Matt Cullen

Getty Images

Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

1 Comment

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

More NHL hockey:

WATCH LIVE: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Associated Press
Leave a comment

[WATCH LIVE – 8:30 p.m. ET]



Jason ZuckerEric StaalMikael Granlund

Zach PariseMikko KoivuCharlie Coyle

Nino NiederreiterJoel Eriksson EkTyler Ennis

Daniel WinnikMatt CullenMarcus Foligno

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

[NHL on NBCSN: Avalanche, Wild meet with important points on the line]


Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Sven AndrighettoTyson JostJ.T. Compher

Matt NietoCarl SoderbergBlake Comeau

Alexander KerfootDominic ToninatoGabriel Bourque

Nikita ZadorovTyson Barrie

Patrik NemethSamuel Girard

Duncan SiemensDavid Warsofsky

Starting goalie: Semyon Varlamov

The Buzzer: Taking care of business

1 Comment

When you look on the schedule and see contenders facing teams that are already thinking of the draft and of summer vacations, it’s tempting to pencil in a “W.” That’s not always how things shake out, but in Friday’s case, the three of four matchups that seemed obvious ended up going as expected. Hence, those teams took care of business.

(The Stars vs. the Ducks was the exception, as both teams are in playoff position.)

Let’s review Friday in the NHL:

Old, new, and the usual

  • Still-very-young Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones scored two goals to help Columbus take care of business against Detroit. Read all about that CBJ win, and their general upward trend, in this post.
  • Matt Cullen, 41, continues to look quite spry lately. For one thing, he scored a gorgeous goal for his 10th of the season, which was also his fifth goal in 10 games:

Not long after, Cullen seemed like he might score off of a nice Charlie Coyle feed, but was robbed. Perhaps that makes it “OK” that his assist came on an empty-netter, then?

  • Then there were the usual suspects. Jamie Benn collected a goal and an assist while Tyler Seguin collected two helpers as Dallas found a way to gut out a tough regulation win against Anaheim. Meanwhile, Eric Staal scored the game-winner to help Minnesota eventually beat Vancouver 5-2 in a game that was closer than that until the final minute. Staal already has 37 goals this season.


It was quite a showing from goalies in losing efforts, and 35 came up on three occasions.

Ryan Miller made 35 saves for the Anaheim Ducks, including stopping all 32 of the Stars’ shots at even-strength. Dallas went 2-for-2 on the power play to beat Miller and the Ducks, however. Mike Condon stopped 35 of 37 shots on goal as well, including a chance that left Johnny Gaudreau shaking his head and muttering to himself.

Anders Nilsson didn’t have quite the same game as the others, including not making 35 saves. He did face 35 shots, however, stopping 31 of them. As you can see in that GIF in the section with Matt Cullen, some of those were high-difficulty shots, too.


Ryan Getzlaf couldn’t grind out a win or even a charity point for the Ducks, but he’s been outstanding lately. He scored a nice goal, giving him 12(!) points in his last five games and 50 in 44 contests this season. This actually broke a four-game multi-point streak.

Maybe the NHL should create an assist trophy? If so, would it be named after Adam Oates, Wayne Gretzky, or someone else?

Some numbers behind the widely-shared belief that the Blue Jackets have two dangerous scoring defensemen in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski:

Nice stat from that Min win:


Blue Jackets 3, Red Wings 2
Flames 2, Senators 1
Stars 2, Ducks 1
Wild 5, Canucks 2

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

Eric Staal deals harsh blow to Hurricanes’ hopes

1 Comment

This post’s main image is from the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, a reminder that Eric Staal is still near and dear to many Carolina Hurricanes fans, even as he revitalizes his career with the Minnesota Wild.

Cruelly, Staal has rebounded to be just the type of player a mostly-well-built Hurricanes team still needs more of: a gamebreaker.

Staal played a role in possibly breaking the Hurricanes’ playoff push on Tuesday, helping the Wild build an early 5-0 lead before eventually winning 6-2. Staal scored two goals to push his season total to a startlingly impressive 36 goals (waits for even more Hart Trophy comments, because we don’t have enough of those).

This goal might be seen as a dagger. Hey, at least it was an ornate one?

Painfully, Staal wasn’t the only former Hurricanes player to dig the knife in deeper, as Matt Cullen also added to the agony with a goal.


It was bad enough to lose by such a margin, powered in part by a player who was once such an integral part of this team. That’s not the only setback for Carolina, however, as the East’s other bubble teams gained steam on Tuesday. The Devils clobbered the Canadiens before Montreal made the score more respectable, the Blue Jackets beat the Golden Knights 4-1, and the Panthers salvaged a “charity point” by making it to overtime before the Lightning beat them thanks to a beautiful Brayden Point goal.

With 69 points in 67 games played, the Hurricanes enjoy a rosier playoff outlook than the Islanders (67 in 67 games) and Rangers (66 in 67 games), but the positives run out quickly.

Updated races for wild card spots:

1. Devils: 76 points in 67 GP, 30 ROW
2. Blue Jackets: 73 points in 67 GP, 28 ROW

Panthers: 71 points in 64 GP, 30 ROW
Hurricanes: 69 points in 67 GP, 26 ROW

Yeah, losses like these really hurt, particularly when such a familiar face is adding to the discomfort.

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

WATCH LIVE: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild




St. Louis Blues

Alexander SteenIvan BarbashevVladimir Tarasenko

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennNikita Soshnikov

Patrik BerglundVladimir SobotkaTage Thompson

Scottie UpshallKyle BrodziakDmitrij Jaskin

Jay BouwmeesterAlex Pietrangelo

Vince DunnColton Parayko

Carl GunnarssonJordan Schmaltz

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

[Preview for Blues – Wild]

Minnesota Wild

Jason ZuckerEric StaalMikael Granlund

Zach PariseMikko KoivuNino Niederreiter

Charlie CoyleJoel Eriksson EkTyler Ennis

Daniel WinnikMatt CullenMarcus Foligno

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk