Defensive centers are often tasked with shutting down the opposing top line. As a result, these players often fly under the radar because they won’t produce as much offensively as the scoring leaders around the league.
That said, there are exceptions. Some defensive pivots are still the team’s “1C” so to speak. Today we look at 4 players who fit that description: Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, Jordan Staal, and Nazem Kadri. While Bergeron and Staal are without a doubt the team’s top C, Kesler and Kadri are essentially #2’s on their respective team. That isn’t to say they can’t be number 1 guys on other teams, it’s just pointing out their current standing.
Quality of Competition and Usage
The Y-Axis (offense QoC) represents the quality and strength of opposing forwards that each center faces. Being higher on the graph means you face tougher opponents. Don’t get confused by the slight differences on where they lie vertically (and don’t go get a ruler and start measuring) – the takeaway is that each player faces the opponents toughest forwards.
The X-Axis (defense QoC) represents the quality of defensemen that each forward faces. Bergeron, playing with Marchand and Pastrnak, faced the toughest opposing d-men which makes sense. That line was among the best in the league and opposing teams clearly planned for it. Kesler meanwhile gets 2nd pairing d-men as Getzlaf draws top guys. Same for Kadri in Toronto (Matthews and Bozak typically faced stronger QoC) and Staal in Carolina (Skinner’s line likely drew toughest defensemen).
Zone starts is very interesting. Kadri and Kesler were both used heavily in the defensive zone. The model accounts for zone starts but context around such disproportionate usage should be kept in mind as we break down further comparisons.
The Y-axis (offense QoC) will match the previous chart, representing the quality of forwards each faced. The X-axis (scoring chance suppression) is our new defensive metric that measures a center’s ability to minimize opposing scoring chances. Our old one was solid, but this revised version better accounts for team and opposition strengths.
All 4 players faced approximately equal offensive QoC. But boy does Patrice Bergeron stand out. His scoring chance suppression metric (SCS) of +2.5 is outstanding. In elite company, especially when you consider the tough forwards he faces every night.
The 3 others (Staal +0.8, Kesler +0.5, and Kadri +0.7) were all about equal, and all fairly impressive. Those are solid, positive scores – especially when you consider that these players face tough QoC, too.
Offensive Ability and Possession Driving
When looking at offense, the QoC represents the quality of defensemen each player faced (previously the x-axis on the QoC chart, standardized here to highlight differences).
+ Patrice Bergeron faced the toughest QoC, yet still dominated as a possession driver with a PDF +10.4. His ability to generate high quality scoring chances was lower. This can be explained by A. The tough QoC he faced and B. Marchand and Pastrnak drove a big part of the “offense” on his line – Bergeron was relied more defensively and to play a 200 ft game
+ Ryan Kesler was very good offensively. Facing solid defensive QoC (2nd pairing), he drove possession well and generated scoring chances (SCG of +2.91)
+ Nazem Kadri, who we broke down in detail in the Leafs Center Breakdown, was also very solid. While he faced weaker defense QoC, he still generated strong scoring chances and played a complete game as a possession driver. Will be interesting to see if he can maintain that production when facing tougher defensemen.
+ Jordan Staal posted extremely impressive numbers. As a possession driver, he was outstanding, consistently making his teammates better and helping his team control the play (PDF +10.5). Staal also excelled at generating scoring chances – his SCG of +4.72 was highest among the 4 players
All 4 centers are excellent 200 ft. centers. They all excel at driving possession, elevating their teammates, minimizing opposing scoring chances, and generating high quality scoring chances for their team.
It’s also true that we selectively picked some of the top players for this analysis. When you stack all 4 guys up against all the centers in the league, you’ll likely find these 4 in the top quartile.
Excelling across the board as a 2-way center is tough to do, and even tougher when you face the opposition’s best. Kesler, Staal, Bergeron, Kadri all did just that in 2016/17 – and the Ducks, Canes, Bruins, and Leafs are hoping for similar performances in the coming year.