Kyle Turris

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Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

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A linesman orders Sean Couturier out of the faceoff circle and Claude Giroux shrugs before stepping in and winning the draw.

Two centers on the ice at once is a nice luxury for the Philadelphia Flyers to have.

”He’s one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” Couturier said of Giroux, who ranks third in the NHL. ”When you start with the puck, it’s a huge part of the game.”

Beyond just controlling faceoffs, having depth at center is a growing factor for success in the NHL. Contenders like the Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins all boast depth down the middle and are spreading centers all over the lineup.

The flexibility gives teams potentially game-altering matchups with the playoffs coming up in a month.

”You can never have enough center-ice men on your team for lots of reasons,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crucial faceoffs, injuries and defensive-zone coverage are many of the reasons to load up on centers who can almost always shift to wing and not miss a beat. Philadelphia has long followed the model of drafting and acquiring centers and moving them around, and now has nine natural centers on its roster.

The Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup going with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot down the middle and captured it the past two years with Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. The free agent departures of Bonino and Cullen left a void that Pittsburgh filled by trading for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to again look like a championship contender.

”To have the depth that we have at this point at the center-ice position is I think an important aspect of our overall game,” Sullivan said. ”We didn’t have that coming into training camp. I think our general manager, Jim (Rutherford), has worked extremely hard at making sure that he gave us what has become now I think a strength of our team.”

It’s also a strength of the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning, who are overflowing with center options beyond Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and trade-deadline pickup J.T. Miller. The Toronto Maple Leafs also roll deep with forwards who play center or have in the past, including Patrick Marleau and recent acquisition Tomas Plekanec.

”I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”You’re not scared of any matchup as time goes on.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It’s all about the matchups in the arms race that is the absurd Central Division. It wasn’t good enough that the Central-leading Predators had Ryan Johansen, signed Bonino last summer and traded for Kyle Turris in November; they welcomed center Mike Fisher back from retirement and still have Colton Sissons and Craig Smith.

The Jets acquired center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues to add to an already forward-heavy roster. It paid immediate dividends with Patrik Laine extending his point streak to 13 games and Winnipeg cruising along after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury.

”We’ll be putting two centers out there for D-zone draws and whatnot,” said Andrew Copp, who thinks Winnipeg’s center depth stacks up with the best in the league. ”That’s really important, and then just depth with injuries. … Now we’ve got six, seven, eight guys that we can really lean on.”

It’s an increasingly popular strategy. The Flyers are vying for the league lead in faceoffs, handling the early-season crackdown on faceoff violations and compensating for a young, mostly unproven defense with versatile forwards.

”Being strong up the middle is important,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”That’s the backbone of every line, so to have guys that are comfortable in that spot I think is important. Playing down low in your zone – there’s so much switching and interchanging that goes on from the wing to that down-low position in coverage, having somebody that’s comfortable being down there I think is a benefit, as well.”

Two centers are better than one not just for faceoffs but because the extra responsibilities of the position allow for better awareness in the defensive zone, where wingers typically are only tasked with defending their respective opposing winger in man-to-man schemes. Giroux shifted to wing on the top line with Couturier after spending the past eight-plus years at center and is approaching his career high in points and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

”We get a read off each other,” said Couturier, a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. ”It’s about chemistry and trying to trust each other out there. Guys can fill in different roles and it’s nice and it helps the team. That’s what you kind of want from having so many centermen is you want to fill in each other’s roles.”

Having extra centers is a substantial benefit – if they can handle the position change. Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler made a rapid adjustment from wing to center amid injuries, but just about everyone agrees it’s much easier to go the other way.

”There’s a real quick adjustment to going from center to the wing: figure out how to work the walls and find your point men,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”That’s a very difficult change.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at

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Why Predators are so hot right now


Last night, the Nashville Predators beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1, reaching 100 standings points in just 69 games.

(Yes, there were a lot of “nice” responses on Twitter.)

The reigning Western Conference finalists aren’t just having a strong season, they’re also playing their best hockey of 2017-18 right now. Yes, the Jets were tired and banged up last night, yet it was another instance of the Predators sending a message that they’re for real. A 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils on Saturday ended a 10-game winning streak, but at 11-0-1, they’ve now collected points in 12 consecutive games. They have a very real chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy, as the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 100 points but have played in one more game.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So, which players are really driving this success? Let’s start with the obvious.

Pekka Rinne, Vezina frontrunner?

