Over the last two seasons, both Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes have made strides in their offensive production, and they look to build on their 2022-23 campaigns with an even better year. While they are now playing with playoff expectations, their lives may be made easier by the full integration of Timo Meier in the lineup, along with the addition of Tyler Toffoli and another year of experience for Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer.
Today’s exercise will be comparing the top centers of the Eastern Conference. While it would be all too easy for me to say that Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are the best center duo in the east, let us take a deeper look into each team. But first, let us look at the teams that need the most improvement from their current crop at center.
Red Wings: With only Dylan Larkin as someone to really count on down the middle, Detroit is looking at another year of growing their young players. Veteran Andrew Copp should be their second line center, which is probably too high in the lineup for him. Detroit is not trying to contend, though, so they will likely be patient as Steve Yzerman eyes the future. As long as Dylan Larkin stays healthy, though, they should be able to be a bubble team in the near future.
Bruins: The retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci will sting for the upcoming years, as it still seemed Boston legends had years of hockey left in the tank. Without them, the top centers should be Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle. While both are respectable centers, neither should be expected to be top-line centers at this point of their careers. Though if I were to bet on one having the better season, it would be Zacha, given Coyle’s more limited goal-scoring ability.
Canadiens: While Nick Suzuki is one of the best forwards Montreal has had this century, the team still has a long way to go. This will be a big year for Kirby Dach, who is not yet top six worthy in terms of production, but plays there out of necessity. Dach is only turning 23 in January, though, so he could very well prove himself to be a reliable second-line center over the course of this season. Otherwise, a return to form from Sean Monahan would bump them up a tier.
Capitals: Dylan Strome is probably the best center on the Washington Capitals right now, and that is not a good thing for Alex Ovechkin. Since getting hip surgery, Nicklas Backstrom only had 21 points in 39 games. Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov is a far cry from his younger self, having put up 55 points in a full season. With Kuznetsov’s defensive deficiencies, that leaves Strome as the top dog. I would not expect Backstrom to become his pre-surgery self at his age, while Kuznetsov seems to be on the decline in his 30s as well. Washington was a team built to “win now” at the exact moment they won their Cup, and it will be difficult for them to get anywhere near the promised land for the rest of Ovechkin’s career.
The Flyers and Jackets: Between these two bottom-feeders, the only guy I think has a chance to break 60 points this year is Adam Fantilli of the Blue Jackets, and that might be too much of a cross to bear for an 18-year old center in the NHL. Their other top guy, Boone Jenner, is not good enough to be a top center, and might have a lot of work to take care of off the ice with his teammates as well, given his defense of disgraced head coach Mike Babcock. He is not a true top center (and should be displaced by Fantilli soon), and he showed this week he might not be a true captain. Meanwhile, in Philly, Sean Couturier has a lot of work to get back to his old self after multiple back surgeries, while Morgan Frost will be centering their second line. That is just not great.
The Very Good Tier (Clear 1C, 2C; Defensive or Offensive Deficiencies)
Canes: Although the Carolina Hurricanes are one of the best teams of the NHL, they do not exactly make their living off having multiple superstar centers. Sebastian Aho, their top-line center, is good enough to earn the title, but he may be even held back, offensively, from producing to his full ability. This is a team that would be in the top tier if Martin Necas centered his own line, but he often played wing for Aho, Stastny, and Kotkaniemi. Instead, their second center by ice time last season was Jordan Staal. Staal is very good at disrupting offense at this point of his career, and that works on both ends. This works for Carolina, who have enough production from elsewhere to win by stifling other teams, but it means that Carolina doesn’t quite get as much value out of its centers as some of the other Eastern Conference teams.
Panthers: The Florida Panthers were not the likeliest team to make the Stanley Cup Finals, but a lot of the credit can go to their top center, Aleksander Barkov, who had 78 points in 68 games last season, in addition to being third on the team with 16 points in 21 playoff games. They did have solid contributions from their second center by average ice time, Sam Bennett, who had 40 points in 63 games, but he is clearly a middle six center and thus marks Florida for this tier. Sam Reinhart did play some center for the Panthers, but he was primarily a winger for Barkov and Anton Lundell.
Rangers: Mika Zibanejad is a legitimate top-line center, but he produces because of his elite skill, but not necessarily a dominant impact on how much time the puck spends on either end. When the Rangers have the puck enough, Zibanejad won’t take long to find a way to create a goal, but his dominance is limited to the offensive zone. Thus, with Vincent Trocheck being a solid, but not amazing, center, the Rangers are in the second tier. They are good, but not among the best in the league up the middle.
Islanders: With the deadline trade for Bo Horvat, it appears that Mat Barzal was moved to the wing. It is not clear, as of now, whether or not Lou Lamoriello will have that continue into the upcoming season. Even so, the Islanders have a very good top center duo in Brock Nelson and Bo Horvat. Brock Nelson has been a bit of a late blossoming player, posting his best season at age 31, after taking a step up in his age-27 season, when he scored 50 points for the first time. Bo Horvat, meanwhile, is an awesome goal-scorer, but a limited playmaker (and has been for some time). They are closer to the top tier than the Rangers, Canes, and Panthers, but just a step below it. Even so, expect their strong center depth, in addition to their goaltending, being a key part of their upcoming season. They made the playoffs despite many sarcastic and critical comments on their team direction, and I expect them back in the mix in 2024.
Sabres: Tage Thompson is an absolutely electrifying player. A lot of people ragged on the Buffalo Sabres for giving him his contract when they did, saying it was too small a sample to give that kind of money away. As it turns out, it is very difficult to stop 6’7” centers from scoring when they can shoot the puck as well as Tage Thompson. So why are they not in the top tier? Tage Thompson does not know how to play defense. Yes, the Sabres are a very fun team to watch, and Tage Thompson is a legitimate first line center. But he gives so much away on the defensive end that it really limits how dominant he could be.
Dylan Cozens, who is only 22 years old, suffers from a similar problem. He is now at a top six production level, but he suffers in the defensive zone. The Sabres only barely missed the playoffs last season, but Don Granato still has a lot to do if he wants to round these guys out so they can become a contending team. They have the potential to be among the best, but are probably a bit worse at center in the top six than the Islanders. I would, however, give them the edge over the Canes, Rangers, and Panthers.
Senators: Ottawa has one of the most talented forwards groups in the league. There are a couple reasons that they are in the second tier, and not with the top teams. First, second-line center Josh Norris barely played last year due to a shoulder injury. In his absence, Shane Pinto was okay as a center, and may or may not return due to their cap situation after signing Tarasenko. Second, Tim Stutzle is an offensive mastermind, but his defensive play is not there yet, as he leans heavily on Claude Giroux for faceoffs and defensive play. This is reflected by Stutzle being considered Giroux’s winger by Natural Stat Trick when they play together, which accounted for over 500 minutes of ice time.
The drop-off when replacing Giroux with Batherson was very real. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Tkachuk-Giroux-Stutzle line outscored opponents 30-20 and had a 59.03 xGF%. Meanwhile, the Tkachuk-Stutzle-Batherson line was outscored 14-19, and had a 49.96 xGF%. Perhaps because of his reliance on players like Tkachuk and Giroux, HockeyViz estimates Stutzle as having a second-line level of impact, with Giroux being the best out of that group. Due to Ottawa’s continued defensive deficiencies from their top producers and the question of whether Josh Norris will bounce back, they are still on the outside, looking in, similar to their situation in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Given Ottawa’s average age at center, I would not be surprised if they worked their way into the top tier in the near future, but I would not give them a distinct advantage over the Islanders at this present time.
The Top Tier (Two Possible 1Cs, General Two-Way Dominance):
Leafs: Weakest among the top tier of teams is the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Auston Matthews is good enough to ruin anyone’s night by himself. He is an absolute monster on the puck, overshadowed only by Connor McDavid (who casts quite a large shadow over the rest of the league). With four straight 40-goal seasons (evened with the shortened COVID year), Matthews is a premier goal-scorer, who is no slouch in his own end. Meanwhile, John Tavares still produces like a top center, with his fifth career 80 point season coming in 2022-23. However, Tavares gets dinged by advanced stat metrics for his below-average finishing ability relative to where he gets shots from, with HockeyViz’s Synthetic Goal model estimating him at a third-line level of ability, on account of his weakening shot and his benefitting from Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Michael Bunting’s strong two-way play. I do not think that is a fair estimate of his ability, however, and any Toronto fan should feel comfortable when he is on the ice. It is fair to say, though, that he is not as independently awesome as he was in an Islanders uniform.
Devils: The moment we have all been waiting for is here...The Devils’ top centers are alright, I guess. Nico Hischier finished second in Selke voting and crossed the 70 and 80-point barriers for the first time in his career, while Jack Hughes broke the Devils’ single-season record for points in a season.
The biggest advantage that Hischier and Hughes have over the other teams in the top tier is their average age. While each of the Leafs, Penguins, and Lightning have at least one of their centers in their 30s, Nico Hischier is the older top six center in New Jersey at just 24 years old. And with both Hischier and Hughes bringing a two-way impact on the ice, they are separated from their similarly-aged peers in the lower tier of top centers. As a one-two punch, they are rarely rivaled and often dominate.
Penguins: While he is no longer the best player in the league, Sidney Crosby is still a force to be reckoned with. Even as the Penguins have weakened, Crosby scored his most since 2018-19 last season with 93 points. Now 36 years old, Crosby could possibly reach 1600 points this season. He is also apt to beat anyone in all areas of the ice. Long-time second line center Evgeni Malkin also stepped up his game in 2022-23 with his first 82-game season since 2008-09, and his first 80+ point season since 2017-18.
Kyle Dubas has certainly tried to make Pittsburgh more of a force offensively with the acquisition of Erik Karlsson, and these guys only stand to benefit. However, they are fighting against the clock. Crosby and Malkin used to be off the charts good, and they have shown signs of decline. But Crosby is still a superstar center, and Malkin could easily be a first-line center for any team.
Tampa Bay: The Tampa Bay Lightning have a bit of an untraditional thing going with their top lines, as they rotate Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Anthony Cirelli at center in their top six. But in the regular season, Brayden Point primarily centered Brandon Hagel and Nikita Kucherov, while Stamkos played both center and wing throughout the season. While Point and Stamkos do not stay at center as often as the other duos here, they get a pass on account of Tampa Bay’s penchant for mixing up positions on the forward end.
Stamkos’ shot may have begun to fade a bit, but Brayden Point is deadlier than ever. His 51 goals was 10 more than his previous career high. When the Lightning have these two centering different lines, they are unstoppable. When they have them on the same line, with Kucherov, hunting for a goal — they are even more unstoppable. And with Stamkos at 33 years old and Point at 27, they should have another few elite seasons between them before either of them start to falter.
Between the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Tampa Bay Lightning, you cannot really go wrong with any one of them in terms of their top center duos. But who is the best? At this point, it is probably the New Jersey Devils. I know, shocking. A Devils fan writing for one of the blogs following the team says Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are the best center duo in the Eastern Conference. Why? Because they are.
To be clear, I think Auston Matthews is the best center in the east right now. But out of all these 2Cs in the top tier, John Tavares is the weakest. Tampa Bay is next, with phenomenal guys in Stamkos and Point. But their positional shifting makes me leery of crowning them the best center duo in the east, as both take shifts at wing on a regular basis. Second in the east is then the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been buoyed by a return to form from Evgeni Malkin. But with Crosby and Malkin being in their mid-30s on a faltering team, I cannot give them the edge over the two young centers who led the Devils to the biggest season-to-season turnaround in NHL history.
In the upcoming season, Nico Hischier will likely battle Aleksander Barkov for the Selke (whether or not they’re actually the best choices for the award) while mowing down opposing top lines with Bratt and Mercer likely on his wings. With a full season of Timo Meier on his wing, Jack Hughes will be looking to blow past the 100-point mark, while also being a responsible player defensively. And with Hischier generally taking the top competition, Hughes is only freer to play to his skills and strengths on the ice. This is not to say the Devils are certain to be the best team, or to come out of the East on top, though. The center is just one of six guys on the ice — and while Hischier and Hughes are the heart of the offense, the rest of the team will need to show up if they want to win in the Playoffs.
What do you think about this exercise? Did my evaluations of any of the teams surprise you? Do you agree or disagree? If you had to choose one center duo other than Hischier and Hughes, which would it be? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.