Why is it that so many of the NHL’s best players happen to be centermen? Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jean Beliveau… the list goes on and on. Centermen play an important part in the fabric of any team – it’s often seen as the position that glues a line together and have extra defensive responsibilities that require them to be at the top of their game.
This season is no different. Take a look at NHL.com’s fantasy hockey rankings – the top four are all centermen (and appear below, too). All four are players that can do everything asked of them with little difficulty and can handle any matchup thrown their way. Heck, two of them even play on the same team, the Edmonton Oilers. That’s some incredible depth down the middle for a team that can’t seem to win a playoff series.
Center can often be the most fun position to watch because of the pure skill required to be an elite one today. It just happens to be that some of the best play in the North Division, facing off against each other on a nightly basis. Let’s break down the five best centers in the game today – not by pure offensive output, but for everything they bring to the table.
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Gee. Shocker. Not sure how much I need to tell you about this superstar.
But, heck, I will anyway! It’s insane in a year where there are just 56 games that someone could hit the 100-point mark. McDavid looked on pace for that quite early on, but through 22 games, he’s trending towards a 36-goal, 102-point season – an absolutely insane number if you consider that he had just 97 in 64 games last year and only Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl (110) broke the illustrious 100-point barrier.
It’s hard to judge because the Oilers are doing a splendid job of beating up on some quite weak teams in the North Division, but McDavid is playing some of the best hockey of his career and shows no signs of slowing down this season. The Oilers currently sit second in the division behind Toronto and two five-point efforts and a four-point night so far, McDavid has had some games to remember.
McDavid is still the best player in the NHL and nobody is going to change that this season.
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs finally have a true superstar. Now it’s time for the team to not waste that and actually find some playoff success for once.
With 18 goals in 20 games, Matthews has been the most dangerous goal-scorer this year by quite a bit. His 31 points put him behind the Oilers duo of McDavid and Draisaitl, with Leafs linemate Mitch Marner sitting just one point behind Matthews. And to think that Matthews has been dealing with a wrist injury while he’s been ripping goaltenders apart… crazy, right?
According to hockey stats guru Patrick Bacon, Matthews spends 30.2 percent of his even-strength ice time playing against “quality competition” – that’s good for sixth in the league. So, yeah, while he is playing in the weak North Division, he’s still going up against notable players and isn’t just getting a free ride to glory. He isn’t at McDavid’s level yet and may never get to that elite status, but Matthews is a reliable producer every night in Toronto and a big reason why the team currently sits first place in the division.
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
He doesn’t get the praise that McDavid does, but the reigning NHL MVP is just as important as a point producer in Edmonton. Saying Draisaitl performance is because of McDavid is lazy, given they’ve only played 41 minutes of 5-on-5 action together. And, yes, Draisaitl gets much more favorable matchups than McDavid, but that’s not Drai’s fault – he’d be a No. 1 center on nearly every other team in the NHL.
The only player on this list with a better faceoff percentage than Draisaitl (54.4 percent, 12th in the league) is Bergeron, and that’s even with the fact that Draisaitl has seen a bit of time on the wing. Draisaitl is often criticized because he scores so many points with the man advantage, and his 14 markers sit behind McDavid for the league lead. But he’s fifth in the league with 16 5-on-5 points, too, so it’s not like he needs the extra space to do the most damage. A healthy McDavid means Draisaitl will likely not take home the Hart Trophy for a second year, but you can’t help but love just how dangerous he’s been once again. It’s up to the Oilers to actually do something with their star players.
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
If the Avalanche didn’t have to cancel so many games due to COVID-19 protocols, we’d be talking about MacKinnon being one of the top scoring players in the league once again. But with 19 points in 15 games, MacKinnon has been anything but a slouch.
MacKinnon has cemented himself as one of the league’s best players after consecutive 90-plus point seasons in Denver. But it’s not just the point production that makes him so terrorizing: he’s a physical threat, gets in your face in the defensive zone and his skating can beat even the league’s best defensemen. In a full season, he would have hit 100 points a year ago and he would have likely done the same this season, too. MacKinnon is in his prime, so it’s time for the Avs to do something about it and win it all.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Bergeron doesn’t have the flashy star power like the guys ahead of him on this list, but he’s been one of the best middlemen for over a decade for a reason. Not only is he a great faceoff man (his 62.8 percent success rate is second in the league), but he’s the glue that helps make the dominant line with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand such a success.
Bergeron, 35, has 19 points in 17 games for the Bruins, good to sit second behind Marchand by a single point. Bergeron has really helped spike Pastrnak’s game since his return from injury, with Pasta’s nine goals and 14 points in 10 games making him one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the league once more. Bergeron doesn’t need to put up heavy points to be effective, as seen by his relentlessness in his own zone and his reliability to come out on top at any end of the ice. As long as Bergeron stays healthy and reliable, the Bruins are in good shape.