A week ago, it was noted on PHT that Rinne and other goalies were gaining on Andrei Vasilevskiy in the race for the 2018 Vezina. It’s possible that Rinne has emerged as the new leader as of today, and not solely because of Vasilevskiy seemingly hitting a wall of fatigue.

As of this writing, Pekka Rinne sports an absurd record (38-9-4) with a fabulous .929 save percentage. His backup Juuse Saros is no slouch, either, making it quite likely that Nashville’s goalies will collect the William Jennings Trophy this season, too.

Rinne’s frequently received criticism from the fancy stats community, but this season? He’s been unassailable so far:

The season’s far from over, so Vasilevskiy could regain his lead in this race. Either way, Rinne is the top reason why the Predators are running away with the Central Division crown, the first spot in the West, and possibly the Presidents’ Trophy as well.

The return

Before his 2017-18 debut on Jan. 2, a popular refrain was “Imagine how good the Predators will be when Ryan Ellis is back?”

It felt like a dangerous assumption, however, to believe that Ellis would just bounce back from knee surgery. Plenty of athletes require a year or more to recover from certain procedures, and some are never the same.

As it turns out, the Predators have indeed taken off since the underrated defenseman returned to the lineup, as Ellis has been outstanding. The 27-year-old has generated 23 points in 31 games, and he’s been especially impressive lately. Since Feb. 14, Ellis scored 15 points in 14 games, tying Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Anze Kopitar, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone during that span

Plenty of options

Ellis is a rising part of such a deep attack that Peter Laviolette is already resting players for the upcoming playoff run.

The 2017-18 season is proving that Viktor Arvidsson is a legitimate top-line forward, as he’s justified the rave reviews the Predators received for locking him down to a long-term, bargain contract that carries just a $4.25 million cap hit. Arvidsson has 16 points during the same month span that Ellis has been on fire for, and he’s on track for another 30+ goal season with 26 goals (not to mention 26 assists).

P.K. Subban is the Predators’ strongest Norris candidate with a brilliant all-around campaign that includes 15 goals and 50 points, but Roman Josi has been as explosive as ever, contributing 46 points in just 62 games.

[Earlier this season, P.K. was an even stronger Norris candidate]

Kyle Turris‘ numbers have dipped a bit since a hot start after being traded to Nashville, yet he’s been a catalyst for two Predators wingers for much of his time there, helping Kevin Fiala (22 goals) and Craig Smith (21) join Arvidsson as 20-goal scorers. Filip Forsberg‘s experienced an up-and-down season, yet he’s not that far behind them with 18 goals.

That’s the thing. The Predators boast the depth that allows for the team to navigate hurdles more comfortably than much of the league. At this current robust level, they’re simply overwhelming opponents.


This is all the masterwork of David Poile, who now boasts the most regular-season wins of any GM. In a way, this renaissance truly stretches back to the hiring of underrated head coach Peter Laviolette, who owns the distinction of bringing three different NHL teams to the Stanley Cup Final after last year’s memorable run.

It remains to be seen if Laviolette can help Poile win his first Stanley Cup, but if that happens, there’s a solid chance that they’ll get it done by one heck of a “committee.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How will Mike Fisher fit back in with Predators?

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If you’re a fan of the Nashville Predators, you’ve probably been wondering if Mike Fisher can return from retirement and still be as effective as he was last season. Maybe you wonder if he’ll take minutes from a younger player with more to offer at this point, whether it be Colton Sissons, Austin Watson, Calle Jarnkrok now or Eeli Tolvanen later.

One cannot help but wonder if Peter Laviolette will tire of being asked if Fisher is in or out of the lineup once the playoffs kick into gear.

Friday won’t answer those questions, although we’ll at least get a look at Fisher as he makes his 2017-18 debut for the Predators, who close out a back-to-back set. They rallied from down two goals to beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 last night, and they turn around to face the Vancouver Canucks tonight.

Really, back-to-backs rank as no-brainer situations for Fisher. Going further, maybe you rest the veteran one night, then give someone a break by lining him up the other?

There’s also the unfortunately real possibility that injuries could always silence the debate, whether it be Fisher getting hurt or the attrition of the postseason limiting Laviolette’s options. Still, at the moment, it’s not that easy to decide who to bump from the lineup for the veteran forward. Especially if he must be at center in any situation.

