Adrian Dater had an interesting post naming the top 10 centers in the NHL. As you would expect with 30 teams, each with 4 centers, some big names were omitted. The ranking is also subject to much debate. Take a look:
- Sidney Crosby, PIT
- Pavel Datsyuk, DET
- Henrik Sedin, VAN
- Jonathan Toews, CHI
- Mike Richards, PHI
- Evgeni Malkin, PIT
- Mikko Koivu, MIN
- Joe Thornton, SJS
- Nicklas Backstrom, WSH
- Ryan Getzlaf, ANA
You would think that Nicklas Backstrom being 9th out of all NHL pivots would be cause for celebration! Instead I am ready to fight for the guy – even if my girlfriend wears his jersey. Well, if I had a girlfriend. But that’s a post for another day.
So where should Backstrom rank in this Top 10?
The center position is one of the tougher positions to quantify: They are defensively responsible for two opposing wingers, they try to win faceoffs and they have to put points on the board. Then there is the burning question: How many Cups have they won?
We should also not limit ourselves to just one season. For this exercise I am going to look at the 3-year averages to help smooth the curve a bit.
Let’s start with the easy one: Did they win a Cup? Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk and Toews have all kissed The Cup while Malkin and Toews have also won the Conn Smythe as Playoffs MVP. Without a ring, Backstrom still has some work to do to be the #1 center in the league.
Next we will analyze their offensive numbers.
I had a tweep remark: When Nick wins more faceoffs then you can bitch about him being #9. Well, here I am so :-P. Seriously though, just because you don’t win faceoffs doesn’t mean you’re not helping your team’s offensive production. That’s why statistics like CORSI and others at Behind the Net are so valuable: They help put everything in context.
So yes, I agree Backstrom doesn’t win a huge amount of faceoffs. But he’s averaged 2.48 points per 60 minutes over the past 3 years (good for 6th on this list behind Crosby, Sedin, Malkin, Thornton and Datsyuk). He also was third among centers (behind Hart and Ross Trophy winner Sedin and 50 goal scorer Crosby) in points per 60 minutes in 2010.
Defensively only Mike Richards and Evgeni Malkin have averaged a negative CORSI ON, meaning more shots have been directed to their own net while they were on the ice. Richards has an excuse: He started only 46.8% of the time in his own offensive zone (next lowest was Mikko Koivu at 50.4%!), while playing with below average teammates against decent competition. Malkin’s poor play came despite starting a whopping 58.17% of the time in his OWN offensive zone. Only Toews (60.9%) and Backstrom (59.17%) were higher, but both of those players had positive CORSI’s.
Backstrom’s CORSI ON (17.18) is behind only Datsyuk (22.1) and Toews (18.38). Simply put, when Nicklas Backstrom is on the ice his team gets the puck to the net – a lot. And before we throw the “Of course he does, he plays with Ovechkin” argument out there, let’s keep in mind that both Toews and Datsyuk played with better linemates statistically over the past 3 years. So they too had help yet are ranked ahead of Backstrom on Dater’s Top 10. This means we can’t discount the play of Backstrom’s wingers if we are not ready to do so for the others.
If we look at Goals For and Goals Against differential as a defensive indicator, Backstrom shines here as well. He ranks second (1.31) in this group over the past 3 years trailing only Datsyuk (1.63) – who won the last three Selke awards. Last year, Backstrom led all centers (60+ games played) with 2.15.
To summarize: offensively Backstrom is middle of the Top 10 pack at 2.48 points per 60 minutes while defensively falling behind only Pavel Datsyuk and perhaps Jonathan Toews.
Now that we have the context settled: Where should Backstrom actually rank?
Some would say he is “still not [a] Top 5” center but they would be wrong. Without a Cup, sure Nicky takes a back seat to Crosby, Datsyuk and now perhaps Toews. But after that, it would be tough to argue that Nicklas Backstrom is undeserving of a Top 5 slot.