Deep Centers, Powerful Penguins

Before the time of Stanley Cup winning head coaches Mike Sullivan and Dan Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins long believed in a “three center model.” That is to say, keep the strength of the top three lines right down the middle. Today, they’re still doing that.

Top Six

As a second line center, Malkin is delivering first line points. - Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins over the Jets with five points on the afternoon (Tom Turk/THW)
As a second line center, Malkin is delivering first line points. (Tom Turk/THW)

It almost goes without saying because up until this point in the season, both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have been on fire. Their production to date is identical as far as points are concerned, both netting 37. Crosby is leading the league with 23 goals, while Malkin is scoring at a healthy pace with 14 of his own. Doing the rough math here, it appears that Crosby’s goal production is matching Malkin’s assist total. Amazing.

Bottom Six

It wasn’t so long ago, less than a year in fact, that Nick Bonino was the second line pivot for the Pens. Since about a month into the season, his old home on the “HBK” line has been disbanded and reassembled several times. Mostly, though, he’s held his own on a third line with a varying cast of teammates. While his point total hasn’t been other-worldly this season, he has been more consistent recently with three points in his last five games. That’s exactly the kind of production needed from a third line center in the Pens’ up-tempo system.

Nick Bonino is elevating his play recently. - Nick Bonino (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Nick Bonino is elevating his play recently.  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lastly, there’s Matt Cullen who occupies the center position on the fourth line, while supplying superb penalty killing prowess as needed. Though he’s not counted on for his offensive output at age 40, he has managed to contribute seven goals and seven assists. He’s not going to approach his glory days of 40 or 50 point seasons, but maintaining his current pace could see him earn another 30+ point season.

Comparably Speaking

When comparing the impressive output from the Penguins’ centers to other teams in the league, it’s easy to see why they boast the deepest, most talented bunch.

Ryan Kesler is leading the way in Anaheim, with teammate Ryan Getzlaf right behind him. - Ryan Kesler (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Ryan Kesler is leading the way in Anaheim, with teammate Ryan Getzlaf right behind him. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The team that comes to mind most often when discussing highly productive centers outside of the Pens is the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.  With each of Ryan Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf owning 28 points on the season, they’re the top half of a deep group. Richard Rackell, a first round pick in 2011, has taken another step forward this year and is playing up to his potential with 21 points in 24 games. The always solid Antoine Vermette has chipped in over a dozen points of his own while laboring in the bottom six. You won’t find another team deeper than the Pens and the Ducks when it comes to the center position.

Joe Pavelski's 30 points lead San Jose. - (Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports)
Joe Pavelski’s 30 points lead San Jose. (Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports)

Trying to find scoring depth at center from the rest of the league lands on four other teams: The San Jose Sharks, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Nashville Predators and the Florida Panthers.

While I consider San Jose just barely outside of where the Pens and the Ducks are in terms of effective production from their centers, it’s worth noting that they currently have three centers on their roster with at least  20 points (see their stats below)

Scoring Regular Season Table
Player Pos GP G A PTS
Joe Pavelski C 33 11 19 30
Joe Thornton C 33 2 20 22
Logan Couture C 33 11 9 20
Chris Tierney C 33 3 7 10
Tomas Hertl C 17 4 5 9
Melker Karlsson C 26 3 4 7
Tommy Wingels C 29 4 2 6
Micheal Haley C 20 0 3 3
Ryan Carpenter C 3 1 0 1
Daniel O’Regan C 1 0 0 0
Team Total 33 82 141 223
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/23/2016.

The youthful Maple Leafs are in the discussion also, as they boast an impressive lineup down the middle. With high draft picks Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander consistently giving efforts that match their pedigree, it’s easy to understand why things have worked out in their favor. Check out their production below:

Scoring Regular Season Table
Player Age Pos GP G A PTS
Auston Matthews 19 C 32 16 9 25
Mitch Marner 19 C 32 8 17 25
Nazem Kadri 26 C 32 13 8 21
William Nylander 20 C 31 6 15 21
Tyler Bozak 30 C 30 6 13 19
Zach Hyman 24 C 32 5 6 11
Leo Komarov 30 C 32 3 7 10
Team Total 32 93 153 246
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/23/2016.

Both the Panthers and Predators are solid, if not spectacular, with at least three of their centers hovering near or above the 20 point mark.

A Copy-Cat League

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets, NHL, Fantasy Hockey
Behind Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg’s centers are unimpressive. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

With the NHL widely considered to be a “copy-cat league” where teams tend to emulate the success of others, it’s hard to believe that up to this point in the season only five teams are among the elite when it comes to depth and production at center.

Where are the other lineups with dynamic pivots? Are the Arizona’s and the Winnipeg’s of the league eventually going to follow the path of other winning clubs? Or will the “three center model” become a fad, like the “heavy” teams which rose to relevance just a few seasons ago. With so much success being gleaned using this model, we’ll see how the rest of the league reacts in the coming years.

When and if that time comes, teams need not look any further than the Penguins as the template for a successful model. There’s no denying it: down the middle, they simply are tops in the league.