There might not be a more important position in today’s National Hockey League than the second-line centerman. This has been especially on my mind recently because of Ryan O’Reilly’s utter brilliance in the Stanley Cup Final. Continuing to kick in the teeth of Sabres GM Jason Botterill and fans like myself after Buffalo sold low on the 28-year-old last July, O’Reilly scored 23 points in 26 playoff games while becoming the first player since Wayne Gretzky in 1985 to score a goal in four straight Cup finals games en route to claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP. O’Reilly did all that playing with underwhelming linemates including David Perron, Sammy Blais, and Zach Sanford (though Sanford played well when returning to the Boston series after being scratched).
On the opposing bench, Boston’s second unit centered by veteran David Krejci looked overmatched throughout against St. Louis’ hulking defensive corps. Krejci didn’t record a point in the series until the Bruins’ Game 6 rout, while O’Reilly always seemed to pop up with a game-changing shift when the Blues needed it most. Considering the tremendous efforts of the B’s depth lines and goaltender Tuukka Rask, it would not be a stretch to point to the Blues’ second line, along with the defensive pairing of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, as the tides that turned the Stanley Cup final and brought the Gateway City its first ever hockey championship.
Which brings us to the offseason. A year ago, Washington Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan said perhaps the most important component of building a Cup-winning team was having depth down the middle. With all due respect to Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller, who were instrumental in that 2018 Cup run, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who put the Caps over the top in 2017-18, as the Russian, like O’Reilly, lead the playoffs with 32 points. In his first year of genuine stardom in 2015-16, you might remember, Kuznetsov went nearly invisible after a 57-assist regular season, scoring two points in 12 playoff games as Washington was bounced in the second round.
Many signs point to the idea that an second-line center on his game can be the difference between a group crashing out of the playoffs or hoisting the Cup come June. And with O’Reilly putting his finishing touches on a brutal what-could-have-been visual for Sabres fans to watch, I’m compelled to take a look at where each NHL team is with regards to slotting that elusive matchup-nightmare in the middle on their second line. Of course, because Buffalo faithful have seen so much turmoil in the past decade that our shreds of optimism remaining revolve almost entirely around offseason roster moves, I’ll take a look at how our lagging teams might have a chance to remedy these problems.
The Gold Standards
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens have been in this tier for well over a decade now thanks to the exploits of Evgeni Malkin, and have the hardware to prove it. With three Stanley Cups to their name in the Sidney Crosby-Malkin era, Pittsburgh largely championed the modern movement of building a franchise around a 1-2 punch at center. Of course, picking in the top two in Crosby and Malkin’s draft years made sure they did. Malkin has led the league in scoring twice in his career, but has now eclipsed 70 regular season games played only once in the last six seasons. Geno might be slowing down but still went over a point-per-game (72 points in 68 games) in 2018-19. There are rumors of a roster shakeup in the Steel City, but their top center pairing might be the least of the Penguins’ worries after a Round 1 playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Whether Steven Stamkos is centering or gets pushed to the wing while Anthony Cirelli comes up to the first line, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper lets breakout star Brayden Point run wild with the second unit. In his third pro season last year, Point finished twelfth in the league with 92 points on a Lightning team that ran away with the Presidents Trophy. Though Point recorded a lone goal as the Lightning, too, were stunningly swept in Round 1, the Alberta native’s future is incredibly bright. Due for a big raise this summer as a restricted free agent, the Bolts will be loath to let Point sign an offer sheet with another team despite their salary cap crunch. Should Point re-up, he could be a Malkin-esque decade-long matchup nightmare on Tampa Bay’s second line.
Toronto Maple Leafs: When John Tavares famously left the Islanders for his hometown Maple Leafs in free agency last summer, he ensured the Leafs would have one of the great 1-2 pairings in the middle for years to come, provided Auston Matthews was re-signed. Matthews got his contract, and now the two stars are on board with the Leafs until 2024-25 at an annual cost of $22,634,000, or 27.27% of next year’s estimated salary cap ceiling. The duo certainly aren’t cheap, but earned their paychecks as go-to guys in 2018-19. Both players went over a point-per-game while combining for 84 goals, with Tavares playing with 94-point Mitch Marner on the first line while Matthews helped Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen to 20-goal seasons. The Leafs were again outlasted by the eventual Cup runner-up Bruins in seven games in the first round of the playoffs, but can chalk that disappointment up to an unlucky draw due to the NHL’s playoff seeding format. Expect Toronto to be back in contention next year.
