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State of the Division: Breaking down the Metro’s centers

Taking a look at every center in the Metropolitan Division

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes won the Central Division last season, but are now back in the deep Metropolitan Division. The Canes hope to continue their success in the division, but with teams evolving how much success can they expect to have?

The center position is the most important on the ice and can be a predictor of a team’s likelihood of success. Even with the best wingers on the ice, a team without good centers is always on the back foot. A good center can take a mediocre line to the next level.

We looked at what the Hurricanes’ centers look like heading into the season, and we have broken down the division’s wingers. Now let's look at the pivots up and down the division.

Columbus Blue Jackets:

Jack Roslovic, Boone Jenner, Sean Kuraly, Max Domi and Kevin Stenlund

The Blue Jackets have the worst center group in the division and it's not even that close. Columbus has gone from Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nick Foligno to Roslovic and Jenner as their top two centers in just two years. After a few high-profile trades and free agents leaving, the Blue Jackets have quickly gone from playoff mode to full rebuild.

In the trade that sent Dubois to Winnipeg for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, the Jets certainly got the best player in the trade, but Columbus was able to acquire a top-six center with hometown roots and hoped to get a player who could regain form as a top winger. However, now they are relying on hometown hero Roslovic to not be one of the guys, but be THE guy on the top line.

In his first season, he scored 12 goals and 34 points, both of which are career highs. He still has a long way to go to become a real top-line center. However, they don’t have any other option on the top line.

Jenner has just one season with over 20 goals and that came back in the 2015-2016 season, but he does average more than 30 points per season, which proves he can be a capable playmaker. However, he has never been asked to play in real impact situations and could struggle against bigger players.

Max Domi recently re-signed with the Blue Jackets for a one-year, $5.3-million contract but has also struggled mightily since moving to Columbus. The young forward is now on his third team with his goal and point totals decreasing every season since the 2018-2019 season. He has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to show consistency in his career.

The new coach and new system could be just the blank slate that Domi and the team needs. A huge part of the Blue Jackets' potential is based on his ability to regain his confidence and get back up in the top six on a consistent basis.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Rounding out the center position for the Jackets are Kuraly and Stenlund. The addition of Kuraly gives the Jackets some veteran depth that can fill in the bottom six and eat up penalty-kill minutes. Both he and Stenlund are depth centers and will give the Jackets some flexibility on the low end, but neither should be expected to be game changers this season.

New Jersey Devils

Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Michael Mcleod, Jesper Boqvist

The New Jersey Devils are one of the most interesting teams in the division. They are still in their rebuild, but they are really taking steps to acquire game-changing players like Dougie Hamilton and Thomas Tatar to start giving them a real core of players. While they are still likely a few seasons off from making a true playoff push, they are going to be a tougher out than in previous seasons.

Down the middle of the ice, they are going to be one of the youngest groups in the league with their oldest player being 23-year-old Michael Mcleod. The group is led by their 22-year-old captain of Hischier who is in his fifth full NHL season. Hischier is the only one in the group that has scored 20 goals but that happened in the 2017-2018 season, his rookie campaign. Hughes is the only other of the four to score double-digit goals (11) when he did it last season.

Hughes has been progressing in his first two seasons and could make a play for the top center position on the team. His 55% Corsi was the only positive Corsi out of any New Jersey centers last season. He was also one of six forwards to have a positive expected goals for percentage at 54.21%.

Rounding out the bottom, Both Mcleod and Boqvist have yet to play more than 90 NHL. Neither has eclipsed the 10 goal or 15 point marks in a season as well. They have also struggled defensively, finishing as the bottom two forwards in Corsi for the Devils last season.

So with the Devils still realistically on the outside looking in for the playoffs, what would a successful season look like? The Devils hope that both Hughes and Hischeir can take the next step and cement themselves as the top-two centers of the future. They also hope that one of their bottom-two centers can prove to be a full-time NHL player while they wait to acquire more depth.

New York Islanders

Matt Barzal, Brock Neslon, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Casey Cizikas

The Islanders have brought back their center group that has proven to be very successful.

Their centers are the most complete from top to bottom. Barzal is the least experienced center with just 289 games played but is by far the top center on the team. The four centermen have 1,972 games played between them with Barzal, Nelson and Cizikas being on the same team since the 2016-2017 season, Barzal’s rookie year.

In the Isles’ system that Barry Trotz uses, no one player ends up standing out. This is proven by the fact that Barzal led the team with 46 points last season, which ranked just 20th among all NHL centers. Nelson who led the team in goals ranked just 18th in NHL centers for goals.

They ranked just 21st in the league with 2.71 goals for per game, but their stingy defense and quality goaltending means they only have to outscore 2.23 goals against per game. They play an incredibly complete team game in the regular season that translates perfectly to the playoffs.

