Positional Analysis: ‘Centres’ of Attention.
Heading into the 11/12 season I will take a look at each position and discuss it’s present state and it future depth.
Today will be centre.
If the goaler is the anchor of a teams defense, the centremen is the pointy end of the attack. Centremen provide the dynamic portion of the teams offensive zone actions, setting up the play and providing the pivot point for east west puck pressure. In addition to this, in todays more defense focused systems, it is the role of the centre to also exert pressure in the defensive zone, be the “third man” pressure, and as such, be able to identify when to switch from offense to defense, and always be aware of his position on the ice in servicing these two disparate roles. Over-all, elite 1st line centres excel more in providing offense than defense, but must still be exceptional at both in order to be considered truly elite.
Today’s first-line centremen are a rare-breed of hockey I.Q. and physical ability, making this position the most difficult to achieve elite status. Ottawa hopes to have one in Jason Spezza, but at 28 he has yet to prove elite on both sides of the puck. He has, however, made considerable strides in the regard, and it would be fair to estimate he will continue to improve his defensive game, and I.Q., better identifying when to make the switch from ‘O’ to ‘D’.
Identifying the 1st line centre of the future is not just foggy, it borders on impossible, and this represents a very real concern for both the present rendition of the Senators, and those of the near future. Ottawas’ most critical lack of prospect depth now exists at centre, in terms of first-line skill.
Assuming the role of first line centre is solidified, at least until 2015/16, when Spezza’s current contract expires, the next in line on the depth chart, the second line centre, is truly still to be determined.
The role of the ideal second line centre differs from that of the first-line centre in the addition of physicality and a greater focus on defense over offense. Mike Fisher was a good example of this role, but was hampered by his inconsistent offensive production. Second line centres have to be good at everything, but not necessarily elite at anything. They must provide a defensive physicality versus the oppositions top lines, some reliable scoring, and the ability to play special teams.
The Sens have a myriad of options for filling this role, but, to date, no player has proven himself truly able to assume this position. First on the list would be Nick Foligno, but, due to a previous log jam at centre, Nick has had little experience at centre in his NHL career. Can he now make this adjustment? I for one have serious doubts, as he has never yet shown himself to be miscast as a 3rd line winger. But, I suspect he’ll get a long look at training camp, and he may surprise, but as of now, it would be a surprise if he emerged as a legitimate NHL 2nd line centre. On a bright note, Nick did have a decent season last year, and was able to take a number of face-offs, where he performed adequately. My biggest worry, in moving Nick to centre, is that the Sens be would losing an emerging LW’er, just coming into his NHL game, and gaining a poor 2nd line centre, trying to re-learn his NHL game.
So what about last years epic disappointment, Peter Regin? If last years Ottawa Senators had a visual representation for their performance as a team, it would be Regin. So much hope, so little production. Three goals in 55 games is such a far cry from what was expected of him that, beyond blind faith, expecting anything of Regin going forward could be viewed as silly. But, at the risk of appearing silly, I remain hopeful of Regin’s future prospects in the NHL. I still believe Regin has what it takes to play the role of 2nd line centre, and regard last seasons catastrophically sub-par performance as result of a young player suffering the combined ills of sophomore slump, team discord, and poor coaching/role definition. Let’s be clear on this, nobody had a good season last year, (except maybe Foligno), and to write off Regin, because of an abysmal sophomore season, on an abysmal team, seems premature, IMO.
There does remain the “faint hope clause”, namely that a young prospect somehow emerges NHL ready; ready to realize his full potential from the drop of the puck, but this seems even vastly more un-realistic than either Foligno or Regin succeeding in the 2nd line centre role.
Number one on the list of “faint hope” would be Colin Greening, a big bodied player certainly able to assume the physical aspect of the 2nd line centre role, but does he have the hockey I.Q. to succeed in this demanding position? He certainly has the wheels, and the determination, but it remains just too much to hope for that he can emerge, after only 24 games played in the NHL, as a legit. 2nd line centre. The future looks bright though, and if last seasons absolutely stellar end of season play is a real indication of Colin’s ability, he may yet prove to be a diamond in the rough.
Last, and probably least likely, would be long-time AHL all star Cory Locke. I say least likely because one has to believe that, if he were NHL capable, he would already be there. Now, there are definitely examples of players emerging, from near obscurity, to thrive and excel at the NHL level (Tim Thomas, Marty St. Louis), but to hope Locke will prove to be another one in a million seems just too much to hope for…but here’s hoping!
Next in the pecking order is the third line centre, a player expected to play with a skill set heavily weighted toward physicality and defense, with offense being considered a minor part of the role. Many believe Fisher was the epitome of the third line centre, and I would support that argument, but the fact remains few teams have the depth at centre to have a player of his skill play so far down the depth chart (think Staal as 3rd line centre in Pitt, behind Malkin and Crosby).
In this role the Sens have 2 legitimate top notch hopefuls, Colin Greening and Zach Smith. Of the two Smith is the most likely candidate as he possesses more experience in the role, and the NHL in general. Add to this his physical ability, aggressiveness, limited offensive prowess and you have the likely situation of the player with the lessor upside skill (Smith) playing higher in the depth chart than the other (Greening), due to his limited ability. In fact, I would expect Greening to be playing as a top 6 winger before bottom six centre.
Smith is likely a stand-out in this role, if he can control his penalty minutes. The role demands the players being available, and if Smith continues to take questionable minors, he may well find himself riding shotgun to Winchester, on the 4th line, instead of leading the 3rd. There will be other options for this 3rd line role, and they will be used to keep Smith in check, should he not get the message right away.
Finally there is the 4th line grinder, a player that has to be willing to project his frame with abandon, and agitate the opposition with a steady stream of vitriol. Expect to see this role filled by Jesse Winchester, a player who has already proven able to fill this job with aplomb. Konopka will be the other possibility, I see it largely as a saw off.
Here’s how I see the centre roles developing;
Spezza, Regin, Smith, Winchester.
Depending upon how training camp progresses, in terms of both injury and performance, I would not be at all surprised to see Kuba dealt for another veteran with a hefty contract, but capable of providing some stability in the centre position, i.e. Brad Boyes of BUF.