Shark Circle’s Freshman Fifty: Centers 6 – 10

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For those that missed part one of this series, the title is just a dumb joke I couldn’t resist making. If you want to know more, which you don’t, I explained in part one. But all this really is is my list of the top 50 centers in the NHL at the end of last season. You can read who I ranked in the top five by clicking here. Now onto center number six.

6. Jamie Benn. Is he the most underrated player on this list? Probably not, but he is certainly the most underrated player near the top. I feel like the last two seasons, Jamie Benn has emerged as the next “Claude Giroux” just in the sense that Giroux really emerged in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons just as Benn has the last two seasons, except because Benn doesn’t play in Philadelphia, and because he didn’t make the playoffs or get to face off against Sidney Crosby in a seven-game series like Giroux did, he hasn’t gotten the same level recognition for his breakout seasons as Giroux has. But there were nights last season where I thought Benn might be the best center in the NHL after Crosby and Malkin.

In my paragraph on Malkin’s ranking (in part one), I described Malkin as the best combination of size and skill in the NHL. Well, Benn might be one of the very next centers on that list. He’s not quite as big or dynamic as Malkin, but he’s right up there with the best of the rest, and he also adds some of those subtleties both in creative stick work and hockey sense on offense and defense that a player like Pavel Datsyuk does. He also has a sniping ability that sticks out to go along with all the other check boxes.

Overall, he hasn’t had the supporting cast to work with or the power-play time to help his stats that the rest of the top ten centers on this list have had, which is probably the biggest reason he’s being so underrated around the NHL right now, but I believe he really does deserve to be this high, probably even ahead of Jonathan Toews like I’ve ranked him.

I’m sure that’s raised a few eyebrows, but the fact is, to my eye anyway, Benn is just more dynamic and dominant than Toews offensively. Benn is better than Toews for the similar reason Malkin is better than Toews, or even Giroux (although he might be a complicating example to some of you reading this who can’t read my mind since he’s just as short as Toews), or potentially even Tavares although I ranked him below just because I haven’t watched him enough. Toews is slightly undersized and struggles to create offense some games as a result. With Benn, that’s not usually a problem. So far in his career, Toews has been more of a 70-point player than a 100-point player. I liken Toews to a more flashy and skilled version of Patrice Bergeron, with a little more traditional “grit,” maybe, and a better shot and goal-scoring skills in general. Benn, while he hasn’t been a 100-point player either, actually has that talent where I could see it. Remember, he’s played in much worse circumstances for putting up points.

But in terms of talent, I see Benn as the bigger consistent threat at creating offense, and while Toews defensive assets and acumen in the faceoff circle are well-known, I believe Benn is underrated defensively as well, and his rare combination of size, skill, and hockey sense drive play exceptionally well to my eye (adjusting for teammates and circumstances) to where he’s the better center right now. His best season, even when accounting for worse circumstances, hasn’t been quite as good as Giroux’s best season, so when I say he’s “the next Giroux,” I don’t mean it literally. But in terms of really emerging the last few seasons as one of the league’s premier centers, he’s reminded me of how Giroux emerged, except Benn plays in a smaller market with what has so far been an inferior supporting cast. I definitely still feel that Jonathan Toews is a better defensive forward than Benn, despite Benn being underrated in that area, but Benn’s superior offensive skill set gives him the edge in my rankings overall.

7. Eric Staal. – Like Evgeni Malkin and Jamie Benn, Staal brings the “total package” as well as anyone. Huge, fast, with excellent skill. I ranked Benn ahead of him because Benn has shown me a little more of that Datsyuk element, a little more creativity and two-way play, while what Staal offers is perhaps a little more on the physical skill spectrum in terms of speed and skill and being bigger than Benn, but not quite as much creative play or defense or variety. But Staal is really the perfect top-line center minus the elite defense and face off skills, and I think he’s been sort of forgotten in Carolina the last few seasons. In terms of pure physical skill, he, Evgeni Malkin, Rick Nash, and Alex Ovechkin might be the only four guys in the NHL who are around 6’4″, 230 lbs in size, but can also bring that elite goal-scoring ability and elite speed and finesse skill in open ice. And then Benn would come in right behind them, possessing a similarly elite level of skill, but standing just a little shorter height-wise, and not being not quite as big physically. (For those wondering, yes there are also guys like Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton who combine great size and skill, but I don’t include them in the same category because they play different styles and aren’t elite goal-scorers like these players can be).

