Coyotes know their center position is not up to snuff

Apr 12, 2017, 1:24 PM | Updated: 1:25 pm
Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak (18) celebrates his goal against the Montreal Canadiens wit...
Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak (18) celebrates his goal against the Montreal Canadiens with left wing Max Domi (16) and left wing Jamie McGinn (88) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Brad Richardson summed up almost everything you need to know about the Coyotes center position in one succinct quote.

“If you’re honest, we’re weak at center,” Richardson said. “Center is a pretty important position in this league and I’m sure they’re probably looking to add someone. Centers are tough to find, though, so we’ll see.”

Richardson is as credible a source as anyone when it comes to the Coyotes’ center position. First, he plays center for Arizona. Second, as a veteran of 12 NHL seasons with four different teams, he has played with elite centers such as Joe Sakic, Anze Kopitar and Henrik Sedin.

As the Coyotes exit a fifth straight season without a playoff berth, but with some hope based on the performances of their rookies and second-year players, they can’t lose sight of the fact that they need more at this vital position — much more.

Rookie Christian Dvorak made terrific progress and looks like he will be a good NHL center for years to come. Before his injury, Richardson was a dependable, two-way center with excellent speed, a non-stop motor and good hockey sense. Dylan Strome is still an unknown, but the Coyotes have hope that he will build strength over the summer and be able to impose his skill on the game, even if he doesn’t possess good speed.

There is also the possibility that Arizona will draft another center in June, depending on where it lands in the NHL Draft after the draft lottery is held on April 29. Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Casey Mittlestadt, Gabriel Vilardi, Michael Rasmussen and Cody Glass all received high marks in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings.

With all of that in mind, the Coyotes still need more. They need more skill; they need more speed. In short, they need an elite talent. When Dave Tippett used right winger and leading scorer Radim Vrbata as an example of a good Coyotes player who still doesn’t stack up with the game’s elites, he could just as well have been talking about the center position, which is more important to a team’s playoff and Cup hopes than the wings because of the myriad ways that position impacts the game.

Tippett is right. The Coyotes need more top players if they ever hope to become an elite team. They hope that some of their young players grow into those top players, but everyone in this organization recognizes that the center position is still not up to snuff.

“The center ice position is obviously one that is very evident,” GM John Chayka said, when addressing the Coyotes offseason needs. “Moving forward, we’re going to have to look to those [elite] types of centermen to help grow this group.”

The Coyotes will be looking for one this summer, but as Richardson noted, they are difficult to find. They are rarely available in free agency and this year’s unrestricted free-agent class looks weak, with former Coyote Martin Hanzal and Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino among the best, relatively young options.

Normally, you draft those types of players and as we noted, the Coyotes may try to do so in a draft that lacks the generational talents of the past two drafts: Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Maybe they’ll find one who can do for Arizona what McDavid and Matthews did for Edmonton and Toronto, push them into the playoffs, but Chayka intends to explore the trade routes as well.

No. 1 centers are seldom traded, but Tyler Seguin and Ryan Johansen are rare exceptions. At this point, it’s impossible to say if Chayka will find any sellers. Colorado’s Matt Duchene will likely be on the market and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may be as well, but the Coyotes have little interest in either of those players, so Chayka will have to work the phone and explore possibilities — not knowing if they even exist.

Maybe the Flyers will look to move under-producing center Claude Giroux, who carries the added bonus of a right-handed shot which the Coyotes lack at the position, but it sure didn’t sound like a possibility last week.

Maybe the Kings will flounder again next season and jump start a rebuild with a trade of Kopitar, but it didn’t sound likely on Tuesday.

Maybe the Rangers would move Derek Stepan, or maybe last season’s trade of Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad has them happy with their 1-2 punch.

It’s all speculation right now, but Chayka hopes that one of his calls bears fruit. If you’re wondering why Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Columbus made the jump to the playoffs this year from a top-six spot in last year’s draft, take a long look at their center position. It’s not the only reason, but it is a primary reason.

“You need top players to compete at the top level,” coach Dave Tippett.

The 2016-17 Coyotes did not have enough of them.

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