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NHL teams still seek strength down the middle

by Larry Wigge
It may sound like a cliché when hockey people talk about how important it is to have strength down the middle and how one-line teams don't win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here's a fact: Each of the teams that made it to the final eight in the playoffs had at least two productive offensive centers -- highlighted by a one-two matchup in the middle in the Stanley Cup Final that saw Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen facing Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Want further proof of the importance of centers around the NHL? Look at Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Mike Modano in Dallas; Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski in San Jose; Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny in Colorado; Daniel Briere, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in Philadelphia; Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky with the New York Rangers and Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec in Montreal.

It's no secret that there were teams lined up trying to pry loose Brad Richards from Tampa Bay, Olli Jokinen from Florida, Marleau from the Sharks and Mats Sundin from Toronto at the trade deadline in late February. Columbus, Chicago, Vancouver, Ottawa, Phoenix and others were in there pitching hard for a top center.

Sundin remains available in free agency, with Montreal and Vancouver still hoping that he'll join them for an 18th NHL season. But teams were very busy in the last few days signing the next tier of free-agent centers -- Brendan Morrison left Vancouver for Anaheim in hopes of regaining his skills after an injury-filled season, and Pavol Demitra departed Minnesota for Vancouver, where he should be a good No. 2 center behind Henrik Sedin.

The fact that teams appear to be hording two top centers has made it even more difficult to pry one of them away for the teams that want to make a run at the playoffs ... or more.

"Everyone that has a good No. 1 center doesn't want to give him up -- and the ones that could be a top-line center on another team, well, you find out it's very, very expensive to try to acquire them," Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said on draft day after he obtained Jokinen from the Panthers for defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton and a second-round pick next year. "For us to be able to come up with a No. 1 center, an All-Star, a big body to go against a Joe Thornton and the bigger centers in our division and conference -- well, we just thought this was too good to pass up.

"Plus, it helps take so much of the heat off a Kyle Turris or Marty Hanzal or whoever plays behind him. We're really, really happy things unfolded the way they did."

Maloney knows that eventually Turris, Phoenix's first pick (No. 3), in the 2007 Entry Draft, will be the Coyotes' No. 1 center. But with just three games of NHL experience after he turned pro following his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin, neither Maloney nor coach Wayne Gretzky want to overburden the team's top prospect just yet.

"I don't want Kyle to have to see the biggest, best centers like a Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or Ryan Getzlaf every shift," Gretzky said. "This will give him a chance gain some confidence and become more comfortable in the NHL game and grow at his own pace."

Skill. Confidence. Patience. An ability to think quickly and the ice and use his linemates. Those are some of the skills that scouts raved about when they graded Sarnia center Steven Stamkos so highly that he was the No. 1 pick overall in last month's draft to go along with NHL MVP candidate Vinny Lecavalier.

Sometimes, however, those skills require a little maturity. On other occasions, they require changing positions -- like Demitra did in St. Louis, when he was moved from right wing to center and flourished in the middle.

It wasn't too long ago that Franzen wasn't considered a top-two center. Ditto Plekanec or Dubinsky. Or Boston's Marc Savard. Or Buffalo's Derek Roy. Or Calgary's Daymond Langkow or Craig Conroy. Or Washington's Brooks Laich.

Columbus GM Scott Howson spoke passionately about how hard he worked to try to acquire Richards from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline and how he had targeted others such as Marleau and Jokinen before the draft to potentially enhance the skills of first-line left wing Rick Nash, who wound up with 38 goals last season while playing alongside every center on the roster -- including David Vyborny, Jiri Novotny, Michael Peca, Dan Fritsche, Gilbert Brule and Derick Brassard.

The most likely candidate to play with Nash this fall is newcomer R.J. Umberger, an Ohio State product who came in a draft-day trade from Philadelphia. He had career highs with 37 assists and 50 points last season, and then put up 10 goals and five assists with a team-leading plus-7 in 17 playoff games. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound center clearly showed that he was ready for bigger and better things in Columbus. The Jackets also acquired play-making winger Kristian Huselius, giving them a potentially dynamic No. 1 line of Nash, Umberger and Huselius.

Umberger can't wait to get his chance to center the multitalented Nash.

"I'd love to have that opportunity," Umberger said after hearing that he had been obtained by the Blue Jackets early in the first round of the draft on June 20 along with a fourth-round pick in a trade with the Flyers for a first-round pick (No. 19 overall) and a third-round draft choice. "I've been trying to tell people in Philadelphia for the last couple of years that I was ready for the kind of minutes a top-line forward gets."

Center stage is clearly improving in the West. Just think about a center like Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar, whose size and skill make him increasingly hard to handle as he matures. Chicago's Jonathan Toews is a captain waiting to happen -- and he certainly didn't play like a rookie in his first NHL season. Same for Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner, and Phoenix first-year players Turris and Hanzal and Minnesota's James Sheppard, who is expected to pick up a lot of Demitra's minutes with the Wild. Pavelski is a dynamo ready for a bigger role in San Jose. And St. Louis thinks Patrick Berglund is ready to make an impact.

With their skill, confidence, patience and ability to think quickly on the ice and use their linemates, it's easy to envision players such as Stamkos, Kopitar, Toews and Pavelski getting their shot in the Stanley Cup Final in the not-too-distant future.

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