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The Montreal Canadiens’ Road to Redemption: The elusive number-one centre

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The lack of a top-line centre has been seen as the Habs’ biggest weakness, but how do their options stack up to the league’s best?

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NHL: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Whether Saku Koivu, Pierre Turgeon, or Vincent Damphousse is your barometer, suffice it to say that the Montreal Canadiens have not had a bona fide number-one centre for a long time. In fact, it’s reached the point where acquiring (or failing to acquire) a number-one centre could replace the Subban-Weber trade as the defining moment of Marc Bergevin’s managerial career.

The problem is that if you talk to a dozen different people, you’ll likely get a dozen definitions of “number-one centre.” Ryan O’Reilly, Paul Stastny, and John Tavares are some of the more common names bandied around these parts as potential acquisition targets for the CH, but these are very different players. Could the Canadiens, whether internally or externally, find a William Karlsson or Dylan Larkin-esque diamond in the rough to fill the hole down the middle?

Would that be sufficient for the public, after months of speculating that Tavares could be the one added this off-season?

The second question is unanswerable, but we can take a stab at the first. There are many different criteria one can use to define “number-one centre,” but I’ll try to apply a statistical filter to make my definition. Below, I have arrayed the top 31 points-per-game players in 2017-18 listed by the NHL as centres, with the following exceptions:

  • Rickard Rakell, Clayton Keller, and Mitch Marner are excluded because they did not take the bulk of the faceoffs when they were on the ice.
  • Jeff Carter and Joe Thornton failed to play 50 games.
  • Yanni Gourde would not automatically be Montreal’s best centre if he were placed on the Canadiens’ roster.

These 31 players, with the help of Bill Comeau’s SKATR system, were evaluated based on the following criteria: Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score, points, goals, primary assists (A), secondary assists, individual shots, shooting percentage (Sh%), time on ice (TOI), quality of competition (QoC), quality of teammates (QoT), and defensive zone deployment percentage (DZ Start %).

All numbers are percentile ranks: “99” means that the player’s value for that metric was larger than the value for 98% of the players in the league. For DZ Start %, lower numbers mean a smaller proportion of DZ starts and larger numbers mean a greater proportion. “25%” indicates values exceeded by 75% of the sampled players, “Median” indicates values exceeded by 50%, and “75%” indicates values exceeded by 25%.

So, how does the league define a number-one centre?

First, all of these players are obviously gifted offensively. That said, they do not necessarily have to be the individuals putting pucks in the net. The median 1C is in the 78th percentile league-wide when it comes to scoring, but is 84th percentile when it comes to primary assists. In line with that, a 1C does not necessarily have to be a prodigious shooter. Our 31 players ranged from 14th to 98th percentile in terms of individual shot generation, with the median being only 69th percentile.

Second, a 1C must play big minutes with the best and against the best. Nearly every player on our list ranked 90th percentile or better in terms of TOI, and nearly every player ranked 80th percentile or better when it came to quality of competition. It has to be noted that NHL teams are straying away from Mario Lemieux Syndrome - the notion that elite players can make below-average players into first-liners. Instead, 1Cs are usually playing with the best teammates that their clubs can offer.

Finally, 1Cs are — with a few exceptions — heavily sheltered. A full quarter of our evaluated players ranked 18th percentile or below in terms of defensive-zone start percentage, with Evgeni Malkin leading the list with a greater DZ% than only 2% of his peers. There are some very surprising names receiving significantly more OZ than DZ starts: Patrice Bergeron (7th percentile), Sidney Crosby (10th), and Mark Scheifele (19th). To me, this does not mean that these players cannot play the vaunted 200-foot game, but that their head coaches feel that their precious TOI is better spent trying to generate offence rather than playing defence. Similarly, defensively-flawed players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nathan MacKinnon are still easily capable of being 1Cs if deployed to emphasize their offensive strengths.

(Author’s non-sequitur: Aleksander Barkov is an absolute beast.)

Do the Canadiens have any players who have shown the potential to join this group of players? Let’s review the options.

