Size Up The Middle: Can Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner Co-Exist?

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.

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  • John Chambers

    We’re a group of fans with an irrational size envy. Looking around the league at young C’s who one might covet as a replacement to Gagner, none of Derek Stepan, Marcus Johansson, Kyle Turris, Derek Brassard, or Cody Hodgson are any better, or any bigger.

    Sure you might deal Gags for a D if the plan is to move Hall to C, or if you magically acquire Logan Couture, but otherwise the grass is probably greener under your feet.

  • Clyde Frog

    I think the point is find players who can contribute points. If they produce at a proper pace, then their size shouldn’t be a determining factor.

    Finding players who have that competitive element should be the next concern, kids who are willing to do the gritty things necessary to continue production in the playoffs.

    Again size is not an indicator of this. For proof look no further than philidelphias gritty tiny tots up the middle and how they compete against pitsburgs bigger centres.

    Trading skill and production for physical size is just silly… But it sure is an easy way to critique players.. /sigh

  • Gagner has to stay unless an equal talent emerges. That being said, I still worry about his skating. Smyth isn’t fast but is an effortless skater (ok when not exhausted) and turns very quickly. He can get in front of an opponent on the boards to keep a cycle going.

    I don’t know if you see Gagner this way JW, and I agree that some heavier wingers might be needed in the corners at some point, unless the lighter guys can figure out a way to get the puck and keep it longer.

  • @Gord

    Actually I really dont think that’s the point of the article at all. I dont even think you’re in the same ballpark as the point.

    @Quick

    The return for Gagner has always been speculated to be a defenseman, not a forward. The offense he provides from the C position would disappear into nothingness. Not impossible to overcome, but worth noting.

  • Rama Lama

    I think that trading Gagner is required as he is too slow for the wingers he will have to play with.

    If he cant address his foot speed then we should not keep him, as most nights he looks like he is skating with a boat anchor tied to him……..most confounding given small players are usually fast?

  • @ Arch – one would presume that if we traded Gagner we would get more than a bag of pucks back. The point to Willis’ article was trade him and get some size on the 2nd line C position, not move the existing elements up one line.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    @ Archie

    Horcoff’s still going to get 18 minutes a night going up against the others teams best line. The math may make it doable if the return is right for Grange.

  • “…that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.”

    “When”?

    WHEN?????

    *Slaps self in disbelief*

    Mother of god. Isn’t Shawn Horcoff already a third-line C?