Hunting the Big Centre: Can NHL Team’s Compete Without Big Centres?

by Jacob Saltiel
david-desharnais

I’m small. What?
from 25 Stanley.com

The answer is yes- unless you believe that there’s only one way to win championships in the NHL. Although the Canadiens actually have good depth at centre, some, discussed below, have criticized them for being small down the middle, which will be a distressing weakness. This argument supposes that one cannot win without big centres in the NHL.

One has only to look at the Cup winners since the last lockout to see that NHL teams win, and win consistently in different ways. Even a cursory glance at the last seven champions reveals various styles dependent on the teams’ compositions.

Some, like the Hurricanes, had fantastic special teams and a goaltender playing out of his mind. Others, such as the Kings, Bruins, and Ducks, played tight-checking games with the intention of bashing their opponents into submission over the course of a 7-game series. Teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit simply overwhelmed the opposition with their talent, puck possession, and, most importantly, depth.

How many of these teams had big centres on their top-2 lines?

Well, first we have to establish what a big centre in the NHL is. It is insufficient to decide that, say, 6″3 is a big centre if most other centres in the league are 6″3 too.

Based on a rough estimate using the NHL.com stats database (which includes prospects), the mode* for the height of centres in the NHL last season was 6″0. This group includes players like John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly, both of whom are justifiably considered top-line centres- regardless of what the tape measure says. In fact, you’d have to be crazy to think that their unremarkable height holds them back in any way. Remember also that Sidney Crosby is 5″11. The next biggest group was centres listed at 6″1.

Now, let’s say that the difference of an inch between a 6″0 centre and a 6″1 centre is negligible as a size advantage. In fact, even a difference of two inches might not be all that much of an advantage, but let’s agree, for argument’s sake, that a big centre in the NHL is more than 2 inches taller than the mode, since we can assume that 6″3 players most often play against 6″0 centres, whom they’d have a size advantage against. Let’s all remember that a size advantage may be of most use in fighting. Or is it, Joe Colborne?

As a caveat, it is true that there are also many centres less than 6″0, but then the next most populous group is 6″1 centres.

Once we remove from the list of 6″3 and up centres prospects and players whose only redeeming feature is that they happen to be tall, that leaves 24 centres who played in the top-4 lines NHL teams last year. 12 of these centres actually play in the top-2 lines of their teams or have the talent to be top-six centres but are otherwise prevented from doing so by better centres on their teams.

This list includes:
Travis Zajac (NJD), Evgeni Malkin (PIT), Jason Spezza (OTT), Anze Kopitar (LAK), David Backes (STL), Jeff Carter (LAK), Eric Staal (CAR), Vincent Lecavalier (TB), Patrick Berglund (STL), Jordan Staal (CAR), Ryan Getzlaf (ANA), Joe Thornton, (SJS).

Of that list, seven appear in the top-30 of centres in scoring: Malkin, Spezza, Kopitar, Backes, E. Staal, Getzlaf, Thornton.

Three of them also failed to make the playoffs: Lecavalier, E. Staal, and Getzlaf. Now, going by points scored may not be the most objective measure of determining the top-30 centres in the league, since there are many skills that statistics cannot properly measure, such as time of possession, or measure unreliably, such as  +/-, which form part of what makes a player valuable to his team. Team construction is more important than the individual skills of the players, as demonstrated by the fact that teams win in different ways. Top-line centres, then, do not have to necessarily be responsible for all of the scoring, killing penalties, hitting, fighting, coaching and cap management if there’s a sensible division of roles on the team for which he plays.

It is conceivable then, that a centre like David Krejci (6″0), can be quite a good number 1 centre since his skills as a puckhandler and passer complement the size, strength, and shooting of his linemates Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic. In fact, when Boston won, their biggest centre was Patrice Bergeron, listed at 6″2, while their other three centres were 6″0 (Campbell, Kelly, Krejci). Lacking a distinct height advantage down the middle didn’t stop them from winning the Cup. In fact, any perceived disadvantage they might have had by not having a dominantly large centre was mitigated by their large wingers.

Of the seven previous Stanley cup Champions, four of them had big centres: E. Staal, Getzlaf, Malkin, J. Staal, and Kopitar. Teams like Detroit won with two 5″11 centres in Zetterberg and Datsyuk, while Toews in Chicago isn’t small, but neither does he tower over the opposition at 6″2.

