In the modern day NHL, there is no position more important than being the first line center. Considered the quarterback of hockey, the center on the first line is technically the quarterback of the entire team, acting as a support unit when needed and reading the play better than anyone else on the ice. It’s a position that doesn’t just consist of having offensive responsibilities, but defensive ones as well.
As you can see, the first-line centers on team have the most responsibility, and a lot of the team’s success is based on them and their level of play. Being the quarterback means dictating the pace of the game and always making the right decisions. Finding a true first-line center is very difficult these days, and developing them is even harder. While everybody loves to point out that goaltending wins Cups, and it does, it seems having an elite center is the most important piece of the championship puzzle. When you look at the past five Stanley Cup winners, their no.1 centers were: Sidney Crosby (2016), Jonathan Toews (2015), Anze Kopitar (2014), Jonathan Toews (2013) and Anze Kopitar (2012). The goaltenders of those teams? Matt Murray (2016), Corey Crawford twice with Chicago and Jonathan Quick twice. As you can see the league's elite centers are on those teams, but names like Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist are all searching for their first Stanley Cup. Perhaps building from the middle out is better than building from the back to the front.
Here we take a look at every first line center on every NHL team and rank them from best to worst.
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30 Alexander Wennberg - Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus is a team that unfortunately lacks a first-line center, so they threw in their first round pick from 2013 Alexander Wennberg in the position to let him gain some experience. The Swede had 40 points in his rookie year, not too shabby, and already has seven points to start the season this year. So far so good for Wennberg, who has been impressive so far to say the least.
Unfortunately, he still plays for Columbus, and no matter how good he is this year I don’t think it’ll be enough to make the Jackets a much better team. He’s still a little too young to make an immediate impact on the first line, but the fact that Columbus has no one else to take that spot means that he can really send a statement this year if he keeps up his recent play.
29 Travis Zajac - New Jersey Devils
Zajac started the season as the team’s first-line center, although I’m already predicting that Adam Henrique will take that job from him in the course of this ongoing season. Zajac has been with the Devils for his entire career thus far, selected 20th overall in the 2004 draft. Although Zajac’s coaches have praised his talent and his incredible shot, he never took the extra step in terms of becoming a more productive member of the offense. His highest point tally was 67 points in 2009-10.
To be honest, Zajac wasn’t able to play first line-center when Ilya Kovalchuk was on the team, so I don’t think he’s best suited to be first-line center on this New Jersey team. Although he’s started the year on a bit of a hot streak, I don’t think he’ll be able to play center on the first line for long.
28 Martin Hanzal - Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes don’t have the most talented team; a quick look at their roster proves as much. They’ve been a very disappointing team to watch in recent years, not to mention the financial issues they have. All in all, it might not be the best time to be playing for the Coyotes, although the new additions of young stars Max Domi and Anthony Duclair do provide some type of silver lining. But if they expect these two to be productive offensively, they’ll need a damn good no.1 center, and that person isn’t Martin Hanzal.
Nothing against Hanzal, who I think is simply in over his head and would be much better suited as a second or even third line center. He simply isn’t dominant enough to take the Arizona Coyotes to the next level, or to make the players around him better like every center should be doing. Sorry Marty, you’re at the bottom of the list.
27 Mikko Koivu - Minnesota Wild
Mikko Koivu is looking down the barrel of the end of his career in the next few years, having spent his whole career with the Minnesota Wild. They originally drafted a young Koivu sixth overall in the 2001 draft, and the Finnish center has been with the team ever since. Now 33 years old, it’s another season for the Minnesota Wild with Koivu and center, and although he could definitely still do the job, I think Koivu would be better suited on the second line to finish off his career without so much responsibility.
It’ll be hard though because Koivu really is a legend for the Wild, having played 772 games in a Wild uniform and getting 561 points over the course of his ongoing career. Koivu is middle of the pack material this year, though I expect his performance and point tally to start decreasing season by season.
26 Victor Rask - Carolina Hurricanes
Do you know what the one thing some of the worst teams in the league have in common? A lack of a first-line center. In the modern day game, it’s so important that teams hold on to them for as long as possible, or sell them for a high price when they have no choice but to trade. The Carolina Hurricanes have arguably been the worst team in the NHL for the past few years, and a big reason why is because they didn’t have a first-line center. This year, they have Victor Rask.
Rask isn’t a bad player or a bad center, he’s actually quite good. Just not good enough the be on the first line, not yet anyway. At 23 years old, this will be Rask’s third season in the NHL, earning 33 points in his first season and 48 points in his second. If Rask continues on this incline and the Hurricanes can stop being such a depressing team, Rask can really have a season that’ll define his next few years in the NHL .
