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
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.