The year: 2018. The place: Ottawa. Eugene Melnyk, penniless from the having the odious responsibility of owning a professional hockey franchise, sports a filthy 4-foot beard, lives outside of the Rideau Centre in a cardboard box with a homemade sign reading "Change 4 Senz payroll."
The Ottawa Senator’s top line centre? 25 Year old fan favorite Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Last year, Jason Spezza was forced to an early retirement by his ongoing pack injuries, and as Karlsson takes the captaincy, Pageau is ready to take the next step.
Far fetched? Not as much as you might think. Pundits love to point out that Pageau’s success is largely concentrated in a small number of games. Of his 4 playoff goals, 3 came in a single game. He was pointless in the vast majority of regular season games he played last year. Clearly, they say, his success is the results of flukes, small sample size, great luck.
Here are some things these pundits would be missing. Sure, he has a small sample size. And in that sample size, he had a playoff hat-trick. In the 2268 man-playoff games Ottawa has played, this feat has only been achieved once before. There were 2268 other chances for Senators to score a hat trick in the playoffs. 50 goal scorer whats-his-face on a line with brilliant passers Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza couldn't do it. Neither could Spezza himself, despite his amazing talent. The only other player to pull it off? Daniel Alfredsson. Not bad company to be keeping.
What does it take to succeed as a centre in the NHL? Speed, size, soft hands, and heart. Pageau, as a 20 year old, has speed, hands and heart in spades. The only thing he lacks is size. But why is size important? It’s important to be able to get to the net, absorb a hit, play in the dirty areas. Time and time again, we have seen Pageau get checked by bigger players, only to be the one left standing. Pageau drives the net harder than anyone else on the team. Has he lost a puck battle in his entire time with the Sens? I can’t think of one. He can – he has – overcome his size.
Most importantly, he makes the players around him better. He’s had his success dragging around some of the least talented players on the team. As a fourth line centre to the likes of Chris Neil and Matt Kassian, he managed a relative Corsi of +9.3. Though he only started in the offensive zone 50% of the time, he ended his shifts there 58% of the time. He Drives the play.
Given some time to mature, Pageau will be Ottawa’s top centre by the end of the decade. This is a player who matched up perfectly Sidney Crosby as a 20 year old. As a 25 year old? A truly dominant player.