25 Paul Statsny - St. Louis Blues
St. Louis is another team that’s stacked in offense, and Paul Stastny is another one of their big names up top. He was selected 44th overall in 2005 by the only other team he’s played with, the Colorado Avalanche. Luck had it that he started the season with them that year due to roster issues, so Stastny started with the team at a very young age. He was hot to start, getting his 100th NHL point in only his 99th game.
Stastny is a playmaker at heart, similar to his father Peter Stastny, an NHL legend. Joe Sakic, who played with father and son, actually said he even saw similarities with the two. In St. Louis, Stastny has been a little less productive than the team would’ve hoped, hovering in the mid-40s point range in two seasons there. He’s now in the third year of a four-year contract, so will probably want to increase his point tally this year.
24 Derek Stepan - New York Rangers
Derek Stepan is playing first-line center for the New York Rangers. A team like the Rangers doesn’t necessarily need an all-star first-line center. They play well defensively as a team, and are extremely well balanced through four lines courtesy of coach Alain Vigneault. Stepan isn’t a bad center; there are probably just better options you could put there. But like I said, with a team like the Rangers, your first line center doesn’t need to be an all-star.
Stepan is a little slow to start the year, goalless in 10 games with only six assists, but the Rangers have looked good so it’s only a matter of time before Stepan picks it up as well. He’s been playing alongside Rick Nash and Jimmy Vesey so far this year. He’s been with the Rangers for his entire career thus far since being selected 51st overall in 2008.
23 Frans Nielsen - Detroit Red Wings
Although the first line center is usually the Swedish sensation and long-time Red Wing Henrik Zetterberg, it’s Frans Nielsen who is occupying that role to start the season. The newcomer, who spent his first 10 seasons paying with the Islanders, has been solid thus far, with six points in 10 games to start the season and the Detroit Red Wings looking as sound defensively as ever.
Still, Nielsen in my opinion isn’t the ideal first-line center, and I’m not sure he’ll have the best of seasons if the Wings do decide to keep him on the first line for the entire season. The first Dane to ever play in the NHL, Nielsen has a very respectable 350 NHL points, averaging about 40 per season. It’s a little difficult to rank someone like Nielsen who is still in his first few games with the team, but I don’t think we’re going to see anything too special from Nielsen this year, just more of the same.
22 Derick Brassard - Ottawa Senators
Kyle Turris plays first-line center as well for the Senators, although things have been changing often for this Ottawa side, with Derick Brassard playing first-line center as well after he was brought in from the Rangers in the offseason. He was originally selected by the Blue Jackets in 2006, sixth overall, but found most of his success in the NHL with the New York Rangers, with particularly good seasons the last two years earning 60 and 58 points respectively.
Although Brassard is a top six forward in the NHL, I’m not sure how well he’ll fare on the first line for a team like the Ottawa Senators. Being first line center is a difficult job, and it’s one thing doing it for a well-balanced Rangers, but for a Senators team that allows a lot more goals per game, Brassard is really going to have his work cut out for him.
21 Ryan Johansen - Nashville Predators
Ryan Johansen ending up in Nashville was a matter of a few key factors falling into place. To give you some background, Johansen was selected 4th overall during the 2010 draft, and had his full first season with the Jackets in the 2013-14 season, netting 33 goals. As a first-line centre Johansen, was developing quite nicely, as he netted 26 goals the following year but also increased his point tally.
At the start of the 2015-16, the Blue Jackets started the season with a few straight losses, so management decided a coaching change was due, and none other than the infamous John Tortorella was brought in. He immediately took issue with Johansen’s attitude, and ultimately the young forward would be traded to Nashville for Seth Jones. Now in his first full season with the Predators, Johansen seems set to put the past behind him and start scoring more with his new team.
20 Henrik Sedin - Vancouver Canucks
Henrik Sedin is part of the wallpaper in the Vancouver Canucks dressing room, and so is his brother Daniel. At 36 years old, Henrik is looking towards the end of his career in the next few seasons, although he still leads the team so far this year with five points in 10 games. How he came to Vancouver, along with his twin brother, is actually an interesting story. The two were very highly touted prospects for the 1999 NHL draft, but they really wanted to end up on the same team. Through a series of transactions, Brian Burke, then GM of the Vancouver Canucks who already had the third overall pick, managed to secure the second overall pick as well, and selected Henrik and Daniel consecutively.
Henrik has 975 points since joining Vancouver, the only team he and his brother have ever played for. It will really be the end of an era when the two finally hang up their skates. The Vancouver Canucks are set to have a bad season from the looks of it, so don’t look for Henrik to have his best season this year.
