Is this a case of counting your chickens before they hatch? Yes, yes it is. Prospect development is a funny thing, and with 4 of our 5 possible top centermen still under the age of 22, no one knows where all of them will be by the time they're hitting their prime. But unfortunately, we don't have much else Avs related to write about right now, so why not do a little "what if"-ing while the NHL and NHLPA get their act together?
Currently, the Avs have three upper-level centers with NHL experience: Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Ryan O`Reilly. Michael Sgarbossa (acquired in the McGinn trade) is tearing up the AHL this year, and Joey Hishon (Avs' 2010 1st Round pick) is getting ready to bounce back from his concussion and join the Monsters as well. All 5 of them have the potential to be either a viable #1 or #2 Center within the next few years. Whoever the Avs choose to fill those roles will have a major impact on the identity of the team moving forward. However, since each of them have different strengths and drawbacks, choosing who stays and who goes is going to be far from an easy task.
Might as well start with the oldest and most experienced of the Centers. Paul Stastny has been with the team since the Avs drafted him #44 overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft. As a rookie during the '06-'07 season, he managed to post 78 points in 82 games and was nominated for the Calder Trophy (Malkin won). Avs fans have always had high hopes for the Son of Stastny, but unfortunately, his point totals over the past two years have left much to be desired.
Strengths: Vision. Stastny is an outstanding set-up man, and most of his points are assists. He's also fairly reliable in his own zone, and his 6 years of experience makes him a valuable veteran presence on this extremely young team.
Weaknesses: Goal scoring. While a 25G/50A season isn't out of the question, it's highly unlikely that Stastny will ever go much above that. His cap hit of $6.6 million is the highest on the team, which could become a problem as the Avs' young players come due for their big contracts. He's also a bit older than the rest of the core, and while that's not a problem right now (he's only 27), it may come into play later on when the Avs are trying to maximize the number of years they're able to contend for the Cup.
Duchene was chosen #3 overall in the 2009 Draft. He made the team out of his first camp, and just like Stastny, he was a Calder Trophy nominee at the end of the season (Tyler Myers won instead). During his sophomore year - the catastrophic '10-'11 season - he still found a way to post 27G/40A/67Pts in 80GP and earned a trip to the All-Star game. Unfortunately, he suffered significant set-backs last year due to injuries and a more disciplined team-wide system.
Strengths: When he's able to play run-and-gun hockey, his skating, puck-handling, and creativity really shine. He also has the most goal-scoring potential of the 3 current NHL centers, and his current "Hometown Discount" contract could prove to be a great bargain.
Weaknesses: His defense and ability to take care of the puck (especially while spinning) are somewhat lacking right now. His maturity has also been brought into question. It's important to remember that he's only 21 and may be able to outgrow these issues, but if he doesn't pull it together soon, one of the other centers could pass him up and render him expendable.
O'Reilly was the Avs' 2nd Round choice in 2009 (#33 Overall). He surprised everyone by making the team that year, but he quickly established himself as a reliable 3rd line defensive forward. Yet after Stastny's 2010-11 season ended early due to injury, "The Factor" proved there was more to his game than just defense when he effectively took over as the Avs' top pivot. His newfound 2-way play continued into last season where, with the help of linemate Gabriel Landeskog, O'Reilly led the team in scoring.
Strengths - Defense. Radar is excellent in his own end and will probably win a Selke one day. He led the league in takeaways last year yet still managed to bury 18 goals (including this very memorable one). He's reliable, has proven he can carry a team while shutting down other club's top lines, and keeps getting better because of his relentless hard work.
Weaknesses - His offensive ceiling is probably the lowest of all of the centers. Since he relies more on tenacity than natural elite-level goal-scoring or playmaking talent, he'll probably never lead this team in scoring again if even one of the other centers lives up to their potential. He could easily become Jordan Staal 2.0 - too good to be a #3 center but not quite good enough to beat out his teammates for the #2 role. O'Reilly's current contract situation could also work against him. Historically, the Avs have not looked fondly upon anyone who involves them in such a dispute.
Sgarbossa was signed as an undrafted player by the San Jose Sharks in 2010 before being moved to the Avs at the Trade Deadline last year. He won the '11-'12 OHL scoring title with 102pts and is currently leading the Lake Erie Monsters (AHL) with 27 points in 31 games. Despite the fact that he's still learning the pro game, "The Boss" could be fighting for a Top 6 spot at training camp as early as next year.
Strengths - Speed. Like Duchene, he has a reputation for being one of the fastest players on the ice. He also has a very nice shot and some nifty puck-handling skills. Our resident Monsters expert, earl06, also had this to say about him:
I don't mean this to be blasphemous, but Sgarbossa has a bit of Sakic-ness to him. Similar skillsets and temperaments, it will be fun to see how far he can go.
Weaknesses - Right now, he's just raw. Some have noticed him chasing the puck on occasion, but that could easily just be a side-effect of learning how to play in a professional league. Really, we won't have a clear idea of where he's at until he plays against NHL talent, either as a call-up this season or at training camp in the fall.
Hishon was drafted #17 overall by the Avs in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. His draft stock had fallen significantly after a injury-plagued season (Central Scouting had him ranked at #55), but Pracey and Co. decided to take a chance on the player that had been voted the OHL's Best Playmaker and Best Stickhandler only the year before. In '10-'11, Hishon played a vital role in his team's OHL Championship and ended up leading the club in scoring. Unfortunately, he suffered a major concussion at the elbow of Brayden McNabb during the Memorial Cup Tournament and has only recently been cleared to begin skating again.
Strengths - As mentioned above, he's a very good playmaker and reportedly has Stastny-levels of on-ice vision (thank you DetAvs). He's also fast, isn't afraid to hit or battle for the puck, and has some valuable playoff experience.
Weaknesses - The fact he hasn't played a game in almost 2 years is a problem. As with any concussion, there's doubt of whether or not he'll make a full recovery. However, since he's finally been cleared for practice, chances are looking better and better every day that he'll be able to return to his pre-concussion form. But even if he does recover, his size could still be an issue since he's listed as only 5'10" 170lbs.