Winning important face-offs, leading rushes up the ice, and setting up teammates are hallmarks of an elite center. NHL Network producers and analysts chose the top 20 centers in the League right now, and Nos. 10-1 were revealed Tuesday in the sixth of an eight-part series featured on “NHL Tonight.” Here is the list:
10. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
He scored 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists) in 66 games this season after setting NHL career highs in goals (35), assists (61) and points (96) last season. Barkov won the Lady Byng Trophy voted as the most gentlemanly player in the NHL (four minor penalties all season) and finished fifth in voting for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in 2018-19. He helped the Panthers advance to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, when they will have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016.
“Inconsistency, as of late, has been a bit of an issue, but you can’t deny the fact that, big center (6-foot-3, 210 pounds)? Check. Skilled center? Check,” NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp said. “This guy is so good on both sides of the puck, he’s unbelievable. Just consistency is something I’d like to see a little bit more of.”
9. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers
Zibanejad had the only five-goal game in the NHL this season (March 5 against the Washington Capitals) and led the League in goals per game (0.72; 41 in 57). Although he missed significant time with an upper-body injury, he had NHL career highs in goals and points (75), increasing his total in each for the third straight season. Zibanejad led Rangers forwards in average ice time per game (21:38) and shorthanded ice time per game (2:37), and he was tied for third in the NHL with five shorthanded points.
“You’re talking about goals-per-game average, he leads the league,” Rupp said. “He is so good. When they got him from [the] Ottawa [Senators], I was like, ‘He’s not a No. 1 center.’ Yeah he is, he’s unbelievable for New York.”
8. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
A three-time Stanley Cup champion (2009, 2016, 2017), Malkin has scored at least 25 goals in 10 of his 14 NHL seasons and had at least 70 points in 11 of them. He led the Penguins with 74 points this season (25 goals, 49 assists) and has averaged more than one point per game in each of the past nine seasons. Voted the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2009 playoffs, Malkin ranks fourth among active players with 63 NHL postseason goals.
“If you’re asking me, last minute of a game of all the players in the League, who I want to have the puck on their stick, it’s (No.) 71,” Rupp said. “He certainly could be higher on this list, but Evgeni Malkin still getting it done. He’s got a lot of fire in that belly.”
7. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
He scored 56 points (31 goals, 25 assists), was plus-23, and averaged 18:44 of ice time in 61 games. He helped the Bruins allow the fewest goals in the NHL (167; 2.39 per game) and win the Presidents’ Trophy with the best record in the League (44-14-12, .714 points percentage). Bergeron ranked fourth in the NHL in face-off winning percentage (57.9 percent; minimum 750 attempts) seventh in face-offs taken (1,311) and fifth in face-offs won (759) before the season was paused on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Voted winner of the Selke Trophy four times (2012, 2014, 2015, 2017), Bergeron is a finalist for the award for the ninth straight season.
“This guy, for a series, he might be my guy to pick in a series,” Rupp said. “Just for his ability to shut down his opponent, to still drive offense, he is one of a kind.”
6. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
He scored an NHL career-high 36 goals in 68 games this season and had 78 points, four shy of his high set last season. Eichel had career highs in power-play goals (11), points (27) and rating (plus-5), and he tied for third in the League with nine game-winning goals. He scored four goals against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 16, the start of a 17-game point streak (31 points; 16 goals, 15 assists), the longest in the NHL this season. Eichel has scored at least 24 goals in each of his five NHL seasons.
“Every year has gotten better, and his ability, his fire and his game is awesome,” Rupp said. “He’s gotten to the point where he has and will continue, I believe, to put the Sabres organization on his back.”
5. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews had NHL career highs in goals (47), points (80) and power-play points (25) in 70 games this season, increasing his goals and points totals for the second straight season. He has scored at least 34 goals each of his first four NHL seasons, and his 158 goals since 2016-17 are second in the League behind Alex Ovechkin‘s 181. Matthews helped the Maple Leafs to a berth in the Qualifiers, when they have a chance to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
“Look at his numbers, his numbers keep moving up,” Rupp said. “Why not move him up on this list? This guy has done nothing but score goals since he came into this league, he’s continuing to do it and now he’s going to be a 50-goal guy for a number of years.”
4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby scored 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games this season, missing time because of a core muscle injury that required surgery. He scored 100 points (35 goals, 65 assists) last season, the sixth straight season he had at least 84 points. Crosby has 598 points (224 goals, 374 assists) since the start of the 2013-14 season, tied for the NHL lead with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs in 2016 (19 points) and 2017 (27 points), when he helped the Penguins win the Cup in back-to-back seasons. His 104 points in the playoffs since 2011-12 lead the NHL.
“So many people in Steel City losing their marbles over this,” Rupp said. “Having Crosby at [No. 4]? Listen, Sidney Crosby is still — you could argue this either way — the man in my mind.”
3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Draisaitl led the NHL with 110 points (43 goals, 67 assists), ranked first in points per game (1.55), assists and power-play points (44), and was first among forwards in average ice time per game (22:37). He tied Bruins forward David Pastrnak for first in game-winning goals (10) and was second in even-strength points (66) and power-play goals (16). Draisaitl had 33 multipoint games, including at least one point in 56 of 71 games. He leads the NHL with 215 points (93 goals, 122 assists) over the past two seasons, two more than teammate Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“He led the League in points by a significant margin,” Rupp said. ” And usually when guys do that … and some of the guys they’re beating out in that category is Connor McDavid, you’re talking about a freak of nature, this guy.”
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
A Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award finalist (most outstanding player as voted by the NHL Players’ Association) for the second time in three seasons, MacKinnon finished fifth in the NHL with 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists) and third with 62 even-strength points. He had 29 multipoint games, including at least one point in 53 of 69 games, and was plus-13. MacKinnon ranks third in the NHL over the past three seasons with 289 points (115 goals, 174 assists), behind Kucherov (313) and McDavid (321).
“Electrifying, he’s been up for a couple Harts, will get one at some point,” Rupp said. “He changed the game, we’ve seen him do it, he seems to do it every single night.”
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
For the fourth straight season, McDavid, who finished second in the NHL with 97 points (34 goals, 63 assists), tops the list of best centers. A two-time Ted Lindsay Award winner (2017, 2018), McDavid reached 100 points in each of the past three seasons and was on pace to do so this season before it was paused. Despite missing 37 games with an injury as a rookie in 2015-16, McDavid ranks first in the NHL in points over his five NHL seasons with 469 (162 goals, 307 assists), four more than Kane in 46 fewer games.
“This is about as sure of a shot as you get,” Rupp said. “He’s the No. 1 center in the National Hockey League because I don’t think we’ve seen the ceiling for him. Let’s not forget the (knee) injury he went through last year, and he’s still No. 1 on the list. I don’t think we saw 100 percent Connor McDavid this past season.”