Building Success “Through the Middle”

 

In hockey, there is a lot of chatter referring to “the middle”.  Coaches love to preach about “Backchecking hard through the middle of the ice.”  Defencemen are told to “force plays to the outside and play through the dots.”  The shots that goalies worry most about are “Grade A” chances—shots that come from the area of the ice known as “The House” (from the high slot down toward the goal-mouth).  Obviously, the middle of the ice is an important piece of real estate in hockey.  Knowing this, it is important that when you’re looking to build success, you need to build a team through the middle of the ice, and the most important pieces are the centermen.

Saying that the most important position on the ice is the centerman is not exactly a very popular opinion, especially in the modern “defence wins championships” mindset.  Most will argue that great teams are built from strong goaltending out and/or teams with the best defense core will win championships.  I agree that you are hard-pressed to win a Stanley Cup without strong goaltending and a solid top-4 on the backend, but without marquee talent at the center position, you simply won’t win.

Before you load up on tomatoes to throw at me, consider this.  Hockey is made up of a series of one-on-one battles.  From a defensive standpoint, the centerman has the ability to create an out-manned situation.  They provide the added defensive factor.

Defensively speaking, wingers provide the least amount of defensive value.  They are usually pretty sedentary, staying within their quadrant and ensuring opposing defensemen don’t try to slip into scoring areas.  The biggest key is for weakside wingers to protect the slot and to win lose puck battles on the wall.  Otherwise, they are just biding their time until they can create offensively.

Centermen, however, are the most important players in the defensive zone.  They are always providing the second layer of support on puck battles and are often to blame when a breakdown occurs.  Therefore, weakness in this position creates a major risk for team success. This is also why Selke Award (NHL’s top defensive forward) winners are almost always centermen.

Here are the last 10 Selke winners, all centers:

 

Season Team Player
2013-14 Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews
2011-12 Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron
2010-11 Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler
2009-10 Detroit Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk
2008-09 Detroit Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk
2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes Rod Brind’Amour
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes Rod Brind’Amour
2003-04 Detroit Red Wings Kris Draper

 

Also, you’ll notice that all of these teams have either won a Stanley Cup or been to the Stanley Cup finals in the last 10 years.  The strength of teams that are successful are almost always linked to great centermen and depth at the center position.

Here is a look at the last 30 Stanley Cup champions and their centermen:

 

Year Team Centers
2014 Los Angeles Kings Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll
2013 Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw
2012 Los Angeles Kings Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll
2011 Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, Chris Kelly, Tyler Seguin
2010 Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, John Madden
2009 Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot
2008 Detroit Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper, Darren Helm, Valteri Filppula
2007 Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf, Andy McDonald, Todd Marchant, Samuel Pahlsson
2006 Carolina Hurricanes Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Doug Weight
2005 Season cancelled due to 2004–05 NHL lockout
2004 Tampa Bay Lightning Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Tim Taylor, Eric Perran
2003 New Jersey Devils Joe Nieuwendyk, Scott Gomez, John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner
2002 Detroit Red Wings Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk, Igor Larionov, Kris Draper
2001 Colorado Avalanche Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Stephane Yelle, Chris Drury
2000 New Jersey Devils Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik, Brendan Morrison, Petr Sykora, Sergei Brylin
1999 Dallas Stars Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Modano, Guy Carbonneau, Jamie Langenbrunner
1998 Detroit Red Wings Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Kris Draper
1997 Detroit Red Wings Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Kris Draper
1996 Colorado Avalanche Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Stephane Yelle, Mike Ricci
1995 New Jersey Devils Brian Rolston, John Madden, Bobby Holik, Neal Broten, Sergei Brylin
1994 New York Rangers Mark Messier, Sergei Nemchinov, Alexei Kovalev, Esa Tikkanen, Ed Olzcyk
1993 Montreal Canadiens Kirk Muller, Guy Carbonneau, Stephan Lebeau, Denis Savard
1992 Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Shawn McEachern
1991 Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, John Cullen
1990 Edmonton Oilers Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish, Vladimir Ruzicka
1989 Calgary Flames Joe Nieuwendyk, Theoren Fleury, Doug Gilmour, Joel Otto
1988 Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Craig MacTavish, Keith Acton, Esa Tikkanen
1987 Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Craig MacTavish, Esa Tikkanen
1986 Montreal Canadiens Bobby Smith, Guy Carbonneau, Stephane Richer, Brian Skrudland
1985 Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mark Napier, Kevin McClelland
1984 Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Ken Linseman, Kevin McClelland

