In the NHL, the center position is the center of activity.
Centermen are expected to assist teammates, orchestrate the power play and score the occasional goal, all while winning faceoffs and playing defense.
Throughout their history, the Washington Capitals have had a plethora of potent pivots. Here is a list of the five greatest centers in Capitals history, with a couple honorable mentions.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.
Joe Juneau has the fewest games played, goals, assists and points of any player mentioned in this slideshow. That is why he did not crack the top five.
But he deserves honorable mention because more than any other player on this list, Joe Juneau could produce in crunch time.
Juneau played in only 44 playoff games in Washington, second fewest on this list. Yet he scored 13 goals and had 28 assists for 41 points, meaning he was almost a point-per-game producer in the postseason. No one else even comes close.
Plus, Juneau made his goals count in the postseason. Of his 13 playoff goals, five were game-winners and two were in overtime.
During the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs, Juneau scored seven goals and four were the game-winning type (Hockey-Reference.com). His goal in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo sent Washington to its first and so far only Stanley Cup Final appearance.
With that strike, Juneau could make a case for scoring the most important goal in Washington Capitals history. Although, another member of this list has a pretty strong argument, as well.
That's right. Nicklas Backstrom only receives "honorable mention" on this list.
Before I get attacked with pitch forks and torches, let me say this:
I am an old-school sports fan who believes no player should be showered with superlatives such as "greatest of all time" or "best to ever play" while he is still playing. Furthermore, I refuse to follow the popular trend of ignoring the historical feats of previous generations in a premature and misguided attempt to heap praise on the current generation.
Now, with my manifesto complete, I can focus on Nicklas Backstrom.
The 25-year-old Swede has already completed six full seasons in Washington, playing 413 games. He has 109 goals, 306 assists and 415 points. Backstrom has already scored 38 power-play goals, with 16 game-winning goals and three OT-winners.
Backstrom plays well in the postseason, too. He has 15 goals, 28 assists and 43 points in 57 games, with five power-play goals and two game-winning goals, both in overtime.
Finally, his production has been remarkable. Backstrom averages 0.26 goals, 0.74 assists and 1.00 points per game. If included among the members of this list, Backstrom would rank second in both assists per game and points per game.
When his career ends and Capitals fans have had time to reflect on his achievements as well as those of the centers that came before him, Nicklas Backstrom will most likely be recognized as the greatest center in Washington Capitals history.
Adam Oates did a lot in a short amount of time for the Washington Capitals.
Oates joined the team during the 1996-97 season and played in Washington through 2001-02 before again being traded at the deadline. In total, he played 387 regular-season games as a Cap.
During that time, Oates had 73 goals, 290 assists and 363 points. His average of 0.75 assists per game is the best such number of any player on this list.
Oates' finest season in Washington was 1997-98. The Ontario native was sixth in the NHL in assists with 58 and 11th in power-play assists with 23. Now, Oates actually did better in both categories while in Washington during the 2000-01 season, when he totaled 69 assists and 37 power-play assists (Hockey-Reference.com).
But in 1997-98, Oates helped Peter Bondra score 52 to reach the 50-goal plateau for the second and final time in his career while also tying for the league lead in goals. Helping a high-scoring teammate to a 50-goal season was something for which Oates had an uncanny knack, doing the same for Cam Neely in Boston and Brett Hull in St. Louis. While in Washington in 1997-98, Oates accomplished it while logging the eight-best faceoff percentage in the league at 57.6.
That year also marked Oates' best postseason with the Capitals. Oates had six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 21 games, with a power-play goal, a short-handed goal and a game-winning goal among his markers. Oates' performance helped lead the team to its only Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
To even play in the NHL, Michal Pivonka required more courage, sacrifice and assistance than most. His story is detailed in Breakaway, a book by Tal Pinshevsky describing the first wave of Eastern European players who defect from the Iron Curtain during the Cold War to play hockey in North America (via Dan Rosen of NHL.com):
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, formerly with the Washington Capitals, worked to secure Michal Pivonka's clearance to come to America to join the Caps in 1986 during a time when Pivonka and his girlfriend put themselves at risk by defecting from Czechoslovakia and away from the Communist regime there.
Once he arrived safely in North America, Pivonka became a consistent, reliable point producer while playing his entire NHL career with the Washington Capitals from 1986-99.
