Prior to the start of the last two seasons, I’ve compiled a little list of top centre combinations in the Pacific Division, including of course the Vancouver Canucks.
Has any of that changed with a few games under the Vancouver Canucks belt for 2022-’23? Not really. Last year I did the top two centres, this time out, it’s the top three.
— Edmonton Oilers – When Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are both playing the middle, the Oilers might get away with having a top-line AHL’er centreing the third group and still rank at the top of the NHL.
We’re not ranking entire forward units here, just the top-three centres, and these guys, especially ‘McJesus’, are otherworldly. Eye test, analytics, whatever, these guys are the best the NHL has to offer. Ryan McLeod is slotted on the third line, playing under a minimal one-year contract. Former 1st-overall NHL draft pick from 2011 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is an option but he’s been playing wing on McDavid’s line. All four are lefties.
Present reality has JT Miller playing as a winger on the top line, but let’s consider that could change. Three 30+ goal scorers; who saw that coming last season, especially with Elias Pettersson’s slow start. Dude was back on his game and then some in the second half, and he worked his arse off all over the ice. Miller finished with 99 points and earned a new long-term contract. Bo Horvat is in a contract year and already leads the team in goals with six. Toss out Miller’s occasional mini-tantrums and you have yourself a very dynamic and versatile top-3, other than the fact they’re all left-handed. The Vancouver Canucks have worked right-handed Curtis Lazar (recently injured) and Jack Studnicka into the mix.
— Calgary Flames – Elias Lindholm, Nazem Kadri and Michael Backlund. Simple. Yet what isn’t simple is the fact that a good hunk of this team’s high-end make-up and chemistry changed. Gone are wingers Johhny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and in are Tyler Toffoli and Jonathan Huberdeau. Lindholm operates at a first or second-line discount price of less than $5-million per season. Cocky Kadri brings sandpaper and swagger while Backlund is 33-years-old and maybe starting to slip, although he did play in all 82 games last season (39 points) and had a very strong postseason. The Vancouver Canucks get a slight edge.
— Vegas Golden Knights – Attitudinally, I’ve never been a big fan of Jack Eichel’s, but I’m not his GM, coach or linemate. He’s a very talented 25-year-old centre making $10-million a season. Slotting behind him is William Karlsson, and behind him is Nicolas Roy, he of a new five-year, $15-million deal. Like Backlund, Roy had 39 points last season, in four less games, and he’s only 25-years-old. He’s strong analytically, somewhat physical, with a poor PIM differential. Why focus on the 3rd-line guy so much? Because in a lot of cases, that’s what separates the teams on this list.
— Anaheim Ducks – The quackers needed to add some veteran skill to the middle and they did so with Ryan Strome coming over from the New York Rangers to back-up the hyper-talented Trevor Zegras, who centres the top line while finishing out the final year of his entry-level deal. There is scary good youth in this line-up up front, mostly on the wings with Troy Terry and WJC hero Mason McTavish. This is a work in progress with an absurd upside. We have 22-year-old Isac Lundeström pivoting the 3rd line. He had 16 goals last season.
— Seattle Kraken – No doubt the Kraken are improved, but as it relates to strength up the middle, the sea monsters aren’t that terrifying just yet. 2021 2nd-overall pick Matty Beniers is looking like a star and the brand of hockey on the front end has been fast and entertaining. 28-year-old Alexander Wennberg and 30-year-old Yanni Gourde handle the two-three punch. With 2022 4th-overall pick Shane Wright still in development, for lack of a better term, we’ll have to wait a little longer for him and Beniers as a combo. If that upside holds as expected, the Beniers/Wright set in the future will actually be downright frightening and much higher on this list.
— San Jose Sharks – What’s new in Anaheim is what’s old up the coast in San Jose. The Veteran approach has a hidden star in Tomas Hertl on the top line, the omnipresent Logan Couture behind him, and Nick Bonino in a familiar place behind them centreing the 3rd-line. When it’s not the 34-year-old Bonino in the middle, it’s Nico Sturm. Couture’s the face and leader of the club. His possession numbers have slipped, as have his face-off percentages, yet his work ethic and his uncanny ability to draw penalties continue. This is a group and a team in gradual transition under new general manager Mike Grier and new head coach David Quinn. They’d be right there with the Vancouver Canucks if not for wear and tear.
— LA Kings – The venerable Anze Kopitar on first, the underrated Phillip Danault on second, and to continue quoting the ancient comic duo of Abbot and Costello, ‘I don’t knows on third”. Is it 24-year-old lefty Blake Lizotte, who did have ten goals and 24 points in 70 games last season, or is it 20-year-old, 2020 2nd-overall NHL draft pick Quinton Byfield? He’s been dinged up and Rasmus Kupari has been substituting. For now this group is buoyed by the do-everything Slovenian Kopitar.