Best center for 2021-22 season debated by NHL.com writers

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Six of the top 10 scorers in the NHL last season were centers, led by Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers with a League-high 105 points (33 goals, 72 assists) in 56 games.

He became the seventh player to average 1.88 points per game for an NHL season (minimum 40 games played) and the first since Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins averaged 2.30 points per game in 1995-96, when he scored 161 points (69 goals, 72 assists) in 70 games. 

But for all of McDavid’s brilliance, he is being pushed by other elite centers. Teammate Leon Draisaitl finished second last season with 84 points (31 goals, 54 assists) and led the NHL with 110 points (43 goals, 67 assists) two seasons ago when he won the Hart Trophy voted as most valuable player.

Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fifth with 66 points (41 goals, 25 assists) in 52 games last season but was hampered by a wrist injury. He had surgery Aug. 13 and is expected to be recovered when Toronto opens the regular season Oct. 13 against the Montreal Canadiens.

Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche finished eighth with 65 points (20 goals, 45 assists) in 48 games, Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets was ninth with 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) in 56 games, and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins was 10th with 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists).

 

[Best goalie debated | Best defenseman debated | Best right wing debated | Best left wing debated]

 

And there are other centers pushing to join this class.

Who will emerge as the best center, as listed on their NHL.com player page, in the 2021-22 season? We asked eight NHL.com writers for their thoughts.

Here are their answers (listed alphabetically):

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

The question isn’t who will be the best offensive center at the end of the 2021-22 season. It is who will be the best center. I’m going with Barkov, who will be the best center when you consider both ends of the ice. Last season, Barkov was fourth in goals (26) and seventh in points (58) among centers, and he won the Selke Trophy voted as the best defensive forward in the NHL. He was sixth in voting for the Hart Trophy. The Panthers took a big step last season and look primed to make another one this season. The 26-year-old seems poised for a career season. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins 

Crosby is still arguably the best center in the NHL considering he has averaged better than a point per game in each of his 16 NHL seasons. Regardless of linemates and trajectory of the Penguins (three Stanley Cup titles during Crosby era, but opening-round Stanley Cup Playoff exits the past three seasons), he has scored at least 100 points six times in his illustrious career and can still go toe-to-toe with McDavid and MacKinnon in any aspect of the game. Though McDavid is ahead of Crosby for the best NHL career points-per-game average among active players in the League (McDavid: 1.41 points per game through 407 games; Crosby: 1.28 through 1,039 games), even at 34 years old Crosby has a ceiling in McDavid’s stratosphere and a better chance to win a title this season. — Pete Jensen, senior fantasy editor

Video: Top 10 Sidney Crosby Plays from the 2021 Season

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

McDavid is the odds-on favorite here, and for good reason. He was fourth in the NHL in points among centers last season. He averaged 1.35 points per game, third among centers last season behind McDavid and Draisaitl (1.50). His 25 power-play points were third among centers behind McDavid (37) and Draisaitl (32). The 26-year-old has scored at least 93 points in three straight seasons (2017-20) and, with a full season on the horizon, those numbers are attainable again. — Tracey Myers, staff writer

As good as MacKinnon has been during the regular season, his play during the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been at another level; he’s scored 69 points (28 goals, 41 assists) in 50 games, and his average of 1.38 points per game leads all active NHL players. Since entering the NHL in 2013-14, he’s tied for ninth in playoff points with Joe Pavelski despite playing 37 fewer games. He’s also tied for fifth with seven game-winning goals, two behind Tyler Johnson (116 games) and Ondrej Palat (115 games). The end of the 2021-22 season comes when someone lifts the Stanley Cup, and there’s a good chance it will be the Avalanche because of MacKinnon. — Adam Kimelman, deputy managing editor

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

I’m going with Matthews because of his combination of strength, speed and motivation to advance in the playoffs; the Maple Leafs have lost in the opening round in each of his five NHL seasons. Among centers last season, Matthews was first in goals and third in points. He averaged 1.27 points per game, fourth-best at the position behind McDavid, Draisaitl and MacKinnon. — William Douglas, staff writer

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

McDavid has no lack of rivals pushing the level of competition. That said, it strains belief that he could fall so much or that one or others could rise so quickly that he would not still be the best NHL center at the end of the season. McDavid was the unanimous choice among voters for the Hart Trophy last season, and that candidate list included all players at all positions. He also was the choice of 99 out of 100 voters when selecting the center for the NHL First All-Star Team. I relish a good debate, but it’s best had for other positions. — Tim Campbell, staff writer

I tried to pick someone other than McDavid, but in this case the obvious choice is the correct one. Motivated to find the success in the playoffs he’s yet to achieve — Edmonton has won one postseason series in his six seasons — McDavid is continuously working to improve his game. For example, he’s steadily increased his winning percentage on face-offs from 41.4 percent in 2017-18 to 49.5 percent last season. So if anything, McDavid could be better this season than last season, when he ran away with the scoring race. It might be difficult for him to match his scoring pace of last season, when teams were limited to playing against division opponents, but with his drive to become a more complete player, it’s exciting to imagine what the 24-year-old might be able to achieve as he hits his prime. — Tom Gulitti, staff writer 

Video: Best Connor McDavid Plays from the 2020-21 Season

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Point is arguably the perfect hockey player. He’s built for a physical game and a speed game. He’s excellent on his skates, elusive and fast with nearly unmatched edgework. Point drives a top-scoring line and is always strong defensively. He’s a threat in the middle of a power play and almost impossible to contain with his positioning and quick release. Point has great chemistry with Nikita Kucherov, one of the best wings in the world, and that only fuels his game more. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion (2020, 2021) and was the leading goal-scorer in the NHL in each title run (14 goals in 23 games each season). The other centers on this list are big names and huge talents, but other than Crosby, they haven’t done what Point has done. At age 25, he’s set up to keep being one of the most unassuming elite players in the League. He could get to 100 points if healthy all season. And he would do it while being one of the top two-way players in the NHL. — Dan Rosen, senior writer 

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