Meet the Heavy Lifters

The recent injury to Matt Stajan in Calgary has highlighted the utility of a somewhat under-appreciated asset in the NHL: the shut-down centerman. Every so often, a defensively able pivot or checking line comes to the attention of the general public due to their club’s success – Sammy Pahlsson and the 2007 cup winning Ducks spring to mind – but mostly this group labors in relative anonymity. Everyone may be aware of Ryan Kesler after his 75 point season or Pavel Daystuk (because he’s just that good), but there exists an entire underclass of centers who are frequently given the dirty spade work by their coaches without much attention or fanfare.

With that in mind, here’s a brief introduction to some centers who are probably a whole lot more important to their clubs than many realize.

Martin Hanzal – PHX

He’s 23 years-old and his career high in three seasons is a 27-point rookie effort. Nothing about Hanzal’s counting numbers stand-out. In fact, they’re completely underwhelming.

Until one considers the fact that he’s been the Coyotes number one checking option for two straight years. Hanzal has frequently seen the toughest match-ups on a team lacking other elite options since he was a sophomore and he’s somehow managed to keep his head above water. The towering 6’6″ center was the lone bright spot under Wayne Gretzky in 2008-09: he faced the big boys, started in his own zone about 62% of the time and still sported one of the best possession rates on the team (-5.76/60 corsi).

Re-signed at a bargain rate of $1.8 million this off-season, Hanzal is a sure-fire future Selke candidate.

Frans Nielsen – NYI

Most fans outside of New York (and probably many inside it as well) probably think “who?” whenever they hear Frans Nielsen’s name mentioned. John Tavares, Kyle Okposos and Mark Streit get a lot of the press, but it’s Nielsen who has been doing the tough jobs on the island. Although relatively slight at 5’11″ and 180 pounds, Nielsen is nevertheless the guy who does the heavy lifting: he’s usually matched-up against other top lines and he starts off in his own zone a lot (55% in 2009-10). Despite his situation, the puck actually spent more time in the offensive zone when Nielsen was on the ice last year (+3.88/60 corsi). On top of all that, Nielsen actually managed 38 points on a team that wasn’t exactly bursting with offensive flair.

Jay McClement- STL

Few centers get buried quite as thoroughly as the Blues Jay McClement. Surrounded by kids trying to find their legs and mark the scoresheet, McClement is the guy who gets sacrificed so, say, Patrik Berglund doesn’t get overwhelmed. Last year, McClements offensive-to-defensive zone start ratio was a ghastly 41.2%. His opponents every shift were the Zetterberg’s and Ovechkin’s of the world and his most frequent line mate was pugilist BJ Crombeen. Yikes.

As the prospects find their legs, it’s possible McClement won’t have to report to the rink with a miners helmet and overalls at some point in the near future. It’s remains a tough gig for now though.

David Legwand – NSH

For years, Barry Trotz has squeezed offense from a budget roster by selecting one or two forwards and putting them in a pit of despair in order to free up the rest of the group for the fun stuff. Recently, it’s been former second overall pick David Legwand and frequent line mate Joel Ward (and sometimes Jerred Smithson/Marcel Goc).  Like everyone else on this list, Legwand regularly faces quality opposition and he does it by starting out at the wrong end of the rink more often than not (o-zone to d-zone ratio = 41.1%).

The $4.5 million center has caught some flack for his steadily falling offensive numbers over the last few seasons. Considered in context, however, his decline in productivity from a 63-point forward back in 2006-07 to a 38-point guy last year, isn’t merely a case of failing skills or lackluster effort- it’s one of a guy suddenly having to fight up hill most evenings.

Chris Drury – NYR

Infamous for boasting one of the worst contracts in the league, the perception of Drury’s poor value is exacerbated by the fact he’s the guy having to carry the mail for the Rangers. Last season, his zone start was an incredible 38.7%. Only Brian Boyle was within range of that starting ratio in New York (39.1%) with the difference being the latter played about five minutes a night against nobodies. Drury, on the other hand, spent nearly 13 minutes per game at even strength skating against other capable NHLers. To put his circumstances in perspective: Drury took 395 defensive zone face-offs in 2009-10. Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky took 485 combined.

He’s still probably not worth the $7.05 million/year he’s making, but at least Rangers fans can find solace in the fact that Drury certainly isn’t making his big bucks the easy way.

The list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point for identifying the players upon whose backs a lot of first stars and big offensive numbers are often built. The default setting for a lot of coaches in the NHL is “power versus power” when it comes to choosing match-ups. However, for those decision makers without true PvP options due to a lack of money or talent, the shut-down center is the guy who gets tapped on the shoulder when the other coach sends out his big guns.