Each position in hockey has an important place in the game, but no position is quite as prestigious as center. Every team is looking for a star center, and any team who wants to compete is going to need one.
Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Phil Esposito are just a few of the legends who have occupied this spot on the roster, and much like the eras of the past, many of today’s best players make their living there as well.
Centers do everything. They score, they play defence and they take faceoffs. No one is busier on the ice than these multitaskers, which is why having a top center on your team is so crucial for success.
So who are today’s best centers?
Here are the 20 best players at center ice going into 2011/12 NHL regular season.
After being drafted third overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2009, Matt Duchene made the NHL as an 18-year-old and has found immediate success.
He led all rookies in scoring in his first season, posting 54 points, and was a Calder Trophy finalist. Duchene followed that up with a 67-point sophomore campaign last year and has solidified himself as the Avalanche’s No. 1 center.
A complete player, Duchene has impressive speed and checking ability, and a knack for making plays. At just 20 years of age, this young gun is only going to get better and will likely find himself near the top of this list in years to come.
Pegged as “The Next Big Thing” during is time in junior, John Tavares may not quite be living up to the expectations some had for him. However, he’s still a supremely gifted player with all the makings of an NHL star.
In his inaugural NHL season, Tavares tied Matt Duchene for the rookie scoring lead with 54 points. He would improve on that last year by posting 67 points and 29 goals to lead the New York Islanders in scoring for the second straight season.
A natural goal scorer, Tavares is continuing to grow as a player and could still reach the level of play many expected of him after his fabulous junior career. He’s the face of the Islanders franchise and will surely be the player they build around for years to come.
Although his production has tailed off in the last couple of seasons, Jason Spezza is still one of the most skilled centers in the league.
Despite only playing in 62 games last season, Spezza managed 21 goals and 57 points, good enough to lead the Ottawa Senators in scoring and place him 27th among centers. He’s surpassed the 90-point barrier twice in his career and can be a point-a-game player when healthy.
Although his resume is impressive, his name continually pops up in the rumor mill, as the Senators are currently looking to rebuild. A change of scenery might do him good and could help him regain the success he enjoyed earlier in his career.
A former 50-goal scorer and four-time NHL All Star, Vincent Lecavalier has long been one of the faces of the NHL and consistently ranks among the league’s top centers.
Although he was limited to just 65 games, Lecavalier still put up 54 points last season and was a key part of Tampa Bay’s playoff run. He caught on fire late last year, recording 31 points in his final 30 regular-season games, and another 19 points in 18 playoff contests.
Although injuries have hampered his production in recent years, and Steven Stamkos has taken over as the team’s No. 1 center, Lecavalier’s size, skill and experience still make him one of the biggest threats up the middle.
One of the best goal scorers in the NHL, Jeff Carter is a true sniper. He’s emerged as a clutch player and one of the best young centers in the game today.
Carter posted another solid campaign last season, notching 36 goals and 66 points. It was his third straight 30-plus-goal season, a stretch that also features a 46-goal effort in the 2008/09 season.
Recently traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carter will surely assume the No. 1 center role and will be one of the leaders on a young team trying to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
One of the most consistent goal scorers in the NHL, Patrick Sharp is coming off a stellar season that saw him produce his best point totals yet and be named MVP at the 2011 NHL All-Star Game.
Sharp put up 71 points last season, which was ninth among all NHL centers. He also scored 34 goals, which was his fifth straight 20-plus-goal season.
Besides being an offensive threat, Sharp is also a regular penalty killer, making him an extremely important player on the Chicago Blackhawks.
One of the most well-rounded players in the game today, Mike Richards is an effective player at both ends of the ice. The two-way center is also an excellent scorer and a superb leader on the ice.
Richards had another solid season, putting up 66 points this past year. He's also known as great clutch player, as exemplified by his terrific 23-point postseason performance in 2010 that helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Like Carter, Richards was also traded from Philadelphia to make way for a new-look Flyers squad. He’ll form one of the best one-two punches down the middle in Los Angeles this season with Anze Kopitar and will likely be depended on heavily to help get the Kings back to the playoffs.
A talented player and gifted passer, Nicklas Backstrom is truly one of the most skilled players in the NHL. After just four seasons the young Swede has already racked up an astonishing 323 points.
However, Backstrom had a bit of a setback last year. He recorded his lowest offensive output to date with just 65 points, a far cry from the 101 he scored the season before, although that may have something to do with the more defensive-minded system utilized in Washington last season.
With an excellent set of teammates that includes stars Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, expect Backstrom to bounce back with another strong season.
Coming off a season that included 41 goals and a Selke Trophy win, Ryan Kesler has emerged as one of the top players in the game. His tenacious penalty killing and scoring touch also make him one of the most complete centers in the NHL.
Kesler recorded 73 points last season, making him the seventh-highest-scoring center in the league. Not originally known for his goal scoring when he was drafted in 2003, Kesler has now strung together four straight 20-plus-goal seasons.
Perhaps most impressive though was his play in the postseason. Kesler had 19 points during the Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals while battling through various injuries. The Livonia, Michigan native will once again be a leader on a Canucks team hoping to win it all this season.
Long considered one of the best power forwards in the game, Joe Thornton's combination of size and pinpoint passing have made him one of the best centers over the last 10 years.
Thornton is another player who saw a decrease in offensive production last year, as his 70 points were his lowest point total since the 2001/02 season. However, he more than made up for it in the playoffs, where his 17 points finally proved to his critics that he can be a big-game player.
At 32 years old, Thornton still has a few good seasons left, and if his play in the playoffs last year was any indication expect him to return to a point-per-game pace again this season.
