The center ice spot is arguably the single most important position in the National Hockey League. Teams are always seeking talent, intelligence, depth, size, speed, and sandpaper down the middle of the ice as they look to build a contending roster capable of winning a Stanley Cup. That is where the Lightning depth begins.
Luckily for Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, in conjunction with general manager Julien BriseBois, the Bolts have four at their disposal at the moment inside the NHL bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. So just who are these centermen, and what makes them so effective as the Lightning itch closer and closer to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final? Let’s read on and find out.
Brayden Point has established himself as one of the premier centers in the NHL and the undisputed engine of this juggernaut Bolts team on a collision course with Lord Stanley this summer. Known for his tenacity, speed, skill, and never-ending engine, Point is a bonafide superstar that has taken the entire hockey world by storm.
After putting up 41 goals, 51 assists, and 92 points in 2018-19, Point followed up this (pandemic-shortened) campaign with 64 points in 66 games. During this years’ playoffs, Point has thrown his name in the mix as one of the leading candidates to hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s done that by tallying eight goals (including two overtime winners), to go along with 15 assists, and 23 points. He’s also won over 56% of his faceoffs with a plus-eleven rating in 21:24 ice time. Talk about an absolute force in Tampa. When we talk about the depth at center that this team possesses, it has to start with number 21 in blue.
Next up is Woodbridge, Ontario native, and one of the league’s most underrated players, Anthony Cirelli. At just 23 years of age, Cirelli is coming off an excellent season that even saw him gain serious recognition for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as one of the leagues top defensive forwards. His company? How about some top-tier names such as Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Phillip Danault, and Ryan O’Reilly (among others)? Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say? This kid’s the real deal and then some in Tampa.
The 2019-20 season allowed Cirelli to become more comfortable in his role as a dashing and energetic two-way centerman who can “shut down” the opposition and chip-in offensively. He made the most of his 18:16 of ice time this past season by tallying 16 goals and setting career highs in assists (28) and points (44). I’m a big fan of Cirelli because he does so many things right on such a deep and well-balanced team like the Bolts. It’s safe to say this is a player who has a really promising future.
Yanni Gourde may be one of the most underappreciated two-way, third-line centerman in the NHL. Gourde, whose game has grown leaps and bounds over the last few years, is a critical member of a Bolts team known for its prowess down the middle of the ice.
Like Cirelli and Point, Gourde is undersized (by numerical value only). He makes up for it with a strong two way-game and impeccable work ethic. When Cooper tosses the line of Gourde and his wingers Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman on the ice he knows exactly what he’s getting- speed, adaptability, energy, and the ability to finish plays off and drive the net. When I think of NHL teams’ third-line centers, I couldn’t handpick one more effective and valuable than Gourde. The Bolts have themselves a real gem from the Saint-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage, Quebec native. The Bolts line up back-to-back-to-back with Point, Cirelli, and Gourde against the opposition. How’s that for some serious depth?
Centering the fourth line is Cedric Paquette. Although Paquette may not receive the accolades or recognition as his Tampa Bay centermen predecessors, make no mistake he’s become one of the team’s most consistent and reliable players.
As a player, Paquette is an absolute train who plays much bigger than his 6’0, 205-pound frame would suggest. I admire his overall game because he’s consistent, plays a simple game, and can contribute both offensively and defensively. On a team known for its balance, depth, speed, and scoring prowess, Paquette offers a little bit of everything for Jon Cooper and then some. Born and raised in Gaspe, Quebec, the 27-year-old has found his niche at the NHL level as a steady and intelligent bottom-six centerman who excels at all facets of the game. He’s responsible, experienced, and works hard for his teammates. The Lightning are lucky to have Paquette as part of their roster.
Steven Stamkos (Injured Reserve)
Rounding out the Tampa Bay crew down the middle is team captain Steven Stamkos. Oh, by the way, he has 422 career goals to his credit and is still only 30 years of age. Sidelined since February 25th with a lower-body injury Stamkos and the Lightning are hopeful that he can be fit to play should the Bolts advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Talk about a logjam of depth (and talent) in one position. This team is something special.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images