Wayne Gretzky. Mario Lemieux. Jean Beliveau. Sidney Crosby. In addition to being four of the biggest stars in NHL history, these marquee names all share the distinction of being elite, Stanley Cup-winning No. 1 centers. It is telling that so many of the game's all-time greats played up the middle, a fact supported by a league history in which a center has won the Hart trophy in 25 of the past 38 seasons. It stands to reason that a team's best forward would be expected to handle the additional responsibilities of taking face-offs, setting up the play and serving as a stabilizing force on both ends of the ice.
For all the ways in which the game has changed over the years, the importance of the center position hasn't. In the modern game where speed and size reign, your team will be in tough to contend without an elite pivot to anchor your offence and engage the wingers on his line. It's no wonder, then, that the battle for best player in the NHL is currently being waged between Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, both of whom happen to line up at center.
Let's get one thing straight here - not every NHL coach has the luxury of sending a Crosby or McDavid over the boards. For all of the ways in which a bona fide No. 1 center can elevate a team, not having one can just as easily deflate an otherwise talented roster. It's no coincidence that the clubs with Stanley Cup aspirations find themselves higher up on this ranking of each team's No. 1 center, while the bottom dwellers are found further down the line, just as they are in league standings.
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31 William Karlsson (Vegas Golden Knights)
By expansion standards, the Vegas Golden Knights came away with a pretty good initial roster on account of the Knights-friendly rules of the Expansion Draft. Still, while Vegas was guaranteed to get some decent talent off of deep rival rosters, it wasn't as if teams were going to leave their top pivot unprotected. That meant that the Golden Knights were unlikely to land a top center in their first season.
It wasn't for a lack of trying. GM George McPhee signed Vadim Shipachyov away from the KHL, only to see him return after getting frustrated by a lack of opportunities at the NHL level. He also drafted center Cody Glass out of the WHL with the club's own first round pick. All told, the Golden Knights still aren't icing a better top line center than William Karlsson, who has never scored more than nine goals or 25 points in a season.
30 Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers)
You won't find a bigger star in the lengthy history of the New York Rangers franchise than Mark Messier, who guaranteed a Stanley Cup victory and delivered on the promise back in 1994. But save for three seasons of a late career Gretzky, the Blueshirts haven't found another center that even approaches the stature of Messier in the 23 years since. No offense to Mika Zibanejad, but the 24-year-old Swede probably isn't that guy either.
Through no fault of his own, Zibanejad seems ill-suited for top line duty on a club that simply doesn't have a better option right now. The Rangers traded former top line center Derek Stepan in the off-season for the right to draft prospect Lias Andersson, who they hope will one day be that elite center. That doesn't help the current roster, mind you, who will have to make do with Zibanejad barring another trade.
29 Derek Stepan (Arizona Coyotes)
If trading their former No. 1 center for a draft pick might seem to excuse the New York Rangers' lack of top line talent down the middle, it's worth noting that the guy they traded only wound up one spot higher than their current top pivot. Although it was surprising to see Derek Stepan (along with Antti Raanta) move from a playoff contender to the lowly Arizona Coyotes, it wasn't as if a franchise star was making his way to the desert.
Stepan is a heady, two-way threat who fit well within a Rangers dressing room that emphasized character and veteran leadership. Arizona, however, has decidedly different needs. With the Coyotes, Stepan has been mis-labelled as a go-to scorer. Not only is the designation unfair to Stepan, but the club has suffered accordingly. Rookie sensation Clayton Keller may have already surpassed him on the depth chart.
28 Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)
It's simply too early to move 2017 first overall selection Nico Hischier any higher up this list at this early stage of his career. It is a credit to the Swiss teen, however, that his New Jersey Devils have gotten off to a fairly strong start so soon after landing the top pick. Of course, it hasn't all been him. In fact, he doesn't even own the team lead in goals or assists among rookies.
