The center position has been the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization since this current run of success started back with the 2006-07 season. Not only with the top-two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the championship level teams have always gone three and four deep down the middle. Whether it was Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Nick Bonino, or Matt Cullen the great Penguins teams always had an ability to roll four lines and outmatch pretty much any opponent in the NHL.
This week TSN’s Travis Yost looked at the center depth of every team in the NHL and placed the current Penguins roster on the second-tier (out of five tiers) behind Edmonton, Toronto, and Florida, and on the same level as Colorado, Tampa Bay Boston (with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci back), New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild, and the St. Louis Blues.
Most of the teams are the ones you would expect, though I think New Jersey and Minnesota might be a bit of a surprise.
So let’s look at the current Penguins’ center position and how it stacks up by the numbers.
Offensively, the Penguins should still be on a top tier. Of the 205 centers that played in at least 40 games this past season, the Penguins had three of the top-70 centers in terms of points per game with Sidney Crosby (eighth), Evgeni Malkin (16th), and Jeff Carter (69th) all sitting in the top third of the league. Even Teddy Blueger (0.43 points per game) checked in at 101st, which is still in the top half of the league.
That means all four centers on the NHL depth chart right now are capable of producing better than your average NHL center. That, of course, is total offense, and takes into account even-strength and power play numbers.
Digging down into just the even-strength numbers the Penguins’ center depth drops off a little.
Crosby is still elite, but Malkin’s points per 60 at 5-on-5 drops down to 61st in the league, Blueger at 80th, and Carter at 104th.
Malkin and Carter are the two that stand out here and might be the most concerning given the roles they are expected to play.
When it comes to Malkin, he is coming off of a truly bizarre season.
While his 5-on-5 play was heavily criticized, he still scored goals at the same rate he has throughout his career. He averaged 1.08 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this past season, a number that was not only tops among all Penguins centers (including Crosby), it was among the best in the league.
I have written about this here before, but it was his assist numbers — and only his assist numbers — that took a massive drop this past season. Was that a result of his play declining? Or the lack of consistent quality wingers next to him? Can a full season of Rickard Rakell and/or Jason Zucker help remedy that? It seems logical to think that can happen, especially given how strong his underlying numbers were. Crosby and Malkin had similar expected goal and scoring chance rates, both sitting near the top of the league. They can still drive the bus. It is why the suggestion of letting Malkin go and replacing him with somebody like, say, Vincent Trocheck seemed so bonkers. Pretty much every piece of objective evidence we have to evaluate how a player is performing or driving play still points to a wildly productive player, and one that might still have another level to reach with better quality wingers.
Carter is a very different story.
Along with his actual 5-on-5 production, his possession, expected goals, and scoring chance numbers still sit as the worst among Penguins centers and around 100th or so in the league. Certainly not terrible, but definitely a step below Blueger and several steps below Crosby and Malkin. I have been critical of Carter’s play in the second half of last season, as well as his contract extension, but when he is your fourth most productive center and still sits near the middle of the league’s centers (and in some cases even higher) that is probably a pretty good sign. As well as a sign that our expectations sometimes get blown out of proportion by how good Crosby and Malkin have been and still are.
At the end of the day, even though the Penguins might have one of the oldest center groups in the league with Crosby, Malkin and Carter, they still have one of the league’s best and most productive groups.