Besides having sound goaltending, being strong down the middle of the ice is the most important quality an NHL team can have. You need centers who can produce offensively, drive possession and match up with the other team’s best players.
It’s nearly impossible to win in today’s NHL without a true number one center, something the Hurricanes know all too well (they know about goaltending too).
So, how does the team look at center coming into the season? That hinges on two questions: Is Sebastian Aho a center, and is Martin Necas ready to roll as a rookie?
Aho, who is coming off a breakout year with 29 goals and 65 points down the stretch last year, played briefly down the middle between fellow Finn Teuvo Teravainen and rookie power forward Valentin Zykov, and played well. However, head coach Rod Brind’Amour has yet to commit to Aho playing center full time.
If he does, and Necas can put up 40-45 points as a rookie, the Canes have a solid group of Aho, Necas, two-way workhorse Jordan Staal and Victor Rask. If Aho isn’t ready to play center, or Necas needs more time, that group looks dicier with Staal, Aho or Necas, Rask and either Lucas Wallmark or Saku Maenalanen. If both of those things don’t happen, that group looks even worse.
Aho, Necas, Staal and Rask is a solid, if unspectacular, group of centermen. But how does it compare to the Canes’ most important group of opponents, the Metropolitan Division? Let’s take a look.
Washington Capitals: Starting with last year’s division champs (oh yeah, and the defending cup champs. Hopefully they’re all sobered up by now), the Canes are pretty clearly outmatched. Washington has one of the best one-two punches in the league with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s coming off a 27-goal, 83-point season, and Swedish playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, the Robin to Alex Ovechkin’s Batman.
Those two are backed up by Lars Eller, a very good third-line center coming off a 38-point campaign and solid playoff run. They lose Jay Beagle as the fourth center, with Chandler Stephenson likely to step into that role.
Staal can only shut down one of Backstrom or Kuznetsov, and while Aho has the potential to reach their production levels, he doesn’t have their experience playing center. Necas definitely has a far higher long-term ceiling than Eller, but he’ll also be adjusting. Rask has a big edge over Stephenson at the fourth spot, but that’s about it.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Not much has changed here. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren’t exactly spring chickens, but they’re still probably the best one-two in the league.
Derick Brassard struggled after coming over at the trade deadline last year, but should do better with a full offseason and training camp to adjust. He’d be a top-six center on most teams. Riley Sheahan is the fourth guy, and it’s fairly close between him and Rask.
This is pretty similar to the Capitals. Staal can only face one of the dynamic duo. Necas will be better than Brassard soon, but that may not come this season.
Philadelphia Flyers: Assuming Claude Giroux says on the wing, this one is at least a little more interesting. Sean Couturier is a two-way force coming off a breakout, 76-point season. The Flyers got thrown a curveball when he recently re-injured his MCL injury from late last season; he’ll be out four weeks. That should have him back in plenty of time for the regular season, but it’ll be interesting to see how it affects him early on.
Couturier is backed up by last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Nolan Patrick, who should be ready to build on last year’s 30-point rookie season, Travis Konecny, coming off a solid 47-point season and Scott Laughton.
This one is closer, and Aho and Necas could move the needle, but I think Couturier’s breakout and Patrick’s potential puts Philly ahead here.
This is another team with some promising young centers, but they’re further along than the Canes’. Pierre-Luc Dubois is looking to build on his 48-point rookie year, and Alexander Wennberg will look to rebound from 35 points in 66 games after 59 the year before. The bottom two are Brandon Dubinsky, also in need of a bounce-back campaign after just 16 points, and free-agent signee and former Hurricane Riley Nash, coming off a breakout season in Boston.
Aho and Necas will have a huge impact here. If Aho succeeds at center, Necas is ready to go and rask bounces back, the Canes could take the edge here. Staal is a big upgrade over Dubinsky, so it depends on how the other three shake out.
This is another interesting battle. 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier had a strong rookie season with 52 points, and could take another step forward alongside Taylor Hall. After that, though, there’s a massive drop-off to Travis Zajac at 26 points (in 63 games), Pavel Zacha and Brian Boyle.
It’s pretty clear cut here. Hischier has the highest ceiling on either team, but Staal, Necas and Rask blow Zajac, Zacha and Boyle out of the water.
The poor Islanders? I don’t need to pile on them anymore for the whole John Tavares thing, but losing one of the best centers in the game is going to have a big impact here. They still have last year’s rookie sensation Matt Barzal, who led the team with 85 points, but it’s a huge dropoff from there to the uninspiring trio of Anthony Beauvillier, Val Filppula and Casey Cizikas.
Barzal is the best either team has to offer, but after him the Canes pick up a huge edge.
Yikes. The Rangers’ rebuild has left them very thin down the middle. Mika Zibanejad is a strong option, though coming off a bit of a down season with 47 points in 72 games. Ryan Spooner had 16 points in 20 games after coming over at last year’s trade deadline, but do you really want him as young second-line center? Vladislav Namestnikov also has promise and could push Spooner for the second spot, but is also better suited as a third-line guy. Kevin Hayes is the leading contender for the fourth spot.
Another decisive win for the Hurricanes. Zibanejad is the only one of that group I’d jump at to add to the Canes’ roster.
Final verdict: The Canes don’t have the horses to compete with the Capitals and Penguins down the middle, but neither do most teams in the league. After that, though, the Canes are probably behind Philadelphia, but are right there with Columbus and ahead of the Devils and New York teams. A lot of this season’s success will hinge on what the team gets out of Aho and Necas down the middle.
At least based on their centers (obviously there’s a lot more to it than that) the Canes should be able to push for that four or five spot in the division.