Does Columbus Need A First Line Center? Or Do We Already Have One?

If you look at previews, evaluations, and wish lists for the Blue Jackets over the past few years, there's a certain theme:

"Columbus needs a real First Line Center."

"Columbus needs a true center to play with Rick Nash."

"Columbus is weak down the middle - they don't really have a top line center."

From the most professional scouting reports to the bleacheriest blog on the Bleacher Report, almost everyone you ask says Columbus lacks a "real" first line center. 

But what does that mean, exactly? 

More to the point, if we can figure out what a "real" first line center is, what are the chances that the man currently in the post, Antoine Vermette, can become one, rather than the team going out on the trading block or hoping for a prospect like Ryan Johansen to suddenly sprout into one? (Sorry, Derick Brassard fans - until he shows me something more, I am assuming his ceiling is going to be a good second line guy.)

Can you define what "is" is?

First off, we need to figure out what a First Line Center is. To help with that question, I went to the other SBNation hockey bloggers and asked them a simple question:

"When I say 'A Real First Line Center', who comes to mind?"

The answers I got were interesting, to say the least. Here's the list:

So, as the joke goes, what do those guys have that we don't? I decided to look at each player's stats for the past two years - that way we can take into account things like Marc Savard's head being reduced into pudding for much of the past year that tend to skew someone's stats.

 

2008-2009

Player

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

PIM

SOG

SPCT

PPG

PPA

Faceoff%

ATOI

Datsyuk

81

32

65

97

34

22

248

12.9

11

25

56.0

19:12

Crosby

77

33

70

103

3

76

238

13.9

7

33

51.3

21:57

Backstrom

82

22

66

88

16

46

174

12.6

14

28

48.7

19:57

Thornton

82

25

61

86

16

56

139

18.0

11

24

55.4

19:28

H. Sedin

82

22

60

82

22

48

143

15.4

4

22

49.6

19:31

Weiss

78

14

47

61

19

22

154

9.1

4

17

51.0

14:47

Lecavalier

77

29

38

67

-9

54

291

10.0

10

14

50.9

20:14

M. Richards

79

30

50

80

22

63

238

12.6

8

25

49.0

21:44

Savard

82

25

63

88

25

70

213

11.7

9

21

49.9

19:32

Toews

82

34

35

69

12

51

195

17.4

12

10

54.7

18:38

Kopitar

82

27

39

66

-17

32

234

11.5

7

16

49.5

20:27

Spezza

82

32

41

73

-14

79

246

13.0

13

18

53.3

19:41

Vermette

79*

16

25

41

-7

42

174

10.9

3

9

57.7

18:69

*62 games w/ OTT, 17 w/ CBJ

2009-2010

Player

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

PIM

SOG

SPCT

PPG

PPA

Faceoff%

ATOI

Datsyuk

80

27

43

70

17

18

203

13.3

9

16

55.1

20:21

Crosby

81

51

58

109

15

71

298

17.1

13

21

55.9

21:57

Backstrom

82

33

68

101

37

50

222

14.9

11

26

49.9

20:27

Thornton

79

20

69

89

17

54

141

14.2

4

25

53.9

19:51

H. Sedin

82

29

83

112

35

48

166

17.5

4

23

49.5

19:41

Weiss

80

28

32

60

-7

40

180

15.6

12

10

52.4

20:00

Lecavalier

82

24

46

70

-16

63

295

8.1

5

20

53.2

19:47

M. Richards

82

31

31

62

-2

79

237

13.1

13

18

50.7

20:25

Savard

41

10

23

33

2

14

90

11.1

6

11

48.8

18:35

Toews

76

25

43

68

22

47

202

12.4

9

13

57.3

20:00

Kopitar

82

34

47

81

6

16

259

13.1

14

24

49.7

21:47

Spezza

60

23

34

57

-1

20

165

13.9

11

13

50.5

19:04

Vermette

82

27

38

65

2

32

156

17.3

6

6

54.2

20:09

 

Looking at these, I think it's tempting to say that point production is what defines a first line center, but if that's the case, Vermette would already be in the conversation, as his point production, particularly since moving to Columbus, isn't that different from some of these examples. Admittedly, he isn't breaking the high end of the curve like a Crosby or a Backstrom, but his 65 points last season were still quite respectable compared to guys like Mike Richards, Toews, or even Datsyuk. 

If we look at time on ice, again, Vermette's 20:09 is perfectly reasonable - most of the first liners seem to average between 19-21 minutes a night.

Shots on goal? Possibly - I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of these players record over 200 shots on goal a season. There are exceptions (Joe Thornton's shot totals are surprisingly low), but it would seem the first liner should be willing to shoot as often as pass. Interestingly, though, Vermette's actual scoring percentage last year (17.3) was one of the best of the group. Clearly he knows where to place his shots when he takes them. Hopefully the new coaching staff will recognize this and encourage Antoine to shoot more frequently. 

Assists are another key stat that seems to define a first line player. In fact, nearly every person who gave me their opinion said that one of the major roles of a top line center is to set up the guys on his line. By that logic, he should always have more assists than goals. The numbers seem to agree with this - the only players to get close, or even pull even, were Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards, and Stephen Weiss. The others all had around half again more assists than goals. Vermette was close in this category - if he'd scored three or four more assists he'd have it sewn up. 

Faceoffs were the final stat that virtually everyone agreed with. To borrow from the response I got from Cassie McClellan of Raw Charge

If a center can't take faceoffs, but is still racking up the minutes and the points, that invalidates him as a true first line center for me.  The whole point of being a center is taking faceoffs and setting up your wingers for shots, and if you can't at least do that, then you're not really playing the position as its intended.

