Over the course of an 82-game season, we media types will end up spending quite a bit of time together. Games, practices; home, road; press box, press lounge; and even the occasional watering hole. As you can imagine, a fair amount of “stuff” (use your imagination here, and insert the word of your choice) is doled back and forth between us and among us, and over the years we learn how to push each other’s buttons and get each other’s goat. If you know what I mean.
A recent press room exchange may have been an honest airing of a misguided (as you’re about to learn) opinion, or it may have been a matter of someone pushing one of those buttons (I’ve got a few). At any rate, it spurred a bit of research (which I actually enjoy), and it definitely brought upon some debate. I figure those are always good things, and I figure when hockey’s involved, at least some of you all might be interested as well. So here goes.
It was a couple hours before game time on Mar. 16, and the media type (who shall remain anonymous) suddenly uttered something like this:
“This team will never get anywhere as long as its checking center has three goals and eight points.”
I’m paraphrasing a bit, because it happened two weeks ago. The numbers are right, because he was under-exaggerating to make a point, something my wife is also fond of doing. The one thing I’m not sure of is whether he said “checking line” or “third line.” Not a big deal, because the two things are synonymous to many.
Anyway, it’s ridiculous. As if upgrading a third line center would suddenly catapult a 65-point team to 95 points and the playoffs. Hey, everyone would love to have four centers with 20 goals, but everyone also wants to win the lottery. It’s not going to happen.
Boyd Gordon has been fine as Washington’s checking/third line center, and there’s no reason he can’t continue to improve. He’s only 23. He has improved over last season. Hell, he has improved since December. He works his bag off shift in and shift out, night in and night out. If you’re going to point a finger at a guy and basically say, “He’s the reason they [aren’t good]!” why would you point at Gordon?
Basically, because some people don’t understand that goals prevented are as valuable as goals scored. In certain instances, maybe even more valuable. But what the hell, let’s see if he’s right. How can a team possibly win with a guy like Boyd Gordon as its third line center?
Obviously, the season is not over yet. But Gordon has six goals and 26 points, and he is a plus-9 while averaging 15:45 a night. (And yeah, he had three goals when the statement was made, but he had 20 points. Not eight.) Let’s have a look into the recent past and the current NHL and see how that stacks up.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, ex-Cap farmhand Tim Taylor was the team’s third line center. He played in all 82 games, averaging 12:54 a night. He had seven goals, 22 points and was minus-5. Certainly the Bolts must have won the Cup in spite of Taylor. They clearly would have swept the Flames in the finals if only they had a better third line/checking center. Calgary’s own checking line pivot was Stephane Yelle, he of the four goals and 17 points with a plus-1 in 15:48 of ice time over 53 regular season games.
But hey, that was way back before the lockout and the shootout. What about last season? The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup with Kevyn Adams as their checking line center. Adams had 15 goals and 23 points, he had an even plus-minus and he averaged 12:53 a night. The Canes were one of those teams with three scoring centers: Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal and Matt Cullen.
The Canes beat the Oilers, whose third line center was Michael Peca. While skating 16:39 a night, Peca posted nine goals, 23 points and a minus-4.
We can clearly see that the 2006-07 Gordon compares favorably with all these players. Let’s have a look around the 2006-07 NHL and see what some of the potential Cup-winning teams have in the way of checking line centers, shall we?
Out west, many make the Anaheim Ducks a favorite to win it all. But with the likes of Sami Pahlsson (eight goals, 26 points, minus-1, 17:17) and Todd Marchant (eight goals, 23 points, plus-7, 15:16) centering the third and fourth lines, how can they possibly win?
Since we’re now operating in an entirely new economic environment, we should probably start interjecting another number into these comparisons: salary. Gordon earns $650,000 this season. Pahlsson is paid the exact same figure while Marchant gets $2,470,000.
