Five things: Talkin’ ’bout centers

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.

  • I think you do Vancouver a bit of a disservice – they’ve got a number of promising young centres who will likely fill the 3C role ahead of Matthias or Richardson (who are both good options as 4Cs, but a bit out of their depth on the third line) – Linden Vey was brought in from LA, can play centre, and scored at above a point-a-game clip in the AHL last year, and one of either Bo Horvat or Brendan Gaunce will likely make the jump from Junior to the NHL this fall as well. Bonino’s still a drop down from Kesler as the 2C, but their bottom 6 centre depth is actually pretty good.

    • Gaunce’s results are worse than Max Reinhart’s were at the same age. I’ll be shocked if he’s in the NHL before 2016.

      As for Horvat… he probably needs another year in junior.

      On the other hand, the Canucks’ center depth really is that bad, so you never know.

    • McRib

      I personally don’t ever see Brendan Gaunce being an NHLer the kid can’t skate!! He is one of these first round bust that regardless of the fact that even if most teams can admit that is what he will become, he will still get three or four chances to make the NHL because he was a “high draft pick” and there will always will be desperate teams, but I just don’t see it ever with him… If he ever makes the NHL it will be with his third or fourth NHL Club (see Joe Colborne) and that is after putting significant time and effort into improving game (i.e. skating). When Linden Vey is (an afterthought for the LA Kings organization) one of the Canucks top prospects it is really saying something. Don’t mean to bash Vancouver in general, but plain and simple Mike Gillies was a horrendous drafter!!! Outside of the Top. 10 Picks (Bo Horvat, Cody Hodgson) and maybe one or two other players (Frankie Corrado) I don’t see many other prospects from the Gillies era panning out, as every year he took the most overrated prospects possible.

  • I was under the impression that Cogliano has shifted to the wing in Anaheim. He was never a great centreman, but on the wing he’s a 2/3 line winger, and uses his top-notch speed effectively. Apparently he didn’t like it at first, but wouldn’t move back to C if he had the chance now. That might impact your thoughts on Anaheim, as they’re quite as deep as you thought, but still strong up front.

  • Lordmork

    The Flames strength at centre isn’t great right now, but it makes me feel encouraged how many talented guys we have in the prospect stable. I’m really curious to see who might end up on the wings, because if you assume a Monahan-Bennet-Backlund-Stajan lineup in a couple of years, that leaves a lot of talent without a role. Alternately, trades, but I’d rather the team develop their prospects and then trade them.

  • Derzie

    “Middle Tier” for Calgary? (snicker) Kind of how everyone thinks they are ‘middle class’ when in reality, most are at the bottom. Potential of the prospects aside, this year, we are firmly ‘Bottom Tier’.

  • because let’s face it, they’re never giving a no-scoring possession driver like Mikael Backlund top-line minutes

    I have little doubt this is the year the team gives Backlund the most ice time amongst Flames C’s. From Jan on last year he was consistently playing around 20 minutes a night.

    • Derzie

      I’m not so sure he doesn’t put up some pretty decent offensive numbers this year either especially if he gets some consistent pp time and is put with offensive minded wingers.

  • Derzie

    I dont get why backlund wouldnt be our #1 C even if he wont score (which i dont think will be the case anymore). Hes passed staj imo and monahan will still be a tier below.

  • Purple Hazze

    I don’t know if I’d call Toews overrated. He’s won 2 Stanley cups and 2 gold medals since 2010! People love a winner, despite all the counting stats, in the end winning is all that matters. I know I’d take him over Malkin on my team any day.

    • Purple Hazze

      Winning has nothing to do with rating how good a player is in a team sport. Especially hockey, soccer, and baseball. Toews plays 20-25 mins a night out of 60. He has two cups and two gold medals cause those teams where stacked. Toews is a fantastic player, but if he was on a team like Calgary, Edmonton, Florida etc… He wouldn’t have any cups.

      • piscera.infada

        How many cups would Chicago have won if he wasn’t there? Also, how many cups has Crosby (“the best player in the world”) won playing on a equally stacked team, in a lesser conference. I understand what you’re saying, but it seems like you’re splitting hairs. Toews is integral to the success of the Blackhawks, ergo Toews is an ultra-successful hockey payer. Yes, Kane, Hossa, Seabrook, and Keith aid because it’s a team game, and they’re probably the deepest team in the league. That doesn’t mean we should discount Toews’ contributions because he puts up ~70 points a season as opposed to 100. I take him over just about anyone in the league except Crosby, and even that’s something I need to think about.

        • Matty Franchise Jr

          I have to agree with Lambs on this point about Toews:

          “people calling him the best player in the world are raving lunatics”

          If you have to think about whether or not you choose Crosby over Toews, you need to review how to think.

