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Western Conference shows center position still Coyotes’ biggest need

Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan (21) battles with New York Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey (14) for control of the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tim Bernhardt was discussing the Coyotes’ center prospect pool on Thursday night on his drive back from a game at North Bay, Ontario. At the top of that depth chart is a player the Coyotes are still praying pans out at the NHL level, Dylan Strome, their first-round pick (No. 3) in 2015.

Below him is a trio of players who, at best, slot in as bottom-six centers on the depth chart: Laurent Dauphin, Ryan MacInnis and Lane Pedersen.

The Coyotes would like to add to that pool.

“I think you’re always looking at center,” the Coyotes director of amateur scouting said. “It’s always your priority when you’re drafting forwards.

“There’s not a ton out there. This year in the draft, I think there’s no centermen even rated in the top 10. It’s a hard position to fill. They just don’t grow on trees.”

For the Coyotes, the position has been harder to fill than it has for most NHL teams. Not since Jeremy Roenick left town in 2001 have the Coyotes boasted a legitimate No. 1 center.

While franchise centers are a rare breed, the Coyotes’ current predicament is all the more noticeable with a look around the Western Conference. Most of the West’s teams have found a legitimate No. 1 center.

When the Coyotes went into the 2017 offseason, general manager John Chayka vowed to improve a position where former coach Dave Tippett insisted the team needed not one, but two centermen to play in the top nine.

The Coyotes acquired Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers in a draft-day trade and he is currently filling the No. 1 center role. Stepan has 10 goals and 34 points in 54 games this season with an average time on ice of 19:36. That is not quite the level of production teams need from a No. 1 center.

Part of the problem is the young players around Stepan who haven’t reached their potential yet; part of the problem is that Stepan is likely better suited to a No. 2 center role where he can play a shut-down role and still contribute offensively.

The Coyotes just don’t have anyone who can assume that role for Stepan. Between 22-year-old Christian Dvorak, Brad Richardson and converted wing Max Domi, the Coyotes have 14 goals and 58 points. That’s 92 total points from the center position. Compare that with other teams in the West and you’ll find part of the explanation for why the Coyotes rank 30th in goals for per game at 2.31, just a shade ahead of Buffalo’s 2.30.

If Stepan, Dvorak and Richardson could slot in as the team’s No. 2, 3, and 4 centers behind a true No. 1 center, the depth chart would look a lot better. Maybe that will still happen with Strome, or maybe the Coyotes need to keep searching.

“To win in the league you obviously have to be strong down the middle,” coach Rick Tocchet said, “whether it’s playing a 200-foot game or driving the engine offensively.”

Here’s a look at the Western Conference’s No. 1 centers to offer a comparison with Stepan’s production.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Nashville Predators, Ryan Johansen: 50 games, 6 goals, 33 points, 18:33 average time on ice (ATOI).

Winnipeg Jets, Mark Scheifele: 38 games (injured), 15 goals, 38 points, 20:58 ATOI.

St. Louis Blues, Brayden Schenn: 56 games, 23 goals, 53 points, 19:25 ATOI.

Dallas Stars, Tyler Seguin: 55 games, 28 goals, 50 points, 20:20 ATOI.

*Minnesota Wild, Eric Staal: 54 games, 24 goals, 49 points, 18:03 ATOI.

Colorado Avalanche, Nathan MacKinnon: 49 games, 24 goals, 61 points, 19:18 ATOI.

Chicago Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews: 54 games, 15 goals, 36 points, 19:41 ATOI.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Vegas Golden Knights, William Karlsson: 54 games, 29 goals, 47 points, 18:26 ATOI.

San Jose Sharks, Joe Thornton/Logan Couture: Thornton (injured) 47 games, 13 goals, 37 points, 18:20 ATOI; Couture, 50 games, 22 goals, 40 points, 18:23 ATOI.

Los Angeles Kings, Anze Kopitar: 53 games, 21 goals, 57 points, 21:51 ATOI.

Anaheim Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf: 31 games, 7 goals, 34 points, 20:49 ATOI.

**Calgary Flames, Sean Monahan: 53 games, 27 goals, 49 points, 18:35 ATOI

Edmonton Oilers, Connor McDavid: 52 games, 22 goals, 63 points, 21:29 ATOI

***Vancouver Canucks, Henrik Sedin: 54 games, 2 goals, 35 points, 15:18 ATOI.

Arizona Coyotes, Derek Stepan: 54 games, 10 goals, 34 points, 19:36 ATOI.

* — Mikko Koivu logs the most average ice time (18:36) of any Wild center, but Staal is the top point producer by a wide margin.

** — Mikael Backlund logs the most average ice time (19:13) of any Flames center, but Monahan is the top point producer.

*** — Bo Horvat logs the most average ice time (18:50) of any Canucks center, but Sedin is the top point producer.

Flyers at Coyotes
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Radio: KTAR 92.3 FM
Records: Flyers — 26-19-9. Coyotes — 13-32-9.
Injury report: Flyers — None. Coyotes — F Christian Fischer (lower body) is day-to-day but likely to play.

Flyers scouting report: Philadelphia beat Montreal to remain atop the Eastern Conference wild card standings on Thursday. The Flyers are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games. … D Shayne Gostisbehere has seven points (one goal, six assists) during a four-game point streak. … Forward Jakub Voracek leads the team with 63 points. … Phoenix product Sean Couturier leads the team with 27 goals.

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