Nashville’s acquisition of Peter Forsberg makes it much stronger up the middle, dropping David Legwand and Jason Arnott down a slot, and giving the Preds three scoring centers a la the 2005-06 Canes. Vernon Fiddler (11 goals, 24 points, plus-10, 13:35, $450,000) is the Preds’ checking pivot.
Kris Draper is Detroit’s checking line center, and he has long been regarded as one of the best. Draper has a dozen goals, 25 points and is plus-3 while skating 16:47. For this he is paid $2,128,000.
Like Nashville, Vancouver added a center at the deadline. With Henrik Sedin, Brendan Morrison and Bryan Smolinski, the Canucks now have three scoring centers. Their actual checking line center (Ryan Kesler) is injured and out for the season, leaving the likes of Trevor Linden, Tommi Santala and Marc Chouinard (since sent to the AHL) to fill in. Linden is the best of this bunch, but he has been playing wing for most of the season. When a guy hasn’t even taken 200 draws at this late stage of the season, you can’t really call him a checking line center.
The Minnesota Wild is coached by a guy (Jacques Lemaire) who was a pretty fair checking center in his own right during his playing days (he could also put up the points). The Wild’s own checking line pivot is Wes Walz (eight goals, 22 points, minus-1, 15:01). Walz makes $1,368,000 this season.
Out in San Jose, veteran Curtis Brown (eight goals, 17 points, minus-2, 13:15) handles the checking duties and gets paid $700,000 to do it.
The Dallas Stars pay a guy named Jeff Halpern $2 million a year to center their checking line. Halpern’s own line this season: seven goals, 23 points, minus-6, 16:48.
Yelle still handles the checking line chores for Calgary. He has only played 51 games this season, totaling nine goals and 19 points with a plus-3 in 14:25 of ice time.
In the East, Buffalo is obviously a freak of nature. The Sabres have been using Chris Drury as their checking line center of late, and he has 35 goals. Most statistical analyses have outliers, and the Sabres are the outlier here. Every coach in the league would love to have four centers like Drury, Daniel Briere, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad, but only Lindy Ruff has ’em.
In New Jersey, John Madden is the Draper of the Eastern Conference. Madden has been on the job for a long time and is widely regarded as one of the best. Which means he’s paid like one of the best, overpaid actually. Madden has nine goals, 27 points, is minus-9 and logs 18:51 a night. Madden is paid $3,982,566 this season, far more than almost (you’ll see) any other player with his job description. He earns almost six times what Gordon makes. Is he six times the player Gordon is?
Down in Atlanta, the Thrashers had to hurriedly import winger-turned-middleman Keith Tkachuk and the well-traveled Eric Belanger to cure what had been a Blueland (like how I worked that in there?) ill all season: a paucity of quality pivots. With guys like Bobby Holik, Jim Slater and Steve Rucchin taking draws all season, the Thrash had a team of checking line centers. But in the stricter sense of the “checking line center” term, Holik has been the guy for most of the campaign. When healthy, Rucchin was almost always centering a scoring line. And Slater was often centering the fourth line or playing wing on a line with Holik.
Holik has 11 goals, 29 points and a minus-3 while skating 16:04 a night. He’s one of the best in the business on face-offs, and he better be. He is paid the princely (and pricey) sum of $4,250,000 this season. (More than Madden!)
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Maxime Talbot up the middle, the Pens have the Buffalo blueprint at center ice. Crosby is the best face-off guy of the bunch (49.3% this season). Talbot (13:49) logs the least ice time per night. Staal and Talbot are both used in penalty killing situations. Staal has 29 goals (including a league-leading seven shorthanded strikes) and Talbot has 11 (including four shorties). If a couple of these guys start figuring out the face-off part of the gig, watch out. By the way, Talbot makes $545,000 for this season.
