Mark Scheifele

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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.”

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Jets must hope Ron Francis comparison sticks for Paul Stastny


So far, Paul Stastny has been a pretty fantastic fit for the Winnipeg Jets.

Through four games, there are certain signs of “new car smell” that will wear off. The playmaker isn’t likely to maintain a 28.6 shooting percentage, and his giant possession stats should settle down to “very good.”

Still, it’s that mixture of little things and bigger elements, like all-around play and clever passing, that help Stastny make an already-imposing Jets forward group downright scary. Patrik Laine told’s Dan Rosen that it’s all about that “extra half-second” that Stastny opens up for snipers, but head coach Paul Maurice really provides the fun comparison.

“He does so many of the things Ronnie Francis would do,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said, referencing the Hall of Fame center he coached for six seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. “He has such a great understanding of what’s going on on the ice, the adjustments the other teams are making and what’s happening around him.”

Rosen notes in the quote above that Maurice coached Francis for six seasons in Carolina, but amusingly enough, he might want to evoke “Ronnie Franchise” from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Consider this:

  • When Francis was traded to the Penguins, they’d missed the playoffs in seven of their previous eight seasons. Pittsburgh went on to win their first Stanley Cup with key contributions from Francis.
  • As of this writing, the Jets/Thrashers have never won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series. Yet, when you look up and down that lineup, it’s a nightmare for defenses. The Blake WheelerMark Scheifele — Roving Lucky Winger (currently Kyle Connor) combo is now supplemented by Stastny, Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mathieu Perreault helps to round out a murderer’s row lineup.
  • Both players are all-around, “cerebral” players who happen to be gifted playmakers.
  • In each case, you’re getting quality players with plenty of motivation, who might also benefit from not being, “the guy.” (Or “The Franchise.”)

So far, Stastny is averaging 16:11 TOI per game in four contests with the Jets after falling between 18:30 and 19 minutes per night in recent times with the St. Louis Blues. As a pending UFA and competitor, maybe Stastny would prefer more minutes and heavier usage. Perhaps that will come with time, or failing that, injuries.

Then again, maybe this is the ideal scenario for a player who’s often been judged as much by healthy paychecks as he has been by steady play. As the Athletic’s Craig Custance noted upon word of the Stastny trade on Feb. 28 (sub required), he might finally be falling in the optimum spot in a lineup.

“Paul is a really good third-line center,” texted one NHL head coach after the deal. “Best position for him.”

All due respect to Bryan Little‘s useful, defensive-minded line, but even now, it seems silly to consider Stastny’s trio with Laine and Ehlers a “third line.” Still, Stastny and his young wingers can be deployed strategically, leveraging situations as to make things downright uncomfortable for opponents.

Chances are, there will be a taker for Stastny, 32, who will probably pay him at such a rate that he’ll be asked to do more than be a very, very nice complimentary player in Winnipeg. That might really complete the parallel to Francis, who was an overwhelming piece on loaded Penguins teams and a top player on Whalers/Hurricanes squads that struggled.

(Granted, it’s fair to consider Stastny a “poor man’s Francis,” which again … is far from a bad thing.)

Going back to being a big fish in a medium-sized pond isn’t such a bad thing, although much like Francis, Stastny might enjoy this run enough to decide to stick with a contender at a more moderate rate. His lifetime earnings make you think he could afford such a move, if nothing else.

If not, this one run could be a fun peek at that alternate route.

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 edge Jets in West showdown


If you scanned this week’s schedule after a fascinating trade deadline, Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets probably stood out as a potential clash of titans.

These two Central Division standouts did not disappoint.

After a 0-0 first period, the Predators and Jets traded body blow after body blow. Winnipeg managed 3-1 and 5-3 leads during an explosive final 40 minutes of action, with Paul Stastny proving to be a quick study by collecting a goal and an assist in his Jets debut. It wasn’t enough, however, as the Predators kept fighting back until they nabbed a 6-5 win in regulation.

Not enough excitement for you? Consider this: the Predators’ latest big trade splash, Ryan Hartman, ended up scoring the decisive goal with just a minute remaining.

With 11 goals overall, it was an all-hands-on-deck affair for these two potential championship contenders, so it wasn’t all about narrative-friendly moments like Stastny and Hartman contributing. (That said, it had to feel good for Nashville after many people muttered “a first-round pick for Hartman?” on Monday.)

Usual suspects like Mark Scheifele (two goals) and Craig Smith (two goals making him an increasingly usual suspect, already at 20 goals) enjoyed nice showings. This Nikolaj Ehlers goal borders on the obscene:

Also bordering on obscene: Roman Josi‘s handsome five-assist night. He had already set a career-high with four earlier in that game, so even for a prolific point producer like Josi, this was a special output.

Basically, this was a great game, although goalies and defensive-minded coaches would probably disagree. It only seems right that the latest trade commodity helped Predators GM David Poile reach a lofty milestone, right?

Of course, the bigger milestones are ahead for both teams:

  • The Jets hope to win their first playoff game, then series, and then who knows?
  • Nashville aims to win Poile’s first Stanley Cup after reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

It wouldn’t be surprising if these two teams end up meeting in the playoffs. If they do, let’s hope the series is anywhere near as fun as tonight.

(Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck do not endorse this message.)

The two teams load up at the deadline

Jets surprise by landing Stastny from Blues.

Predators pay big price to get Hartman from Blackhawks.

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

Why the Golden Knights got involved in Derick Brassard deal

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If Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee is to be believed, getting forward Ryan Reaves and a draft pick while not having to give up anything but some cap space was the meal ticket.