It is unreasonable to cling to the notion that all teams require large centres to succeed, since there clearly aren’t enough of them for every team to have one, let alone one who can play on one of the top two lines and score lots of points.

Because of this, the reality is that many teams either complement their centres with large wingers. For example, think of Bertuzzi in Detroit, or Penner playing on Richards’ wing in LA. Other large centres are used as checkers, like the massive Brian Boyle in New York, Lars Eller in Montreal, Handzus wherever he plays these days, and so on.

Despite this, many commentators persist in perpetuating the idea that all team’s need to have centres who are at least 6″2 patrolling their top-2 lines if they’re to have any chance at succeeding.

Take, for example, the usually excellent Pierre Lebrun in his preview of the Montreal Canadiens for this upcoming season:

“Nothing against David Desharnais, in fact he’s one of my favorite players for the way that he wills his 5-foot-7 body to deliver the absolute most he can. His work ethic is second to none. But he’s not a No. 1 center.”

Oh really?

Desharnais plays at a disadvantage at 5″7, but then, if he couldn’t adjust to almost everyone on the ice being bigger than him, he probably wouldn’t have made it this far, nor averaged at least a point per game in each level of hockey he’s played in since junior– other than the NHL of course. The pattern, for him, is to take a season to adjust to the level, and then to begin scoring at a high rate, and so long as he has Pacioretty to pass to, Desharnais should continue to productive at the NHL level.

As it is, he scored 60 points last year, ranked 20th in scoring by centres in the league above Getzlaf and Backes, and played on a line that scored 84 times last year.

Seems like a top-line centre to me, but Lebrun doesn’t stop there:

“Talented, 6-foot-4 centers don’t grow on trees. Montreal’s lack of size down the middle will continue to be an issue this season.”

Let’s review, Montreal’s centres are:

– Desharnais, as discussed above.

– Tomas Plekanec, who ranked 29th in scoring by centres and logged the 8th most TOI/G out of centres, even though he never had stable linemates all season.

– Lars Eller, who is 6″2, is developing as a checker, and still has the potential to score more goals.

– and, depending on how quickly prospects advance to the majors, one of Nokelainen (6″1) or Galchenyuk (6″1 or 6″2 depending on who you listen to).

In fact, Montreal’s weaknesses have precious little to do with size and its perceived advantages at the centre position. The top-2 centres on the team are quite productive relative to their peers, while their bottom 2 centre spots can conceivably be occupied by large, young centres with more offensive potential.

Plekanec has proven in the past that he can put up more points when he has linemates who can skate with him, and Desharnais can score even more if he’s given consistent icetime throughout the season (he worked his way into the top-line slowly last year).

It is ridiculous to suggest that the Montreal Canadiens should pursue an asset that, even by Lebrun’s own admission, is exceedingly rare, especially so since it is just as rare for all 30 NHL teams. Some have been fortunate to draft, develop, or sign elite centres who happen to be big, but that does not mean that those teams who do not have such players are doomed to failure.

Cole and Pacioretty are both big and play on the top-line. If Plekanec had similarly talented wingers, would anyone call the Canadiens forwards small? Actually, if there’s an area of need that can most help the team, acquiring those wingers would be it.

A few years ago, the Montreal media was buzzing with the possibility of trading for Lecavalier. In the eyes of some, he would have been the reincarnation of Jean Beliveau and the Habs dynasty’s of old would return.

Today, would you trade either Desharnais or Plekanec straight-up for Lecavalier?

Would you really?

The reader can decide yes or no on the above, and in no way do I deny that it would be nice have an Anze Kopitar, only that obtaining a large first-line center need not be the Quest for the Holy Grail that many make it out to be. My overall point is that teams should acquire the players that best fit the team that they have, rather than chase unicorns.**

Commentators might do better to analyze what the team actually has rather than relying on assumptions about the magic bullet that can cure any NHL team, let alone the Canadiens.

***

*Instead of using averages, which can be misleading, the mode reveals quite simply the largest group of players and what height they play at. So, this is most numerous height of centre in the league, and therefore the one most likely to be encountered.

**unicorns, like talented, large centres available on the cheap, are both completely fictional.

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