A Portrait of supposedly the 9th best Center in the NHL, Nicklas Backstrom. (Photo by Al Bello/Editing by Ian Oland of RMNB)

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:

  1. Sidney Crosby, PIT
  2. Pavel Datsyuk, DET
  3. Henrik Sedin, VAN
  4. Jonathan Toews, CHI
  5. Mike Richards, PHI
  6. Evgeni Malkin, PIT
  7. Mikko Koivu, MIN
  8. Joe Thornton, SJS
  9. Nicklas Backstrom, WSH
  10. Ryan Getzlaf, ANA

Nicklas Backstrom's favorite shirt: Your girlfriend loves wearing my jersey

Nicklas Backstrom's favorite shirt: Your girlfriend loves wearing my jersey

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.

Sure he doesn't win all his faceoffs,  but Nicky joined Sid and Henrik as the only three centers in the NHL last year to score over 100 points.

Sure he doesn't win all his faceoffs, but Nicky joined Sid and Henrik as the only three centers in the NHL last year to score over 100 points.

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.

  • Crosby, Backstrom, and Sedin all scored more than 100 points last season.

  • sleza

    as pleased as i am to see koivu in that list (and i definitely don’t disagree with that) but somehow it otherwise looks bit wrong. bäckström, malkin, datsyuk… (i might be slightly biased. but just slightly 😉 )

  • I’m curious as to why Henrik Sedin gets ranked that much higher than Backstrom when he had both a lower face off %, no Stanley Cup rings, and had fewer goals than Backstrom? Interesting.

  • BobbyG

    I’m familiar with Dater and his opinions on hockey so I’m not surprised by his rankings. I would ask him to answer his own question about why Nicky didn’t make his top 5 but it seems he answered it. It’s bias because he plays with Ovie! Dater thinks Nicky’s offensive numbers are inflated by the fact that he has the (mis)fortune to be playing with arguably the league’s best player. Dater then admits faceoff% carries a lot more weight with him than Nicky’s so-called inflated numbers. This is just Dater being Dater, so take his musings with a huge grain of salt.

  • @Netty I think HSedin is on this list by sheer force of recent numbers. He led this Top 10 in Points per 60 min in ’09-10 with 3.96. That’s gaudy. He also did it with a supporting cast weaker than Toews, Datsyuk and Backstrom. I don’t know that Dater took only last years numbers into account or not but I went with a 3yr average.

    @BobbyG As you can see, both Toews and Datsyuk play with better teammates over the 3yr span and it’s significantly better in ’09-10 – which says A LOT considering Backstrom does play with Ovechkin. In fact, Backstrom scored more than a point more per 60 mins than Toews/Datsyuk – even tho they played with better teammates, statistically speaking. Dater could get hung by his own argument.


  • L

    Out of those ten I would rank them:
    1. Crosby
    2. Sedin
    3. Toews
    4. Richards
    5. Datsyuk
    6. Malkin
    7. Backstrom
    8. Getzlaf
    9. Thornton
    10. Koivu

    Can’t believe how high Koivu is on their list…

  • Comunista Simpatico

    1. Crosby
    2. Sedin
    3. Datsyuk
    4. Toews
    5. Malkin
    6. Getzlaf
    7. Backstrom
    8. Richards
    9. Thornton
    10. Koivu

    This is more like it.

  • KHtaD

    Just a question – what does having a Cup have to do with how well a player plays C?

  • @KHtaD It doesn’t in of itself, but when you have such elite talent clumped together I feel being part of a winning Cup team helps in prioritizing.


  • Pingback: Is Nicklas Backstrom Really the 9th Best Center in the NHL? « GlobalCapsFans()

  • breaklance

    I really don’t see Richards as all that great. The year just had doesn’t belong anywhere near the top 10, hows about we put Malkin even with Vinny LeCavalier? I haven’t watched a ton of Koivu to really get a feel for im compared to the others. I also find the list a bit strange for people who aren’t, or haven’t ever, been a point per game player so high on the list. Yeah I understand centers are defensive too, but as top line pivots their biggest job tends to be a) set up your gunners, or b) score.

    I’d throw out a few names and put in Ryan Kessler or Jason Spezza. But that is pretty subjective

  • @breaklance I think Mike Richards is underrated – he plays some TOUGH minutes: Skates against the best competition (along with Pronger) PHI opponents have to offer with less than stellar teammates mostly starting in the defensive zone and still puts up a respectable 1.87 points per 60 minutes on the ice.


  • Tim

    If you are going to rank the 10 Dater gave (which is a good list), here’s a better order.

    1) Crosby
    2) Datsyuk
    3) Sedin
    4) Backstrom
    5) Toews
    6) Koivu
    7) Malkin
    8) Thornton
    9) Getzlaf
    10) Richards

    I could see switching Backstrom and Toews, but not much else. I don’t get people who rate Malkin above Backstrom. Backstrom is better offensively, defensively, and at faceoffs.