8. Jonathan Toews. All the arguments as to why Benn is better than Toews aside, it’s close any way you slice it, and Toews is a fantastic center himself with two Cups on his resume already at the young age of 25. He’s a very good skater with good balance, excellent hands and an excellent shot. He’s not big by top-line center standards, but battles hard against bigger players, and cycles well using his acceleration and edge work, creating space against slower players when he changes direction, stopping and starting. He protects the puck very well for his size although not as well as a Pavel Datsyuk, and he can sometimes get pushed off the puck by bigger players, which is not something you can say almost ever about most of the other top 10 centers on this list.

A few years ago I would have ranked Toews higher because I feel his speed and skill made him a better player in open ice, when teams played more open games and Toews could make end-to-end rushes more regularly using his finesse skill, than they suited his game to playing in the trenches. And he showed his superiority in open ice plenty of times in that 2008-2009 time frame, like when he scored two highlight reel goals you can probably find on youtube. But these days in 2013, NHL defenses flood the neutral zone specifically to prevent that type of play and limit that type of skill, and they do it better than ever. As a result the game has shifted more to a dump-and-chase style, which suits centers built like Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton, and David Backes, who make their livings along the boards in the offensive zone more, than it suits fast, slick skill-players like Jonathan Toews who prefer to create more offense off the rush through the neutral zone, in open ice, and who don’t have the elite size to adopt the Kopitar/Thornton style quite as effectively.

A few seasons ago, if someone asked me to weigh Jonathan Toews against David Backes, you would have laughed them off because it wasn’t even close. Now you wouldn’t laugh at that anymore. The gap has closed. And that’s because a few years ago, when the 2004 lockout was still recent and defensemen were still struggling to adapt to the new rules, Toews could play his game, using his speed and great hands to make plays off the rush. Now that defenses have adapted, fully, to the new rules, and there’s no room in the neutral zone for anyone to make plays anymore (at 5-on-5, I mean), Toews has to adapt his game to dumping the puck in more than he used to, just like everyone else. Toews has essentially been forced by the current tight-checking NHL climate to play David Backes’ game now if he doesn’t want to turn the puck over high twenty times per game trying to stick-handle through the perfected 2013-version of the NHL’s trap, even though the best things about Toews’ skill set aren’t suited for Backes’ game at all.

And in a sense, that makes the success Toews has still been able to have, even in this unfavorable (to him) NHL climate, remarkable. He’s persevered through it and battled, and shown that he can adapt his game to a league that is no longer calibrated to his skill set, and even beat players in the playoffs whose games are best suited to the NHL’s dead puck era 2.0.

With all that said, Toews is pretty good along the boards in his own right, he’s just not as good there as he was in open ice in 2008 and 2009, nor is he as good there as guys like David Backes are. Still, his speed and skill are excellent, and even in this NHL climate, they’re far from useless. They’re just not as dominant as they used to be or could be if the NHL made the ice playing surfaces bigger or found another way to make the game play like it did in 2007/2008 again. But Toews is still very good offensively, and he ranks among the best defensively and in the faceoff circle and in terms of “intangibles,” so I’ve still ranked Toews ahead of Kopitar and Thornton for his all-around game and superior goal-scoring ability, since those two aren’t putting up 100-point seasons very often these days either. I’m just saying Toews is more of a 70 to 85 point player these days instead of the 100-point player he could have developed into by now had the NHL climate not changed so drastically, while most the guys ahead of him, including Jamie Benn, do still have more of that potential 100-point type of talent for this climate, give or take, even if they don’t reach that level of production every year for various reasons.

9. John Tavares. Speaking of 100-point talent, John Tavares is probably in a similar arena as Jamie Benn where he has a lot more size than Jonathan Toews to go along with the elite skill, so in truth he probably should be ranked ahead of Toews at this point, too. But since I haven’t seen him play as much as I would like, I’m going to play it safe and just rank him one spot behind Toews since I’m not familiar enough with Tavares’ defensive game or play-making abilities, and while he skates well, I don’t have it in my head whether he’s as fast as Toews or Benn. But otherwise, Tavares is big and strong with fantastic skill and a great shot, and he’s still fast even if I can’t say with certainty whether he’s as fast as Toews.