For as much as Hischier has done nothing to take away from his draft position, he trails Jesper Bratt in goals and Will Butcher in assists among Devils first year players. The problem in Jersey up the middle is less on Hischier and more on a Devils team where an 18-year-old can rocket to the top of the center depth chart.
27 Derick Brassard (Ottawa Senators)
To be fair, the most talented center on the Ottawa Senators roster is probably Matt Duchene. It stands to reason, though, that the former Av will be eased into his new lineup before being thrust into top line duty. For now, on a club that is otherwise solid top to bottom, Derick Brassard is the No. 1 center.
Brassard has been a consistent presence over his 11 seasons in the league since being taken sixth overall by Columbus in 2006. But despite that consistency, he's produced just one 20-goal campaign and exactly as many 60-point seasons. Those aren't exactly hallmark statistics when it comes to the best center on the reigning Eastern Conference finalists. If the Sens are to work their way back to the NHL's final four, it will likely have to be Duchene who carries the bulk of the load down the middle.
26 Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers)
Really, Sean Couturier stands as the No. 1 center of the Philadelphia Flyers by virtue of circumstance more than legitimate claim to the lofty role. Head coach Dave Hakstol made the call this season to move Claude Giroux, thereby bumping the defensive-minded pivot up to centering the top line. Still, Couturier is anything but an afterthought in this new-look lineup.
A big part of the reasoning behind Giroux's positional shift is focused on unlocking some of Couturier's offensive potential in his seventh season. While Philly has benefited from the former QMJHL star's defense over the past few years, they've surely hoped for more offensively from the one-time No. 8 overall pick than career-bests of 39 points and 15 goals. Hakstol believes that flanking Couturier with Giroux and Jakub Voracek may help in that regard. The early results have been encouraging, but time will tell.
25 Brayden Schenn (St. Louis Blues)
The recent history of the St. Louis Blues can be viewed through two separate prisms. On the one hand, they've reached the playoffs in seven of their past nine seasons and aren't far removed from a whopping 25-year streak of postseason appearances. On the other hand, the Blues remain the longest-tenured NHL franchise without a Stanley Cup, having not even reached the Cup Finals since 1970. Is the center position to blame?
Save for an 18-game stint from The Great One and with all due respect to the late Pavol Demitra, you could argue that the Blues haven't employed a top center since Adam Oates was traded in 1992. On the current and likely playoff-bound Blues roster, Brayden Schenn represents a nice trade acquisition, but isn't that elusive top center.
24 Bo Horvat (Vancouver Canucks)
Like Nico Hischier before him, Bo Horvat's position on this list could be significantly higher if this exercise is done again in a few years. The 22-year-old has developed steadily in Vancouver since being drafted ninth overall in 2013. Mirroring the club's overall transition from veteran-laden squad to a young work in progress, the No. 1 center torch has now indisputably been passed from Henrik Sedin to Horvat.
Late in the off-season, the Canucks showed their commitment to Horvat as a franchise cornerstone, locking up the former London Knight with a six-year, $33 million extension. The club has been rewarded early in the 2017-18 season, with the fourth-year player growing into nearly a point-per-game player through the season's first quarter. The overall body of work, however, simply doesn't yet hold up to earn Horvat a higher ranking.
23 Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings)
Now in his third NHL season, it's really been a tale of two very different campaigns to start the career of Detroit Red Wings centerpiece Dylan Larkin. On an aging Wings team, he emerged as something of a rookie revelation in 2015-16, scoring 23 goals and 22 assists while collecting a +11 as a 19-year-old on a veteran-laden roster. But then came Larkin's sophomore campaign.
The local Michigan product saw a six-goal and 13-point decline in production despite playing the same number of games. Even worse, his respectable +11 plummeted to a -28 in year two, good for the sixth-worst mark in the league. So which season is more indicative of the 21-year-old's long-term NHL future? Wings fans can probably take some solace in a strong start to the 2017-18 campaign from Larkin, but he still needs to show more to move up any further.
