Down The Middle - What Does A Center Do?

Could Derick Brassard see his role change for the Blue Jackets this season as a result of more depth down the middle? (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

Sometimes you get some really fun questions from your friends when they know you've been writing about hockey.

This time, I felt like I needed a little help to answer it...

One of the big debates has been where to put Brass in our top six. Natural center, great passer, at best okay for faceoffs.   Everybody says Vermette is more likely to go to wing, but he's great at faceoffs.

Does the center have to take a faceoff? At center ice the answer seems obvious but mostly you're taking one in a corner.  You'd think with a fluid game like hockey the player's position wouldn't matter that much, except maybe a forward might get a "lean" in his preferred side of the ice.   I would really love to have a hockey coach answer that question, and explain mechanics of position after taking a face off.

Since I'm not a hockey player or coach, I decided to reach out to ask someone who had played some center - former SBNation writer Mike Chen, who gave me some pointers. I also thought we'd take that and apply it to the sudden influx of depth, and how things might shake out.

Mike's explanations broke out the game into the three zones, plus some discussion of faceoffs:

Defensive zone: In general, the center is the third defenseman. It's his role to hustle back and help out on D. The wings stay near the point but the center helps the D take on the three opposing forwards.
So theoretically, there's one-for-one coverage of the attacking forwards. Usually, the D should take the forwards down low while the center is more middle-of-the-ice/high slot. If all three opposing
forwards are below the goal line, the center should mark the free one but not follow him beyond the line (play a semi-zone defense). Once the D recovers the puck, the center should pivot and provide a means to breakout.

Neutral zone: Breakouts are unique per team structure but the center does constantly have to be moving his legs in the neutral zone because of his two-way responsibilities. When the puck turns over in either way, the center should stop and go in the other direction as hard as possible -- not do a lazy arc you'll see some guys do. The center usually won't veer too far off from the center portion of the ice
(naturally).

Offensive zone: These setups tend to vary based on the skill set of a line. A shooting center (like Jeff Carter) will probably be in more shooting zones while playmaking centers (like Joe Thornton) will
probably be more on the half boards. Also, when you cycle, you obviously have all three forwards moving around the offensive zone, so positions are in flux. However, the defensive responsibilities are
still there, so if the wings turn the puck over down low, the center should immediately look to see where his defensemen are and begin hustling back.

Faceoffs: On faceoffs, the center doesn't necessarily have to take the draw. It's just that the wings generally have assignments spread out after the faceoff, so it makes sense for the center to do it. Some wings are better at draws than others, so it will depend on the current position on the ice and the situation in the game. When Keith Tkachuk was on the Coyotes, he'd take defensive zone faceoffs despite being on a line with Jeremy Roenick.

So let's say you've got a defensive zone faceoff. Here's what should happen immediately when the puck drops:

If you win, you settle into the system's breakout positioning. If you lose, the wings should cover the opposing dmen, the center should try and tie up the opposing center and the defense should mark
the free wings.

From this rec leaguer's perspective, I skated WAY more as a center than when I occasionally played wing. And I totally cheat on faceoffs. It works and it's subtle and no one's called me on it yet

 

When a goals-against occurs, watch the replay. If the goal scorer was by himself, it's usually because one of the center or two dmen missed an assignment or was lazy -- this is an easy way to figure out who fucked up to cause the goal. The wings aren't usually involved because they're further up at the points and looking for the transitional breakout.

 

Applying The Lessons:

With Mike's advice in mind, here's our current list of potential centers in the organization who could get a look at the NHL level: Jeff Carter, Derrick Brassard, Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger, Vinny Prospal, Sammy Pahlsson, Derek MacKenzie, Ryan Russell, Ryan Johansen, Michael Chaput, and Boone Jenner

Heck, you could almost build 4 lines just from them!

While Jenner and Chaput are unlikely to play at the NHL level this season (barring a surprise in camp), and Ryan Russell is expected to primarily act as AHL level depth, the chances are still there, if slim. Johansen is still an open question, but the smart money is that he'll at least get a look at the start of the season unless he has a shockingly bad camp.

That still puts up 9 players who could line up in the middle as needed, though we assume that at least two (Umberger and Prospal) will more "naturally" slot in at wing. Carter, MacKenzie, and Vermette have also lined up on the wing at the NHL level, but tend to be more "natural" centers in their careers. 

Thinking about the defensive responsibilities in both zones, and the role he's played in the past, I would say Sammy Pahlsson is pretty much locked into the checking line pivot. The real question is how Scott Arniel wants to arrange the rest of his lines, because I think that could change how we approach the remaining players.