Using that logic, though, there are a lot of players on this list who need to brush up on their skills. I was surprised that most hang around the 50% mark in the faceoff dot - and several were below that bar. Again, however, Vermette puts in a good showing. We knew when he was acquired he was a skilled faceoff man (in fact, he was 3rd overall in the league at faceoffs in 2008-2009), but I wouldn't have expected him to still outdraw players like Sedin and Thornton even in a "down" year.

There's one last area we haven't touched on in the initial discussion that needs to be brought up: The Power Play.

Here's where Vermette really seems to take a step back. While his 6 power play goals are fairly solid, he had the least PPA of the group, only accounting for 6 setups with the man advantage. Most of these first line talents tend to bring in at least 18. This is, admittedly, a stat that depends as much on his teammates as it does himself, but it's certainly an area where he could bear to step up. 

On the other hand...

As we got into this discussion, noted stats addict Derek Zona from over at The Copper & Blue brought up a different argument: it's not about a "first line", or any line, but about the type of minutes a player sees. To that effect, he pointed me at this article about forwards who see the "Toughest" minutes - playing against the opponent's top lines and being able to outscore that competition.

If we use that logic, we still see a few repeats - Weiss, Datsuyk, Mike Richards, but we also see guys like Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, RJ Umberger and Sammy Pahlsson. Interesting, but I have to admit I'm not totally sold on this being the real bellwether.

Derek clarified his position a bit by saying "Any center that is among the team lead in scoring while playing toughs is a "first-line center" for me, I guess.  If you've got a center that can't play the toughs, you've got a second-minutes center. "

This, I think, I can agree with. So, where did Vermette come in for the Jackets? According to the NHL Advanced Statistics page over at Behind The Net for the 2009-2010 season? Pretty well. (Warning: You should probably go read this FAQ if you're not familiar with the stats pages over at BtN.)

NAME

POS

GP

TOI/60

TOF/60

RATING

QUALCOMP

QUALTEAM

CORSI Rel QoC

CORSI QoC

CORSI Rel QoT

CORSI QoT

MARC METHOT

D

60

15.88

30.21

-0.50

0.064

0.029

1.160

1.188

-0.828

-4.777

RICK NASH

RW

76

14.80

31.93

0.36

0.050

0.078

1.020

1.879

-0.992

-4.980

JAN HEJDA

D

62

16.31

30.68

-0.52

0.047

-0.033

1.226

1.575

-1.607

-5.040

SAMUEL PAHLSSON

C

79

12.82

33.87

-0.12

0.045

-0.170

1.088

2.003

-1.665

-4.861

ROSTISLAV KLESLA

D

26

14.88

30.93

-0.71

0.035

0.065

1.048

0.981

-1.746

-5.089

KRISTIAN HUSELIUS

LW

74

14.18

32.54

0.31

0.029

0.116

1.015

1.529

0.164

-4.357

R.J. UMBERGER

C

82

13.07

33.53

-0.53

0.028

0.023

0.790

1.447

0.327

-4.008

FEDOR TYUTIN

D

80

16.37

30.27

0.41

0.020

-0.053

0.879

1.521

1.088

-3.415

ANTOINE VERMETTE

C

82

14.27

32.33

0.79

0.017

0.034

0.898

1.585

-0.024

-4.247

That puts him at #9 on the team for over all quality of competition, and 5th among forwards. Considering that two of the other forwards ahead of him are his normal line mates of Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, I'd say that he satisfies the competition portion. Vermette's 65 points were also second overall on the team for scoring, and his 27 goals were second on the team behind Rick Nash. 

Looking at Qualcomp numbers for some of the other top line players we've mentioned, though, Vermette (and the Blue Jackets as a whole) do need to improve - while it would be difficult to expect the team to meet Mike Richard's .109 QualComp, Spezza, Lecavalier, Backstrom, Thornton, Crosby, and Weiss are all above a .060. (Though I was surprised to find that Datsyuk was only a .021, Kopitar a .016 and Henrik Sedin actually recorded a -.013!)

I think it's safe to say Vermette isn't terrible here, but he could be better - and so could the rest of the Blue Jackets. This is also a stat where, with the exception of Weiss, we're comparing players on playoff teams to a player on a lottery team. If the team's on-ice performance improves next season, it may be worth revisiting this stat to see how he compares against the group again.

So, what do we have?

Going through these stats, what I believe we've settled on in defining a first line center is that he is a player who is solid in the face off circle, will be a top point producer on his team, particularly with the man advantage, should be scoring more assists than goals, and should be on the ice playing effectively against his opponent's best players

Using that argument, I believe that Antoine Vermette is much closer to becoming a first line center than CBJ fans,and the hockey world in general, have given him credit for.  While he does have areas that need some clear improvement, in most of the major categories he has already met or exceeded the criteria, and gives a good accounting of himself when compared to his peers. 

We've said before that this is a big year for Vermette. Dark Blue Jacket has also produced a great piece on how Vermette has been leading the team in "Clutch" and "Pace setting" goals, and how he needs to step up his game. We draw some of the same conclusions, and we differ in a few others, but the underlying tone is that Vermette could become a player equal to the caliber of his superstar linemate and Captain with just a few (relatively) small improvements to his game. 

I believe that if he can rise to this challenge, we'll stop asking when Columbus will get a "real" top line center, because he'll make it crystal clear to the entire NHL that they already have one.

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