[Predators bolster center depth with Fisher signing]

We haven’t gotten word about Fisher’s linemates just yet, but take a look at Nashville’s previous alignments, via Left Wing Lock:

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenRyan Hartman
Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Scott HartnellNick Bonino — Calle Jarnkrok
Austin Watson — Colton Sissons — Viktor Arvidsson

That’s already a pretty deep lineup, with Jarnkrok, Watson, and Sissons coming to mind as possible scratches. Scott Hartnell could probably sit for a night or two, depending upon different alignments.

Even so, Hartman’s addition already caused some shockwaves. Even if Arvidsson isn’t long for the fourth line – or maybe you consider that Nashville’s third line – it’s jarring to see him outside of the top six. This also serves as another reminder that this Predators team has seen a lot of changes during these trade-happy years for GM David Poile.

For what it’s worth, the team and Fisher are saying the right things. Let’s note Laviolette’s comments, because his opening sentence (via the team website) is “very hockey.”

“Mike is another horse in the stable in there,” Laviolette said. “He brings character and leadership, and I think everybody knows the way he plays. This wasn’t a move out of desperation where we needed this, our team was moving along, but we also know Mike’s strengths and we know what he’s able to do on the ice. We know the person he is, and though conversations, it evolved to this point where it’s getting closer Mike plays … I think everybody’s excited about that and we’re happy to have him.”

Now, when you hear people praise Fisher, it’s easy to get bogged down in vague talk about “leadership” and “intangibles.”

Sometimes such language feels like a smokescreen for a limited player who brings little more to the table than grit. Maybe that’s what Fisher will be at 37 (turning 38 on June 5), but it’s worth mentioning that he really did end things on a solid note in 2016-17.

Fisher scored 18 goals and 42 points in 72 regular-season games. His 54.9 faceoff winning percentage might get excessive praise in some quarters, yet that’s actually a decent plus considering Nashville’s merely giving him $1 million prorated and devoting a roster spot to him (rather than having to spend assets on a veteran in a trade). His possession stats were acceptable, too, especially considering heavy defensive usage.

Things went sideways during the playoffs, when Fisher failed to score a goal and generated four assists in 20 postseason games despite logging 17:17 minutes per night. Then again, with forwards like Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala eventually injured, the Preds didn’t possess the same depth that they do now.

Situations like those might be the key, then. If Fisher flounders in important moments – which, again, would be quite understandable – will Laviolette be able to sit the veteran down for a game or more, even after the team asked him to come back? Considering the wealth of talent on hand even if Tolvanen doesn’t come to the team after his KHL season ends, that could provide quite the conflict.

That said, it’s not that difficult to imagine Fisher pushing an already-impressive Predators team over the top by providing them with jaw-dropping depth and useful minutes on the PK.

It should be an interesting dynamic to witness, starting with tonight’s game against the Canucks.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators make Mike Fisher signing official, bolster center depth

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Nearly a month after his surprise return, the Nashville Predators officially announced that Mike Fisher has a signed a deal for the remainder of the season with a pro-rated $1 million salary.

The 37-year-old Fisher retired over the summer after 17 seasons in the NHL to spend more time with his family. When he decided to make a return he needed to sign a contract with the Predators by Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline in order to be eligible for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I really didn’t think I was going to do it, to be honest,” Fisher said during the press conference last month announcing his return. “It was pretty much a no, but as it got closer and then I had some other conversations, that turned (into) a yes.”

Fisher never stopped watching Predators games while enjoying retirement and that’s when he started getting the itch. His wife, singer Carrie Underwood, kept asking him what he was going to do. “She wanted me to do it. She’s usually right,” he said.

This acquisiton at the trade deadline gives the Predators more depth down the middle. There’s Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Colton Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok all being options for Peter Laviolette at center, with possibilities for the wing as well. They saw how important it is to have capable bodies in that position during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

“I just thought about the opportunity, how good this team is,” Fisher said. “Thought a lot about the run last year and what could be. … The closer I got towards it, the (more) I thought it would be such a great opportunity. … I’m ready for it.”

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker


Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

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St. Louis Blues


Ivan BarbashevPaul StastnyVladimir Tarasenko

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Sobotka

Alexander SteenPatrik BerglundNikita Soshnikov

Scottie UpshallKyle BrodziakDmitrij Jaskin


Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo

Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko

Vince DunnJordan Schmaltz

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

Nashville Predators


Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Scott HartnellNick BoninoCalle Jarnkrok

Miikka SalomakiColton SissonsAustin Watson


Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban

Alexei EmelinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck