Center of Attention

 

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For those of you late to the party, I spell like an American.  It just makes life easier, so deal with it.  I’m fully aware that center in this country is spelled centre.  But the childhood I remember was led by strong American influences like Zack Morris, Steven Q. Urkel, and Adam Banks so excuse me for being a very American Canadian!

 

Ok, so I’ve been intending to write this one for a while now.  Probably since the fall of 2011 when I started doing this site, but it took a guy who I have ridiculous respect for, Elliotte Friedman of HNIC, making some comments that I couldn’t believe he of all people made.  I basically have a man crush on Friedge….hell I call him Friedge like he’s my boy!  I just think the guy is so great at his job and so knowledgeable about hockey he puts most other journalists and broadcasters to complete shame with the job he does.  Needs to up his game when it comes to his suits, but that’s a different story.

 

So Friedman was co-hosting Prime Time Sports with Bob McCowan one day about 3 weeks ago.  Jim Hughson was on as their guest, and Friedman started talking to Hughson about Phil Kessel.  As the story goes, at Friedman’s Super Bowl party, his buddies who are mostly Leaf fans started throwing around the question of weather or not Kessel was a top 5 player in the game right now.  Friedman asked that to Hughson who said (paraphrasing) “maybe not top 5, but definitely top 10”.  Friedman agreed.  This STUNNED me that 2 guys with such great knowledge would say something like this.

 

I’m not saying that wingers can’t be great, but they are so few and far between.  It is rare that you find a winger who has a great overall game.  The biggest mistake even some of the smartest hockey fans will make about the game is in believing a sniper is automatically a great player.  I can’t stand the black and white response that some media members will give when speaking of 1 dimensional snipers “the toughest thing to do in hockey is score goals”.  True….but it’s far from the ONLY thing you should do!

 

phil-kessel-alex-ovechkinWhen it comes to guys like Alex Ovechkin and Kessel (currently 1-2 in league goal scoring), they’re great snipers sure, but this shouldn’t put them among the elite of the NHL.  What made Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time wasn’t that he out scored everyone.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did that, and he rarely gets mentioned among the best NBA players of all time.  Carmelo Anthony is one of the top scorers in the NBA today, yet nobody who follows the NBA would put him in their top 10, because that’s all he does.  Why is this more obvious to NBA observers than NHL observers?

 

Meanwhile, centers prove over and over and over and over and over and over again that they’re VITAL to team success.  I believe being great down the middle is more vital than having a great blueline.  Look at the 09 Penguins.  One of the best teams who’ll ever see down the middle in the cap era, average blueline.  They won a Cup.  I’ve harped on the Oilers for years for wasting their time trying to fit Sam Gagner in as their 2nd line center when they desperately needed to bring in a veteran 2 way center with size to play behind Nugent-Hopkins, but they never have and by no coincidence they’ve hardly improved.  Sure they have had a bad blueline too, but when those D-men don’t get help defensively they’re on an island.  A team that has loaded up with centers and is pretty just as young as the Oilers….the Avalanche, have a terrible blueline as well.  Yet they’re going to the playoffs.  Great down the middle.

 

But I’ll try to keep this focus on just wingers vs centers.  Look at the Leafs this season.  Better yet, let’s look at the Leafs last summer.  I had buddies that I couldn’t say a good thing about Tyler Bozak to.  I thought the Leafs got a great deal for Bozak when they re-signed him.  He’s 6’1, he’s 195, he’s a RH shot, he’s good on draws, he plays 200 feet, he’s a damn good center!  They also added Dave Bolland at the draft, so they were solid down the middle coming into the season.  No legit number 1 guy, but 1-4 VERY solid.  And what happened when all 4 played?  The Leafs were awesome.  And what happened when Bozak and Bolland were out?  They were horrible.  And what happened once just Tyler Bozak came back?  They got back to being one of the best teams in the East.  See a trend?

 

Here’s another great example.  At the start of the 09-10 season, Daniel Sedin went down with I believe a broken ankle.  I honestly can’t recall what exactly the injury was, but he was out 6 weeks.  With no Daniel by his side, Henrik Sedin didn’t skip a beat and went on to win the Hart trophy that season.  What happened to the Canucks once Henrik went down this season?  They’ve been terrible as has Daniel.