Pivonka played a total of 825 games in the regular season and scored 181 goals with 418 assists for 599 points. The Czech native scored 56 power-play goals, 12 short-handed goals and 27 game-winning goals, with four of those game-winners coming in overtime. His production was better than average, producing 0.22 goals, 0.51 assists and 0.73 points per game.
The Caps got much of the same from Pivonka in the postseason, where he tallied 19 goals, 36 assists and 55 points in 95 games. This averages out to 0.20 goals, 0.38 assists and 0.58 points per game in the playoffs.
However, Pivonka's impact on the Washington Capitals cannot be understated, as demonstrated by his place on the Capitals' leaderboard for three prominent statistics:
Like Michal Pivonka, Mike Ridley was a consistent producer who played for the Capitals for a long time. But Ridley was even more productive than Pivonka.
The native of Winnipeg scored 218 goals with 329 assists for a total of 547 points in 588 games for the Capitals, from 1986-94.
He was plus-49 while in Washington, which is is the best plus/minus rating of the top five.
And he was clutch, too. Ridley scored 32 game-winning goals—most on this list—with four in overtime.
Ridley produced 0.93 points per game, third best on this list. Ridley scored 0.37 goals per game, second best on this list.
He maintained that production in the playoffs, with 19 goals, 41 assists and 60 points in 76 games. His postseason averages are 0.25 goals, 0.54 assists and 0.79 points per game.
Dennis Maruk was the best goal-scoring center whoever donned a Capitals uniform. In fact, he was one of the best pure goal scorers in team history. And yet his legacy could have been even greater, if only he had stayed with the team longer.
Maruk played a total of 343 games as a Washington Capital from 1978-1983, giving him the shortest tenure of any player on this list. But Maruk totaled 182 goals, 249 assists and 431 points in that relatively short amount of time, for astounding averages of 0.53 goals, 0.73 assists and 1.26 points per game. Maruk added 55 power-play goals, seven short-handed goals and 11 game-winning goals.
After totaling 90 points in his first full season in Washington in 1978-79, Maruk tallied only 27 points in an injury shortened 1979-80 season. The following year, however, Maruk had a breakout performance, scoring 50 goals with 47 assists for 97 points, with 16 power-play goals and five game-winners.
The 1981-82 season was even better, as Maruk had 60 goals and 76 assists for an impressive 136 points, with 20 power-play goals, all thanks to a shooting percentage of 22.4. Maruk, who only fought occasionally, also set a career high that season with 128 penalty minutes.
Thanks to his prodigious goal scoring while in Washington, Maruk still holds a share of a notable franchise record, a fact recently tweeted by the record-holder himself:
Unfortunately for Dennis, he played on some bad teams in Washington and only made the postseason once with the Capitals. In the 1983 playoffs, Maruk made his postseason debut in what would be his final season in Washington. Maruk had a goal and an assist in four games.
Maruk's lack of playoff exposure while in Washington is a crying shame. Capitals fans would have loved to see a goal scorer like Maruk wreak havoc on the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In 872 regular-season games, Hunter scored 181 goals with 375 assists for 556 points, ranking fifth on the team's all-time list in points. Hunter scored 29 game-winning goals and is fourth in team history with 72 power play goals.
Hunter was good in the playoffs as well, scoring 25 goals with 47 assists for 72 points in 100 playoff games in Washington. Hunter scored 11 power-play goals and two short-handed goals in the postseason.
Of course, the hard-nosed Hunter leads the Capitals in penalty minutes. That's easy to do when you rank second in NHL history in the category. In fact, his 2,003 penalty minutes as a Capital are more than the combined total of all the other members of this list—including the honorable mentions.
But Dale Hunter's impact on the Washington Capitals franchise cannot be measured with mere statistics.
Hunter scored what is still considered the biggest goal in Caps history, helping to shed their reputation at the time of being "chokers" (The Washington Post). Hunter had been acquired in a trade before the 1987-88 season to provide playoff experience and leadership. He did just that by beating Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals. The Capitals trailed 3-0 in Game 7, and 3-1 in the series.
He captained the only Washington Capitals team to appear in the Stanley Cup Final, in 1998. The Caps were swept by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings but lost the first three games by only one goal, including Game 2 in overtime.
Finally, Hunter (32) is one of only four Washington Capitals players to have his sweater number retired, along with Rod Langway (5), Yvon Labre (7) and Mike Gartner (11)(Hockey-Reference.com). Hunter is the only one of the four who played center.
That pretty much sums it up.