Washington Capitals: Yep, all four teams lining up with what I’ve deemed the cream of the second-line center crop saw their seasons end in the first round of the NHL’s playoffs. Is that indicative of a sudden devaluing of the position? I don’t think so, particularly because these four teams have been the league’s most successful more often than not when they’ve had that second-line center in place. Heck, the Caps and Pens had won the last three Cups before the Blues this year. I’ve already mentioned Evgeny Kuznetsov’s heroics in Washington’s 2018 win, but he’s been pretty darn elite day in and day out in recent years, as has first-line pivot Nicklas Backstrom. The Russian and Swede both reached the 70-point and 50-assist marks in 2018-19, flourishing in their roles providing for wingers Alex Ovechkin (51 goals), TJ Oshie, Jakub Vrana, and Tom Wilson (all over 20 goals). The Capitals were eliminated from playoff contention by the upstart Carolina Hurricanes in a hard-fought seven-game series, but Backstrom and Kuzy still combined for 14 points in the losing effort.
On Strong Footing
Boston Bruins: The Bruins would have fallen further down this list had aforementioned David Krejci not seen new life injected into his career in 2018-19. The 33-year old Krejci’s 73 points set a new personal best, as the Czech was a capable deputy to the so-called “Perfection” first line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand as the Bruins rolled teams on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Long an underrated two-way presence even playing in the Boston media market, Krejci’s comeback story proved hard to ignore, which made his underperformance against the Blues harder to survive. Krejci is surprisingly the Bruins’ highest paid-player at $7.25M for two more seasons, but will be able to collect one more nice contract if he can maintain his 18-19 level of play.
St. Louis Blues: Of course. I’ve already gone into the Blues and wrote about Ryan O’Reilly perhaps driving the line that won the Cup. GM of the Year finalist Doug Armstrong had to send three first-round picks away in the two trades that brought first-line center Brayden Schenn and O’Reilly to the Midwest, but his gamble has paid off in spades. O’Reilly and Schenn (17 goals, 37 assists) will both be back next season, though Schenn on an expiring contract.
San Jose Sharks: While the four “gold standard” teams burned out quickly in the playoffs, our first three teams in this tier all made deep runs. The Sharks had a wonderful top-six forward group this year that they rode to the Western Conference Finals despite Erik Karlsson’s injuries and Martin Jones’ struggles in net. Whether it was Tomas Hertl (35 goals, 39 assists) or Joe Pavelski (38 goals) centering the first group, the Sharks scored to the tune of 45 more regular season goals than the league average (289 vs. 244). On the second line, Logan Couture was outstanding, putting up a 70-point regular season before exploding with 14 goals in 20 playoff games. The Sharks quite literally collapsed as they were stricken with the injury bug in their six-game loss to the Blues, and now they have to face the uncertainty of what lay beyond. Ascending young wingers Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc are both restricted free agents, while Pavelski, Karlsson, and Joe Thornton are UFAs. It will be nearly impossible to keep all of them, which would be an even more unfortunate end to what was quite a promising season for San Jose.
Edmonton Oilers: Our first non-playoff squad. The Oilers have been so mismanaged that they’ve been the punchline of just about every hockey joke for over a half-decade now, but they picked in the top three of the draft so many times that they did actually land a few keepers. Well, three to be exact. Connor McDavid is the best player in the world by a margin, and German Leon Draisaitl, a natural center himself, got the luxury of playing on McDavid’s wing. The two were excellent, finishing first and fourth in the league in points, with 116 and 105 respectively, on a team that finished 11 points out of the playoffs. 2011 first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and had the best offensive season of his career playing with the likes of Ty Rattie and the ghost of Milan Lucic. RNH shook off some underwhelming years that had hockey folks whispering “bust” with a 69-point campaign, while the next highest-scoring player on the Oilers finished with a meager 41 points. Nugent-Hopkins did get time on the first powerplay unit, but still did an impressive job carrying a very poor unit. New GM Ken Holland has his plate full trying to retool the Oilers, but at least McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins are in place. The still-rebuilding Oilers might look to pick a center like Dylan Cozens of the nearby Lethbridge Hurricanes with the #8 pick in this year’s draft to restock the cupboard at the pivot.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks’ rebuild has gone much smoother than their Western Canadian neighbors’ has, and that starts with being able to line up Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat every night at center. Pettersson burst onto the scene this year with 66 points in 74 games before his season was cut short by injury, but the 20-year-old Swede has asserted himself as one of the game’s brightest young stars. 2013 ninth overall pick Bo Horvat, meanwhile, found himself not drawing the opposition’s shutdown group every night, and posted a career-high 61 points on the second line. Vancouver has Horvat on a team-friendly deal through 2022-23, but should look to add more scoring in free agency or via trade to help the two centers out. Last season the Canucks’ next-highest scorer beyond Pettersson, Horvat, and Brock Boeser was aging defenseman Alexander Edler, who put up only 32 points. The acquisition of Tampa Bay’s JT Miller didn’t come cheap, but should be a good start for Vancouver.
