?

From a layfan's point of view, Crosby's brain just seems to be at a higher level. Really, the difference between a poor NHL mind and an elite one is how frequently they do the right thing, or an exceptional thing.

Even Eric Nystrom, career 4th liner, had moments where he looked like a legitimate offensive talent (hence "Nyzerman"), but they were few and far between. Crosby's hockey brain is at the level where he is regularly, the vast majority of the time (except when he's mad) out-thinking his opponents. Toews is up there, but just not as often. I don't think there's anything specific that it could be attributed to, beyond "He thinks the game at a higher level."

I'd also say Crosby's stronger (his lower body strength is positively epic), which helps in a lot of situations.

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#57 Jeff Lebowski
July 17 2014, 06:40PM
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SmellOfVictory wrote:

From a layfan's point of view, Crosby's brain just seems to be at a higher level. Really, the difference between a poor NHL mind and an elite one is how frequently they do the right thing, or an exceptional thing.

Even Eric Nystrom, career 4th liner, had moments where he looked like a legitimate offensive talent (hence "Nyzerman"), but they were few and far between. Crosby's hockey brain is at the level where he is regularly, the vast majority of the time (except when he's mad) out-thinking his opponents. Toews is up there, but just not as often. I don't think there's anything specific that it could be attributed to, beyond "He thinks the game at a higher level."

I'd also say Crosby's stronger (his lower body strength is positively epic), which helps in a lot of situations.

This may certainly be gobble-de-goop but I find there is often talk of hockey IQ but never talk of hockey EQ - especially past a certain age.

But I see it all the time. The game is extremely emotional and psychological (think: mental toughness). Some guys can find consistency physically and emotionally better than others.

I think a perfect case in point was Backlund. The physical ability was always there but he finally had his aha moment - which some players never get because they keep getting in their own way.

Anyway, I'm no expert and yeah it's summer...

Yeah Crosby is a powerhouse. I think power comes from frame size rather than height alone. Shorter guys like Cammy can be quite powerful because they have large - or wide - frames (big butts lol!).

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#58 SmellOfVictory
July 17 2014, 06:46PM
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Jeff Lebowski wrote:

This may certainly be gobble-de-goop but I find there is often talk of hockey IQ but never talk of hockey EQ - especially past a certain age.

But I see it all the time. The game is extremely emotional and psychological (think: mental toughness). Some guys can find consistency physically and emotionally better than others.

I think a perfect case in point was Backlund. The physical ability was always there but he finally had his aha moment - which some players never get because they keep getting in their own way.

Anyway, I'm no expert and yeah it's summer...

Yeah Crosby is a powerhouse. I think power comes from frame size rather than height alone. Shorter guys like Cammy can be quite powerful because they have large - or wide - frames (big butts lol!).

I'd say there's merit in that. It's just very difficult to perceive and impossible to measure (in addition to the fact that it is often very dynamic) so it doesn't get talked about in areas where analytics are popular.

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#59 clyde
July 17 2014, 06:47PM
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SmellOfVictory wrote:

From a layfan's point of view, Crosby's brain just seems to be at a higher level. Really, the difference between a poor NHL mind and an elite one is how frequently they do the right thing, or an exceptional thing.

Even Eric Nystrom, career 4th liner, had moments where he looked like a legitimate offensive talent (hence "Nyzerman"), but they were few and far between. Crosby's hockey brain is at the level where he is regularly, the vast majority of the time (except when he's mad) out-thinking his opponents. Toews is up there, but just not as often. I don't think there's anything specific that it could be attributed to, beyond "He thinks the game at a higher level."

I'd also say Crosby's stronger (his lower body strength is positively epic), which helps in a lot of situations.

I believe Crosby is the best right now but Toews is very good. I would say he has Sid beat on how well he plays in his own zone and how well he can lean on an opponent.

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#60 RKD
July 17 2014, 07:34PM
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Stan wrote:

As far as the Toews vs. Crosby debate goes, here are my two cents:

As far as offensive ability goes, I don't think there is much debate that Crosby is the better player. Toews point production simply doesn't stack up. Point Crosby.

As far as defensive play goes, I think that Toews is the better player. I assume this could be debated, but IMO Toews has the edge over Crosby in this aspect. He is so effective on the back check and shadowing his mark. It's clinical. Crosby is good as well, just not quite as good IMO. Point Toews.

It's the intangibles/other category in which I believe Toews has the biggest advantage. He is indisputably a better leader. A proven winner, he's won it all at every level. Consistently. Just look at the flyers/pens playoff series from a couple years ago. Crosby got completely unraveled and started acting like a huge baby on AND off the ice. Swiping players gloves away when they are going to pick them up, starting brawls and then skating away, constantly bitching to the refs. He got completely unraveled and I believe that's a massive reason that they lost that series. You would never see that happen to Toews. There is also the fact that Crosby appears to be much more injury prone then Toews. Some might argue that that's not a real thing, but the facts of the matter are that Toews has remained healthy and able to play consistently for the majority of the past 5 seasons whereas Crosby has not . He is constantly injured.

And it's for the above reasons that I would pick Toews over Crosby (although I'd love to have either on my team).

You would never see that happen to Toews. Do you even watch hockey? With the Hawks down 3-1 in the series against the Red Wings, Toews completely unraveled. He started hacking sticks, slashing guys and eventually had to be consoled by Brent Seabrook while stewing in the penalty box. You don't really see that from Kane, when he gets called out, he elevates big time. Even losing to the Kings, he put up 8 points towards the end of the series. Crosby wears his emotions on his sleeve a lot more, but trust me Toews can unravel just as well.

