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.