Ottawa has one of the game’s most criminally underrated players as its checking line center, Mike Fisher. Fisher is a Selke Trophy Award winner waiting to happen. He is diligent, tenacious, fast, he has some skill and is brimming with heart. Best in the business, as far as I am concerned. Fisher had trouble staying healthy early in his career, but has put together two straight relatively healthy campaigns. People are now starting to take notice of a guy who opened the eyes of some of us some time ago.
This season, Fisher has 20 goals, 44 points, is plus-9 and logs 18:27 a night. That’s what you’d get from Peca and Madden in their respective primes. The Fisher Price? $1,500,000. He’s on the verge of doubling that.
Tampa Bay is another team with an abnormal center ice arrangement. Vinny Lecavalier (1551) and Brad Richards (1485) have both taken more draws than the rest of the Lightning combined. Third- and fourth-line centers Andreas Karlsson (8:33) and Taylor (7:36) play less than 10 minutes a night. That duo has combined for four goals, 13 points and a minus-9 this season. Taylor makes $725,000 and Karlsson $500,000 for the 2006-07 season.
The Rangers deploy Blair Betts as their checking center. He has nine goals, 13 points, is minus-2, plays 14:13 a night and earns $550,000. Ho-hum.
Radek Bonk serves as Montreal’s third-line center. He has a dozen goals, 22 points and a minus-1 rating while seeing 15:57 in ice time a night. Bonk’s 2006-07 salary is 2,394,000.
Toronto’s Peca is injured and has missed half the season. He has four goals and 15 points with a plus-2 in 17:25 a night spread over 35 games. Over a full season those offensive numbers project a shade better than where Gordon is right now, but the numbers should be better. He is getting more ice time than Gordon. And Peca makes $2.5 million this season.
The Islanders have used Mike Sillinger a lot as their shutdown center, but he’s really their second-line center. When healthy, Shawn Bates is probably the third-line guy. Bates played in only 48 games this season, totaling four goals, 10 points and a plus-13 in 12:32 per contest. Bates earns $1.2 million this season.
After winning the Cup last spring, Carolina’s center ice depth chart has been in a state of flux all season. The Canes traded for Belanger, then traded him. They traded Josef Vasicek, then got him back. They traded Adams. Vasicek is the third-line guy right now. Including the time he spent in Nashville, Vasicek has six goals, 22 points and is minus-4 in 13:30 a night. Vasicek makes $1.3 million this season.
Clearly, Boyd Gordon is not the problem (or even “a” problem) in Washington. He is actually a rather nice piece of the solution, and a piece that is likely to improve over the next few seasons as the Caps evolve into a contending team. He may not be the league’s best checking line center, but he’s far closer to being the best than he is the worst, which is what my media pal meant to imply. And Gordon still has upside.
One of the traps many media types fall into is seeing a player only for what he is, rather than what he can be. I know a lot of writers who watch a lot of hockey who keep saying “so-and-so sucks.” Until one year “so-and-so” scores 20 goals and they start flocking around his locker and wondering how he suddenly became “good.” That’s why scouts are scouts and media types are not. Players get better. That’s how teams get better.
(When writing preseason previews, prognostications and the like writers, instead of simply looking at how much money a team spends on payroll and which big-ticket free agent items were purchased over the summer, might want to take into account which and how many of the players already on a given team are likely to improve. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s rarely practiced. Common sense isn’t all that common, don’tcha know.)
All I know is this. Boyd Gordon is a good hockey player, a good NHL player. And he is going to get better. Given the numbers I’ve laid out above, I’d argue that he is actually one of the better checking centers in the league and that he is a bargain for the Caps right now.
Hang your hat on this: in 27 games since the All-Star break, Gordon has four goals and 13 points and is averaging 18:01 a night. If he can maintain those numbers over a full season (let’s say, the 2007-08 season), that would translate into a dozen goals and about 40 points. There are 30 teams in the league that would take that kind of production from a guy who is also damned good at the chief aspect of his job description: shutting down the other team’s top lines.
Gordo and his agent are going to do okay in the next few years.