|Having a top-tier center like Jonathan Toews in the lineup can be a big step toward Cup contention (Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks)|
Who are the best 14 players in the NHL at each position as teams prepare for the start of the 2014-15 season? Arpon Basu, Brian Compton, Corey Masisak and Dan Rosen have cast their votes and the result is NHL.com's "Top 14 for '14-15" project. Each first-place vote is worth 14 points, each second-place vote is worth 13, continuing in descending order to each 14th-place vote being worth one. There are two tiebreakers. First, which player appeared on more ballots? Second, which player had the highest individual ranking? If the voting was exactly the same for each player, it was declared a tie. Does NHL.com's list match your rankings for the best players in the League entering the 2014-15 campaign?
The old adage in hockey is "teams can't win without great goaltending."
The new adage in hockey should be "teams can't win without great centers."
Though stopping the puck and goal prevention remain critical, having centers who can dictate the play in all three zones has become paramount in the NHL. Franchise centers are counted on to score, to defend and to control the prized real estate that is the middle of the ice, horizontally and vertically. It's not unlike the expectations of elite midfielders on a soccer field.
Here's a list of the No. 1 centers on Stanley Cup champions since the 2005-06 season: Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews (twice), Anze Kopitar (twice) and David Krejci (though he and Patrice Bergeron are essentially co-No. 1s). Most of those teams also had an elite No. 2 center.
The list of Cup-winning goaltenders is far less star-studded. It includes Cam Ward, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Chris Osgood, Marc-Andre Fleury, Antti Niemi, Tim Thomas, Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick (twice).
The rise of analytics in the sport has helped quantify how robust the overall games are for Toews, Kopitar and Bergeron, and how unbelievably dominant Crosby has been at the offensive end despite injuries and rotating linemates.
If an NHL team wants to win the Cup, it had better possess an elite center; two would be ideal. Teams can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the odd deep playoff run, but the franchise guy in the middle has become the League's most valuable currency.
There are lots of great centers in the NHL, but our panel was pretty much in step about which ones belong in the elite category. Eighteen players received at least one top-14 vote.
Here is NHL.com's list of the top 14 centers in the NHL:
1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 56 points (4 first-place votes)
2013-14: 36 goals, 104 points, 80 games played
Crosby won his second Hart Trophy last season, and twice previously was the overwhelming favorite for the award before injury struck; four MVPs would be tied for third in League history. He was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 spot in this poll. The idea that anyone else would be here only seems applicable during a postseason when the Penguins don't win 16 times and is then forgotten before training camps begin.
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks, 51 points
2013-14: 28 goals, 68 points, 76 games played
If Crosby is the Best Player In The World, then maybe Toews is the best all-around player. He's been in the MVP discussion but has yet to win. He does do a lot of winning though.
3. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, 47 points
2013-14: 29 goals, 70 points, 82 games played
Kopitar has been the best forward in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two of the past three seasons. He's going to be in the Selke Trophy conversation for years to come. He might be Toews in Evgeni Malkin's body, which is a scary thought for opponents.
4. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, 39 points
2013-14: 23 goals, 72 points, 60 games played
Malkin has not been an "unstoppable force of nature" for much of the past two seasons, but he's second to Crosby in points per game in that span. There are times when he makes people say, "Malkin is the only player in the League who can do that."
5. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, 38 points
2013-14: 25 goals, 40 points, 37 games played
Stamkos is difficult to place among the elite centers because his skill set is so different. If he's able to mold himself into a better defender/faceoff guy, he could be No. 1 when Crosby concedes the title. Or Stamkos could move to wing and be the best player at that position immediately.
6. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins, 33 points
2013-14: 30 goals, 62 points, 80 games played
Bergeron won the Selke Trophy for a second time in 2013-14 and is likely to be a top contender for the next few seasons, along with Toews and Kopitar. For two Olympic cycles, Canada hasn't trusted Bergeron's skating ability, but there isn't a more trustworthy player in the NHL, and he's underrated offensively.