19 Aleksander Barkov - Florida Panthers
Moving on to the Sunshine State, where after years of bad hockey teams and empty arenas, the Panthers finally seem to have something real and exciting developing. Over the years they’ve drafted some top talent in the likes of Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau, have added veteran and living legend Jaromir Jagr to the mix, and they also have Luongo playing hockey like it’s 2008. One of the more exciting pieces on their team is young center Aleksander Barkov, who’s earned the spot of first line center to start the season after a 59-point campaign last year, which also included 28 goals.
Everything is set for Barkov to improve his point tally from last year and really develop as the team's official first-line center. I like the Panthers and the direction in which they’re heading, and I think Barkov is an essential part of their success.
18 Alex Galchenyuk - Montreal Canadiens
Finally, after all these years, Alex Galchenyuk is starting the year as first-line center. Habs fans have been waiting to see their young stud selected 3rd overall in the 2012 draft take that next step and develop into a first-line center. Ever since he was drafted, he was awkwardly tried at center here and there before being limited to the wing, with the team opting to start David Desharnais as a first-line center instead; and the Canadiens wondered why they couldn’t find the back of the net more often...
This year should Galchenyuk’s best in the NHL because he’ll finally get to show his worth on the top line and in the right position for the entire 82-game season hopefully. He’ll need to work on his ability to take faceoffs, but I expect a whole different level of hockey from Galchenyuk this year.
17 Auston Matthews - Toronto Maple Leafs
The newest sensation to rock the NHL this year is Auston Matthews. Selected 1st overall this year by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Matthews had the hockey world and its knees asking for more after he scored four goals in his first NHL game, an NHL record. After 10 games, Matthews now has six goals and 10 points, pretty respectable for a rookie even if he was the first overall pick. No matter what happens this year, Matthews joining the Leafs is the biggest thing to happen to this Leafs organization in a long, long time.
He’ll be the main piece for the rebuild happening in Toronto, and what a piece he is. He’s already shown through 10 games that he is more than capable of playing center on the first line despite his age. With a little more experience under his belt, he’ll quickly rise to one of the best in the league.
16 Mark Scheifele - Winnipeg Jets
The emergence of Mark Scheifele in the past couple of years has been delightful for the Jets. He was selected 7th overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft and has been with the Jets full-time since the 2013 season. In three years, he’s seen his point tally steadily increase year by year, getting 34, 49, and 61 points respectively. This year Scheifele started the year strong and leads the team in points so far, so all pundits are looking for Scheifele to increase his point tally once again and really secure his spot as the Jets' first-line center.
The Jets are a bit of an enigma this year. Whether or not they’ll make the playoffs remains to be seen, although they definitely have some great pieces that can push them there. The emergence of Scheifele as a first-line center may be the most important piece yet.
15 Matt Duchene - Colorado Avalanche
We move on to Matt Duchene, one of the league’s more talented players in recent years. Although it was unclear whether he or Nathan MacKinnon would start the year on the first line at center, so far it seems that Matt Duchene has the honor until further notice. Duchene was selected 3rd overall by the Avalanche in 2009 behind just John Tavares and Victor Hedman. He’s been very good, albeit a little streaky for the Avalanche since he joined the team, but he looks poised to have his best season yet this year.
Duchene already has seven points in as many games to start the season, and has been playing some of his best hockey early this year. If he and the Avalacnhe can maintain this pace, they could be in for a big year that hopefully ends with a solid performance in the playoffs.
14 Ryan Getzlaf - Anaheim Ducks
There was a time not too long ago when Ryan Getzlaf was at the top of the NHL and arguably the best player in the world. Although he has been on a steady decline in the past two seasons, Getzlaf is still a force to be reckoned with on the ice as he leads his team in points already this year. Getzlaf has been with Anaheim for his entire career, winning the Cup there in 2007, and has represented Canada at center on numerous occasions. Although he’s still one of the best playmakers around, I think the decline we’ve seen in his game will continue into this season.
Maybe it’s age (Getzlaf is 31), or maybe things need to be shaken up in Anaheim, but Getzlaf needs a little extra spark to bring his game back to the same level it was before. Although a lot of you may have him higher on this list, his recent play and the trend in which he’s heading take him out of the top centers in the league.
13 Sean Monahan - Calgary Flames
We move on to the Calgary Flames, where another young center named Sean Monahan has been turning heads ever since he was selected 6th overall by the Flames in the 2013 draft. Now just three years later, he’s easily cemented his place as Calgary’s undisputed first line center, at only 22 years old.