The face of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise, Eric Staal has been one of the league’s most consistent point producers since the lockout.
Staal put together another solid campaign last season, netting 33 goals and 76 points, and since the 2005/06 season, he hasn’t scored fewer than 29 goals and 70 points.
The eldest Staal brother will once again be relied on as the main source of offence in Carolina, although some key free-agent acquisitions means he will have a little more help. With a stronger supporting cast the skilled center could be ready for a jump in offensive output this season.
Right from his rookie season, Anze Kopitar has been one of the top offensive players in the league. The Slovenia native is a big, strong center who is one of the Los Angeles Kings' key penalty killers, while also being their leading scorer.
Kopitar continued his excellent play last season with 25 goals and 73 points, making that his fifth straight year with 20 or more goals.
The Kings are set to be one of the top teams in the West, and that can only mean good things for Kopitar's production. He'll be the go-to guy in LA again, and at just 24 years of age there's still room to grow for this young star.
Brad Richards was the hottest free agent on the market last summer, and for good reason. He's been one of the NHL's highest-scoring players over the last two years, and is an offensive force down the middle.
Despite missing 10 games last season, Richards still finished 10th in league scoring with 77 points. He also netted 28 goals, his highest total to date.
During the the offseason, Richards decided to sign with the New York Rangers. He'll surely take over the role as No. 1 center and will be the player the Rangers build around going forward.
Injuries cut his season short last year, but Evgeni Malkin is still one of the most gifted centers in the NHL. When he's healthy there are few players in the league that can match his scoring and playmaking ability.
It was a disappointing season for Malkin during his last campaign. He was only able to play 43 games and finished with just 37 points. It was the first time during during his five-year career that he was unable to maintain a point-per-game pace.
Assuming he's completely recovered from knee surgery, Malkin will once again play a key role on the Pittsburgh Penguins, and with Sidney Crosby's health still up in the air there may be even more pressure on the Russian superstar to return to the form that saw him win the Art Ross Trophy two seasons ago.
A Selke Trophy finalist this past season, Jonathan Toews does everything for the Chicago Blackhawks. He scores key goals, he provides invaluable leadership and he even kills penalties.
Toews had his best season to date last year, notching 32 goals and 76 points, and his eight game-winning goals was among the best in the league. It was also the third straight season he improved on his points-per-game average.
At just 23, Toews is already an NHL captain, an Olympic gold medalist and a Stanley Cup champion. What's amazing is how hungry the young center still is to keep winning, and if he continues to improve Toews could be emerge as one of the greatest clutch players to ever play the game.
One of the most effective centers in the NHL, Ryan Getzlaf is perfect combination of size, skill and tenacity. The ultra-skilled power forward has risen to prominence by consistently putting up big point totals and dominating his position.
Getzlaf has averaged over a point per game for the last four seasons. Although injuries forced him to miss 15 games last year he still managed 76 points, good enough to place 14th in league scoring and fourth among centers.
Primarily a setup man, Geztlaf never has to look far for a man to dish the puck to, as he plays with one of the best scorers in the game in Corey Perry. The Anaheim captain isn't afraid to take the puck to the net either though has three 20-plus-goal seasons during his career.
Possibly the most complete player in the game, Pavel Datsyuk is a potent blend of unbelievable offensive ability and superb defensive awareness. A three-time Selke Trophy winner, the Russian sniper has a highlight reel that is virtually unmatched around the league.
Datsyuk was hampered by injuries last season, limiting him to just 59 points. However, he came alive in the playoffs, recording a remarkable 15 points in 11 games and was the early favourite to take home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP before the Red Wings were eliminated in second round.
With arguably the best puck-handling abilities in the NHL, Datsyuk can make even the most skilled defensemen look foolish and is one of the most dangerous players in the shootout. Not bad for guy drafted 171st overall in the 1998 entry draft.
A former Hart Trophy winner, Henrik Sedin has long been one of the most skilled men to play at center ice. However, he took his game to another level during the 2009/10 season and led the league in scoring, proving he deserves to mentioned as one of the best at his position.
After breaking out with a remarkable 112-point season two years ago, Henrik followed it up with a 94-point effort last season and finished as the highest-scoring center in the NHL. He's also led the league in assists for the past two seasons.
Along with his twin brother Daniel, Henrik forms one of the league's most dynamic offensive duos. His vision and precision passing make him potentially the best playmaker in the league, and there's no reason to think he won't have another big season this year.
Heralded as a can't-miss prospect heading into the 2008 NHL entry draft, Steven Stamkos has lived up to the hype. At just 21 years old, he's already one of the best pure goal scorers in the game and an elite-level talent.
Stamkos' 45 goals last season were the second-most in the NHL, while his 91 points placed him fifth in league scoring. He's recorded two straight seasons of over 90 points and has been one of the few players in recent history to score 50 goals in a season.
Although he saw a slight drop in his production last year, Stamkos' numbers remained among the best in the league. Still in his NHL infancy, this All-Star is only going to get better, which is a scary thought for his opposition.
Sidney Crosby isn't just the best player in hockey today, he's likely one of the best players to ever play the game. His vision, puck-handling abilities and will to win are simply unmatched, and at times it appears as if he's on another level than even the most elite players in the NHL.
Before being sidelined with a concussion, Crosby was on pace for a remarkable 132 points, which would have been the largest single-season point total in 15 years. Through five NHL seasons he's also averaged an astonishing 1.32 points per game.
Prolonged concussion symptoms have some people questioning his future in the sport, but assuming he can return to form there's no doubt that he is by far the greatest center going into the 2011/12 NHL season.