As the Nashville Predators have acquired center forwards over the past two years, they have done more than fill a few open roster spots.
When Nashville Predators GM David Poile traded prized defensive prospect Seth Jones to acquire center Ryan Johansen, the message read loud and clear. Nashville would no longer focus all resources on solidifying its blue line. No longer would the team acquiesce to 1 – 0 losses. The time for offense had finally arrived.
Since that day, Poile has added centers Nick Bonino and Kyle Turris to the line up. Most people agree that these moves will make the Nashville Predators a better hockey club. On the surface, it might work out as a simple argument. Nashville needed better center forwards. Better center forwards make teams better. Therefore adding better centers means Nashville will be a better team.
However, the pool descends deeper than that. Perhaps that argument has a true outcome, but the reasoning may be more complex. What does it truly mean for a team to have “depth down the middle”?
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How much does a faceoff win affect the outcome of a game?
First, it should be mentioned that no statistical link between faceoffs and winning percentage has been found (read this SI article for more). Additionally, very few centers have greater than a 50% faceoff win percentage, suggesting that a good center forward is not always as skilled (or perhaps lucky) in the faceoff circle.
There are, however, certain advantages to having proven faceoff winners. In older times, the Nashville Predators saw great success with centerman Paul Gaustad, who averaged 57.3% successful faceoff wins at even strength during his time in Nashville (56.8% career). Paul Gaustad’s strengths were valuable to the Predators when the team began in their own defensive zone. Gaustad’s ability to win a faceoff that could potentially lead to an opposing team setting up for a goal kept the chances slim for the opposition.
Additionally, winning offensive zone faceoffs provides opportunities to enact set plays and score quick goals.
In this play against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Viktor Arvidsson wins a faceoff that is immediately sent for a one-timer that beats the goalie. Winning the faceoff got the set play to P.K. Subban started and he finished strong. Losing the opening faceoff would most likely have resulted in a clear by Pittsburgh.
A skilled center can make a difference in the faceoff dot and consequently lead the team to quality chances. Fortunately for Nashville, Kyle Turris is tied for eighth in the league with a 59.5% faceoff win percentage this season and Ryan Johansen is twenty-fifth with a 55.1% faceoff win percentage.
That’s My Quarterback
Every sport needs a dedicated leader of play. Baseball has a pitcher, basketball has a point guard, football has a quarterback and hockey has a center. Perhaps less glamorous than the other three, the center must take ownership of supporting the play, distributing the puck and enabling his line-mates to do their jobs. But, like quarterbacks, there are plenty of opportunities to score yourself.
On the defensive side of the ice, the center must assist in protecting the slot, tying up open forwards, assisting to dig pucks out of the corners, providing an outlet for wingers on the wall and clogging up passing lanes, among other things. The center must have the greatest focus of any player on the defensive side of the puck (excluding the goalie of course). Nick Bonino does a great job breaking up passes and blocking shots, even at the expense of his own health (see P.K. Subban for more details).
In the neutral zone, the center must lead rushes and distribute the puck quickly and efficiently. Ryan Johansen does extremely well in this area. His ability to move the puck to the open man limits the amount of time in the neutral zone. Entering into the offensive zone as quickly as possible ensures more offensive opportunities.
Offensively, the center ensures the flow of the puck does not stop. He distributes the puck to open ice while supporting wingers that get trapped in the corners. Good centermen also know how to get to open ice and score.
Here, Kyle Turris finds open space in front of the net and puts home his first goal as a Predator. Fans in Nashville look forward to many more like that.
Lock Up The Middle
So what does Nashville have in the center of the ice? When Nick Bonino returns from injury, they will have four players that succeed in the faceoff circle, find open ice, understand their role within the defensive and neutral zone and distribute the puck very well. It’s quite the face lift for a team that used to struggle up the middle.
Among the opposing teams within the Central division, Nashville’s center depth stacks up with the best. It’s up to the units to find cohesion and make their new-found strength visible with wins.