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Ranking the Pacific Division's top 10 centers

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We begin our preview of the division's best players heading into 2014-15 with a look down the middle.

Victor Decolongon

With the 2014-15 NHL season nearly upon us, it's time to preview what projects to be a competitive, if somewhat uneven, Pacific Division with a look at the best players who ply their trade in the year-old 7-team grouping. In order to do that, we enlisted an esteemed panel of bloggers (one from each Pacific team) including Matt Eaken of Anaheim Calling, Jaime Eisner of Five For Howling, Dimitri Filipovic of Canucks Army, Alan Hull of The Copper & Blue, Andrew Lifland of Jewels From The Crown, Kent Wilson of Flames Nation and yours truly to vote on the ten best centers, left wings, right wings, defensemen and goalies in the division based on their projected impact for the coming season. We begin our look at the results with a preview of the Pacific's top 10 centers, as voted on by our panel.

Just missed: Nick Bonino, Martin Hanzal, Matt Stajan

10. Antoine Vermette, Arizona Coyotes


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Coyotes) 82 24 21 45 19:12 1.4 44.0 48.5 -2.8 160 15.0

Acquired from Columbus for just a 2nd round pick prior to the 2012 trade deadline (that was not a very good deadline for the Blue Jackets), Antoine Vermette is coming off one of the better seasons of his career and enters training camp as the Coyotes' No. 1 option down the middle following their buyout of Mike Ribeiro. Vermette was one of the best faceoff men in the NHL last year, finishing with a 56.4% success rate in the circle, and while he didn't always turn that talent into a consistent possession edge he was a reliable scorer for the Coyotes despite being understandably tasked with a large number of defensive-zone draws.

9. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Oilers) 80 19 37 56 20:23 1.56 58.1 44.8 +0.9 178 10.7

After bursting onto the scene with a phenomenal rookie season, things haven't gone all that smoothly for former first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He remains a very slight center in a division filled with gargantuan pivots and he simply hasn't been able to produce at a level commensurate with his pedigree despite a copious amount of offensive zone starts and power play time. Nugent-Hopkins won't turn 22 until next April so there's certainly plenty of time for him to develop into the Matt Duchene 2.0-type player the Oilers thought they were getting back in 2011 but for now his defensive deficiencies and inadequate production are very much part of Edmonton's massive problem at center ice. He still makes this list in a division that features several teams who are thin down the middle, with a real chance to significantly climb the rankings in the years ahead.

8. Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Flames) 76 18 21 39 18:32 1.13 46.4 51.6 +7.2 178 10.1

Mikael Backlund isn't a household name yet but he probably should be. It's one thing to post positive possession numbers on the fourth-worst possession team in the NHL, it's another to do so while logging significant minutes for that team and frequently starting shifts in the defensive zone. Backlund accomplished all of that last season, finishing with the best team-relative possession numbers of any center on this list. In fact, he's been doing this for years but what made 2013-14 particularly special for the Western Conference's edition of Frans Nielsen is that Backlund finally showed signs of breaking out offensively. After scoring 23 goals in his first 170 NHL games, Backlund nearly equaled that total this past season with 18. Calgary's rebuild seems to have all of the ingredients Edmonton's does not: a legitimate top defense pairing in Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie and a great group of centers including Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan and highlighted by burgeoning two-way ace Backlund.

7. Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Canucks) 77 25 18 43 21:48 1.3 47.1 52.0 +1.3 239 10.5

Easily one of the biggest names to change zip codes this summer, Ryan Kesler enters his debut season with the Ducks looking for a fresh start after a few forgettable (and injury-filled) seasons in Vancouver. Anyone expecting another 40-goal, Selke Trophy season out of Kesler will probably be disappointed but he remains a very useful player capable of logging a ton of minutes in all situations, giving the Ducks by far their best second-line center behind Getzlaf since the days of Andy McDonald being an 80-point player. He also provides Anaheim with a bit of diversity in their offensive attack, bringing a more straight-line, shot-generating approach to their offensive game that should complement Getzlaf and Perry's cerebral style.

6. Jeff Carter, Los Angeles Kings


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Kings) 72 27 23 50 18:57 1.94 54.2 56.9 +0.3 256 10.5

Anze Kopitar led the team in scoring, Drew Doughty was a force from the back end, Justin Williams picked up the Conn Smythe Trophy and Jonathan Quick occasionally stopped pucks but Jeff Carter may have been the most underrated contributor to the Kings' second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Even aside from his hat trick against Chicago in the Western Conference Final, Carter and his young linemates Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli were the Kings' most consistent line at generating offensive-zone pressure throughout the postseason in what was a continuation of another terrific season for one of the best players to emerge from the loaded 2003 draft class. Predominantly a winger throughout his first season and a half in L.A., Carter made the switch to center late last season after everyone finally realized how useless Mike Richards is now and didn't miss a beat.

5. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Sharks) 65 23 31 54 18:56 2.08 46.2 53.4 +0.2 233 9.9

In his first full season as Todd McLellan's primary shutdown center, Couture embraced his role; he played against opposing teams' top lines on a regular basis and started a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other Sharks forward. Despite those impediments, the Sharks heavily outshot and outscored their opponents with Couture on the ice and the 25-year-old center potted 23 goals and 54 points in 65 games to finish fourth on the team in scoring despite missing a fifth of the season. Couture was also key to an outstanding Sharks penalty kill; in his 88 shorthanded minutes this season, San Jose gave up just 5 goals...and scored 4 of their own including this beauty from Couture himself where he beat one of the best goalies in the league while doing the splits. If he can stay healthy (and handle newfound responsibilities as, very likely, the team's next captain) there's probably another level of offensive potential he can tap into.

4. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Canucks) 70 11 39 50 20:40 1.88 59.6 55.4 +6.1 97 11.3

Former Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin is coming off the worst offensive season of his career since 2004, but giving the Canucks captain the benefit of the doubt for a year in which his team imploded around him under incompetent coaching and his most frequent linemates, brother Daniel and winger Alex Burrows, suffered horrific shooting luck seems only fair. Henrik was still an excellent possession player relative to his team despite receiving far less of a zone start push under John Tortorella than he was accustomed to under former coach Alain Vigneault. He'll turn 34 in a little over a week and probably won't ever lead the league in scoring again but Henrik Sedin remains a mesmerizing playmaking talent with the puck on his stick and is primed (like the rest of his team) for a bounce-back season.

3. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Sharks) 82 11 65 76 18:55 2.48 47.0 57.7 +6.2 122 9.0

There may not be a more underappreciated NHL star of the past decade than Joe Thornton. The team that drafted him first overall dealt him for spare parts, the team that acquired him just spent the summer desperately trying to deal him before eventually settling on stripping him of the captaincy and media members and fans alike continuously criticize him for perceived playoff shortcomings. All Thornton does is score a ridiculous amount of points, drive play at an incredibly high rate, run a power play like no other, and produce in the playoffs at the same rate as the clutch winners he's contrasted against like Toews and Kopitar. Despite being 34 years old this past year, the big center posted the third-most valuable individual season by a skater since 2007, finishing 2nd in the league in assists, 12th among forwards (1st on his team) in shot differential and single-handedly carrying Joe Pavelski to a 40-goal season. Thornton may no longer wear the "C" for the Sharks but there's no question who drives the bus in San Jose.

2. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Ducks) 77 31 56 87 21:17 3.20 49.0 51.1 +1.3 204 15.2

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn may overtake them eventually but, as of right now, there probably isn't a more offensively dominant pair of linemates in the NHL than Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Despite a revolving door on their left side, they finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, in 5-on-5 per-minute scoring last season as Getzlaf's 87 points across all situations was surpassed only by Sidney Crosby. The play of Anaheim's captain was perhaps the biggest reason a team with goaltending controversies galore, an underwhelming blueline and mediocre forward depth managed to win the Pacific and Getzlaf deservedly received the first Hart Trophy nomination of his career as a result. Often reticent to shoot instead of pass, Getzlaf put the puck on net at an uncharacteristically high rate last season and was rewarded with a career-high 31 goals. He may not be as elite a possession player as some of the other centers on this list but Getzlaf produces more than enough offense to make up for that and, with Kesler now on the team and capable of relieving some of his defensive burden, perhaps that side of Getzlaf's game will round into form in the coming year.

1. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings


GP G A P TOI/G 5v5 P/60 O/D ZS% Corsi% Corsi Rel% SOG SH%
2013-14 (Kings) 82 29 41 70 20:53 2.01 52.2 60.9 +5.9 200 14.5

When pundits began the (patently ridiculous) debate over whether Jonathan Toews had overtaken Sidney Crosby as the best player in the world during this past postseason they were missing the better story: that Anze Kopitar has overtaken Toews as the league's second-best. For the second time in three years, Kopitar led the Stanley Cup Champion Kings in playoff scoring and that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value he consistently provides to the Pacific Division's best club. For starters, he's the best puck possession player on the league's best puck possession team; since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Kings have controlled 60% of all shot attempts with Kopitar on the ice at evens (third-best in the NHL, behind only frequent linemate Justin Williams and two-way demigod Patrice Bergeron) compared to 54% when he isn't and that's with Kopitar logging heavy minutes against top opponents.

Despite playing for a team that loves to dump and chase, Kopitar gains the offensive blueline with control of the puck at an alarming rate, rarely turning it over when doing so, which helps him outpace his teammates (as well as much of the league) in 5-on-5 offensive production. He's elite on the power play and logs a ton of minutes for one of the league's better penalty kill units. There's pretty much nothing Kopitar doesn't do. Except sleep. He never sleeps. On a team loaded with star talent, Kopitar shines the brightest.