Elite Centers 101
Hockey is a complex game that doesn’t always translate well to TV, so we enlisted the help of Logan Couture to break down the most nuanced position in the NHL: The center. Logan is probably overqualified for this assignment, because he moonlights as a real, live NHL centerman for the San Jose Sharks. Take it away, Logan:
I get the question all the time: Do hockey players watch film? Of course we do. We watch hours and hours of it every week. My job is to figure out how to make life tough for the opposing center, so a lot of film study is about trying to figure out how to take away space. But sometimes I try to pick up little moves that I can borrow from them in the offensive zone. Here’s what a few of the NHL’s elite centers do so well.
Fortunately we don’t have to play against Crosby very often, but I don’t want to see what will happen to my Twitter timeline if I leave him off this list. First off, his lower-body strength is probably unparalleled in the league. It’s not just about his speed, but how he can use his lower body to protect the puck in the corner. When he takes the puck through the neutral zone, he’s a nightmare to defend because he seems to explode and take it to another gear as soon as the puck touches his stick. Watch how he splits the two defensemen here.
Crazy right? It’s even more impressive if you watch his feet this time. He takes one stride to explode past the D.
So why not just force him wide? The thing with defending Crosby is that he can take it wide and use his backhand as well as most players use their forehand. If you’re defending a normal player, you’d purposely force him to his backhand side. With Sid, you can’t do that. It’s extremely hard for a goaltender to pick up a shot coming off a player’s backhand. If he roofs it, the goalie basically has no chance. This rush against the Devils from December is a prime example of why he has the best backhander in the world.
It’s easy to say you’re going to bring it every night, but with an 82 game schedule plus playoffs, it’s a lot harder back it up. Crosby’s talent is obvious, but what really makes him the best is that he competes on every single faceoff, every single corner battle, on every single shift.
Intelligence is the first thing that comes to mind with Toews. He does everything. There’s nothing he isn’t good at. He scores dirty goals. He scores pretty goals. He checks well. Obviously Toews passes the puck at an elite level, and it’s not just about his ability to put the puck on people’s tape. It’s also that his spacial awareness is so high. He puts himself in the right spot to pass because he sees plays develop before anyone else does. Watch this rush against the Wild to see what I mean. It’s not just about the pass to Hossa, which is sick. But look at how he recognizes what’s happening and cuts wide into the open space to receive the pass from Saad on the rush. That’s hockey smarts.
Toews is one of those guys who isn’t huge, but he plays bigger than his size and he comes into every battle thinking he’s going to beat you, even if you’re a bigger guy. People talk about the skill and finesse of the Blackhawks, but as the captain, Toews makes that team mentally tough, too.
Kopitar is the most underrated center in the NHL. We see him all the time, unfortunately. Because he combines size, strength and intelligence, he’s as difficult to play against as any player in the league. When we’re up against the Kings, I try and play like him. He’s very responsible defensively and checks very well, especially with his stick. He’s one of the best in the league at anticipating where the puck is going and jumping in to cut off cycles.
Offensively, his strength presents a problem. If he gets speed coming through the neutral zone, he’s tough to contain. I try to push him to the outside as much as possible. More than anything you have to take away his space. You can’t let him get his eyes up. If you give him a second on the puck to look up, he’s going to find someone in a dangerous spot. I’ll always remember this ridiculous flip-pass he made against us in San Jose in 2010.
I was on the bench at the time, and my reaction was just,Wow, that was unbelievable. Now, you might be thinking this was luck. So here’s another flip-pass in 2011 against St. Louis.
It’s basically hockey’s version of the soccer chip, and Kopitar is the only one who uses it consistently. Must be a Slovenian thing.
Pavel is my favorite player in the NHL to watch. In my early years, we played against those guys a lot in the playoffs. I was on the ice against him for a lot of those series and it was a challenge. He made me a much better player. He does everything so well. He takes a lot of pride in his defensive game. Pavel is the best in the game at stripping players from behind with the stick lift. He doesn’t go straight for the puck. He waits for the perfect moment to lift your stick and then takes the puck clean.
Offensively, he does incredible things with the puck. He’s made me look pretty silly before. Just to show you I have a sense of humor, here’s an example that my teammates will probably never let me live down.
The worst part about that? It was my birthday. At least we won the game.
Thankfully, I’m far from the only one to be victimized by Pavel. He has the best hands in the NHL. One little trick he likes to do is stick-handle between a player’s tripod — between their feet and stick. He’ll even use the net as a prop to make you look dumb.
Outside of Crosby, Datsyuk is the best in the world at shooting on the backhand. And like Crosby, he never takes a night off. Just an all-around incredible player. Exactly what you want in a centerman.
Ryan Getzlaf Let’s start with the obvious—he’s a huge man. He checks with the best of them. But less obvious is that his reach makes him really very tough to defend because he has the ability to shoot the puck with a ton of power from out wide, which changes the angle and makes it extremely difficult for the goalie to pick up the puck. Watch how Getzlaf’s crazy reach comes into play here, not just on the steal but on his deke around Jimmy Howard.
On the power play, he’s dangerous because of how he can fool you with his eyes. He no-looks a lot of passes where he’s focused on the net with his hands out wide, making you think he’s going to shoot, then he pulls his hands in close and passes across the seam. If you’re not paying close attention, he’ll make you look pretty silly. If you doubt the big guy’s ability to pass, watch this crazy no-look dish against Vancouver in 2011.
Getzlaf’s line likes to spend a lot of time behind the opposition’s net cycling the puck, making you have to deal with their physicality. If they can get it deep, they like to take shifts close to a minute long to wear you down. Anaheim is one of the best teams in the league at the dirty goals — rapping and jamming around the net. It’s not fun trying to get the puck off them on the defensive zone. Not fun at all.
This one almost isn’t fair because of his twin brother. Those guys seem to have some kind of psychic mind-control thing where they know where each other are at all times. They both use their backhands to pass better than anyone in the world. Just like Getzlaf and Perry, they love to use the back of the net to create havoc. They aren’t that fast, but their technique is very good and they protect the puck so well that they can slow the game down to the speed they want to play.
It’s tough to close down on them in the defensive zone, because as soon as you go chasing them and lift up your stick for one second, they’re going to find a hole to pass to one another. The name of the game against them is keeping your stick on the ice and staying patient, or they’ll make you pay. If you think I’m joking about the mind-control, watch this no-look behind-the-back pass from Henrik to Daniel.
I’ll be back later in the season for a breakdown of some of the NHL’s more underrated centers. Right now, I’m very impressed with Ryan Johansen from Columbus and Jamie Benn from Dallas, though it might be a stretch to call Benn underrated at this point. He’s paid handsomely now, and rightfully so.
I didn’t forget your favorite player
Obviously I’ve left some great players off this list, and it’s not because they’re not elite centers. But guys like Steven Stamkos and Patrice Bergeron are in the Eastern Conference and I just haven’t seen enough of them in recent years to give a full breakdown. If you need me to tell you that Stamkos has a wicked shot and that Bergeron is one of the best two-way players in the NHL, then I can’t help you.
If you want to request breakdowns on your favorite players in the future, tweet me @LoganCouture