 

1297476606402_ORIGINALSomething that bothers me a lot is when people talk about the Oilers (I always bring it back to the Oil, I apologize) and what they need to do with their 1st round pick in this year’s draft.  If taking Sam Reinhart gets brought up, 9 out of 10 Oiler fans and 99 out of 100 hockey fans will scream “trade the pick!  You can’t take ANOTHER forward!”  No…you can’t take another WINGER.  You absolutely can take a kid like Sam Reinhart, because you don’t have a kid like Sam Reinhart up front who will play a cerebral, 200 foot game.  You don’t have too many CENTERS.  They’ve really been unlucky in that when they’ve had those 3 1st overall picks, 2 of the times the winger was head and shoulders above any centers.  Actually getting back to Friedman for a minute, when he was on Tim and Sid yesterday and talking about Kesler trade talks and the Oilers being interested, he broke down all the reasons why the Oilers are desperate for a guy like him and how vital centers are to a team.

 

Scouts don’t value center enough in my opinion.  Centers should be treated in the NHL draft how QB’s are in the NFL draft.  Sure there might be more talented positional player on the board in the NFL draft, but if you don’t have a QB you need to get 1!  Well if you don’t have 2 or 3 GREAT centers in the NHL you need to get them!  And I don’t know how many times I have made this comparison, but wingers are to the NHL what WR’s are to the NFL.  It’s great to have a bunch of great ones, but without a great QB to get them the ball they’re pretty limited in the impact they can have on a game.

 

The center makes the winger, the winger RARELY ever makes the center.  A winger can make a center’s stats look better, like Bozak’s do playing with JVR and Kessel, or like Oiler fans saw from 06-08 when Horcoff would play with Hemsky, but these guys still need these centers who excel in all aspects of the game.  Otherwise they can’t do what they do best.

 

It’s not that all wingers don’t matter, but they’re really a dime a dozen for what they do.  You get the odd one who can have an incredible impact on the game.  Marian Hossa, Zach Parise, Daniel Alfredsson  in his prime, Jarome Iginla in his prime, but they’re few and far between.  And I’ll bring this back to Kessel and maybe more importantly Ovechkin who people are back to claiming he’s the best player in the NHL.  Would you take either guy over Sid?  Toews?  Datsyuk?  Getzlaf?  Kopitar?  Henrik Sedin?  Malkin?  Tavares?  Chara?  Doughty?  Weber?  Suter?  Without giving it much thought I just rattled off 12 guys who are WAY more valuable to a team than Ovechkin and Kessel, or any winger for that matter, and notice I didn’t touch Stamkos.  I want guys who make the other players they play with better, because it’s about a team winning, not about your superstar scoring more goals.

 

Centers simply have way more impact on a game than wingers do.  They’re expected to be puck distributors, they’re expected to be the 3rd defenseman, they’re expected to win draws, they just simply have so much more responsibility on the ice and there for when it comes to elite centers they just are simply better hockey players.  Name a team who has won a Cup building with wingers?  Name a team who has won a Cup without serious strength down the middle?  The odd team that does win without a number 1 center, are ridiculously strong down the middle like the 07 Ducks (McDonald, Getzlaf, Pahlsson) or the 2011 Bruins (Krejci, Bergeron, Kelly).

 

Kessel isn’t a top 10 player in the league, and this isn’t to rip on him or Leaf fans.  I was one of the few who said all along, the trade for Kessel wasn’t as bad as it was ever made out to be.  I picked the guy to win the Richard this season.  But having said that, even playing at his absolute best like he had been pre Olympics, I’m still taking Seguin…the center, and I’m still taking Hamilton…the D-man, and it’s still deal that will hurt the Leafs a ton moving forward.

 

Maybe this is more about 1 dimensional snipers than centers vs wingers.  But when you stop looking at things so black and white and add a little color to the picture it becomes pretty clear that centers are just way more vital in the game than wingers are.  So enough of the talk that Kessel is one of the top players in the league, or that Ovechkin is right there with Crosby.  They aren’t.  They are nowhere close.  No winger is.  It’s not like you don’t need good wingers to win, but when speaking about the best skaters in the game, they’re 3rd on the list and no high end winger should ever be put above a high end center.

 

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