Shark Circle’s Freshman Fifty: Centers 1 – 5

Follow me @SharkCircle or SUBSCRIBE using the button to the right.

I know… I know… I know what you’re thinking. I also know what you could be thinking right now, if, you know, I’d written this blog like a normal person: Crosby or Malkin number one?

But I didn’t so you’re not, because really, where’s the fun in that?

No. Instead, I thought, “I should do a top 50 players list for each position in the NHL,” but then because I’m special, something inside me connected “fifty” to “fifteen,” a never-before-realized, almost arbitrary connection between two completely separate numbers that only my unique mind could decipher, and then from “fifteen” I thought “freshman fifteen,” and from there I was like, since I’ve never done a top-50 players ranking list before, this is kind of my “freshman effort” at doing so, as they say, so why don’t I just call it “Shark Circle’s Freshman Fifty” to sound super cool and impress everyone for being so smart?

And there you have it, folks. I’ve literally just given you a personal account of brilliance, of the internal process behind brilliant ideas coming to pass. And the most amazing part of this story that has almost too many amazing parts to count is that I bet if actual college freshmen who have gained fifteen pounds their first year of college read this, they will be so… flabbergasted… yes, flabbergasted! They will so flabbergasted by the brilliance of it all, by the layers, the patterns, the ne’er-before deciphered codes and connections, that it will be like the first time people saw motion pictures in movie theaters and thought a real train was coming at them, and they will literally lose those fifteen pounds on the spot just through the magically relaxing stressful release of experiencing unprecedented brilliance first hand.

And they say there is no quality control on the internet! Hah! That’s ridiculous!

No quality control… gets me every time. Idiots. Don’t know what they’re talking about. The internet is all about quality.

But enough screwing around. Here’s my top-50 list of NHL centers:

1. Mike Ribeiro
2. Steve Ott
3. Cody Hodgson
4. Adam Burish
5. Alexei Yashin

Yeah, that’s right. F*** you and your quality control, Mr. Fancy Pants. (Disclaimer: I don’t mean “you” literally, like you the reader. “You” in that sentence is referring to the fabled “IQCP” or “Internet Quality Control Police,” not any of my readers).
(Disclaimer: the “IQCP” or “Internet Quality Control Police” is not real. It is not an actual police force, and I am not trying to imply it is).

Ok fine, I’ll stop fucking around. Here’s the real list. I thought about doing a “most underrated” list or a “top two-way forwards” list so I could highlight lesser known players, instead of wasting spots on my top-50 list with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and other players who everyone already knows should be ranked in certain spots, give or take, but for now I’m just doing a straight-up “top-50” list including all the best players (centers for this entry), and hopefully 50 will be a long enough list to leave a good number of spots to include plenty of underrated guys in addition to the well-known stars like Sidney Crosby. I’m sure it will be since there definitely aren’t 50 elite centers in this league right now.

Here’s the real list, rankings one through five. The next blog will be six through ten.

1. Sidney Crosby. Skating, hockey sense, hands, flexibility and core strength, strong on the puck, shot accuracy–all these assets are among best in the sport, and Crosby also has best backhand in the sport, period. What more is there to say? It’s Crosby. Physically he isn’t as big as teammate Evgeni Malkin, but “pound for pound” he is extremely strong, and his skills and hockey sense are off the charts.

2. Evgeni Malkin. Possessing the best blend of epic size and electric skill in the NHL, Malkin is the closest thing to prime-Jaromir Jagr we have in the NHL today. Whenever Crosby’s play dips just five percent at any point during a game, Malkin should be elevated to the number one ranking during those periods of time, that’s how close these two players are to each other in talent and impact on the game. Malkin has even shown in the past over long and important stretches of games that he can outplay Crosby, such as when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 on the shoulders of Evgeni Malkin’s Conn Smythe-winning performance.

But overall I gave Crosby the top spot over Malkin for his otherworldly hockey sense and “It Factor” that allows him to take over games in both obvious and subtle ways at the same time, and because Crosby doesn’t just dominate individually, he also elevates the play of his line-mates probably better than any other player in the game (see Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and anyone else who plays with him). Malkin has great hockey sense, too, and takes over games both physically and mentally, too, and makes his line-mates better, too (see James Neal, for instance), so you can see why these two are so hard to separate. And let’s not forget, Malkin is much bigger than Crosby and just as skilled in most finesse aspects of the game, maybe minus the backhand-ability.

