The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two young centres who are bona fide NHL players in the here and now, and who are only likely to get better with the passing of time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in 2011, and Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, are both excellent NHL talents and both fit nicely into the age group of the young forward corps the Oilers have assembled.
Unfortunately, neither stands 6’4” and weighs north of 200 pounds. Do the Oilers need to dump one of the two in exchange for an upgrade in size down the middle?
To answer that question, I decided to go back through all the teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the NHL lockout, and check the size of their top three centres. These centres were then ranked by total ice-time and designated first, second or third line. Here’s the list:
|Team||Season||First Line||Height||Weight||Second Line||Height||Weight||Third Line||Height||Weight||Avg. Height||Avg. Weight|
|Boston||2010-11||David Krejci||72||188||Patrice Bergeron||74||194||Chris Kelly||72||198||73||193|
|Vancouver||2010-11||Ryan Kesler||74||202||Henrik Sedin||74||188||Maxim Lapierre||74||207||74||199|
|Chicago||2009-10||Jonathan Toews||74||208||Dave Bolland||72||184||Patrick Sharp||73||199||73||197|
|Philadelphia||2009-10||Mike Richards||71||199||Claude Giroux||71||172||Jeff Carter||76||199||73||190|
|Pittsburgh||2008-09||Evgeni Malkin||75||195||Sidney Crosby||71||200||Jordan Staal||76||220||74||205|
|Detroit||2008-09||Henrik Zetterberg||71||197||Pavel Datsyuk||71||198||Valtteri Filppula||72||195||71||197|
|Detroit||2007-08||Henrik Zetterberg||71||197||Pavel Datsyuk||71||198||Valtteri Filppula||72||195||71||197|
|Pittsburgh||2007-08||Evgeni Malkin||75||195||Sidney Crosby||71||200||Jordan Staal||76||220||74||205|
|Anaheim||2006-07||Ryan Getzlaf||76||221||Samuel Pahlsson||72||202||Andy McDonald||71||185||73||203|
|Ottawa||2006-07||Jason Spezza||75||216||Mike Fisher||73||208||Antoine Vermette||73||198||74||207|
|Carolina||2005-06||Rod Brind’Amour||73||205||Eric Staal||76||205||Doug Weight||71||202||73||204|
|Edmonton||2005-06||Shawn Horcoff||73||207||Mike Peca||71||183||Jarret Stoll||73||213||72||201|
|Average||2005-11||First Line||6’1"||203||Second Line||6’1"||194||Third Line||6’1"||203||6’1"||200|
One point of interest before I get into the size numbers is how ice-time arranges these players. In many cases, the guy centering a team’s second scoring line finishes third in total ice-time – Mike Peca in 2006, Samuel Pahlsson in 2007 and Dave Bolland in 2010 are a few of the unlikely “second” line guys.
Getting back to the main point, the average top-nine centre on a Stanley Cup finalist over the last six seasons isn’t especially big by NHL standards: 6’1”, 200lbs. Pittsburgh’s trio is the biggest on the record here, coming in at a combined average of 6’2” and 205lbs; their opponents in Detroit are the smallest of the group at an average of 5’11”, 197lbs.
The Oilers top three centres today – Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Shawn Horcoff – come in at an average of 6’, 192lbs, just slightly shorter and lighter than average. Horcoff and Gagner, listed at 207 and 195 pounds respectively, are both right around the league average; the still-developing Nugent-Hopkins is definitely on the slight side, listed at just 175 pounds. He’ll put on more weight as he gets older, and the Oilers should be right around the average of our group of finalists when he does so.
Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg.
Leaving aside Detroit and Boston – teams that didn’t really have much snarl up the middle when they went to the finals – most of these teams had a hard-nosed guy to complement the two scorers. It’s the role Mike Peca in 2006, Mike Fisher in 2007, Jordan Staal in 2008 and 2009, and Dave Bolland in 2010 all played for their teams. If the Oilers hang on to both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.
Of course, other changes may be needed. Detroit has some beefy wingers, and Boston was famous for the grit (personified by Milan Lucic) and, umm, personality (personified by Brad Marchand) on their wings last season. I’ll be doing this same comparison between Edmonton and Stanley Cup Finalists, only focused on the other forward positions, in the near future.
But for right now, I think there’s an obvious conclusion: the Oilers shouldn’t be in a rush to move Sam Gagner down the line because they’re too small up the middle. Stanley Cup history shows plainly that teams can win with two centres – and in Detroit’s case even three – of below-average NHL size.