22 Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Just as many an NBA team take their persona from their point guard, an NHL club's No. 1 center can often help establish the identity of the team. This is certainly true in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have found success as something of an anonymous bunch of responsible, system-based, two-way players. That starts with Brandon Dubinsky, who hasn't scored more than 50 points in six seasons as a Blue Jacket and could only be picked out of a lineup by the most ardent of hockey fans but is perfect for this Columbus team.
Though the Jackets are probably best defined by superstar goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Dubinsky is the defensive lynchpin up front for the franchise. It was he who was tasked with being Sidney Crosby's shadow in their first round playoff battle with the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring. While that didn't quite work out (Crosby led the Pens to a 4-1 series victory en route to the Cup), it doesn't take away from Dubinsky's importance to a team that collected 15 more points last season than in any other in franchise history.
21 Jordan Staal (Carolina Hurricanes)
A thought to ponder: has Jordan Staal been a bit of a bust? Assisted by his last name, the younger brother of Eric Staal was drafted second overall in 2006 - one spot ahead of Jonathan Toews. He's put up strong numbers over a 12-year career that saw his name etched on the Stanley Cup as part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2009 squad, but the expectations that come with his No. 2 selection leave you wanting more.
The Cup that Staal won came with him assuming third line center duties, which is what happens when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are your teammates. When thrust into higher profile duty, things haven't worked out as well. Stall still hasn't matched the 29 goals he scored in his rookie season, nor has he made an All-Star team. In his six seasons in Carolina, the 'Canes still have yet to reach the postseason.
20 Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild)
Let's face it - no one gets excited about the heady, responsible, defensive-minded forward. They aren't the type to find themselves on highlight reels or making commercial appearances. That's why, 13 years into a highly successful NHL career, Mikko Koivu remains one of the most under-appreciated players in the league.
It probably doesn't help that Koivu has spent all 13 seasons with the relatively anonymous Minnesota Wild, but it is with those Wild that the younger brother of Saku hasn't missed the playoffs in five years. Koivu's biggest contributions come in his veteran leadership and awareness of where to be at all times. For all of the positives he brings to the table, however, it's hard to merit a higher ranking among No. 1 centers without more than 18 goals or 62 points in any of the past eight seasons.
19 Jonathan Drouin (Montreal Canadiens)
He's only 19 on this list, but few centers featured here faced as much pressure heading into this season as did Jonathan Drouin. Drouin, of course, was the major off-season acquisition of the Montreal Canadiens, potentially representing the first francophone star to play for the Habs in years. He didn't come cheap either, requiring Montreal to ship top defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Through no fault of his own, the trade isn't exactly looking like a win to date. Drouin is just one point off of the team lead, but his play hasn't helped prevent the unmitigated disaster of a season currently being experienced by the bleu, blanc et rouge. Sergachev, meanwhile, has more points than Drouin despite a) being three years younger, b) his back end position and c) spending less time on the ice each game for what is a much better team.
18 Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks)
The 38-year-old Joe Thornton opted to sign a one-year deal to remain in San Jose, facilitating another decision next summer over whether to forge on or hang it up. The veteran of nearly 1500 NHL games is now in his 13th season with the Sharks, albeit now without long-time teammate Patrick Marleau and as part of a club now build around the likes of the similarly bearded Brent Burns and Logan Couture.
In other words, this ain't Thornton's team anymore. He remains the primary centerman, but is seeing minutes well below his career average and, as a result, putting up some pretty sparse offensive numbers. The four-time All-Star and former Hart trophy winner has carved out a Hall of Fame resume, but could be in for an ugly final chapter if he continues on with his sagging career.
17 Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche)
Remember all the hype that surrounded Nathan Mackinnon's arrival in the NHL, with folks getting worked up over a once-on-a-generational talent who just happened to share a hometown with Sidney Crosby? It's been a long five seasons since for the 22-year-old, who hasn't tasted playoff hockey since his rookie season. Not that it's really his fault.