But there’s just something about Crosby’s balance, and edge control, and core strength and hip flexibility, and backhand, and hockey sense, just all coming together to really make him the one player this era who you could reasonably compare to Wayne Gretzky, and that’s why I give him the top spot. While Malkin is bigger, faster, stronger, more skilled, and better than everyone else in the NHL besides them two, Crosby is not just better, he’s different than everyone else, too, if that makes sense.

Let me rephrase. IF NHL players are silver nuggets, Malkin is a silver nugget that’s bigger and better than all the other silver nuggets, but while Crosby, like Malkin, is also better than all the other silver nuggets, it’s not necessarily because he’s bigger or shinier. It’s because he’s gold, or at least gold mixed with silver, if that makes any sense. While all other NHL players exist on a plane of being better or worse than each other at playing the same game, Crosby’s game somehow extents beyond being better or, in some select areas, worse than other players, and into the realm of being “different,” like he’s almost playing an entirely different game than everyone else at times. Because of his mind. Because of his backhand. Because of his edges, his flexibility, his underrated and unique brand of strength. And while “different” isn’t always better, as evidenced by the fact Malkin has absolutely been the better player than Crosby at different points during their careers and even, I’d venture, every season, there’s just something about the Crosby-differáünce that I have to rank first on the list.

But don’t get me wrong, Evgeni Malkin is just as good as Crosby in almost every way, and in some ways even better.

3. Pavel Datsyuk. Skating, hockey sense, creativity, as strong on the puck as players twice his size, hands among best in the sport, second best backhand to Crosby probably, might be the best two-way player in the game, and there’s a serious argument to rank him the #1 overall center in the NHL based on his talent. His only flaw is that he doesn’t have as much killer instinct as a Sidney Crosby or some other top players. He seems content to take what comes and do all the subtle things and yes, still have excellent games most nights, but I believe he has the talent to do even more, to grab the game by the horns and win the scoring title and score 50 goals or more in a season. But he doesn’t. He scored at less than a 30-goal pace last season, which for his talent is disappointing.

But he’s still an amazing player. He just has the talent to do more, score more, and singlehandedly win playoff series for his team like few players can, but he doesn’t have the personality to take the game by the horns and take what isn’t necessarily already there, and the result is he’s not scoring as much as he should, and he keeps almost letting other teams beat the Red Wings in the playoffs when if he wanted to, he could shred them.

4. Claude Giroux. Two years ago there was an argument that Giroux was the best center in the NHL after being among the scoring leaders all 2011-2012 regular season, and then out-playing Sidney Crosby head-to-head in the playoffs. However, he wasn’t quite as dominant last season, so I’ve dropped him to forth on this list. But he’s still one of the most shifty one-on-one players in the league with his hands, speed, great balance and edges, great strength, strength on the puck, one of the best wrist shots in the NHL, good defensively although not elite like Datsyuk, and just one of the best overall top line centers in the NHL period, and few if any can top him offensively.

5. Steven Stamkos. Plays on a strange team that is kind of in-and-out and doesn’t seem to play a lot of defense, so it’s hard to judge Stamkos’ defensive game, and he almost seems like more of a winger than a center to me. In any case, fantastic skill, speed, balance, strength, and maybe the best shot in the NHL, just an extremely dynamic scorer, like a bigger Giroux in a sense except more of a sniper’s build than a dangler’s or playmaker’s. Giroux combines all three better. There’s also the matter of two-way play. Stamkos might be ranked higher on this list, even above Giroux, except his team sucks at defense and he just doesn’t seem like a complete center quite in the way that these other top centers typically do.

Written by Shark Circle

Follow me @SharkCircle or SUBSCRIBE using the button to the right. I usually discuss the NHL and offer my thoughts much more on twitter than I even do on the blog. And don’t forget to check back soon for rankings 6 – 10 if you’re interested.