Sneaky Good Options
Arizona Coyotes – Rick Tocchet’s team kicks off a quartet of clubs I’ve found that missed the playoffs last season but aren’t lacking for 2C options. 2018-19 obviously didn’t go according to plan for the Coyotes as they were dealt a slew of injuries and finished a few games out of the postseason. Quietly, however, the Yotes have assembled a strong group of forwards that they will lean on as they continue to build. Derek Stepan hasn’t set the world on fire since being brought on for the #7 pick in the 2017 Draft, but an optimist would point to Stepan’s five consecutive seasons above 50 points before last season, as well as the two-way and leadership qualities he brings to the table, as reason to believe he could be a viable second-line center on a contender. Similarly, it feels only a matter of time before we see a season where playmaker Alex Galchenyuk finally puts it all together and establishes himself firmly in the top-six in Arizona. Let’s not forget Nick Schmaltz, dealt for Dylan Strome midway through last season, who came on strong in the desert with 14 points in 17 games before being sidelined for the year with a lower-body injury. More exciting for Arizona is their youngsters, starting with 20-year old Clayton Keller, who has led the team in scoring in both of his pro seasons. Finally, do-it-all Sault St. Marie Greyhound Barrett Hayton was selected with the #5 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, and is likely the Coyotes’ long-term second line center to compliment Keller’s offensive talents. GM John Chayka has assembled nice depth down the middle for the present and future.
Detroit Red Wings – The Red Wings experienced their fair share of struggles in Ken Holland’s last year overseeing the team he managed for over two decades, finishing with the fourth-worst record in the league. Newly appointed GM and club legend Steve Yzerman does not inherit an overly rosy situation, but the duo of Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou at center warrants some excitement for the future. At 22 and 24 years old, respectively, the two led the Wings in scoring in 2018-19. Athanasiou’s campaign was quite a pleasant surprise for those in the Motor City, as he surpassed his previous career high point total by 21 and scored 27 even-strength goals, looking every bit like he could be coach Jeff Blashill’s 2C of the future. The Red Wings are not without their warts, but center is a position of strength for the organization.
Montreal Canadiens – The Habs finished two points out of a playoff spot in 2018-19, but considering what was expected of them at this time last year, the season can’t be considered anything but an across-the-board success. The Habs weren’t outstanding in any particular area like the equally surprising New York Islanders, but rather coach Claude Julien simply got the most out of what seemed an underwhelming roster of perennial underachievers. With five fifty-point forwards, Julien had multiple lines running smoothly all season. That starts with Max Domi, who set new career highs in goals and assists in his first season in the blue-and-red, establishing himself as a bona fide NHL top-liner. If Domi plays on the wing, fans will now feel comfortable with either Philip Danault or Tomas Tatar interchanging at the first and second center spots. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, meanwhile, centered a tremendous third line and did not look at all out of place in his 18-year-old season, providing hope he’s Montreal’s go-to pivot for decades to come. With rumors GM Marc Bergevin is going hard after top free agent center Matt Duchene, it’s possible this roster overhaul in Quebec is totally finished much quicker than nearly everyone expected.
Philadelphia Flyers – I’ll be the first one to admit I was too high on the Flyers entering last season. My pick to win the Metropolitan Division couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net and ended up firing Dave Hakstol behind the bench in an attempt to right the ship. They still scored at a league-average pace, though, despite not having any 40-point defenseman. That’s because of the play of their top-six forwards, a versatile bunch that can beat teams with a number of ways. Claude Giroux did his thing with 85 points seeing time at both center and left wing, while Sean Couturier had his second-straight 76-point year after never having eclipsed 40 before that. If that’s the Flyers’ top two pivots, they’re among the league’s best. But even if they’re playing with each other, there’s still Travis Konecny, an intriguing player who put up 24 goals and 25 assists at 21 years old, and Nolan Patrick, the 3rd overall pick from 2017 who flashed potential with the third unit. GM Chuck Fletcher has been aggressive retooling the team, already adding Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to bolster the defense while trading for the rights of Kevin Hayes, another top unrestricted free agent. The Flyers got Hayes to ink a 7-year, $50 million contract, so I think we’re talking about one of the NHL’s high-end top sixes, which with an improved defense could mean a return to the playoffs for Philly.
