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The East Division’s Top 10 Centers: 2020-21

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Continuing our look at the Division’s best with the top ten pivots in the East

NHL: MAR 10 Bruins at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve got the defensive side of the ice covered, with our top ten netminders and defensemen in the books - now it’s on to the middle of the ice, with the top ten centers in the East.

As a reminder, here’s the Method Behind the Madness - To determine the overall ranking, each member of the Rink staff was first asked to create their own top 10 list by position. We then took the average of those scores to determine our final ranking below. Any player not making the overall top 10 but who was ranked by at least one of our Rink writers earns Honorable Mention honors, where applicable.

Let’s drop the puck on the best pivots the East has to offer:

Honorable Mention: Brock Nelson (NYI), David Krejci (BOS), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (NYI)

10. Nico Hischier (NJD)
Last year’s stats: 14-22-36, 51.7% FOW, 47.8 ES SAT%

He may not have burst onto the scene the way some expected after being drafted first overall back in 2017, but the 22-year-old Hischier has grown into his role as the Devils’ top center and has steadily improved each season. The Devils certainly like what they’ve seen, believing in his potential enough to sign Hischier to a new seven-year deal ahead of last season. He still doesn’t have the supporting cast he really needs (and in fact lost some with the departure of Taylor Hall) but he will have plenty of chances to take the team and make it his - and hopefully get some better running-mates in the future.

9. Evgeny Kuznetsov (WSH)
Last year’s stats: 19-33-52, 43.3% FOW, 45.2 ES SAT%

It’s telling just how good a player is when 52 points in 63 games is seen as “mediocre” - but such is the case with Kuznetsov, who is coming off of a second-straight undershelming campaign. The fact is that we all know he’s capable of so much more, and has all the talent he needs to achieve it. When he’s on, he’s majestic to watch, and when he actually shoots the puck, he’s scoring more often than not. Can he put it all together under a new coach? The Caps are depending on it.

8. Mika Zibanejad (NYR)
Last year’s stats: 41-34-75, 49.2% FOW, 50.6 ES SAT%

Zibanejad was a solid player during the early part of his career; over the last two seasons, though, he’s really emerged as not only the Rangers’ top center but also one of the top centers in the NHL. Back-to-back 70+ point seasons will have that effect, as will topping 40 goals for the first time (in just 57 games, no less) - a total that included a torrid run to the end of the season, with 23 goals in the 22 games before the pause. Oh and that little outburst against the Caps in early March... that seemed to draw some attention, as well. Now the question is, was that an outlier season or a glimpse at the kind of player he’s going to be going forward?

7. Nicklas Backstrom (WSH)
Last year’s stats: 12-42-54, 49.2% FOW, 52.5 ES SAT%

Mr. Consistency himself, Backstrom continued doing what he does best - providing the quiet backbone for the Caps and operating at a near point-per-game pace. As someone who relies more on smarts and elite playmaking skill than on speed, the fact that he’s into his 30s really hasn’t impacted his game all that much, and he’s still a key member of the Capitals’ core and leadership group. Thanks to a new five-year deal signed back in January, it looks like he’ll be finishing his career there, as well.

6. Sean Couturier (PHI)
Last year’s stats: 22-37-59, 59.6% FOW, 56.1 ES SAT%

Couturier probably doesn’t always get the respect he deserves, simply because he plays in a division with names like Crosby, Malkin, Backstrom and Giroux and wasn’t on that same level early on. He’s not far off, though, and over the last three seasons he’s been putting up point totals that make one wonder if he should be in that discussion. And it’s not just the offense that makes Couturier a strong player - he’s great on both sides of the puck, and put up the sixth-highest SAT% at evens last season among centers (50+ GP).

5. Mathew Barzal (NYI)
Last year’s stats: 19-41-60, 41.6% FOW, 50.3 ES SAT%

The newly re-signed Barzal is basically the future for the Islanders - so it’s probably a good thing that he’s a very good hockey player (and definitely the best player on their roster). His offense has dropped off a bit since his rookie season, but 2019-20 was still pretty good with 60 points in 68 games, and another 17 on a surprising 22-game playoff run. What’s most impressive about Barzal’s performance so far is that he’s done it largely without a supporting cast of any kind - so if the Isles ever spring for a full-time winger to help him, watch out.

4. Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 25-49-74, 50.3% FOW, 53.3 ES SAT%

Malkin came into last season needing something of a rebound, after a subpar 2018-19 campaign - and he got one and then some, putting up 74 points in just 55 games (a 110-point pace over a full season). When Crosby underwent surgery to fix a sports hernia and missed the first part of the year, it was Malkin keeping the Penguins afloat; not surprising, given that he has frequently played his best hockey when out from under 87’s shadow, and highly necessary for the team.

3. Patrice Bergeron (BOS)
Last year’s stats: 31-25-56, 57.9% FOW, 56.0 ES SAT%

Bergeron’s jersey may now have the ‘C’ sewn on it but it’s unlikely that he will need to change much in his game to adjust to his new responsibilities. The frequent Selke Trophy winner - he’s at four and counting - has been the backbone of the Bruins for many years, and at 35 he’s still one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Despite the shortened season, he managed to crack the 30-goal mark for the sixth time in his career; in fact, he’s done so in each of the last three seasons despite playing no more than 65 games in any of them. That’s pretty darn good.

2. Jack Eichel (BUF)
Last year’s stats: 36-42-78, 46.8% FOW, 50.8 ES SAT%

It seems crazy to suggest that a second-overall pick could fly under the radar, but somehow Eichel has somewhat avoided the spotlight - despite being an elite player who should be right in the middle of it. Over the course of his five-year career, Eichel has posted big numbers for the Sabres, and actually improved each season during that time. Last year was his best year to date, with a point-per-game rate of 1.15 and his first 30+ goal season. It’ll be interesting to see how well he meshes with new addition Taylor Hall, and what impact that has on the Sabres’ playoff chances in a very tough division.

1. Sidney Crosby (PIT)
Last year’s stats: 16-31-47, 55.6% FOW, 53.3 ES SAT%

Crosby has been the gold standard for centers, and a true generational talent who has lived up to the hype, since making his debut back in 2005-06. The knock against him (and what’s held him back from loftier point totals and milestones) has been his health - something that had not been an issue as much in recent years until the injury monster struck again ahead of last season. But while offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia caused him to miss almost 30 games, it didn’t slow him down upon his return - all he did was put up 47 points in his limited 41-game campaign, topping a point per game for the eighth time in ten seasons (tied for most in the League with Malkin and Patrick Kane). He’s getting older (aren’t we all?)... but the talent is certainly still there.