Option A: Conventional Wisdom

If the Jackets will prepare a "Top Six", "Checking line", and "Energy Line", you'd have to assume that Scott Arniel is going to put the big guns up front. That means Rick Nash, probably centered by Jeff Carter, and most likely Vinny Prospal to start the season. Carter had a 54.7% faceoff win percentage last year, giving him a good chance to set up his linemates, and should be be tossed out, Prospal is nearly as good - he had a 53.9% win percentage. 

The second line is where debates will begin. Antoine Vermette seems a natural fit for this line, given his 55% win percentage last season (best on the club, in fact), but I'd like to suggest a slight change.

Though Derrick Brassard has been "passed" in the depth chart with the acquisition of Carter, the hope was that he would still become a legit top six option for this team, and last season he took some very big steps. Admittedly, his 46.6% faceoff percentage wasn't great, but he was also playing against a higher level of competition lined up as the top line center, while Vermette stepped down to the lower quality opponents as he moved to the second line.  (And Brassard's numbers are still an improvement over the 40.8% he brought in the previous season!) 

If we want Brassard to keep developing, shifting him to the wing, tempting as it might be, doesn't help. What I would suggest instead is a second line of R.J. Umberger, Brassard, and Vermette at his wing, with Vermette available to take faceoffs in certain situations. Any lost ice time could easily be made up by making Vermette the pivot for the second PP unit, or potentially in PK situations, where he or Sammy Pahlsson frequently alternated anyhow. 

Vermette on the wing, like the first line, also gives that "solid backup" should Brass be kicked out of the faceoff circle, or allows for switching up as needed in key situations - (On paper, R.J. looks like he can fit that bill as well, given his 50.4% pecentage, but it's worth considering that he only took ~200 faceoffs last year, compared to over 1500 for Vermette and nearly 900 for Brass.) While Brassard isn't always as defensively responsible as Vermette, he does have the burst of speed and 'start-stop' skating ability that allow him to execute breakouts and respond to turnovers quickly, regardless of who commits them, and his passing skills will make him an excellent distributor to help push the puck back up the ice to his wings.

As I said earlier, in a "pure" checking line, Pahlsson is going to be the guy - not only was he tied for second on the club in FO win percentage at 52%, he also took more than anyone except Vermette, mostly in the defensive zone or shorthanded. 

While it's unclear who will be on his wings (Derek Dorsett and Matt Calvert? Maxim Mayorov and a surprise from the Springfield group like Cody Bass?), the remaining forwards (Johansen, MacKenzie, Boll) are likely to make up the "energy line", and there I'd most likely put Johansen in the middle, in a similar situation to Brassard on the second line - allow him a chance to grow, especially in offensive zone starts, but when the situation calls for more defensive responsibility or a fast read and react, allow MacKenzie to step in. With Johansen's assets in his hands and skating ability, he could be just the trick in reversing the play or cycling the puck following the chaos of a well thrown hit.

Option B: Rolling Thunder

If Scott Arniel returns to his plans for three scoring lines, things will be in a much higher state of flux. 

Though it's entirely possible that the top line will stay together from Option B, I could also see a scenario where Umberger, Nash, and Carter are united for the first line, while Brassard, Prospal, and perhaps Vermette would form a second line, and a third line of Johansen, Calvert, and Tomas Kubalik could become the third scoring option. (Alternatively, you could also use Brassard, Vermette, and Calvert together and move Prospal to the third line to provide a veteran presence), while Pahlsson's checking line could very be filled out by Dorsett and MacKenzie to provide experience playing against top competition while still capable of some offensive pop.

It's also possible that in a three scoring line situation, Nash and Carter could be spread out, in which case I would expect to see Nash with Vermette and Prospal, while perhaps Umberger and Carter moved to the wings while Brassard continued growing his game in the middle, with Carter taking on some of the same "pressure" roles that Vermette might in the other scenarios.

But Then...?

The wildcard in these is the return of Kristian Huselius, which is likely to cause a scramble of positions regardless of where he goes into the lineup, though one would assume he'd be given a chance to step back in with Nash due to their past chemistry. If that's the case, in a conventional format, I could easily see Prospal being asked to step into more of a checking role with Pahlsson, and continuing to contribute on the power play.

In an arrangement where the team is focusing on scoring lines, on the other hand, if Juice returned to the top line and Umberger moved down to the second line, I could see Calvert cycling down to the "checking line" while Prospal played on the third.

It's all smoke until we see how the combinations work in training camp, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what may be considered, and the factors each will be responsible for on the ice when we do see what shape this team will take.

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