Help is on the way
Carolina Hurricanes – This is a special grouping of three teams that have decent options at center currently, but their future candidates for the role are especially promising. Jordan Staal was penciled in the 2C spot this season, but his year was cut short by injury. Long considered one of the league’s better defensive forwards, Staal would flourish if he were moved to a pure shutdown role on the third line. With the ascension of Sebastian Aho and further development of Martin Necas, that might happen for this year’s Eastern Conference runner-ups. Aho’s rise has been stunning, as the unheralded 2015 second-round pick has gone from 49, to 65, to 83 points in his seasons with Carolina. Aho looks like he’s going to be one of the game’s premier playmakers for a long time, while the 2017 first-rounder Necas has flashed impressive potential in the top Czech Republic pro league and at the World Championships. Despite this, there are rumors that the Canes could shop one of their many young, right-handed defenseman for a scoring forward. Carolina is well-positioned for the future.
New Jersey Devils – Operating on the assumption that the Devils will take consensus #1 prospect Jack Hughes when they step to the Draft podium on Friday, they will have in their organization two of the last three #1 overall picks, both of whom are natural centers. In Nico Hischier and Hughes, the Devils were given two gifts from the lottery gods, but there’s still plenty of issues here. After all, the Devils had to be fairly bad to end up in the lottery, and they were, finishing last in the Metropolitan with no player scoring over 50 points. Further, 2018 Hart Trophy recipient Taylor Hall, who was sidelined for the second half of the season with a knee injury, is a UFA next season. The Devils will be fine despite this. Hischier had a strong second pro campaign playing the 2C with 47 points in 69 games, while 33-year-old Travis Zajac is still serviceable down the middle. Ultimately though, the Devils’ fortunes rest on Hughes, the puck wizard from Orlando. Hughes has very little bust potential, and considering what Hischier showed this season, we could be looking at the closest the NHL will come to a future Crosby-Malkin 1-2 punch at center in Newark.
Vegas Golden Knights – VGK is a bit of an outlier. They had a nice season that ended in heartbreak in San Jose, and their second line (if you could even call it that) was probably the league’s best. Still, perhaps the Golden Knights’ centers in the pipeline are even more exciting. Assuming restricted free agent William Karlsson re-signs, he’s likely your #2 center of the future in Sin City, and a very good one at that. After naturally regressing from his 43-goal campaign in 2017-18 that featured a 23.4% shooting percentage, Wild Bill still put up 56 points this season playing with Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith on the first line. Veteran 2C Paul Stasny’s 42 points in 50 games looks great until you consider that he was playing with Max Pacioretty and (after the trade deadline) Mark Stone, two of the league’s top wingers. Enter Cody Glass, the 2017 sixth overall pick who should be able to start contributing next year after dominating Canada’s Western Hockey League again in 2018-19. Glass has tremendous vision and should step into Vegas’ power-play setup from day one. Also waiting in the wings is Nick Suzuki, taken seven picks after Glass in the draft, another Canadian with elite hockey sense who also brings a two-way element to his game. It pays to be an expansion team under the new rules, folks.
Calgary Flames – The Flames finished on top of the Western Conference in the regular season, though not quite because of any second-line center’s dominance. Where Calgary’s top trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm dominated, Mikael Backlund never got into too much of a rhythm despite playing with 77-point Matthew Tkachuk. Backlund finished the season with 47 points and a tremendous +34 plus/minus, but never really took off despite being on a team that seemed to be running on all cylinders at times. The Flames’ assistant captain is under contract for four more years at a healthy $5.35M cap hit – not a suffocating deal, but not a bargain, either. With rumors the Flames are shopping defenseman TJ Brodie, could GM Brad Treliving be eyeing a playmaking center to feed Tkachuk? The prospect pool is thin, and Backlund isn’t likely to push the Flames over the hump in the Pacific Division.
