Things are starting to look promising for the New Jersey Devils as they continue to build around young centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. While there hasn’t been much to be proud of from a record standpoint, the eye test has undoubtedly shown fans that the youngsters in Jersey are beginning to come into their own. General manager Tom Fitzgerald has clearly taken notice as well, considering his newfound plan to bolster his roster and start competing in games. The progress with this youthful team is apparent, and it starts with the two centermen. So while it may be a bit early to start making playoff — or even dynasty — predictions, it is worth a look at other prominent teams over the past decade or so who have found success with an elite 1-2 punch down the middle.
The findings should excite Devils fans.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Surely the most successful duo of centers in recent history, Crosby and Malkin have led the Penguins to three Stanley Cups since 2009. A quick look at the record books shows that the two elite playmakers were invaluable to their team in each championship run.
In 2009, 2015, and 2016, Crosby and Malkin finished among the Penguins’ top three postseason scorers en route to each Cup. While Pittsburgh has had plenty of its supporting cast swapped out and replaced, the two veteran centers have remained during a run where they’ve made the playoffs every season since 2006-07. The majority of those campaigns saw the dynamic duo finish as the top two regular-season scorers for the Pens.
In total, the captain and his longtime teammate have contributed an astounding 2,429 points in 1,979 regular-season games for Pittsburgh while dominating the league for over a decade. No matter the wingers involved, these two have managed to consistently be the offensive life of their respective lines and have been the most important pieces to a Penguins core that has made postseason success an expectation every year.
Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Looking at the top two centers of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, there seems to be an early pattern of elite centers leading their squads to back-to-back championships. Perhaps it’s not so much of a coincidence.
Of course, injuries have been an issue for Stamkos from time to time during his career. But 866 points in 841 games speaks for itself; the Lightning captain is an elite force and a first-line center on nearly every other team in the league. The great thing about Tampa, though, is that they have this other guy named Brayden Point, who’s also an absolute monster on the ice and also one of the best players in the NHL. At just 25 years old, he’s one of the few centers in the league who can edge out a healthy Stamkos, and will continue to do so with his new contract.
Like the Penguins during their Cup runs, Tampa Bay relied on their two centers this past postseason for most of their scoring. Finishing only behind superstar Nikita Kucherov in playoff points, Point averaged a point per game, with Stamkos almost accomplishing the same feat. Together they combined for 41 points. While Stamkos was held out of most of the 2019-20 Cup run, Point still featured prominently with 33 points in 23 games — good for second on the team.
Yes, the Lightning are pretty stacked at every position. But nobody in their right mind questions the skill of these two centers, nor their immense influence over the success of the team.
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, Boston Bruins
Similar to Pittsburgh, Boston has enjoyed over a decade of playoff success, a lot of which is because of their stability down the middle with Bergeron and Krejci. While these two may not have the superstar status of Crosby/Malkin or Stamkos/Point, their impact and skill are undeniable.
Bergeron, perennial Selke trophy nominee, four-time winner, and ultimate leader, is responsible for anchoring down the “Perfection Line” alongside Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, which is widely considered to be the best forward group in professional hockey. But the more offensively skilled of the two centers is the criminally underrated Krejci, who recently announced his departure from the Bruins after 15 seasons. Oftentimes in his career, the second-line centerman was grouped with some sub-par wingers in Boston, yet he still managed to score 730 points in 962 regular-season games. Bergeron, while known for his defensive prowess, has still put up 917 points in 1143 matches.
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The Bruins won a Cup with these two centers in 2011, and unsurprisingly at this point, Krejci and Bergeron were first and second in playoff scoring, respectively. But they also managed two more Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2013 and 2019 while managing to secure a playoff berth in 12 of their last 14 seasons.
Hughes and Hischier Are Tremendous Building Blocks
It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that three of the most successful teams in recent history all had two exceptional centers featured in their top-six. There are even more examples, such as the Washington Capitals’ Cup run in 2018 with Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the elite combination of Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto, and more. The blueprint is certainly there for up-and-coming teams that want to establish themselves as contenders for extended periods of time. The Devils are one of those teams, and they already have a convincing pair of young centers who seem ready to take the next step.
As two former #1 overall picks, Hughes and Hischier have just about as much potential as anybody. At 20 and 22 years old, respectively, there’s still a ton of room to develop and build around them, too. While it’s generally unwise to make comparisons this early in the game, a quick analysis could find that these two New Jersey studs reflect the skillset of the aforementioned Bergeron and Krejci pair from Boston. Hischier fills the two-way, do-it-all role of the former (and like Bergeron is a captain), and Hughes resembles the pure playmaker in the latter. If the Devils get even a decent fraction of the production that the Bruins got from their duo, New Jersey hockey will be in good shape.
Surely, two players cannot carry a team to the postseason — let alone win a Stanley Cup — by themselves. But if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that addressing the roster down the middle is a good way of building a long-term competitive roster. With Hughes coming into his own last season and Hischier locked up as the Devils’ captain for the foreseeable future, it seems as though New Jersey is in an enviable position to most other franchises. Presumably, they’re only going to get better, as will the team around them.
Now it’s up to the Devils to fill out the rest of the roster holes.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.