What’s helped him so much at center is his intelligence on the ice, and another particular attribute that all centers eventually need to develop: the ability to take faceoffs and win them more often than not. In three full seasons with the team, Monahan has a consistent 80 goals and 159 points, their best scorer in that time span. Despite a rocky start, I expect a good season from Monahan and the Flames, and for Monahan to really show that he is a top center in the league.
12 Jack Eichel - Buffalo Sabres
Although it’s actually Ryan O’Reilly playing on the first line in the center position at the moment, that’s only because Jack Eichel is injured and has been since the beginning of the season, something I’m sure Buffalo fans are very disappointed about. The young American that was selected 2nd overall last year after Connor McDavid really impressed his peers in his first NHL season, earning an impressive 56 points in 81 NHL games. Although it’s a little difficult telling how good he’ll do this year due to the fact that he hasn’t played yet, let’s just say I’m not too worried.
The sky is the limit for a player with Eichel’s talent, so expect him to come put firing when he finally laces them up this year. Especially after having missed so many games, I’m sure Eichel is itching to get back on the ice and help his team win. Although he’s still young and can use a lot more experience, expect a lot of good things from this young man.
11 Claude Giroux - Philadelphia Flyers
Giroux has quietly been one of the deadliest snipers since joining the league, yet no one seems to notice. Believe it or not he was selected 22nd overall in 2006 and was named captain of the team in the 2012-13 season. He’s been a huge part of a Flyers organization that just can’t seem to get it together and make the playoffs nowadays. Giroux took over first-line center in 2011, after Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were traded, and has been in that role ever since.
This year again, the Flyers are off to a mediocre start, although the good news is Claude Giroux already has 12 points. There’s no doubt in my mind that Giroux is one of the best centers in the league, but they very best make the whole team around them better, and the Flyers have not been good in recent years.
10 Patrice Bergeron - Boston Bruins
One of the quietly better centermen in the NHL is Patrice Bergeron. Hockey minds that follow the sport can all agree that Patrice Bergeron plays the center position in one of the most exemplary ways possible, constantly creating offensive opportunities while being the first forward to come back and help bring the puck out of his zone. Since he was drafted in 2003, Bergeron has been one of Boston’s best players, skipping through the minors and joining the pro team right away.
Now 31 years old, it’ll definitely be a tricky year for Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins, who will be looking to bounce back after a difficult season last year. There’s definitely no lack of talent around Bergeron with players like Pastrnak, Marchand, and Backes filling up their top six. Still, despite his skill in this position, I don’t think Bergeron will be able to maintain the pace this year.
9 John Tavares - New York Islanders
John Tavares was already a sensation for hockey fans before he was in the NHL, a highly touted prospect with a lot of talent and an incredible goal-scoring ability. From a young age, you knew he was going to be special. He set the record for most career OHL goals with 215. Since joining the Islanders, he has led the rebuilding effort and given hope to an organization that was finding no success in the NHL.
There are a few handful of players in the NHL that are as talented as Tavares, so naturally that ranks him pretty high among first-line centers in the NHL. However, it’s the players around him that I’m not a huge fan of. The Islanders did a lot of cutting in the offseason, letting go of Kyle Okposo, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and others and not getting much in return in my opinion. I don’t think it’ll be a good year for the team in general, and Tavares’ performance will suffer because of it.
8 Nicklas Backstrom - Washington Capitals
Nicklas Backstrom won the lottery, and that’s getting the chance to play with the most electric player in the NHL, Alex Ovechkin. Backstrom was selected fourth overall by the Capitals in 2006, and has been playing on a line with Alexander Ovechkin for most of his career. Meaning that every time Ovechkin triggers into the back of the net, you could be pretty sure that Backstrom is the one who set him up.
Backstrom has now 482 assists in just over 650 NHL games, and will probably get a bunch more if he continues playing with Ovie. He’s been slow to start the season with only five assists and no goals thus far, but the Capitals should regain their form soon enough. Backstrom’s playmaking ability and the fact that he has Ovechkin on the wing should make him one of the top centres in the league once again.
7 Joe Thornton - San Jose Sharks
We now move on to Joe Thornton, the man who resembles a wild beast with a playoff beard that he’s refused to shave off months later and that is now way too long. Joe Thornton has been a household name in the NHL for quite a while now. For such a big guy, he may have the most elegant touch I’ve ever seen. Although he’s always hovered around the 20-goal mark, it’s his passing ability that make him such a threat. He averages over 60 assists a season more often than not, and has a NHL total 971 assists thus far in his illustrious career.
