The Value of a Top Line Center

Can the New York Rangers win a Stanley Cup without a true top line center? History tells us, no.

Back in the 80’s the Rangers were forever chasing the elusive 100+ point top center. There were always rumors of guys like Dale Hawerchuck, Joe Nieuwendyk, or maybe Bobby Smith coming east, but this never materialized.

The Rangers made due with guys like Pierre Larouche, Mark Pavelich, Kelly Kisio and Walt Poddubny. Not bad, but they were 80 point guys in an era of 120 plus point centers. It was literally a yearly question that turned into an obsession: When will the New York Rangers draft or acquire a big time center?

Along Came Neil Smith

In 1989 the Rangers hired Gm Neil Smith. Neil understood the value of a big time center. At the 1990 all-star break Neil traded the Rangers best two wings, Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato to the Kings for center Bernie Nicholls.

Bernie wasn’t a gifted skater, but he was very gifted shooter and offensive player. Playing the year before with Wayne Gretzky, he scored 70 goals and 80 assists. This could be the Rangers white whale.
While Bernie finished the season strongly, and was a big factor in defeating the islanders in the first round, he showed that he wasnt the answer the following year. His numbers went down drastically from the 2 previous years of plus 100 points to 25 goals and 48 assists. The rest is Rangers history. Smith turned Bernie Nicholls into Mark Messier in October of 1991. Messier was the MVP candidate, top line standout the Rangers had sought since Phil Esposito in the mid 1970’s.

Flash Forward to Today

If you look at the past 12 Stanley Cup winners you will find they all have one thing in common. A big time center. In most cases the player is either a lock hall of famer or an almost certain one.
2016- Penguins Crosby, Malkin
2015- Blackhawks Toews
2014- Kings Kopitar
2013- Blackhawks Toews
2012- Kings Kopitar
2011- Bruins Bergeron
2010- Blackhawks Toews
2009- Penguins- Crosby, Malkin
2008- Red Wings Datsyuk
2007- Ducks- Getzlaf
2006- Hurricanes E. Staal
2005- Lightning Richards
Most of the above centers will be in the hall of fame one day. The few that may not, were certainly great that year. Some were Hart trophy winners. Only Richards and Staal were traded and actually played for another team. When the Rangers signed Brad Richards as a free agent, he had decent regular seasons, but was not the leading man they were hoping he would be. His last two post seasons were marked with healthy scratches, or demotion to the 4th line. Richards lost a lot of his skating speed, and of course was eventually bought out.

Eric Staal had a few down years in Carolina before being traded to the Rangers and being very unproductive with 6 points in 20 games, and none in 5 playoff games. Some think he wasn’t used properly in a third line role by coach Alain Vigneault.
Unlike the 80’s and 90’s, centers in their prime are very rarely moved. Tyler Seguin is the one exception that jumps to my mind. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Pat LaFontaine, and Eric Lindros are examples of centers that changed teams in the prime of their careers. Teams hang onto to those top line centers like grim death nowadays.

What about Stepan?

Derek Stepan has been the Rangers first line center for several years. He does everything well. But he doesn’t do anything exceptionally. On a real lock Stanley Cup contender, he would be a second line center. Or, like Bernie Nicholls, he would be the guy you trade to get a lead dog.

Is there a lead dog available? Possibly, if you believe the Avalanche will trade Matt Duchene. He could be one, but the rumors are Colorado is seeking young defensemen in return. Which is not something the Rangers have an excess of. John Taveras is an unrestricted free agent following next season. As of July 1, Brooklyn can offer him an extension. If he chooses to play out his last year without a contract, the Islanders may get scared and trade him rather than lose him for nothing. In that scenario, he would not be playing for the Broadway Blues.

If he made it to unrestricted free agency, all bets are off. You see, at the same time John Taveras would be available, Rick Nash and his 7.8 million dollar cap hit comes off the Rangers books. Could the Rangers actually sign John Taveras? To be sure, a very long shot, but not an impossible scenario.

Strength Down the Middle

When you see a very successful team, you will see strength down the middle. The stronger, the more likely to win. Having two generational players like Crosby and Malkin, gives the Penguins two legs up. The years the Penguins haven’t competed strongly, were years one or both of those 2 players were injured. The Penguins of the early 2000’s were very poor teams. So bad they were able to draft these two players first overall. The Rangers, on the other hand, very rarely drafted in the top ten. The curse that comes from not being at the bottom of the league for several years, is not having a crack at Connor McDavid, or Austin Matthews.

The Rangers have good hockey players at center, in Stepan, Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad. None are the prototypical top line center, but all bring different abilities to the table. Their best model is the 2011 Bruins. While Patrice Bergeron, didn’t put up off the charts offensive numbers, he is considered a tremendous all around player. He was joined by David Krejci, who had a good season, and a great playoff.

This roster, as constituted, has to be considered an underdog compared to a healthy Penguins or Capitals (Nik Backman, Evgeny Kuznetsov) team in the playoffs. In past playoffs, Stepan and Hayes haven’t scored nearly as well in the playoffs as they did in the regular season. Bergeron and Krejci had much better points per game averages in the 2011 playoffs then during their season. This Rangers team has similarities to the 2011 Bruins, and would need strong numbers from their centers in the playoffs, to reach the ultimate goal.

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