Grant’s Slant – Centers of Attention
August 6, 2017
By Grant McCagg
It has now been 24 years since a Canadian team last won a Stanley Cup, and it just so happens to have been the Montreal Canadiens, anchored not only by one of the best goalies in NHL history in Patrick Roy, but depth and quality at a position that has very clearly kept them from making another serious Cup run in the past two decades – center.
Vinny Damphousse and Kirk Muller were 90-point scorers in 1993, and most certainly the club’s best forwards as well, providing excellent two-ways games, smarts and competitiveness. The club was so deep at center at the time that Stephan Lebeau, an 80-point scorer in the regular season, and Denis Savard, a legendary scorer in his Chicago days who was still scoring 0.8 points-per-game, had to sit out several games during Montreal’s magical Cup run.
Muller would leave in a couple of years but he was replaced by Pierre Turgeon and the Habs drafted a young Finnish phenom in 1993 (Saku Koivu) who would explode onto the NHL scene at the same time, so the club remained competitive throughout the mid-1990’s with solid depth down the middle.
Alas…Koivu suffered a devastating knee injury which hindered him from ever fully reaching the tremendous offensive promise he had flashed in his early 20’s, Turgeon was dealt away in 1997, Damphousse began to slow down some and was eventually dished off to San Jose, and even though Mike Ribeiro enjoyed some productive campaigns as second fiddle to Koivu, the club was never able to replicate the depth and quality it had enjoyed for much of the previous six decades as the pre-eminent NHL powerhouse.
Flash forward two decades, and the position which has long been a sore spot finally looks to hold some burgeoning promise, as the Habs have made a determined effort to draft and develop pivots.
In the past five seasons, the Habs have selected seven players that were either centers in their draft year or have been developed at that position since – Alex Galchenyuk, Michael McCarron, Charles Hudon, Jacob de la Rose, Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling and Joni Ikonen. Five of those draftees were taken in the top-two rounds, so there have been high expectations, yet it’s safe to say until this summer, the jury was still out on whether the club had finally turned the corner in its quest to have a center group that can one day compete with the league’s best.
Why the sudden optimism? So far at least…Joni Iknoen and Ryan Poehling, coming off of superlative performances in top-two center roles in the world Junior Summer showcases, look like the real deal.
Ikonen’s three goals were bested only by Sweden’s Oskar Steen, and Poehling’s 2.5 points-per-game were second-best in the event to teammate Adam Fox.
Ikonen ended his tournament with his club’s last three goals in a 6-5 loss to Sweden, and all three demonstrated his goal-scoring talents as he beat the Swedish netminder on all three occasions with sizzling wrist shots.
Last spring he also demonstrated his terrific slapshot when he scored a hat-trick versus Belarus at the U-18’s with three blistering one-timers from the high slot, and he scored more than a few goals in U-18 action last year on shifty dekes on breakaways, so Ikonen is clearly not a one-trick pony; he has an array of ways that he can score.
What impressed many scouts even more in the five games he played was his solid effort on the defensive end. He not only has high-end speed and skill, but competes at both ends of the ice and looks after his defensive duties. He anticipated and read the play well, and more often than not had his nose in the middle of the action whether it was in the offensive, neutral or defensive zones.
“He is pretty feisty,” said one western conference amateur scout. “He stuck his nose in there, played in the hard areas. He didn’t back down from people…I saw him attack the net and try to go through people. I was impressed for a smaller guy…he wasn’t shy at all. Willing to go through traffic to score.”
Those comments were made before he had his three-goal performance to finish the tournament. Ikonen looks like a good bet to make Finland’s WJC roster after tying for the team lead in goals and points with Janne Kuokkanen. Finland should have a strong team at the tournament, but aren’t exactly stacked at center. He may even play in a top-two role, and it won’t hurt that he’s playing back in Finland this season where national team scouts and managers can keep a close eye on his progress.
Poehling was even more impressive in his two games with the US team, scoring a goal and setting up four others while playing a prime penalty-killing role and making his presence known in all three zones physically and mentally.
“He is just so smart,” noted one Metropolitan Division scout who saw both of his games and thinks he’ll be a lock to make the US team in December, especially considering that the team is being led by his head coach at St. Cloud State. “Motzko already knows what he brings at both ends of the ice. He’ll want him at the World Juniors…I’d be shocked if he cuts his own player.”
Going into the draft Poehling was already considered one of the best two-way centers as he played a pivotal checking role for the US in both the U-18 World Championships and the Ivan Hlinka last summer where he was team captain while also providing key goals and assists.
At the summer Showcase it was his skating that surprised some scouts – no one considered it to be below average by any means last season, but versus some of the best junior talent in the world this past week, many of them 19-year-olds, Poehling’s skating stood out. Smooth, quick and powerful at 6-2 and 200 pounds, the comparisons that have been made to Ryan Kesler do not seem to be too far off, and he may also end up being a better playmaker.
Needless to say, things are looking up in Habsland….there should not be any “doughnut lines” a couple of years from now…with no center. A position that for years has been seen as the storied franchise’s Achilles heel is no longer sticking out like a sore thumb; there is genuine hope that the club will have viable options to fill top-three roles in the future with centers that won’t be middle-of-the-pack second and third-liners, but top-notch ones.
It’s also not out of the question that one could become a first-line center either given the nine or so options the team has in its youthful depth chart, and if it’s not Galchenyuk or Drouin; Ikonen and Poehling will be leading the charge in that regard.