10. Ryan Getzlaf. Getzlaf is a hard one to rank, and there are many who, at this point, might question my decision to rank him ahead of Anze Kopitar. For the record, I’m on the fence too. In terms of size, skill, and puck protection, Getzlaf is right on par with Kopitar, if not better, but his commitment to the game, and his overall compete level and consistency, have not matched Kopitar’s as of late, although he improved in those areas a lot last season. His two-way game has not been nearly as reliable and consistent as Kopitar’s, either.

So why rank him higher than Kopitar? When I made that list earlier of the handful of forwards in the NHL who combine truly elite size with truly elite skill in the open ice, Getzlaf might have been best the ranked player of that type to not make the list. Only his lack of elite speed, and that, like Kopitar, he plays passively at times and doesn’t shoot enough and take over games as often as someone of his talent maybe could, kept him off that list. Still, even if he doesn’t make the best use of all his talent every night, the fact that he has that level talent is why I rank him higher than Kopitar. At his best, I feel Getzlaf is more dynamic offensively than Kopitar, and better on the power-play, while being just as big and powerful. The high hockey IQ is also there for when he wants to dominate territorially and lock down other teams defensively, even if he doesn’t do it as often as Kopitar.

So while the work ethic, consistency, and consistent two-way play concerns (compared to Kopitar) are definitely noted, I rank Getzlaf ahead of Kopitar because I feel he’s a little more naturally talented on offense. And let it be noted that while I told anyone who would listen during the playoffs that Anze Kopitar was clearly injured, and I-of-the-fantastic-eye-for-the-game could “just tell” from watching him struggle to skate at full speed during games… plus there were also LA Kings writers or bloggers with sources hinting that he was injured… well, let it be noted that ever since the Kings got eliminated by the Blackhawks, Anze Kopitar has claimed he was never injured, and now some Kings bloggers have claimed he simply got so complacent playing in Europe during the lockout, where he dominated, that he didn’t bother getting into shape for the NHL season, plus he injured his knee in Europe… So, they claim, he wasn’t slow during the playoffs because he was injured, he was slow because he was out of shape and didn’t commit himself to training during the lockout, plus he was injured during the lockout in Europe.

So he wasn’t slow because he was injured, he was slow because when he’d let himself get out of shape, he’d gotten injured, and he was out of shape.

Yes, none of it makes sense. I can still all but guarantee my readers that he was injured during the playoffs. Whether he actually suffered a new injury during the NHL regular season leading up to the playoffs, or simply just been slowed all season from the knee injury he suffered while playing in Europe during the lockout, and/or maybe just aggravated that before the playoffs, and whether I just didn’t notice how slow he was until I started really seeing him play every night during the playoffs, I can’t say. But even though he has the class or the honor not to blame his poor postseason performance on injury, I’m still positive he was injured.

However, my point in all this is that, in addition to the injury slowing him down in the playoffs that no one will ever be able to convince me wasn’t there (he just looked so slow and incapable of accelerating normally, like he definitely had a knee or groin injury), there are now some sources saying that he was also plain complacent and out of shape when returning from the Europe, and not ready to play this season.

So, clearly, if that’s truem Anze Kopitar’s work ethic, consistency, and dedication is not perfect, either. But over the last few seasons, he’s definitely been more consistent, although not necessarily in terms of offensive production, mind you, and also more dedicated to winning, and clearly more consistently dominant on defense. So I definitely still give him the edge in those areas over Getzlaf, even after Kopitar apparently came to camp out of shape last season. But I rank Getzlaf one spot higher overall because of his more dynamic and complete offensive game.

Special challenge to my readers for part three of this series: which genius can guess who I have ranked #11? Tweet me the answer @sharkcircle on twitter and the first one to get it right will win… a re-tweet from my twitter account with far too few followers for it to be of any use. Sorry.

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 11 – 15 if you’re interested.