- Stastny (center) DOB: 12/27/1985 Age: 23
- Duchene (center) DOB: 01/16/1991 Age: 18
- O'Reilly (center) DOB: 01/07/1991 Age: 18
- Galiardi (center) DOB: 04/22/1988 Age: 21
- Sakic (center) DOB: 07/07/1969 Age: 27
- Forsberg (center) DOB: 07/20/1973 Age: 23
- Yelle (center) DOB: 04/09/1974 Age: 22
- Ricci (center) DOB: 10/27/1971 Age: 24
For those of you with Detroit public educations, break out a calculator and add four years to the ages of each of the current Avalanche centermen. For the rest of you I'm sure it was pretty obvious. I'm not drawing any clear cut conclusions between a current staff of kids and Hall of famers from 1996. I just think it's ....interesting.
The other day I was reading one of the many Internet conversations that debated if the Avalanche were "for real". On some Canadian sites I read multiple exclamations of "I hope not, I'm sick of the Avalanche". That's a wonderful thing to hear about your team in that context. However, it was a mantra of several Canadians who were fans of various Canadian franchises. What really has baked their noodles is that the Avs compete in division with several Canadian clubs and Canadians as a whole are flat out desperate to bring the Cup North of the border. So why haven't they gone on some of these cup runs that we've seen from New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks etc...? These clubs spend money, have tramendous fan support and will do anything legally possible to compete. Bad luck? I'm sure that has something to do with it. In the modern era we've seen Canadian clubs get close like Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadians etc... but even with those pushes they never sustained those runs. They just seem to melt away. Goaltending, coaching and overall talent all play a factor for sure. But I have a different theory, those franchises are building around the wrong positions, namely the center.
As every Detroit Red Wing fan knows, the NHL began in 1996 so I'll go by that glorious year to point out a few observations regarding Stanley Cup winning teams.
1996: No need to list them again but notible wingers that year were Lemieux, Deadmarsh, Kamensky, Young, and Keane. As much as we loved those guys, they were the first to go. More on that theme later.
1997: Detroit centered Yzerman, Larionov, Federov and Draper. As we know, that ilk stayed together for a while and it worked out for the empire of evil.
1998: Detroit centered Yzerman, Larionov, Federov and Draper. Rumor has it things were nasty between the Avs and Detroit that year.
1999: Dallas centered Modano, Nieuwendyk, and Carbonneau. Guy Carbonneau and Nieuwendyk represent everything hated about the deadpuck era. But they did it well.
2000: New Jersey centered Arnott, Holik, Madden and the unheralded Brylin. Left wing lock wins the cup.
2001: Avs center Sakic, Forsberg, Yelle, Drury (as we know Drury and Foppa shifted in and out as wingers, I'll get to that). Brad Smith foiled the left wing lock and the good guys won.
2002: Detroit centered Yzerman, Federov, Larionov and Datsyuk for good measure. Yeesh. Like the Avs the year before they were so deep at center they shifted them to wingers on a short bench at times.
2003: New Jersey centered Elias, Madden, Nieuwendyk and Brylin. Familiar names.
2004: Tampa Bay centered Lacavalier, Richards, and Taylor. They let Richards go instead of wingers and that's worked out really well so far.
2005: Bettman centered his lawyers Bazz, Dewey, Grabowski and Bendover.
2006: Carolina centered Brind'Amour, Staal, Cullen and Weight. Fallen off this year but made a good run when Brind'Amour still had his legs up to 2008.
2007: Anaheim centered Getzlaf, McDonald, Marchant AND Phalsson. So deep they shifted R. Niedermayer to wing. Good grief.
2008: Detroit stays strong up the middle with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Filppula, Franzen and mix in Draper, Helm and Hudler while shifting Franzen and Datsyuk to winger due to their center depth. Good grief x2.
2009: Pittsburgh centers Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Talbot. Thats fucking ridiculous.
Yeah, it's pretty self evident that championship teams have good centers but they have good wingers and D men too of course. But you know what? There are a lot of NHL teams with good wingers and defense. They just never seem to get over the hump.
Calgary is trying to build around Iginla at right wing and who can blame them, he's amazing. But that team is stuck in a rut until they get deeper down the middle. Instead they are trading for wingers, defensemen and goaltending. I think it's the wrong emphasis and maybe Anaheim and Colorado are partially to blame. So many point to the great defensive pairings that they convieniently forget how strong those teams were at center. Vancouver has largely done the same thing by spending franchise assets on wingers like Bertuzzi, Naslund and D. Sedin. The combination of H. Sedin and Morrison for a time made them a team to reckon with but they seem bound and determined to build their club from the wingers in. Edmonton? Let's put it this way, they bet the farm on one of Anaheims wingers in Penner. They've lauded the talents of Hemsky for years. Like Calgary and Vancouver they are spending assets on wingers, D and goaltending.
To me, the center position is pivotal (pun intended) to successful hockey. It's why Yashin never could do it alone, why Jagr never carried a team in Washington or Kovulchuk in Atlanta. Ovechkin is trying his damnedest in Washington but they will continue to be bridesmaids until they get deeper behind Backstrom at the key center position. Chicago is going to dump all their salary in to wingers, defensemen with one centerman deep. I think that's the wrong way to build your club for the ultimate prize.
No matter what happens to Colorado this year I'm totally blown away with how quickly they've built up the middle of their lineup. Last year at one point the Avs centered Tyler Arnason as the first line center. That is how bad things got. Now? They could be set up for the next 10 years at center.
The modern NHL is dominated by solid goaltending for sure, but to me I think the center holds as much water, if not more so than said goaltender. When I play hockey the last position I want to play is the damned center position. That poor bastard has to skate from goaline to goaline while I can get to rest my heels on the sideboards at the defensive end. As a winger I get breakout passes if I cherry pick the D and I get a lot of 1v1 time when clearing the zone while my poor centerman is skating his ass off to catch up to the play. I know that if he dogs it, my team is a lot worse. My beer league has nothing to do with NHL hockey, I'll be the first to admit. But I know which position is the toughest on the ice after goaltender. The 20 year olds play center, this old man plays wing.
In the modern NHL you can disguise weakness at center with good special teams play when center matters less and you can certainly put up a lot of goals when you shift out Ovechkin. But teams built on long term success and teams that compete at the highest level have strength up the middle. O'Reilly, Duchene, Galiardi and Stastny represent the perfect way to rebuild. They aren't going to be in a lot of highlight reels for now but they are controlling the ice at both ends and are a huge reason for the Avs quick turn around.
Can you begin to imagine where these centers (and the Avs) might be in four years? I'm beginning to think we may not have to wait that long.