If you were to look strictly at MacKinnon's career numbers to date, you'd probably reach the conclusion that he's done reasonably well in living up to expectations, hitting the 200-point plateau before his 22nd birthday. But the 2014 Calder trophy winner still has yet to appear in an All-Star game. Even worse, MacKinnon has failed to elevate his Avs, who have finished 7th, 6th and 7th in the seven-team Central division over the past three seasons.
16 Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers)
It is somewhat fitting that Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov find themselves listed back-to-back here. Comparisons come rather easily between the two, given their shared pivot role, their 1/2 draft position in 2013 and the fact that they were born a day apart (MacKinnon is the elder of the two, for the record).
MacKinnon also holds a considerable points advantage over his career, albeit having done so in almost 50 more games. Injuries have slowed Barkov, which was part of the reason that the Panthers couldn't follow up on their 2015-16 breakthrough season last year. He and Jonathan Huberdeau have been healthy and productive so far this season, which bodes well for hockey fans on South Florida.
15 Ryan Johansen (Nashville Predators)
We still don't have a definitive winner or loser in the early 2016 trade that saw Ryan Johansen head to Nashville from Columbus for young defensive stud Seth Jones, but you get the sense that the Predators and GM David Poile would happily make the same move all over again. The club's impossibly deep blue line hasn't suffered without Jones and Johansen has filled in seamlessly as the team's top center.
Although Johansen can't match the star power of teammates Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi and PK Subban, the 25-year-old has been a steadying influence as a defensive-oriented distributor and has helped elevate the Preds. Prior to a serious thigh injury in the Western Conference Finals, Johansen had been Nashville's leading playoff scorer. That the club still forged ahead to the Cup Finals without him, however, shows that he simply doesn't carry the same value on the stacked Preds that most top centers do for their club.
14 Sean Monahan (Calgary Flames)
Of the Calgary Flames' young core, Johnny Gaudreau gets the bulk of the attention as the superstar scorer and Sam Bennett draws interest for potential that, quite frankly, hasn't been realized yet. Sometimes, then, Sean Monahan can wind up being a little overlooked. Perhaps part of the tendency to overlook the 23-year-old stems from his remarkable consistency, which has seen him score between 58 and 63 points in no fewer than 81 games over his past three full seasons.
Based on Monahan's early efforts this season, those steady statistics may soon be disturbed. The former sixth overall pick currently boasts the team lead in goals scored and is averaging better than a point per game. If his pace holds up, the former Ottawa 67 may soon appear higher on this list.
13 Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres)
Being a great young player on a lousy team can be frustrating - just ask Nathan MacKinnon or the recently traded Matt Duchene. Sure enough, there are already signs that Jack Eichel is losing his patience in Buffalo with a rebuild that has turned disappointingly sour. The center taken second after Connor McDavid in 2015 just turned 21, but already has more than 50 goals and 130 points under his belt.
Upon closer review of his numbers, though, it's tough not to notice an accumulative -37 plus/minus, a symptom of being on some truly bad Sabres teams. Amidst elevated expectations with Eichel and other young talent on board, Buffalo has proceeded to finish second-last and last in the Atlantic division over his first two full seasons. Within a new generation of exciting young stars, the Massachusetts native is perilously close to being an afterthought.
12 Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins)
For years, a popular mantra in Boston has been "Keep Calm and Bergeron". It's a clever way to acknowledge the steadying, stabilizing and often under-appreciated influence that the 14-year veteran has had on the Bruins. As other stars like Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin have come and gone in Boston, Bergeron and defensive stalwart Zdeno Chara have been the two mainstays who have helped establish the club's reputation for a hard-nosed style of play that makes the B's miserable to play against.
Though never the most offensively skilled forward, Bergeron's value in shutting down the opposition's best forward has been immense. Even still, he's been competent enough in the offensive end to record three 30-goal seasons and two years of 70 points or better. However, the 2011 Cup winner's calling card has unquestionably been his character and heady two-way play, as evidenced by four Selke awards for best defensive forward and a Clancy award for leadership.
11 Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings)
Sydney Crosby wasn't the only NHL star to bid farewell to his twenties that month. A few weeks after Crosby's birthday, Anze Kopitar made it to 30 amidst considerably less fanfare despite a career that has - to date - been worth celebrating.
The primary middleman for the Los Angeles Kings has served as an integral part of a core that brought the franchise its first two Stanley Cups. One of the league's foremost two-way threats, the Slovenian star surpassed the 250-goal mark for his career late last season and is just two years removed from winning the Selke award. All that's keeping the three-time All-Star out of the top 10 is a recent downward scoring trend that has seen Kopitar average just 18 goals over the past five seasons after averaging 27 over his first six campaigns.
10 Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets)
The steady, incremental improvements of Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele turned into a full blown surge in 2016-17. He also recorded 50 assists, good for seventh in the league. The spike can at least partially be attributed to the Jets' addition of No. 2 overall pick Patrik Laine, a Finnish sniper who was immediately lined up on Scheifele's right wing. Of Laine's 36 goals in his rookie campaign, 18 came with assists by Scheifele.
The production of the dynamic duo may be a sign of things to come in the 'Peg. The Jets carry ambitious playoff expectations centered around the 19-year-old Laine and 24-year-old Scheifele. While the 2011 seventh overall pick got out to a slow start to his NHL career owing to injuries and arbitration eligibility-related manipulations, he and Laine may now be poised for a long, productive on-ice relationship.
9 Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)
The upper ranks of the Anaheim Ducks franchise record books are littered with four names: Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Those four superstars reside in the top five in games played, goals, assists and points.
While Perry has seen his level of play fade a bit recently (and really, how much can you be expected to sustain the 50-goal, 98-point campaign he had in 2010-11?), Getzlaf's play as a No. 1 centerman hasn't diminished. Perry potted just 19 goals last season after scoring 34 one year prior, but Getzlaf actually improved his offensive totals by 10 points despite playing three fewer games. Mystifyingly, Getzlaf has just one All-Star nod to his credit despite boasting over 800 career points, including three seasons of 80 or better.
8 Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars)
Now in his eighth NHL season and with a major trade already behind him, it's hard to believe that Tyler Seguin is still only 25. In fact, you could make a pretty compelling argument that he has become a bit under-appreciated with the Dallas Stars. In recent seasons, Seguin has anchored the club's potent offensive attack, even as defensive concerns have prevented them from being a playoff threat.
Of course, by focusing too much on the Stars' defensive struggles, some in Big D seem to be neglecting the consistent brilliance of Seguin. While you might find reason for concern in the former No. 2 pick's declining scoring numbers over the past four seasons, he has still averaged an impressive 34 goals and 78 points over that stretch. Seguin, who was recently asked by Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock to take on more of a two-way role, remains one of the league's top five scorers dating back to 2013.
7 John Tavares (New York Islanders)
He's been referred to by ESPN's John Buccigross as "the most overlooked superstar in sports" and even counted by some as the best athlete currently representing the Big Apple. But even as an elite hockey star in his prime, John Tavares of the New York Islanders is in a weird place right now. The 27-year-old stands as the headliner of the 2018 free agent class, with his happiness in Brooklyn and willingness to re-sign being called into question.
And who can blame him, really? Despite putting up more than 250 goals and 500 points in what is now his ninth NHL season, the Isles have consistently failed to surround him with complimentary talent that can match his level. Even more disconcerting is questions that linger about the club's future home amidst reports that the Barclay's Center, their current home rink, will not renew their lease after next season. The four-time All-Star certainly deserves better.
6 Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals)
They say that the best defensemen go largely unnoticed, but can the same be said for centers as well? It's true that the most skilled of pivots will wow with offensive wizardry from time to time, but sometimes the most valuable contributions can come in having the vision and sense to make the easy pass and the smart play. That is Nicklas Backstrom in a nutshell.
While Alex Ovechkin has long held the mantle of dynamic superstar scorer for the Washington Capitals, much of his production would likely be impossible if not for the fact that he flanks Backstrom. Just as Ovie has led the NHL in scoring seven times, his Swedish line mate has finished among the league's top 10 assist leaders in seven of his 10 full seasons, including first in 2014-15 and second last season.
5 Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning)
The early stages of the 2017-18 season have offered a friendly reminder that a healthy Steven Stamkos is still among the best that the NHL has to offer. That rather obvious fact became a bit obscured when serious arm and knee issues cost Stamkos almost all of the 2016 postseason and then all but 17 games on the 2016-17 season.
His absence wasn't all bad for Tampa Bay. With Stamkos in the press box, the Lightning still pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals and saw Nikita Kucherov emerge as a superstar. But if missing the playoffs entirely last season didn't highlight the 27-year-old's value, then surely his torrid start to the 2017-18 campaign has. A healthy Stamkos may well be the difference between missing the postseason and contending for a Stanley Cup.
4 Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)
To some Toronto Maple Leafs fans, Auston Matthews is the saviour. To most, he is the franchise. But perhaps most interestingly, he is the personification of the remarkable and rapid turn-around the Leafs have experienced under the watch of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock.
As the No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 Draft, a pick that would be considered once-in-a-generation if not for Connor McDavid being taken in the same spot one year prior, Matthews exemplifies how the club so recently found itself at rock bottom. Just a few months later, both player and team were reaching unexpected heights, as Matthews' Calder campaign produced 40 goals and a playoff berth that seemed impossible at the start of the year. Now, for Matthews and his Leafs, the sky is the limit.
3 Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks)
One of my biggest debates in developing this list was the argument between Matthews and Jonathan Toews for the No. 3 spot. But while the future appears an awful lot brighter for the 20-year-old, he's got a long way to go to achieve what Toews has already done in the NHL while still in his twenties.
A one season edge for Matthews cannot undo Toews' Hall of Fame resume and big game supremacy. The second-year superstar is being looked upon to end a long Stanley Cup drought for a championship-starved Original Six franchise, but Toews has already done just that for the Chicago Blackhawks - three times over, no less. The former Selke winner has just one All-Star appearance and the same number of 70+ point seasons, but he is a proven winner and the best player on what is perhaps the best team of the past decade.
2 Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)
It took Connor McDavid all of 127 NHL games to be recognized with the Hart trophy, identifying the 2015 No. 1 overall pick as the most valuable player in the league. Not only did he finish the 2016-17 season 11 points clear of any other player, but he did what Edmonton's previous three first overall picks could not by carrying the Oilers into the postseason for the first time since 2006.
McDavid has already reached legendary status in Edmonton, but his value is felt league-wide. The impossibly talented speedster has clearly been positioned as the face of the NHL moving forward despite playing in what can hardly be called a desirable market. The Oilers' disappointing start to the 2017-18 season may have cooled some of McDavid's momentum, the 20-year-old continues to hold up his end while ranking among the league's top leading scorers.
1 Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)
So why doesn't McDavid, the reigning Hart trophy winner and face of the league, assume the top spot on this list? He simply isn't Sidney Crosby. Crosby is now 30, which positions him as a fossil relative to the McDavid's and Matthews' of the world, but makes his production to this point otherworldly when considering that he still has plenty of hockey left in him. He currently ranks fifth among all active NHL scorers despite having played more than 100 games less than anyone else ranked in the top 10.
Not that the No. 1 slot is strictly a nod to the legacy of Sid the Kid. As the league's focus has shifted to the new golden era of young superstars, all Crosby has done is won back-to-back Conn Smythe awards in leading his Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. He has, in fact, scored more points over the duration in which McDavid, his heralded successor, has been in the league, thus making The Hockey News' ranking of McDavid over Crosby in its pre-season top 50 list puzzling. One thing is for certain - these two aren't just battling it out to determine the league's top center but its best player, as well.
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