          • piscera.infada

            Never once did I say “Toews is the best player in the league”. Sometimes though, building a team is about more than “the best player”. I think Toews offers you more in terms of elite play in a variety of circumstances than Crosby does. Don’t get me wrong, Crosby is a great player and I’d take him on my team any day. Between the two though, I’m always going to take the player that backchecks harder, plays better in his own zone, can play the pk, and still puts up ~70 points consistently – and that’s completely discounting his ability to put an entire team on his back when it matters the most and go completely beast-mode. Just me though.

          • Jeff Lebowski

            Not that I disagree, but I’m curious to know why Crosby slam dunk over Toews?

            I don’t mean empty descriptions like more talented. What precisely makes a player better?

            Is there a belief that more points necessarily means more talent? So, he shoots harder, skates faster?

            Again, I’m not disagreeing with assessment. Just how does one articulate the actual differences between good players?

            Saying someone has better Corsi is also meaningless. What makes that so? There is no skill called Corsi that kids in timbit hockey learn. What skills/ability do people reference? So describe or articulate it. Which is easy if you understand.

          • Jeff Lebowski

            I want to know if people think there are plays Crosby can make that Toews can’t. What are they?

            So in keeping consistent constraints and isolating for individual attributes – what plays – irrespective of team mate quality – does Crosby make that Toews can’t?

            Again, I’ve not stated one is better than the other (although I have my own preference)

            I’m curious, other than after the fact performance metrics, what can a person explain the differences as being?

            If one has certainty – it should be a relatively easy exercise.

          • SmellOfVictory

            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.

          • Jeff Lebowski

            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!).

          • SmellOfVictory

            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.

          • MonsterPod

            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…

          • 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.

          • SmellOfVictory

            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.

          • BurningSensation

            I’d say it’s largely indisputable that Crosby is both faster than Toews, and a better playmaker. Is it something as specific as ‘Crosby’s backhand passes are better’ or he has ‘better hockey IQ’, whatever, Crosby makes more plays. I think they both have shots that are a shade below ‘elite’ (Malkin and Kane both have harder/better one-timers), and both play a ‘two-way’ game.

            Toews is a much better ‘shadow’ than Crosby is, but that has more to do with Crosby being a better puck possession player.

            I have no problem saying Crosby is the better player than Towes.

            I also have no problem saying that Malkin is also a better player than Towes.

          • Jeff Lebowski

            I think Crosby is quicker laterally – more explosive. His vision and ability to keep track of players he’s not even looking at are superb. Anticipation.

            But at the moment of truth, he stays in control and can consistently execute. Doesn’t get excited and shoot it into the crest or over the net.

            Gets out of his own way.

            Monahan does this well too. Brodie needs to improve (all mental) for him to tap all his potential.

            Just my thoughts. Could be way wrong.

          • Matty Franchise Jr

            I went to extraskater.com and compared the two players.

            Crosby faced much tougher ZS%, with a bit more ice time, slightly worse QC%, and worse line mates. Obviously, The Croz crushed Toews in points in these circumstances.

            For me, getting WAY MORE points in much tougher circumstances means Crosby is the better player.

            It’s quite interesting to factor in Getzlaf and Kopitar, even though they don’t get the points Sid does.

            EDIT: slightly worse QC% means slightly EASIER QC%

          • McRib

            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).

      • RedMan

        When you say,

        >>”Winning has nothing to do with rating a player”

        I would suggest that for those writing the cheque, winning may have a lot to do with rating the player.

  • McRib

    Troy G. Ward named head coach of the Vancouver Giants, clearly didn’t want to leave the Vancouver area, wonder if he chose to not re-sign… I think Ryan Huska is an upgrade regardless, just wonder if the Flames parted ways with Ward before the WHL decision was made. I think the WHL is a great test for Ward who’s been mainly a coach of professional Hockey. I think his lack of Junior experience (outside of two years at Dubuque back when USHL was a below average league) might have hurt him with keeping the AHL job, considering how young our AHL squad will be next year.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    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.

    • loudogYYC

      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…

  • Yes, the Flames have a long way to go in terms of building depth at the center ice position. I’m surprised you considered Matt Stajan as the No. 1 center on this team. I would think Backlund/Monahan as the No. 1 and No. 2 center with Stajan slotting in as No. 3. Sure Toews has two Stanley Cup but by no means is he worth $10.5 million, neither is Kane. They are stars and excellent players but they don’t even touch Crosby’s level. Crosby dominates the league and he’s only the fifth highest paid player in the league. If I was an NHL GM and knew the ask from Kane and Toews was $12 million I would have thrown out an offer sheet for one or both.

    • RedMan

      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…

  • Jeff Lebowski

    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).

    • Frank Miron

      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.

      Actually we have. Do you remember what happened in the Chicago/Detroit series in the lockout year? Toews got very frustrated with his inability to score against Zetterberg.

      • loudogYYC

        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!

        • Jeff Lebowski

          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.

        • T&A4Flames

          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.

    • Jeff Lebowski

      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.

    • FlamesRule

      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.

  • MonsterPod

    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.

  • Brent G.

    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…

  • Jeff Lebowski

    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.