We’re in the doldrums of the NHL offseason.
The expansion draft, free agency and development camps have come and gone, and now it’s the waiting period before training camps and the preseason begin. Until then, we get to debate “discussion-inducing” lists.
On Sunday, NHL Network released its list of the top 20 centers right now.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) August 21, 2017
The usual suspects are on this list. Connor McDavid grabbed the top spot, although the argument could be made that title still belongs to Sidney Crosby since McDavid completed just his first full season after missing most of his rookie season with a fractured collarbone.
Auston Matthews took fourth on the list after an impressive rookie season. Other players, such as Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Patrice Bergeron, are more players I expected to see.
However, the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg did not make the list.
At first glance, Zetterberg’s absence from the top 20 centers didn’t bother me all that much. The 36-year-old is on the back end of his career and one of a handful of Red Wings who struggle to score consistently. In fact, NHL.com has Zetterberg listed as a left wing despite playing most games last season at center. But, he didn’t make NHL Network’s list of top 20 wingers, either.
With that being said, what Zetterberg continues to do at his age is remarkable. He led the team in points for the third consecutive season, scoring 17 goals and adding 51 assists in 82 games last year. His five on five relative shots for percentage of 3.85 was third on the Red Wings behind Anthony Mantha (6.58) and Robbie Russo (4.66) — who played just 19 games last season — so Zetterberg continues to generate more offense relative to his teammates despite being on a weak defensive team.
Zetterberg was one of four Red Wings who had a shots for percentage of at least 50. The Red Wings also had a 10.30 shooting percentage at five on five this season when Zetterberg was on the ice. The captain led the team in shots (195), which was almost 20 more than second-place Dylan Larkin (178).
As you can see in the highlight reel of his goals from last season, Zetterberg continues to be a patient player, looking for open areas on the ice to receive a pass from a teammate or being strong on the puck and making it hard for defenders to take the puck away from him.
Obviously, he’s not the same player who scored 92 points (43 goals, 49 assists) during the 2007-08 season, but he’s still an intelligent player who can — for now — handle the physical strain of playing nearly 20 minutes per night in the NHL.
It’s clear there is some recency bias in NHL Network’s list, and if I had to choose one player to switch out for Zetterberg, it would be Leon Draisaitl. The 21-year-old did have a nice 2016-17 season, scoring 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists) in 82 games. However, the question is how much of that 26-point increase from last season was because he had a healthy McDavid to play with? Draisaitl spent nearly 700 minutes playing with McDavid last season, according to HockeyViz. And despite logging a lot of minutes with McDavid, his 1.66 relative shots for percentage is eighth on the Oilers, behind Jordan Eberle, and his relative goals for percentage is -0.87, which ranked 10th again behind Eberle.
Zetterberg, on the other hand, has had to carry his team rather than be the beneficiary of a once-in-a-lifetime player. He led the Red Wings with a 19.85 relative goals for percentage. He also beat Draisaitl in goals per 60 (0.71 vs. Draisaitl’s 0.66), primary assists per 60 (1.18 vs. 0.82) and points per 60 (2.32 vs. 2.04).
Draisaitl is a solid player and will be a good No. 2 center for the Oilers, but Zetterberg certainly makes a case for being the better centermen despite being on the wrong side of 30.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.
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