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The center of the Arizona Coyotes' primary positional problems

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Center ice may be the most important position to build in the NHL and the Coyotes have a long way to go in catching up to the rest of the Pacific division.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" - William Butler Yeats

That line is from a poem written a century ago, but seems very pertinent to the current state of the Arizona Coyotes. An offseason of upheaval that has seen a buyout, a beloved figure jump ship and a much needed trade hijacking is nearing its end as training camp fast approaches. But the picture for the Coyotes is still muddled when it comes to their forwards for the 2014-15 season, particularly the center ice position.

The Coyotes have been looking for answers at the center position ever since Jeremy Roenick was dealt many years ago. In fact, during the Tippett era, the Coyotes have had only one center reach the 50-point plateau and that was Matthew Lombardi in 2009. That is why I was a proponent of the Mike Ribeiro signing last season. Sure, hindsight being 20/20, it is a disaster of a move, but at the time it made sense. The Coyotes fancied themselves pseudo contenders and needed a productive first line pivot. I didn't expect anything close to his season he had in Washington after the lockout, but I also didn't expect him to fall apart both professionally and personally. Now, Arizona added Sam Gagner, a young (he's not even 25 yet, how is that possible?) but inconsistent player who might not even stay at center.

How important is having a good center in the NHL? Let's take a look at the Coyotes' competition in the ultra-difficult Pacific Division to see what they are up against. Here is a quick breakdown of the top producing centers from each team last season:

Team Player GP G A P PPG
Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf 77 31 56 87 1.13
San Jose Sharks Joe Thornton* 82 11 65 76 .927
Los Angeles Kings Anze Kopitar 82 29 41 70 .854
Edmonton Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 80 19 37 56 .7
Vancouver Henrik Sedin 70 11 39 50 .714
Arizona Coyotes Mike Ribeiro 80 16 31 47 .588
Calgary Flames Mike Cammalleri 63 15 25 40 .635

*author's note: Joe Pavelski technically scored more points but spent much of the season on the right wing, so I used Thornton for true center comparison purposes.

Arizona's top scoring center wasn't the worst in the division going by total points, but on a per game basis, the Coyotes ranked dead last. Also, the center who was most productive for the Coyotes last season isn't even with the team anymore. If you put the top producing player still on the roster in that table, you would see these numbers:

Antoine Vermette: 82 GP, 21 G, 24 A, 45 P, .549 PPG

The drop off from Ribeiro to Vermette last season wasn't huge, but there is a drop. No question, the Coyotes had the worst production from their top centerman of any team in the Pacific, but one season is a pretty small sample size for analyzing production. What happens when the size is expanded to three seasons*?

Team Player GP G A P PPG
Anaheim Ryan Getzlaf 203 57 136 193 .951
San Jose Joe Thornton 212 36 157 193 .910
Los Angeles Anze Kopitar 211 64 124 188 .891
Vancouver Henrik Sedin 200 36 140 176 .88
Edmonton Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 182 41 91 132 .725
Calgary Mike Cammalleri 173 59 59 118 .682
Arizona Martin Hanzal 168 34 63 97 .577

*author's note #2: I used three seasons because that is when Cammalleri was traded to Calgary and Nugent-Hopkins debuted. One player for each team made the table easier.

Hanzal ranks at the bottom in points and goals, but most depressingly, he has also played the fewest games of those seven centers. The Kings, Ducks and Sharks have absolute rocks holding down the middle of their top units and even though Sedin is clearly on the back end of his peak now, he's still a threat on a game by game basis.

The Coyotes rank at the bottom of the list when it comes to No. 1 center production, but there aren't a lot of true No. 1 centers in the game. Let's look at another aspect of building the position, depth. How do the Desert Dogs match up with the rest of their opposition?

Team Center 1 Center 2 Center 3
Arizona Antoine Vermette Martin Hanzal Sam Gagner ???
Anaheim Ryan Getzlaf Ryan Kesler Andrew Cogliano
Calgary Jiri Hudler Sean Monahan Mikael Backlund/Joe Colborne
Edmonton Ryan Nugent-Hopkins David Perron? Boyd Gordon
Los Angeles Anze Kopitar Jeff Carter Mike Richards/Jarret Stoll
San Jose Logan Couture Joe Thornton Joe Pavelski/Tommy Wingels
Vancouver Henrik Sedin Nick Bonino Shawn Matthias

The Kings and Sharks have unbelievable depth down the middle and the Ducks might have the NHL's best one-two punch in Getzlaf and Kesler. Both the Oilers and Flames have young centers who are going to get better, especially the Flames' impressive Sean Monahan who is only going to be 20 next season. The Canucks are in the middle of a rebuild with Bonino being their big return in the Kesler deal. The Coyotes have two (or three depending on if Gagner stays in the center or moves to wing) second line guys and are hoping one can produce at a high level.

Arizona doesn't have a lot of help coming in the system. While Max Domi has played center ice with London, his size will probably force a move to wing for him in the NHL. Henrik Samuelsson probably doesn't skate well enough to stick in the pivot and has played much more wing in junior hockey. This year's top pick Brendan Perlini is also a wing. The most intriguing Coyote center prospect is Tyler Gaudet, who projects to being a solid defensive, penalty killing specialist in the NHL. While some have brought comparisons to a young Jonathan Toews or Patrice Bergeron, he probably won't play up to those expectations. Which is more than fine for an undrafted kid at both the junior level and in the NHL.

The Coyotes are certainly at a crossroads this year as a team, caught between needing to rebuild but also needing to be competitive with new owners in place. Nothing showcases this middle ground they find themselves in more than their middling collection of centers. The rest of the Pacific (save Vancouver) is getting stronger in the middle while the Coyotes continue to tread water. This season, they might end up sinking.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.