7. John Tavares, New York Islanders, 29 points
2013-14: 24 goals, 66 points, 59 games played
This will be the most talented team Tavares has played on in his NHL career, and it could be time for his first truly monstrous offensive season. He'll be 24 years old on opening night. It feels like there's another level or two available to him, but it is time to get there.
8. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks, 29 points
2013-14: 31 goals, 87 points, 77 games played
Getzlaf finished second in scoring, and earned his first Hart Trophy nomination and more appreciation for his all-around play last season. He and Corey Perry are the best pair of linemates in the NHL, though there could be some new contenders in that mix.
9. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers, 27 points
2013-14: 28 goals, 86 points, 82 games played
The past two offseasons have been forgettable for Giroux, as was his start to the 2013-14 season. He did proclaim the Flyers would make the playoffs after a 1-7-0 start; he finished third in the League in points to help make good on that vow and was a Hart Trophy finalist for his effort.
10. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings, 23 points
2013-14: 17 goals, 37 points, 45 games played
When Datsyuk is healthy, he is still the "Magic Man." If he approaches 82 games in 2014-15, there's a great chance he'd be a few spots higher in a "Top 15 for '15-16" list. Don't discount him, or Henrik Zetterberg, from the discussion of elite players yet.
11. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks, 14 points
2013-14: 11 goals, 76 points, 82 games played
Now the second former Sharks captain still on the roster, Thornton had another fantastic season in 2013-14. He tilts the ice in his team's favor like few players can, regardless of the competition he faces. If he were to want out of San Jose, the line of teams queueing up to woo him would wind down Santa Clara Street from SAP Center toward San Pedro Square. Or at least it should.
12. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars, 13 points
2013-14: 37 goals, 84 points, 80 games played
Seguin's first season in Dallas was a smashing success. He had more goals and more points than Tavares, Kopitar and Bergeron have had in a season. He and Jamie Benn thrived against tough competition. He could be 5-7 places higher than this next season.
13. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 6 points
2013-14: 24 goals, 63 points, 82 games played
MacKinnon spent most of his excellent rookie season on the wing, but he could become a League-wide nightmare in the middle in 2014-15. One of the fastest players with the puck in the NHL, MacKinnon is one of three players to be 18 on Feb. 1 and score at least 63 points in a season that wasn't between 1981-87. The other two are Crosby and Jeff Skinner.
14. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks, 5 points
2013-14: 11 goals, 50 points, 70 games played
It was Sedin's worst season since before the 2004-05 lockout, and Ryan Kesler's not around to lend support/help or absorb some attention. Maybe the addition of Radim Vrbata helps Sedin and his brother Daniel Sedin light it up again. Both were strong puck-possession guys, and the points can come back.
Others receiving votes: Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings (4 points); Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (3 points); Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes (2 points); Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche (1 point)
|TOP 14 CENTERS (VOTING BREAKDOWN)|
||Brian Compton||Corey Masisak
|1. Crosby||1. Crosby||1. Crosby||1. Crosby|
|2. Toews||2. Toews||2. Kopitar||2. Toews|
|3. Kopitar||3. Kopitar||3. Toews||3. Bergeron|
|4. Stamkos||4. Datsyuk||4. Malkin||4. Giroux|
|5. Malkin||5. Stamkos||5. Bergeron||5. Kopitar|
|6. Tavares||6. Malkin||6. Stamkos||6. Malkin|
|7. Getzlaf||7. Getzlaf||7. Getzlaf||7. Stamkos|
|8. Bergeron||8. Tavares||8. Tavares||8. Datsyuk|
|9. Giroux||9. Giroux||9. Thornton||9. Tavares|
|10. Seguin||10. Seguin||10. Datsyuk||10. Getzlaf|
|11. Thornton||11. Bergeron||11. Giroux||11. Thornton|
|12. H. Sedin||12. MacKinnon||12. Seguin||12. Backstrom|
|13. Zetterberg||13. E. Staal||13. MacKinnon||13. H. Sedin|
|14. Duchene||14. Zetterberg||14. Zetterberg||14. MacKinnon|