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:
|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:
|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.