Chicago Blackhawks – The Blackhawks’ arguably could’ve been placed higher here. Jonathan Toews was Jonathan Toews this season on the first line, scoring at a point-per-game pace and playing 21 minutes a night. Especially promising, and even surprising, for Chicago in a season of transition was the play of Dylan Strome at second-line center. Coming over to the Windy City in November for Nick Schmaltz, Strome had failed to live up to expectations as the 2015 Draft’s third overall pick behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. He was a new player for the Blackhawks, however, putting up 51 points in the last 58 games of the season and finding chemistry with fellow tantalizing youngster Alex DeBrincat. They’re only rated as “respectable” because this year will be the season where Strome needs to prove he’s a top-six center for good, but Chicago could certainly push higher soon. Even if Strome doesn’t pan out, the Hawks should have their #1 center in the post-Toews era in Kirby Dach of the Saskatoon Blades, whom they selected with the #3 pick in Friday’s Draft. Dach’s calling card is his ability to skate well within his 6’4” frame, which should bode well in a Central Division that has been historically physical.
Florida Panthers – Well, we finally said Aleksander Barkov was underrated for so long that he might actually be overrated now. All the frontrunner for this year’s Lady Byng Award did in 2018-19 was score 96 points on a mediocre Florida team, take eight penalty minutes the whole season, and turn 23 years old. Barkov might be a top-ten player in the league for a decade. Elsewhere, I’ve long been touting Vinny Trocheck, the Panthers’ 2C, as the real most underrated player in the league. Unfortunately, after (quietly) racking up 75 points in two years ago, Trocheck fell back to 34 points in an injury-shortened 2018-19. I want to write the year off as an aberration, but Trocheck did have strong wingers like Mike Hoffman and Denis Malgin playing with him when he was healthy. Still, I have hope. And with Barkov and Trocheck locked in for three more years apiece at a combined cost of $10.65M annually, the Panthers could end up having the best bang-for-your-back 1-2 on standard contracts the league will see for a long time. 21-year-old Henrik Borgstrom played limited minutes and didn’t produce much, but is a name to watch for the future after lighting it up at the University of Denver.
New York Islanders – The Islanders are in a great spot going forward with coach Barry Trotz’s team-first mentality that everyone seems bought into. That earned the Isles a shocking playoff berth and a first-round sweep over the Penguins. Fortunately, when the Isles do generate offense, it often starts from the middle. Trotz’s system may not put Mat Barzal’s offensive capabilities on full display, but the 22-year-old is already a high-end first-line center. Behind Barzal, freshly re-signed Brock Nelson had a personal-best 53 points playing on the second line. Fans will lament what could have been had John Tavares stayed in the fold, but the Isles are forging ahead without him, and the early results have been good. There’s plenty of money available to spend but it’s doubtful the Isles use it to beef up their center depth – they could be in the mix for Russian sniper Artemi Panarin.
Help could be on the way
Buffalo Sabres – If things break right for the teams in this grouping, they could have their second-line center of the future, whether that player comes into the fold via acquisition or was within the organization all along. If not, these teams could very well miss the playoffs on the basis of that void in the lineup. The Sabres certainly fit this description, and have been trying to nail down their 2C behind the overly burdened Jack Eichel since Eichel came aboard in the 2015 Draft. First 2014 second overall pick Sam Reinhart was supposed to drive his own line, but he seems to play much better alongside Eichel, where he can rely on his hockey sense over his average skating. Ryan O’Reilly was brought on board but was so mentally fatigued after 2017-18 that he forced his way out of town last summer. 20 year old Casey Mittlestadt looked physically overmatched in his first full pro season, but there’s still plenty of time for Mittlestadt to fill out his frame. There are reports GM Jason Botterill is shopping on the trade market, but he simply doesn’t have many trade assets to give up and is out-leveraged. Similarly, a massive contract for a UFA like Matt Duchene would probably make things difficult in future offseasons when players like Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin need fresh contracts. The Sabres took Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes at pick 7 in the draft, who should bring a size element to the future top-six the Sabres don’t have in spades. Let’s just hope they don’t waste all of Eichel’s prime.
