The Minnesota Wild’s group of defensemen gets the most of the criticism, but the weakest position group may be the centers.
Charlie Coyle moves from right wing to help. If he can continue his development and progress without taking a step backward, the group as a whole becomes less of a concern. He is expected to start on the pivotal second line behind Mikko Koivu.
Koivu is one of the most underrated centers in the league, but will be pushed for the two spots in the next few years by Coyle and Mikael Granlund.
Granlund is expected to start on the wing, but can move to center if need be. He has the puck skills to be a top playmaker, but needs to adjust to the physicality of the game in the NHL.
Kyle Brodziak is a defensive specialist that can pitch in on the offensive end from time to time. He plays a shutdown role and is slated to start on the third line.
The fourth line center is Zenon Konopka to start the season. He beat out Jake Dowell in training camp for one of the final forward spots on the roster. Konopka excels in the face-off circle, but doesn’t do anything else really well. Dowell is a more complete player that could be more valuable than Konopka on the fourth line as the season goes on.
Erik Haula and Zack Phillips are in their first and second year of professional hockey, respectively. They are the more skilled prospects in Iowa. They would likely be the first call ups should the need arise for a first or second line center.
Here is how the Wild’s No. 1 center, Mikko Koivu, stacks up with the other No. 1 centers in the Central Division.
No. 1 – Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks drafted Toews third overall in 2006 for a reason. The former Shattuck-St. Mary’s and University of North Dakota star is quickly becoming the face of the NHL. He has topped 20 goals, 25 assists, a plus-10 rating and a shooting percentage above 12 percent in each of his six NHL seasons.
Pros: He is a smart, two-way center with very good vision and athleticism. He is a strong skater with exceptional puck handling skills and strength in traffic.
Cons: He is a streaky goal scorer. His physical style of play can lead to injuries. He already has suffered a concussion.
No. 2 – Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche have built a very deep group of offensive-minded centers and Duchene leads the way. He posted nearly a point-a-game average last season and excelled in the postseason in juniors.
Pros: He is a fast and creative two-way center. He is an all-around offensive player that can set up a goal or score one. He has very good speed and can play either wing or center.
Cons: He is improving on the defensive aspect of his game. He has a tendency to try to do too much.
No. 3 – Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
Koivu is the unquestioned leader of the Wild and finished first or second on the team in points in each of the last five years.
Pros: He is a big, two-way center. He can shutdown an opposition’s top line and has good offensive skills as well.
Cons: He has gone into prolonged slumps. He is not a natural goal scorer or great skater.
No. 4 – Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Benn is quietly becoming one of the better offensive players in the game. The Stars are building a good group of forwards around him. During the 2011-12 season, he was selected to his first NHL All-Star game and won the accuracy shooting title during the Superskills Competition.
Pros: He has a good frame and offensive game. He is a natural goal scorer and can play either wing or center.
Cons: He is not great on draws and has game-to-game consistency issues.
No. 5 – David Backes, St. Louis Blues
The Blues have a rough and physical group of forwards. The St. Louis Park, Minn. native starred as an amateur for Minnesota State University. He is continually improving his game and is a two-time 30-goal scorer.
Pros: He is a shutdown, two-way center. He is a big power forward with good hockey smarts. He has a nose for the net with grit and determination. He is a solid checker and can play wing or center.
Cons: He can be too aggressive which takes him out of position or leads to bad penalties. He is not an elite offensive player.
No. 6 – Matt Cullen, Nashville Predators
Cullen resurrected his NHL career during the 2004-05 lockout while playing in Italy. Following the lockout, he reached the 20-goal plateau and helped the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup.
Pros: He is a fast, creative, two-way center. He has a high hockey-IQ and can quarterback the power play.
Cons: He is a late bloomer that is not an elite offensive player. He has injury concerns and will struggle against bigger opponents.
No. 7 – Bryan Little, Winnipeg Jets
Little was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. He has not taken his game to the elite-level, but has produced for the Thrashers and Jets. He topped the 30-goal plateau as a rookie and hit the 20-goal plateau in 2011-12.
Pros: He is a playmaking center with a good work ethic. He has a good accurate shot and smart defensive skills.
Cons: He lacks ideal size and strength. He is just an average skater and needs to develop consistency throughout his game.