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 https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.