At 37 years old, Joe Thornton is still going strong, coming off a disappointing Stanley Cup Final loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be honest, I don’t think there is an age limit for a player like Joe Thornton, he’s just too good and too strong to ever have to stop playing. Even at 37, he remains one of the league’s best, most effective, and most experienced centers.
6 Steven Stamkos - Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos came into the league exactly eight years ago, selected 1st overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was a highly-touted prospect, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were coming off a league low 31 wins, so he was the obvious choice. The Lightning have been on a critical upward trend since Stamkos joined the side, and have arguably one of the most complete teams in the NHL today, with Stamkos of course leading the way with 319 goals in his career so far.
This summer, Stamkos signed a contract extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning worth $8 million per year for eight years. The club had a bit of a scare however when Stamkos spoke to other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were offering a lot more money, although ultimately he decided to buy in to what Tampa Bay was doing and opted to stay with the team that drafted him. It’s a good thing he did too, as he’ll be surrounded by some very good players.
5 Tyler Seguin - Dallas Stars
In one of the more lopsided trades in recent history, the Boston Bruins sent Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars a few years ago in a trade that shocked the hockey world. Since then, unfortunately for former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, Seguin has developed into one of the league’s best forwards, and a top NHL center. Chiarelli made a huge mistake in not holding on to a talented centerman like Seguin, and unfortunately he paid the ultimate price.
Seguin already has 163 NHL goals at just 24 years old, and is only getting better and better at the center position as the years go by, learning the defensive particularities of playing center and mastering them slowly but surely. With him and Jaime Benn on the roster, there’ll definitely be no shortage of goals, but with Seguin getting better and better defensively, the Stars have a chance to go deep this year.
4 Jonathan Toews - Chicago Blackhawks
There aren’t many players, let alone centers, as good and as respected as captain Jonathan Toews. He and his Chicago Blackhawks have taken the league by storm since he was drafted third overall in 2006, winning three Stanley Cups, in which he was named MVP for the first. He would also win Gold and Best Forward credentials at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Nicknamed Captain Serious for how intense he gets during important moments, there is perhaps no better leader on and off the ice in the NHL.
There really isn’t much negative to say about Jonathan Toews. He’s simply a great center, perhaps one of the best in the league, and I expect him to be near the top again this year. One thing I will say is that Chicago has been a good team for a really long time now, and I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be able to keep this up.
3 Anze Kopitar - Los Angeles Kings
One of the top centers in the NHL for the past decade has been Anze Kopitar. He was originally selected 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2005 draft, although he was not present as he was already playing pre-season games in Sweden to get ready. He finished his rookie career with the Kings with an impressive 61 points. To sum it up, Kopitar has earned 690 points in just over 750 games.
What’s especially impressive and unique about Kopitar is how responsible he is defensively for a center that is so productive offensively. For a coach, that’s the dream player. Kopitar has really developed into one of the league’s best centers under coach Darryl Sutter, so much so that the Kings won two Stanley Cups with Anze Kopitar being an essential part of their run. There are only two people in the NHL I think are better centers than Kopitar, and when you see who I think you’ll understand my logic.
2 Sidney Crosby - Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby; is there a name more synonymous to hockey in North America? One of the most highly touted players to come into the league since Wayne Gretzky, Crosby has not been a disappointment so far. He took a Penguins organization that was lost, on the brink of bankruptcy, and turned the entire organization around, leading the team to two Stanley Cups, including one last year. He scores goals from anywhere, can make passes that make people believe he has eyes on the back of his head, and he has the best hockey mind in the NHL at the moment.
Nicknamed “The Next One” in reference to Wayne Gretzky being called “The Great One,” Crosby had 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points in his first NHL season. The following season, he would win the scoring title with 120 points, becoming the only teenager to do so in a major North American professional sports league. He’s indisputably in the top three centers in the league. But careful Crosby, because there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is...
1 Connor McDavid - Edmonton Oilers
ohn E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports[/caption]
That’s it folks. After careful contemplation, much hesitation, but with a lot of resolve, I can safely tell you that Connor McDavid will be the best center in the NHL this year, and probably for years to come. His speed is unmatched, but what’s particularly striking is his ability to control the puck so well despite skating so fast; few players in the history of the NHL have ever done this one thing so well. Not to mention McDavid has an extremely high hockey IQ, always an asset for a first-line center.
So move aside Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar, there’s a new chief in town. The Edmonton Oilers, after so many disappointing years, finally have a hero, a light in the night in the form of Connor McDavid, an undisputed first-line center that makes everyone who plays with him visibly better. A leader already at such a young, tender age and the NHL point leader so far this year, this will be Connor’s year. Welcome to the McDavid show folks.
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