In late March, I interviewed members of the St. Louis Blues for a magazine feature that went in our playoff preview (And we all know how that worked out…) about how the team fared in “statement games” this season. I had picked match-ups against squads they would likely have to go through in order to win the Stanley Cup, such as Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and Anaheim. The last two were the most fascinating.
For all the success St. Louis had for much of the season, the Blues had just one win against the three California squads in nine tries – and it was against a Kings team that didn’t have Jonathan Quick in net. So what was it about the Kings, Ducks and Sharks that gave St. Louis such fits?
“They’re rather large,” said coach Ken Hitchcock with a telling smile.
And this is from a guy with David Backes on his side. But with Anaheim taking Game 3 of its second-round freeway showdown with Los Angeles, it’s pretty obvious both teams have one of the most coveted types of assets in the NHL: The big, dominant No. 1 center.
In Anaheim, it’s Ryan Getzlaf. In Los Angeles, it’s Anze Kopitar. The Sharks have one too, in Joe Thornton, though he’s the only one in the crowd without a Stanley Cup ring and the only one booking tee times right now.
When you look at successful teams in the NHL lately, there’s basically two options for musts down the middle: Big and dominant, or elite two-way pivot. Along with the California Big Posse, there’s the two-way masters Jonathan Toews (Chicago) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston). Pittsburgh has one of each: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Look at the have-nots in the NHL right now and they all lack a center that fits into one of the two archetypes: Edmonton’s top pivot was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nashville rolled with Mike Fisher and Buffalo went with Tyler Ennis.
Naturally, these types of players do not just spring out of the woodwork, which is why some teams are good and some are bad. To me, it’s interesting to see what Calgary has in Sean Monahan, a kid who is already a 20-goal scorer at the age of 19, with a 6-foot-2 frame to build on and decent work in the faceoff circle (46 percent isn’t bad for a teenager – Crosby only won 45.5 percent of his draws as a freshman).
In the draft this summer, teams will get a shot at Leon Draisaitl, who has been compared to both Kopitar and Thornton, as well as Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart, both of whom have the potential to become elite two-way pivots.
Can a team win a Cup these days without a Kopitar (who also happens to be a great two-way player and a darling of the advanced stats community) or Bergeron? Montreal is the only hope. The Canadiens were a terrible puck possession team during the regular season, but had an excellent netminder in Carey Price to bail them out. Centers David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec are neither big, nor particularly elite when it comes to two-way play, but you have to give the Habs credit for making things work anyway. Maybe Lars Eller (6-foot-2, 209 pounds) can be that big dominant guy – but we’ll need to see it over a longer time span first.
If Montreal can get past the Bruins, maybe we need to re-evaluate. But with the Rangers looking toasted against Pittsburgh and Minnesota repping big centers with Mikko Koivu, it seems like the path to greatness right now has been carved in pretty hard stone.