Colorado Avalanche – We’re all familiar with Nathan MacKinnon, who dazzled in the regular season and playoffs alike to remind all us East Coasters he’s a top-three talent in the NHL. Behind MacKinnon, though, Colorado didn’t really have that play-driving second line to get them over the hump against the Blues in the second round of the playoffs. DailyFaceoff ranked Colorado’s second line the 27th-best unit in the league, actually, while their first trio graded out as the 3rd-best. Carl Soderberg had a perfectly fine season last year given what he was asked to do, scoring 49 points despite taking 60% of his faceoffs in the defensive zone. Problem is, Soderberg is 33 years old. The Avs had two of the best 2C options wearing their sweater in the not-so-distant past in Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly before both were traded. The Avs will have plenty of money to spend even after Mikko Rantanen is signed, thanks to the very team-friendly deals linemates MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are on. After selecting defenseman Bowen Byram with the #4 pick in the draft, the Avs seem poised add a new center to the fold this summer.
Dallas Stars – Much like the Isles, the Stars’ dogged defense up and down the lineup earned them a playoff berth and first-round victory over a favored opponent. Also like the Isles, the Stars’ offensive talents have had to accept that their stats might take a hit in coach Jim Montgomery’s system. Tyler Seguin still picked his spots, finishing with 80 points, while linemates Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn both hit 25 goals. Amazingly, the Stars still reached the playoffs with no other forward recording more than 30 points. Radek Faksa has plateaued as a quality shutdown third-line centerman, but the Stars likely need some more firepower if they’re going to be more than a plucky underdog under Montgomery. Young Finn Roope Hintz showed promise in the playoffs with five goals, but was it enough to earn the full-time gig? Hintz had only 22 points in the regular season. The Stars should have some cap room to fiddle with this summer, but their priority may be restocking the similarly shallow winger pool.
New York Rangers – Thanks to some shrewd moves from GM Jeff Gorton and some luck in the Draft lottery, the Rangers’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. In adding Jacob Trouba and Kaapo Kakko, there’s an infusion of young talent on its way to the Big Apple after New York finished 2018-19 with a meager 78 points in the standings. Their outlook at center isn’t quite as favorable, however. Mika Zibanejad has emerged as a star on the first line, leading the team in scoring by 22 points. Behind Zibanejad, prospect Filip Chytil is just 19 years old and logged a full season of NHL action last year, but struggled and may not play center long-term. Ryan Strome, who played the 2C, won’t cut it if the Rangers are serious about contending. Chris Kreider, the closest player the team has to a verifiable second-line pivot, has surfaced in trade rumors. New York gets out from under some bad contracts over the next two summers, but they won’t have much money to spend after locking up Trouba. This is a group that could use a spark down the middle but might not get it.
Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks are in a tough spot. They were still chasing the playoffs in 2018-19, but after the season culminated with an 80-point campaign, it’s clear Anaheim has to head in a different direction. Veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique, meant to be the Ducks’ 1-2, simply aren’t earning their contracts anymore, with Getzlaf earning $8.25M and Henrique $5.825M per season. Getz had 48 points in 67 games last year, while Henrique only scored 42 points in a full season of action. The hope now is in prospects Troy Terry and Sam Steel, who tasted the NHL for the first time last season. Steel in particular acquitted himself well, going for a half-point-per-game in his age-20 campaign. They’re no Hughes/Hischier duo, though, and the Ducks’ prospect pool is lean otherwise. Peyton Krebs of the Kootenay Ice could be targeted with the #9 pick in the Draft.
Columbus Blue Jackets – GM Jarmo Kekalainen faced criticism three years ago when he selected Quebec-born Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third overall selection in the Draft over Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi. Good thing Jarmo stuck to his guns, however, as Dubois has already emerged as the #1 center the GM envisioned, while Puljujarvi has asked for a trade out of Edmonton after scoring only 9 points last season. Kekalainen also took heat for going all-in at this year’s trade deadline with the Blue Jackets on the fringe of playoff contention, trading for Matt Duchene while holding onto pending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. A playoff berth, sweep of the record-setting Lightning, and six-game loss to the Bruins later, Kekkalainen’s decision is still praised and cursed. If Duchene can’t be re-signed, Boone Jenner slides into a 2C role he’s arguably not up to the task for. A farm system that could’ve been replenished was depleted at the deadline, and there don’t seem any other in-house options to play in the role. The Jackets’ roster is probably on the outside of playoff contention looking in without Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene, and Kekkalainen will have to spend to fortify the center depth. Never afraid of a bold move, could a run be made at a restricted free agent on a cap-strapped team? William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights fits the bill.
