For part 2 of my mini-series going over the Senators long-term outlook at each position, I wanted to look at a position with a lot of moving parts: centre.
If you missed part 1 where I looked at the left wingers, you can check that out here.
This piece will be going over what the centre position looks like for the upcoming season, as well as the outlook for a few years down the line when more prospects will have graduated. It is a position with some potential within the organization, but there are also a whole lot of question marks.
At this juncture it’s very difficult to project where each player is going to slot in this season at centre. Chris Tierney, Colin White, and Artem Anisimov are locks, with Nick Paul and Alex Galchenyuk most likely playing on left wing. Tim Stuetzle will play left wing to begin his career, but as I went over last article, there may not even be room for him if they want to give other young players a shot at legitimate NHL minutes. Logan Brown and Josh Norris are the other two vying for a spot up in the middle, and considering that Brown is a year older and has played 25 more AHL games and 26 more NHL games than Norris, he should probably be the one getting the first opportunity.
Now, you can argue that Norris might have the better ceiling or that he “deserves” it more, and that may very well be true. At the same time, Brown will be 23 in March and Ottawa needs to see if he can be an NHL player or not. Based on his strong expected goals numbers last year, 55.99% xGF even in the face of brutal puck luck, and his strong scoring numbers in the AHL, there’s reason to believe he can at least be a top-9 centre. Brown has the look of a flawed player, but the Sens owe it to him (and to themselves) to give him an extended look at the beginning of the season to understand his place in the franchise’s future.
It should as no big surprise if Ottawa starts Tierney, Brown, White, and Anisimov down the middle.
I’m not sure if that is how each centre will slot in, especially Tierney who is clearly not a first liner but who may earn the title by default. I have a feeling that Brown will be given an opportunity in the top-6, and I hope I am right because I’d like to see him be given a real chance. Norris should clearly be the first call-up even if a winger gets hurt, and besides him, they have Filip Chlapik (if they want him at centre instead of left wing), JC Beaudin, Logan Shaw, and Mark Kastelic. The last three probably won’t be seeing much NHL ice-time this year, although Beaudin surprisingly played in 22 games last year.
Overall, the depth this year is not quite up to the makings of a good NHL team. That could change quickly if Brown and Norris develop into top-6 players, but I wouldn’t count on both of those happening right away. On the bright side, I do think that White will be much better than he was last year.
In the Future
The future of this position is much more interesting than what happens this year. I’m assuming that Anisimov and Tierney will be gone by 2021 and 2022 respectively, so that opens up two spots. Stuetzle should be at centre long-term, plus Brown, Norris, and some others should be locking down spots as well. Here’s how I’m projecting the depth chart at centre down the line:
Future Centre Projections
Of course, not all of these players will reach their projections and things will change over the course of the new few years. Overall, though, it’s hard not to feel good about where the franchise is at. There is certainly a lot of pressure on Stuetzle to be their #1 centre, but there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll be up to the task. After that, the Sens have a lot of depth between Norris, Brown, Pinto, White, and Greig. All they need is for two of those to make it as a capable middle-6 centres to be in a good position.
You can never really have too many centres since they should be able to easily shift to the wing, which is what White, Pinto, and Greig should be able to do if need be. In addition, championship caliber teams usually have better than average centres on each line—Tampa had Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Anthony Cirelli, Washington had Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Pittsburgh had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, etc. Ottawa shouldn’t necessarily hope that they only end up with one centre properly slotted on each line.
For example, it would be fantastic if both Norris and Brown ended up being players capable of playing on the second line, but one of them has to get easier minutes on the third. Pinto and Greig are wildcards in this too because there is a chance that one or both of them bypass others on the depth chart. Pinto has taken a couple of massive steps forward in the last 18 months and Greig has been compared to JG Pageau. Maybe they end up being a better fit on the 3rd line than Brown or White.
Beaudin and Kastelic have the potential to be useful 4th line players, although I wouldn’t count on them to be part of the team’s future. Chlapik is also in a weird spot because he will probably be on the left wing, although even there his spot isn’t exactly defined. There are a few others such as Philippe Daoust and Luke Loheit too, but they are very far away from having an impact, if anything at all.
Are the Senators absolutely set at centre? Not really because almost none of their potential top flight prospects have established them in the NHL just yet. Even Stutzele, the wunderkind, will still need to prove he can be a bonafide top of the lineup star; nothing will be just given to him. While Norris had a breakout season in the AHL, that next step to being one of the best 180 forwards in the entire world is a big one. Logan Brown will need to shake off a long history of injuries in order to establish himself as a useful player wherever that may be.
Nonetheless, whatever happens Ottawa has replenished their options at centre; the first step has mostly been done well. I wouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch and say that they shouldn’t have to worry about this position, but I’m certainly very excited to watch these players develop over the next few seasons.