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#61 Jeff Lebowski
July 17 2014, 08:08PM
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@SmellOfVictory

Who do you think played the best (Sid v Toews) in the Olympics (Van + Sochi)?

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#62 Baalzamon
July 17 2014, 08:09PM
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@Jeff Lebowski

Shorter guys like Cammy can be quite powerful because they have large - or wide - frames (big butts lol!).

A low center of gravity is a nice thing to have in Ice Hockey.

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#63 FlamesRule
July 17 2014, 08:21PM
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McRib wrote:

I can admit that Sidney Crosby is a "more skilled player" than Jonathan Toews, but if I was going to start an NHL team and had the choice of one player to do it with Jonathan Toews would be my guy (Drew Doughty would be a close second). No disrespect to Sidney Crosby, but once again he is battling a major injury (wrist).... Jonathan Toews has won at every freaking level it is not a coincidence (Bantam, Midget, U17s, U18s, World Juniors, NHL, etc).

I also think people underestimate the fact that Jonathan Toews is 6'2" and has an unbelievable ability of maximizing frame to strip players off the puck. People say "Chicago wins championships without much size", will Jonathan Toews plays 22+ minutes a night up front so there is that, like I have said before you do need some skilled size in your the Top. 6 to win and he checks off every other box outside of skill (leadership, elevating play when it matters, big moment player, etc).

You're absolutely right. I hope Monahan studies video of Toews instead of Crosby!

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#64 Brent G.
July 17 2014, 08:26PM
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You know what I can't figure out? How has no team, especially the flames, taken a flyer on Del Zotto?

I get he's slipped but I still think he improves our blue line...

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#65 T&A4Flames
July 17 2014, 08:31PM
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loudogYYC wrote:

Good, I don't like a player that doesn't loose his sh*t every now and then. As long as he doesn't make a habit of it, like Crosby's first 5 years in the league.

I don't think I know enough about the game to depict the tiny details that make the difference between Crosby and Toews. All I know is I always found it strange that Crosby is a centre that very few wingers can perform with. Toews can adapt and play any kind of game with any winger as far as I know. I'd take Toews over Crosby if I had to pick only 1.

Regarding the Flames centre depth, I love the position they're currently in. The heavies in the the Western conference are gonna slow down in the next 4 years and that's when Backlund, Monahan, Bennet, Granlund and Arnold should be taking over. If they do it right, we're going to witness the strongest Centre depth in Flames history!

I'll chime in. Toews is adabtiblle but Crosby rarely has to adapt. Other teams adapt to him, Crosby just plays his game which is good enough to go against any defence.

Regardless, I think we can ALL agree that if Monahan or Bennett turn out to be a Toews, we would be very very happy.

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#66 MC Hockey
July 17 2014, 08:34PM
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Brent G. wrote:

You know what I can't figure out? How has no team, especially the flames, taken a flyer on Del Zotto?

I get he's slipped but I still think he improves our blue line...

Hello! Yes I wonder how one bad year for this guy sees him unsigned? Does he have "personal issues"?

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#67 cccsberg
July 17 2014, 10:00PM
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MontanaMan wrote:

At first glance, Crosby is the clear #1 centre in the game. Skill and scoring titles are undisputable. Toews brings the "intangibles" of the game and in my opinion is the best in the game presently at leadership and getting the best out of his teammates. I don't sense this type of leadership out of Crosby.

As far as comparing Toews to Kopitar and Malkin, that's a sick joke. Once again, the comparison is in goals and assists but doesn't take into account what Toews brings to a team and what he brings out in every player.

Agree with the first paragraph, but what it really comes down to is what's your definition of "best"? Crosby puts up more offence and points, but I'd rather have Toews on my team...

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#68 clyde
July 17 2014, 10:33PM
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Brent G. wrote:

You know what I can't figure out? How has no team, especially the flames, taken a flyer on Del Zotto?

I get he's slipped but I still think he improves our blue line...

I get the feeling he is the one holding things up. I don't know if the Flames have an offer in but I'm sure some teams do. Looking for the best deal sometimes backfires.

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#69 Jeff Lebowski
July 17 2014, 11:16PM
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I also think there are plays Sid can do that Toews can't. But the game rewards a simpler offence these days. But you do see the flashes from Sid where he, while accelerating to top speed, juggles pucks past guys...so many.

Players complain but I like the detail coaches cover, it makes plays like Malkin's backhand shelf stand out that much more. Hard to score + wow.

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#70 MonsterPod
July 19 2014, 12:02PM
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Jeff Lebowski wrote:

Who do you think played the best (Sid v Toews) in the Olympics (Van + Sochi)?

That's a tough comparison.

Crosby played the top line all of 2010, even when he wasn't stellar.

Then it was the SJ line of Marleau Thornton Heatley.

Then the deadly line of Getzlaf and Perry with... Staal? Richards?

Toews centered the 4th line with Nash and I believe Morrow most of the time. He put up one goal and enough assists to make him the scoring leader on the team, but you can argue he did not face the top defensemen that Crosby (and Iggy) did.

The Sochi Olympics are even harder to judge because nobody scored. The games were like soccer matches. Up until the gold medal game, the D did most of the scoring, then Toews and Crosby each scored a beauty against Lundqvist.

My oh my, it's still a toss-up...

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