Really Bleak Outlooks
Los Angeles Kings – The Kings are in a similar spot to their Southern California neighbors, the Anaheim Ducks, but were even less competitive in 2018-19. First-line center Anze Kopitar did what he could, but even the faultless Slovenian looked a far cry from the player who put up 92 points and ran away with the Selke Trophy two years ago. Simply put, the Kings don’t have the horses to challenge anyone right now. Jeff Carter looked every bit of his 34 years of age, and there’s no competent NHL second-line center on the team. Prospects Gabe Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari could change that, but neither is the type of talent to put up 60 points from year one. The Kings could get their rebuild started with a center with the #5 pick in the Draft, but will be tempted if Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram falls to them.
Minnesota Wild – This one is downright depressing. The Wild are so painfully mired between thinking they can sneak into the playoffs and a roster that can’t do it that it breaks my heart. Never mind that they finished last in the always-competitive Central Division, or the fact that they are shopping one of their lone bright spots, winger Jason Zucker – the Wild simply won’t be able to win many hockey games with their center situation. I have the utmost respect for Eric Staal, who still managed to put up 52 points last season, and Mikko Koivu, the captain whose season was abridged due to injury. But they’ll be 35 and 36 next season, and big centers don’t age well in the NHL (Joe Thornton excluded). 2016 first-rounded Luke Kunin played 49 games and compiled 17 points last year, but this situation looks really, really bad. With the 12th pick, the Wild would do well to add a Krebs-type to the mix but, like the Kings, could be wooed by Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin instead.
Ottawa Senators – Hey, at least the Sens know they’re not going to be playing come next May. We’ve seen tanks, but this is an impressively awful roster before the free agency period. Ottawa has the third-worst first line and worst second line in the league according to DailyFaceoff, with a miniscule $24.7M devoted to their entire forward corps right now. Of course, that means there are no centers of note here. When Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were moved out at the trade deadline, that moved Chris Tierney and Colin White into the 1C and 2C spots in the Sens’ setup. Both centers eclipsed 40 points but were horrid in their own zones, and finished as DailyFaceoff’s 135th and 136th best pivots on the season. White is only 22 years old, though, so there’s time to improve. Maybe 6’6” Kitchener Rangers center Logan Brown can help this season? There’s very little to get excited about here, and to make matters worse, the Senators’ don’t own the fourth overall pick they were awarded as a result of their futility. GM Pierre Dorion should utilize the team’s huge cap space to take on some bad contracts along with picks or prospects in the trades.
Nashville Predators – Well, how bout this? Three of the league’s worst teams and then the Central Division winners. The Predators survived the regular season by relying on their stingy defending, while their scoring remained an issue all season long. Trade deadline additions Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds did little to help put the puck in the net, and the Preds were dumped out of the playoffs in six games. I put the Preds in this category for a number of reasons. First, Ryan Johansen is a very average first-line center. Playing with stud wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, Johansen compiled 50 assists but only 14 goals. Behind Johansen, Granlund struggled immensely after making what should have been a helpful change of scenery from Minnesota to Nashville. Granlund sometimes played on the wing with Kyle Turris at 2C, who fared even worse. Turris put up only 23 points in 55 regular season games, and his contract looks an albatross at $6M per year for five more seasons. The Predators didn’t have a lot of money to throw around with Roman Josi due a big pay hike next season, but Saturday’s trade of PK Subban freed up the funds for GM David Poile to go after Duchene when free agency opens.
Winnipeg Jets – Another expected powerhouse from the Central bounced from the playoffs in a six-game set that didn’t feel that close. The Jets certainly don’t lack a stud first-line pivot thanks to Mark Schiefele, who is locked in for five more years at a bargain $6.25M price. Behind Schiefele, though, the Jets’ center depth is suspect. Winnipeg is the odd team that oozes talent on the wings but can’t really shift any of those players to the middle. These are names like Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nik Ehlers, and Patrik Laine. Bryan Little is the Jets’ usual 2C, with Adam Lowry as the shutdown #3. Make no mistake: any second-line center putting up 41 points over a season of work is underwhelming. Doing so with Ehlers and Laine as your wingers is seriously concerning. Little graded out as DailyFaceoff’s 92nd best center on the season, which would make him a fringe 3C, not a 2C on a team that wants to contend for the Cup. The Jets were also placed in this tier because their issues at the spot are compounded by the fact that they face a very uncertain offseason ahead, even after dealing Jacob Trouba, with their throng of expiring contracts that include Connor and Laine. GM Kevin Chevaldayoff won’t have the cash he wants to upgrade the center position.