GLENDALE, Ariz. — The most difficult positions to find in the NHL are top-six centers and top-four, right-side defensemen. Elite right-handed defensemen are rare, which is why the hockey world will be Kevin Shattenkirk’s oyster this summer if he makes it to unrestricted free agency. Franchise centers are just as rare, and you don’t win Stanley Cups without them as the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Carolina Hurricanes have proven the last 10 years.
Soon-to-be free agent Martin Hanzal is the Coyotes’ best center, but he is not a franchise center. Teams would ideally use him as their No. 2, or even No. 3 center on a talent-rich team. The fact is that Hanzal’s injury history, his age (he turned 30 on Monday), and his middling offensive production have led the Coyotes to conclude that he can not be a part of their future for the term and price that he is asking.
If Hanzal is traded by the March 1 NHL trade deadline, and all indications are that he will be dealt, the Coyotes will have an even bigger question on their hands: who takes his spot as their shut-down center, and how will Hanzal’s absence filter through the rest of the lineup?
The Coyotes hoped that two years of languishing near the bottom of the standings might have solved that problem, but they lost out in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes two drafts ago, they didn’t land the consolation prize when Edmonton jumped everyone to land McDavid and Buffalo was left with Jack Eichel, and they lost out again last year when Toronto drafted local kid Auston Matthews.
The meteoric rises of McDavid and Matthews have been well chronicled, but Eichel’s presence on Sunday at Gila River Arena was another painful reminder of the Coyotes’ recent fate.
Since Eichel returned from a high ankle sprain on Nov. 29 that cost him 21 games, the Sabres are 19-15-5. In 18 of Buffalo’s first 36 games (not counting shootout goals), they scored one or zero goals. Since the New Year, they have been held to one or fewer goals just three times in 24 games. Eichel has been on the ice for 57 of the team’s 147 goals (38.8 percent) and he has 33 points in 39 games for Buffalo, or 0.85 points per game.
The last time a Coyotes center averaged at least 0.8 points per game was 2000-2001, when Jeremy Roenick had 76 points in 80 games and the Coyotes were still playing at America West Arena.
Hanzal has never provided that kind of production. That lack of elite production from the center position is one of many reasons the Coyotes have never played for a Stanley Cup. Still, who do they have to replace Hanzal, and where will they get that production in the future?
Christian Dvorak, 21, has shown steady progress throughout the season and may be best suited to Hanzal’s role, even if he doesn’t have Hanzal’s size and physical prowess. Unless Dvorak’s offense takes a quantum leap, however, he does not look like a center who will produce elite points at the NHL level. That’s fine if he still fills the vital role Hanzal has.
Dylan Strome, 19, is still an unknown commodity. He played just nine games before the Coyotes pronounced him unfit physically to compete at the NHL level. Strome has exceptional hands and skills but can he produce elite points? The early returns were not promising on that front which begs the question of where to play him next season if he makes the roster? It should also give the team pause that in a game that increasingly stresses foot speed, neither Dvorak nor Strome possess it.
Clayton Keller has everyone salivating with his production in college, but he first has to prove it will translate at the NHL level, and if it does, he still seems a better fit on the wing. Even Keller has compared his skill-set, albeit prematurely, to Patrick Kane, who plays the wing for Chicago.
Centers have myriad responsibilities down low in both zones where size and strength are significant assets. Keller is listed at 5-foot-10 (he’s not even that tall), so put it this way: Do you see Keller matching up favorably with Jonathan Toews (6-2), Anze Kopitar (6-3) or McDavid (6-1)?
Maybe the Coyotes will select Nolan Patrick or another center in this year’s draft. Maybe they’ll get in on the Matt Duchene bidding this summer if Colorado doesn’t trade him at the deadline. Maybe they’ll swing a trade for a center. Even if they hang onto Brad Richardson, rather than expose him in the upcoming expansion draft, another veteran presence at the position would help. Maybe they’ll take the Columbus Blue Jackets’ approach and plug three good centers into the lineup that can sustain them without a franchise center.
Whatever the thought process, the Coyotes can’t rest on the center position. At present, it isn’t strong enough to push this team where it wants it go.
Sabres at Coyotes
When: 6:30 p.m., Sunday
Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM
Records: Coyotes — 21-31-7. Sabres — 26-25-10.
Season series: First meeting.
Injury report: Coyotes — LW Lawson Crouse (IR, lower body) and G Mike Smith (illness) are day to day and could play. Center Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) is on injured reserve. Sabres — C Johan Larsson (wrist) is out for the season. F William Carrier (knee) is day to day. F Cody McCormick (blood clot) has retired.
Scouting the Sabres: The Sabres are six points off the Eastern Conference playoff pace . This weekend’s series in Denver and Arizona could decide whether they are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. … Since C Jack Eichel returned to from a high ankle sprain on Nov 29, the Sabres are 19-16-5 heading. … G Robin Lehner entered play Saturday tied for sixth in the NHL in save percentage at .925. … LW Evander Kane leads the team with 21 goals in 49 games, free-agent signing Kyle Okposo (RW) leads the team in points (39). Eichel has 34 points in 40 games.