 

The proof is in the pudding, there are a lot of hall of famers and superstars in that list.  If you look at the teams that experience sustainable success in the NHL year-after-year—Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston—they all have one thing in common, and that is marquee centermen.  It’s players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Pavel Datsyuk, and Patrice Bergeron that add that extra factor to success.  Their value goes far beyond stats and awards, simply because of the responsibilities that go with being a top-tier NHL centerman.

There is a saying in hockey, “Show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goalie.”  Here’s a twist:  “Show me a good goalie and I’ll show you a good centerman.”  As a defenseman, I used loved getting on the ice with the top lines, not just because I had a better shot at getting on the scoresheet, but because playing with good centermen always made my job that much easier.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

4 thoughts on “Building Success “Through the Middle”

  1. Jamie,

    I totally agree with your assessment. Having a responsible player at centre is very important, a centreman who is responsible in both the offensive and defensive zones. I believe that this type of player has to have two key elements to his or her game, namely, first class skating ability as well as a very high understanding of the game, what is referred to as hockey IQ.

    In my experience, goals for and goals against happen when there is series of breakdowns. The smallest details, when strung together, can cause both success and failure. Aspects of a good centreman would be taking the right line or angle when back checking, lifting a stick or stepping in front of an opposing player at the right time, and before critical faceoffs, knowing what teammates need to be on the ice with him or her.

    What I have not mentioned is size and strength. Although these are two aspects that are good to have, I feel that skating ability and hockey IQ are paramount for a top notch centreman. I would like to hear what you and your readers think.

    Thanks,

    Lippy66

    • You nailed it Lippy! Especially in today’s game, skating IS paramount to success. Having a smart, two-way center a la Toews, Bergeron, Crosby is a major asset to a team. These players are hard to come by, so it’s important to draft well. Scoring wingers and 3, 4 defencemen are easier to add through trades.

      • Jamie,

        I have been following your blog for a few months, and I enjoy reading about your adventures, and learning from your hockey experiences.

        I would like to know your thoughts about acquiring (cultivating) a #1, or even a #2 defenseman. Are they as hard to come across as the type of centreman you mentioned in your article?

        Thanks,

        Lippy66

        • I think the 3 toughest positions to acquire talent in the prime are 1st line centermen (Crosby, Toews, Kopitar, Giroux, etc.), Top 2 defencemen (Weber, Keith, Doughty, Suter, etc.), and goalies (Price, Rask, Quick, etc.). Wingers are much easier to come by, which is why we see guys like Marian Gaborik bounce around despite having immense talent. Teams tend to build teams around these three positions (At least successful teams do – See the Leafs for “how not to”) and this makes sense. As mentioned in the article, successful teams are usually very strong at the center position. Think of the great teams in the past 10 or 20 years that won multiple cups. Detroit (Yzerman – Fedorov, Datsyuk – Zetterberg), Colorado (Forsberg – Sakic), Edmonton (Gretzky – Messier). They were elite down the middle. Teams tend to hold onto these pieces while they are in their prime. But, in the salary cap era you tend to see teams part with significant pieces of their core more often than in the past (ie. Suter pricing himself out of Nashville).

          The best thing for franchises to do is start with a culture (ie. Detroit) and build you entire model for sustainability around it. Detroit is known for investing a great deal of resources into scouting and development. They draft very well (Much of their core came in the later rounds – Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Howard, Ericsson, Nyquist, Helm, Abdelkader). They also have a development plan and almost never rush their prospects (Most players put in their time apprenticing in the minors before stepping into a full-time role). They also put a lot of emphasis on fielding a home-grown lineup. This instills the importance of culture and pride into their players. 18 of 23 active Red Wing players are home-grown players (Drafted and harvested in the Red Wing organization). It’s a big reason why they experienced 21 consecutive seasons where they were a playoff team.

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