Jonathan Drouin

Drouin, when acquired, was coming off a 53-point season as a 22-year-old winger with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His debut season as a Canadiens centreman was largely below expectations, although the fourth-year player out of Sainte-Agathe showed promise at the end of the season.

Unsurprisingly, Drouin’s 2017-18 season falls well short of 1C-level metrics, and represented a significant decline from his final season with the Bolts. Problematically, Drouin saw a decline in points, goals, and assists despite playing with roughly the same level of teammates as in Tampa (Alex Galchenyuk and Paul Byron vs. Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula). This is reflected by Drouin’s increased secondary assist metric: the players on the ice with Drouin were good enough to score without Drouin’s direct involvement in the play.

Alex Galchenyuk

Galchenyuk’s 2016-17 season was supposed to be the year that the young American established himself as the Canadiens’ top centre. For half the season, it looked like Galchenyuk was up to the task. A knee injury in December and a re-aggravation in January contributed to a tentative, listless Galchenyuk down the stretch, causing new coach Claude Julien to demote the forward to the third and fourth lines. Despite a weak finish, Galchenyuk’s previous season approached lower-tier 1C territory. The Milwaukee-native’s passing ability was particularly exceptional, reaching median 1C levels.

Like Drouin, Galchenyuk changed positions in 2017-18 and experienced a significant offensive decline. However, unlike Drouin, Galchenyuk suffered from significantly poorer on-ice teammates than the year prior. Accordingly, the American’s secondary assist metric plummeted while his primary assists remained at a high level. This indicates that unless Galchenyuk had a direct hand in the play, the puck generally wasn’t going in the net.

Also in contrast to Drouin, who was one of the few Habs not to suffer a precipitous drop in shooting percentage, Galchenyuk went from an above-league-average shooting percentage to one that was only better than 26 percent of his peers. These numbers indicate that Galchenyuk, more than Drouin, is a stronger candidate for a rebound season in 2018-19, regardless of whether he stays on the wing or is given another chance in the middle.

Phillip Danault

Danault is often overshadowed by his two flashier teammates, but the steady native of Victoriaville has been the Canadiens’ best centreman for the last two seasons. Brought in largely as a checker, Danault was given a chance to centre Max Pacioretty after Galchenyuk’s injury last season. The two built instant chemistry, resulting in Danault putting up metrics placing him squarely in 1C territory.

Danault’s 2017-18 season was derailed by injuries and Drouin taking minutes away from him next to Pacioretty, but despite a slump from 59th percentile shooting to 16th, the Chicago Blackhawks’ draft selection put up a much stronger season than either Drouin or Galchenyuk; out-producing and out-assisting both while taking on considerably more defensive-zone assignments. Given Fortuna’s hand in guiding shooting percentages from season to season, there is no reason to think that Danault cannot return to his 2016-17 levels of production if dealt the same hand as that year.

The verdict

There are a few universal trends that were consistent across Drouin, Galchenyuk, and Danault. In 2017-18, none of the three were given 1C-level TOI, none of the three faced 1C-level opposition, and none were given 1C-worthy teammates. Of the trio, Danault came the closest to meeting these three criteria in 2016-17, and responded with a lower-to-mid-1C-level season.

The Canadiens certainly do not have an elite-level 1C in their stables, but all is not lost should they miss out on Tavares. In Danault, they have a player who has put up 1C-level numbers in the past and can do it again if utilized properly. In Galchenyuk, they have an explosive gamebreaker who is coming off a season fraught with bad luck and poor teammates. In Drouin, they have the youngest of the three with the most potential and the one with the least amount of time to adjust to the Canadiens’ system and roster.

Justin Bourne has written on the importance of identifying players with the talent to take advantage of TOI on scoring lines, and then giving them enough of an opportunity to prove it. Tyler Dellow has looked at the impact of having better linemates on a player’s production as he moves up the lineup. The Montreal Canadiens need to trust the centres that they do have and support them with the TOI, deployment, and the teammates needed to succeed to coax the most productivity out of their talent.