Best of the West: The Top Centers

by Doran Libin on August 24, 2015
Nathan MacKinnon - USA Today Sports Images


Look from a bounce-back season from Nathan MacKinnon and big years from these Western Conference pivots …


This week shifts the focus to centers in the conclusion of the series examining the best of the Western Conference. The criteria remain the same this week: ice time, even strength and power play, usage (offensive-centric usage is obviously preferred), linemates (as better linemates equates to more production), shot rate (more shots mean less chance of a drastic drop-off in production) and positive trends.


Honourable Mentions: It will be interesting to see how the departure of Ryan O’Reilly affects Matt Duchene, as O’Reilly took the toughest minutes. If Soderberg does not take on the checking role, Duchene could see some tougher usage, adversely affecting his numbers. Logan Couture is supposed to be taking over the top line in San Jose but has yet to make that step to become an elite center. He still takes a lot of shots but the number of shots he is on the ice for fell hard last year. His season was saved by an obscenely successful year on the power play with a 5.3 P60. Hitting that high again is unlikely.


10. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

Hopkins has yet to break the 60-point mark in a season but at the end of last year there were some very positive signs. The first is that there is some definite chemistry with Jordan Eberle, something that really flourished while Taylor Hall was out of the lineup. When on the ice together they approached 3 goals for per 60 minutes, over a goal more per 60 minutes than when apart. They were on a tear over the last month and a half of the season as their goals for per 60 minutes rose to almost four goals. Over that time, Nugent-Hopkins had 20 points in 17 games boding well for the upcoming season. Even though he, Eberle and Benoit Pouliot will undoubtedly face tougher competition in order to shelter Conor McDavid and company that is not a huge change from last season.


9. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

Thornton has produced 2.7 points per 60 minutes in three of the last four seasons. As a player who has never been fleet of foot, a potential lost step is not of particular concern, thus at 36, he is still a safe bet to continue his current levels of production. Stimson’s pass tracking project places Thornton at the top of the leagues scoring chance creators, adding to the supposition that Thornton shows no signs of slowing down. The only negative for him is that over the last three seasons he has seen his ice time cut, falling below 19 minutes per games in two of the last three seasons. Thus, his pass-first style and production will keep him productive, but his falling ice time will keep from being amongst the top scorers in the league.


8. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Mackinnon’s shooting percentage dropped by almost three points while his on-ice shooting percentage dropped close to four points. Without a significant rise in his shot rate, which would have been tough as he takes three shots per game, Mackinnon’s point totals took a big hit. These factors combined to drop Mackinnon’s PDO from 104.9 to 98.6, meaning Mackinnon went from a lucky rookie season to an unlucky sophomore season. If Mackinnon is to be an elite scorer, he will return to a shooting percentage over 10%, but even an average NHL shooter is a point and a half above last season’s 7.3%. That alone accounts for a 10-point bump over a full season. Assuming Mackinnon is average, it lands him around 55 points but three shots per game is not average, thus 30 goals and 60-plus points is in the cards.


7. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

After scoring on 15.7 percent of his shots during his rookie season Monahan somehow managed to up his shooting percentage to 16.2 last year. Those levels of shooting percentage are unlikely to continue, however his shot rate is trending in the right direction should help compensate for that. Monahan went from under two shots per game in his rookie season to just under two and a half shots per game last season. The return of Mikael Backlund for a full season should also help Monahan at worst repeat last season’s success, as Backlund will shoulder some of the tough minutes for Monahan. Even though the Flames and their top line are due for regression this year the above factors should help Monahan’s point totals proceed in the right direction.


6. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

Pavelski followed up his 41 goal 2013-14 season, based on an 18.2 shooting percentage, by taking more shots and consequently scoring 38 goals with a 14.2 shooting percentage. The additional shots Pavelski took allowed for his shooting percentage to drop four points without a huge drop to his goal or point totals. Pavelski upped his shot rate last year to over three shots per game, a level he is capable of hitting on a regular basis, as he has in five of the last seven seasons. With such a shot rate, Pavelski can sustain another drop to his shooting percentage and still score 30-plus goals.


5. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles

Kopitar’s lower rate of production last year is largely a myth, as his rate of production was unchanged even as his totals took a hit. The reason for the dip was that for the first time since his rookie season, Kopitar averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game. His shot rate slipped under two shots per game for the first time in his career, similarly he scored fewer goals last year. This seems like an outlier, though, due to Kopitar’s style of game and his previous totals, as it is not part of a trend. As a driver of possession, and a player who sees a lot of shots directed at the net when he is on the ice, a return to over two shots per game seems to be a given. 


4. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Were this a ranking of real-life value, Toews would be at the top of the list, but he does a lot of things that are not counted in fantasy hockey. He undoubtedly has the talent to produce more, but since his rookie season, he has made winning the top priority, thus hurting his fantasy value. Even then he maintains a consistent level of production at 2.7 P60 and is closing the gap on the league’s top scorers. He has always produced against the highest levels of competition, while getting average zone starts because Kruger takes the worst zone starts. Even as Saad and Sharp leave, there is enough talent in Chicago to be confident Toews’ production won't dip.


3. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks

Other than the 2010-11 season, Getzlaf has been between 2.7 and 3.4 points per 60 minutes since his rookie campaign. Even with his partner in crime, Corey Perry, missing 15 games last year, Getzlaf was still up close to a point per game. At 30, Getzlaf is still a dominant presence on the ice even as his minutes fell under 20 per game. He still gets tough matchups, playing against the highest level of competition, but last year’s addition of Ryan Kesler, and the continued presence of Andrew Cogliano, means Getzlaf receives better zone starts. The model of consistency, Getzlaf can be chalked up for another 70-plus point season.


2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

McDavid comes into the NHL as a savior figure for the Oilers after years of previous high draft picks failing to turn the team around. A lot of the expectations around McDavid are due to his insane levels of production in junior, such as scoring at nearly a three-points-per-game pace last year. It is highly unlikely that he scores like Crosby did in his rookie season, given that nobody had 90 points last year, but something close to a point per game is reasonable. Many of the necessary factors for that level of production are lining up in Edmonton. First, he will likely play with Taylor Hall a former point-per-game winger, and Nail Yakupov, who scored at a pace of 2.7 points per 60 last year. Second, the established duo of Jordan Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins will allow the Oilers to shelter McDavid. Third, he is almost assured of first unit power-play time on a team that seems to add a highly skilled player every year.


1. Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars

Moving to Dallas has been outstanding for Seguin, as he had the highest points-per-60-minutes rate in the league last year at 3.32, after he finished fourth behind three Penguins at 3.26 the previous year. There were glimpses of this sort of production in Boston, including his annually high shooting percentage. There are no indications that there is any end in sight to this level of production, as Seguin is shooting more. He is up from three shots per game during the 2011-12 season to nearly four shots per game last year. It is an elite level of shot production, as only 13 forwards with 70 games played in a season reached that mark over the five-full seasons since 2009-10. Of those 13 forwards, 12 scored at least goals 30 and eight had at least 79 points. The players who had less than 75 points generally played less than 75 games thus the four-shots-per-game mark can be seen as an indicator of close to point-per-game production.