McPhee, who spoke to the media in Las Vegas during the first intermission of their game against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, said they added grit to their lineup with Reaves after the Golden Knights were one of three teams involved in a wild trade that ultimately sent Derick Brassard from Ottawa to Pittsburgh.

Reaves, McPhee said, is a tough guy who can do more than just dole out physical punishment.

“Ryan is a big strong guy that brings some grit, some strong depth to our hockey club,” McPhee said. “He’s a unique player. These players, tough guys in this league, many of them have been rendered obsolete because they can’t play. (Reaves) can play.

The deal was convoluted, McPhee admitted, saying that it’s something that happens with three teams involved. He said it took four transactions to make it work.

“We gave up some cap space, we have a lot of cap space and a minor league player to do this, so we picked up two assets,” McPhee said. “I thought it was a good deal for our club.”

McPhee said he spoke with Pittsburgh a couple days ago, and the deal for Reaves came together quite quickly. He said the issues with the deal were more on the side of Ottawa and Pittsburgh and once those were worked out, the deal was made.

McPhee said he doesn’t necessarily believe the club needs to make moves.

“But if there are opportunities to make the club a little bit better, one percent, two percent, three percent, you do it if it’s not going to affect chemistry,” he said.

This may only be part of the story here for the Golden Knights.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported that Vegas may have got involved in the deal to block the Winnipeg Jets from getting Brassard.

Even though the Jets and Golden Knights wouldn’t meet until the third round of the playoffs — a lot would have to go right for that to happen — Vegas essentially made sure that if the scenario ever came to fruition, they wouldn’t have to deal with Brassard in the series.

If true, that’s some next level stuff by McPhee and Co.

McPhee played down those reports in his presser, saying it wasn’t a “material” part of the deal.

“We saw an opportunity to pick up Ryan Reaves and a draft pick in what was a simple transaction for us,” he said.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the Jets were disappointed not to land Brassard after going “hard” after him. The move would have solidified Winnipeg’s spine, with Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Brassard and Adam Lowry down the middle. Winnipeg’s already a scary team without Brassard’s services. The fear factor would only have improved with him.

The Jets, reportedly, offered three pieces for Brassard, in what was a “solid” package. Given what Pittsburgh sent Ottawa’s way, that likely means a first-round pick, a roster player and a high-level prospect.

The Jets are now forced to look elsewhere, and perhaps they have the league’s newest team to blame for it.

A Jets-Golden Knights series would have a little more on the line if it comes to be this spring.

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

NHL Awards: Under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidates


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Nikita Kucherov has received most of the mainstream buzz when it comes to the 2017-18 Hart Trophy discussion and rightfully so. The Lightning forward has led the league in points for most of the season and he’s currently third in goals behind fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who are also obvious candidates to be named league MVP.

Kucherov’s teammate, Steven Stamkos, was in the conversation for a while too, but that talk seems to have died down a little bit. Everyone seemed to be jumping on the Nathan MacKinnon bandwagon before he got injured, but missing eight games has put a damper on the hype train.

Even last year’s winner, Connor McDavid, has put together a solid season, but with the Oilers out of the playoffs there isn’t really much hope for him to take home the award for a second year in a row.

But there are still some quality candidates that haven’t received as much press this season. It’s important to remember that the Hart Trophy isn’t necessarily given to the best player. It’s “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team”.

Here are some under-the-radar candidates that aren’t getting enough buzz:

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

The Hall-for-MVP talk started building over the weekend after the Devils forward picked up a point in his 18th consecutive game. No one picked the Devils to make the playoffs this season, so the fact that they’re currently in a Wild Card spot in pretty impressive. Hall isn’t the only reason they’re in a playoff position, but there’s no way they’re in this position without him. The 26-year-old has 24 goals and 62 points in 54 games this season. New Jersey has a 1-3-1 record with Hall out of the lineup this season.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Despite losing Mark Scheifele for over six weeks, the Jets managed to stay afloat for a few reasons. One of them is the way their captain played while Scheifele was on the shelf. Wheeler was forced to move to center for a little while and he definitely didn’t look out of place. In the 16 games that Scheifele missed, the Jets went 11-2-3 and Wheeler accumulated 16 points during that stretch. The 31-year-old is up to 67 points in 59 games this season.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Let’s be totally clear, if the Kings don’t make the playoffs Kopitar can’t be considered a serious candidate. As of right now, Los Angeles is two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West. Regardless of whether or not they make the postseason, no one can deny that Kopitar’s been a two-way beast for them in 2017-18. After posting just 52 points in 76 games last season, the Kings captain already has 63 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to pick up 88. It’s clear that playing under new head coach John Stevens has done the 30-year-old a lot of good.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

Many people have already counted the Panthers out of the playoff race because they’re six points back of the final Wild Card spot, but what people fail to realize is that Florida (sort of) controls their own destiny. They have four games in hand on the last playoff team, Carolina. The major reason why they’re still in striking distance is because of Barkov, who has really emerged as an NHL superstar. He’s often compared to Kopitar, and it’s easy to see why. They’re both big centers that can contribute offensively while playing sound hockey in their own end. Barkov has amassed 54 points in 55 games so far. If the Panthers get in, he needs to be a major part of the Hart Trophy discussion. In the one game he missed this season, Florida got obliterated 7-3 by Colorado.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Yes, you could easily put Patrice Bergeron in this slot, but he’s been getting a lot of love throughout the NHL. Rask, who got off to a rocky start, has been lights out for the Bruins. Since Nov. 29, he’s lost just two games in regulation. Sure, the Bruins are clearly more than a one-man team, but we have to give Rask some love. He overcame adversity at the start of the year, and he’s arguably been the best goalie in the league for the last three months.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.