That being said, both Barzal and Nelson are still locks for 40+ point seasons and should have 20 goals each. Pageau also has three seasons with 30 or more points and has shown that he is still capable of putting up these kinds of numbers. Just two seasons ago he had 26 goals and 42 total points. He really gives the Isles flexibility to roll three lines in any situation and causes matchup problems for teams without bottom-six depth.

New York Rangers

Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Filip Chytil, Kevin Rooney

The New York Rangers return the same center group they had last season and only made tweaks to the wings this offseason to bring in more toughness. The Rangers continue to be an extremely top-heavy group that lacks consistency in their top six and depth in the third line.

The Rangers have one of the best centers in the league in Mika Zibanejad, who is in the last year of his current contract. Zibanejad has 50 or more points in each of his last three seasons and has helped carry the Rangers to mild success at even strength and runs a highly successful power-play unit.

The issue is the fall off from Zibanejad to Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil in the rest of the top six. Strome has shown flashes of being a great playmaker with 30 assists over the last two seasons. However, he struggles in the face-off circle with just a 45%-win percentage over his career.

Chytil is just 22 heading into his fifth season, but he just hasn’t shown much progression from year to year. He’s constantly a “breakout” candidate for the Rangers but has never hit the next gear. His best year has just seen him score 23 points and his best season at the dot saw him win just 42% of draws.

The main issue for each of these middle-six guys is the lack of consistency around them. With such a young group of wingers, neither have had similar linemates and with the Rangers often deploying a top-heavy first line, Strome has had to do more heavy lifting himself. With Gerard Gallant coming to the team, he can institute more consistency up and down the lineup.

Philadelphia Flyers

Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Scott Laughton, Nate Thompson

The Flyers have decided that they have found their three centers for the future. They have locked up their top centers through the 2026 season and re-signed Sean Couturier to an eight-year, $7.750-AAV contract starting next season that runs through the 2029-2030 season.

While this may sound promising, the youngest center they have is Laughton at 27. Their center core is going to age out in the coming seasons so they are in a win-now mode without a real win-now roster. While Couturier and Hayes are still effective, when they start to fall off they will fall off hard.

Couturier cemented himself at the top of the lineup and led the team last season in scoring with .91 points per game. Hayes on the other hand has been less consistent after signing with the Flyers. He had just 12 goals and 31 total points last season while making $7.142 million.

Laughton and Thompson fill out the center position with low-end depth. Neither are going to light up the scoresheet, but Laughton provides a competent third-line center that can play good defense. Laughton led the team last season in goals for with a 62.5% while Hayes and Couturier clocked in at 48.15% and 64.48%, respectively.

The Flyers are a confusing team that has wildly moved around the standings over the last few seasons, but that’s exactly what this roster is. They have some top-end skill but no one that really acts as a real game-breaker.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, Teddy Blueger

The Penguins have two of the best centers in the league in Crosby and Malkin. For years the Penguins have been looking for the third center that could fit in and take the third line to the next level and they think they found that player in Jeff Carter.

When Malkin and Crosby split into separate lines it gives the Penguins two top lines, which causes huge matchup problems for opponents.

Crosby gives the Pens the greatest gift in that he elevates the players around him on his line. They are able to roll out average wingers and have them score 20 plus goals a season by being at the right place at the right time with their stick on the ice.

While Crosby elevates those around him through playmaking, Malkin does it with goal scoring. Malkin is guaranteed to at least score 20 goals a season but also scored 40 goals in the 2017-2018 season. Malkin’s ability to also dish the puck to open players forces the defenders to pick their poison against the second line.

Carter came over in a trade deadline deal from the Los Angeles Kings. Carter was able to score 11 points in 14 regular-season games and five points in six playoff games. The Penguins have been chasing a third center, and they hope that Carter at 36 years old can repeat the success he had last season down the stretch.

Washington Capitals

Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd

The Capitals have been struggling with their center depth over the last couple of seasons. The Caps thought they had their long-term second center in Kuznetsov, but he has struggled over the few seasons including getting benched multiple times last season.

At his height, Kuznetsov was over a point per game player in the regular season and post-season in the 2017-2018 season which also saw the Caps win the Stanley Cup. Kuznetsov was also one of the biggest impact players for the Caps throughout that cup run, something that he has struggled to do since. Lately, his name has been thrown around as trade bait, but it will be tough to move his $7.8-million cap hit with a modified no-trade clause.

The Caps still have their long-time top center in Backstrom who still leads the team in assists with 38 last season and had the most points per game (.96) than anyone else on the Washington Capitals. This point-per-game pace is on par for his entire career, so it should be expected that he’s back up to a 70+ point area in the upcoming season.

Eller proved to be a good possession center for the third line with a 55% Corsi last season and a team-high 57.01% expected goals for despite having the second fewest offensive zone starts of Capitals centers.