Who's the Best Centre in the World?

An excerpt of an exclusive chapter from my charity collection 'Fresh Hockey Takes 2020'

This is an excerpt from an exclusive chapter of my compilation of player breakdowns Fresh Hockey Takes 2020, which is now available for $5 and up on Gumroad. All proceeds from this collection will go to the Phoenix House, a youth housing services charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In the past fifteen years, hockey fans have become used to having the question of “who is the best centre in the NHL” be pretty much settled. Sidney Crosby topped TSN’s annual rankings for seven consecutive years, from 2010 until Connor McDavid claimed it in 2017. While some fans still preferred Crosby’s winning pedigree to McDavid’s gaudy point totals, the Oilers centre took the torch and ran with it, holding the title for three seasons. But out of the chaos of the bubble, a challenger has appeared. Nathan MacKinnon’s dominant playoff run combined with Edmonton’s early exit and increasingly pronounced concerns about #97’s defensive play to usurp him atop many people’s rankings, including TSN’s. This opened an insane can of worms, sparking a debate that might generously be called “lively” (and more accurately be called “vicious.”)

In the spirit of open-mindedness, I thought I might take advantage of this opportunity to make the case for and against four of the biggest contenders for Best Centre (and implicitly Best Player) in the World™. These include the obvious trio of McDavid, MacKinnon, and Crosby plus a fourth challenger: Auston Matthews. Is this because I am desperate for those sweet Toronto clicks? That’s classified information. But I think Matthews has an intriguing outside case that’s worth exploring - and that more people might be open to if he played for a different team.

So which will it be? McDavid’s generational talent? MacKinnon’s balanced offensive onslaught? Crosby’s playmaking genius and two-way upside? Or Matthews’ singular goal-scoring? Let’s find out.

Connor McDavid

The Case For Connor McDavid

McDavid’s case is pretty straightforward - it’s always easier to argue for the favourite.

No player has contributed more to their team than Connor McDavid has over the past five seasons. In that time he led the NHL in points and assists at both 5v5 and in all situations, put up by far the most even strength offensive goals above replacement, and had the most Wins Above Replacement with 20.4 (per Evolving-Hockey). On top of that, his points per game has improved in every season of his career, and were it not for an injury this season he would have easily finished with his fourth consecutive 100 point campaign. Since McDavid’s career started, no forward has been on the ice for more 5v5 goals for or more expected goals for.

Per Corey Sznajder’s tracked data, McDavid is a one-man transition machine, consistently at the top of the league in terms of possession exits and entries. Once in the zone he’s an absolute terror - he has ranked in the top 2% of the league in shot assists, assists off the cycle, and high danger passes in each of the past three seasons. #97 is firmly in the driver’s seat when he’s on the ice; his immense talent has been overwhelming since he entered the league, forcing teams to hang on for dear life to handle his speed and creativity.

It’s not fair to blame Connor McDavid for his team’s lack of playoff success, because this isn’t the NBA we’re talking about. A top forward can only do so much without a strong supporting cast and a reliable goalie, and he’s been without one or both of those things for his entire career so far. Arguably no player of McDavid’s calibre since Mario Lemieux has been so deprived of quality teammates, and it’s led to him joining exclusive company in terms of the share of his team’s goals that he is personally responsible for. While his competitors have had talented groups methodically built around them, the Oilers have been assembled haphazardly and run by three different GMs and three coaches since he entered the league. Despite all this, McDavid’s transcendent talent has managed to break through over and over again, and that’s what makes him not only the greatest player in the league right now but the best of his generation.

The Case Against Connor McDavid

You might have noticed that all of the stats above were offensive. That’s because the high-flying offensive style that gives McDavid his point totals comes at a price. In the past three seasons, Connor McDavid has been the worst defensive player in the National Hockey League in terms of how he impacts his team’s prevention of scoring chances and goals. Here is how he ranks in every measure of scoring chances and goals against - raw numbers, relative to teammates, isolated from external factors, and expressed through Wins Above Replacement:

Without using considerable mental gymnastics, there isn’t really a way to handwave these alarming results. While you might see some in the Edmonton media lean on their own tracking of “mistakes” to let McDavid off the hook, I have yet to hear a plausible explanation for why he just happens to consistently be on the ice for so many more goals and scoring chances against than his teammates and indeed the rest of the players in the league. As I explained in my contribution to Jack Han’s book Hockey Tactics 2020, McDavid’s defensive performance does not appreciably improve in situations where you might hope it would, including when the Oilers are up by a single goal (when #97 ranks last in relative xGA) and in the playoffs. This isn’t just a matter of effort, poor defence is fundamental to the way he plays.

You might say that his job isn’t to play defence, and you are correct. His job is to play hockey, a game where the object is to outscore your opponents. McDavid’s offensive talent allows him to do that, but pretending as though allowing your opponents to score a lot of goals is completely irrelevant - especially when we’re trying to figure out who the literal best player in the world is - doesn’t make sense. Is McDavid one of the best? Absolutely. But when competition is tight, as it is here, you shouldn’t discard a full half of the sport.

Want to Read the Rest? Buy Fresh Hockey Takes 2020, a collection of in-depth player breakdowns combining analytics and scouting on players including Seth Jones, Taylor Hall, Erik Karlsson, Kaapo Kakko, and fourteen more.