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The Eye Test: Is There Already an Answer at Center?

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Hypothesis, speculation, hyperbole and scenario are all key talking points surrounding the Nashville Predators this season in getting that elusive #1 center. This topic has been a sounding board around here throughout the summer and into this season. The answer, quite simply, may be right in front of us.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Johansen, Anze Kopitar, Evgeni Malkin...

These are just a few of the many top end centers that Predators fans have been discussing, spending hours upon hours on General Fanager calculating what it would take to fit their talents and sizable contracts on the Predators roster. Rest assured, any one of these pivots would transform the Predators into an elite level team with depth down the middle for days. Instead of the scrappy team that relies on its defense and goaltending to make it to the playoffs, Nashville would become a legit contender to make it well past the first two rounds of the playoffs and possibly into their first Stanley Cup berth.

But at what cost?

It is hard to envision a scenario where Nashville could trade to get this missing piece without either mortgaging the future with picks and very talented prospects/players (Seth Jones/Jimmy Vesey/Kevin Fiala/Colin Wilson etc..) or proven leadership such as Shea Weber being the central component. Even if the Predators get one of Staal or Kopitar, would they be able to hang onto them long term? And keep in mind that the Predators also have major money to spend with Ekholm (Fixed: 6yr, $3.75...way to go Poile), Jones and Forsberg after this season when they become RFA's.

The Nashville Predators need not worry about acquiring that #1 center... because they have already acquired him.

The Mentors:

Looking down the Nashville Predators roster for the 2015-16 season, there are three centers (so far) worth noting. Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher and Paul Gaustad. Ribeiro started out the season anchoring the top line with Forsberg and Neal on his flanks. A forward known for his distribution contributing to his production, Ribeiro is one of the best at seeing the ice and other players and setting them up for scoring opportunities. He has mastered the art of the primary assist and his prowess on the PP is second to none.

Mike Fisher is the consummate two-way center. Tough, gritty, and not afraid to go to the top of the crease and bang away, Fisher's game may not be pretty but it gets the job done. This style of play has definitely worn him down over the years but his ascension in the last handful of games to the top line and their increased production is tantamount to Fisher's ability to play a solid game on both ends of the ice.

Paul Gaustad represents the elder statesman and the quickest draw in the NHL. He has the unenviable job of trying to shut down the oppositions top lines while taking the defensive draws and winning them at an impressive clip. Even at his age, he can still apply pressure on the forecheck and will stand up for his teammates if the occasion arises.

These three combined have all the attributes of a #1 center and all three, either known or unknown to them, are training Nashville's future #1 center: Filip Forsberg.

The Set Up:

This season, Filip Forsberg is officially listed as a LW, but it was not so long ago (last season) that Forsberg was labeled as a Center. What makes Forsberg a special player is his speed, hands and puck control. Forsberg can toy with the puck around defenders and carve into the offensive zone with ease. As Terry Crisp would say "the kid could stick handle in a phone booth." This ability to maneuver and elude the opposition while maintaining puck possession makes Forsberg a lethal weapon in any on-ice situation.

Looking at other successful centers around the league, Forsberg's game is modeled after the likes of Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar. Toews is a perfect example because he uses his ability and willingness to fight for the puck to make up for a lack of size (considering the NHL's overabundance of hulking centers). Toews and Forsberg are also able to play both sides of the ice with ease. Looking at their defensive stats from last season (and we'll throw Kopitar in there for fun), it breaks down like this:

Player Takeaways Blocked Shots Hits
Jonathan Toews 45 16 56
Anze Kopitar 29 46 105
Filip Forsberg 50 28 108

Numbers provided by www.nhl.com

These are two of the best centers in the NHL and Forsberg in his rookie year is right on pace with them. The eye test shows that Forsberg's zone entries and puck possession are clear indicators that he can be an elite center for the Nashville Predators with the help of the veteran centers already in the fold.

Even More Comparisons:

Let's take a look at some elite level centermen around the NHL, focusing on their rookie season (agreed this is a small sample size):

All Corsi, G/60 and P/60 are Even Strength 5v.5 from War-On-Ice. GP, G, A and P from NHL.com

Name

GP G A P Corsi% G/60 P/60
Jonathan Toews 64 24 30 54 50.1 1.2 2.2
Anze Kopitar 72 20 41 61 50.8 .8 1.7
Evgeni Malkin 78 33 52 85 49.8 1.0 2.8
Ryan Johansen 67 9 12 21 49.9 .5 1.4
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 62 18 34 52 48.6 1.0 2.0
Filip Forsberg 82 26 37 63 57.0 1.1 2.2

The reason Filip Forsberg and Anze Kopitar are highlighted is simple: both are 11th overall picks, both have a two-way style of play and both are relied on heavily by their teams to push the play in the offensive direction while playing a great two-way game. Forsberg has a touch more growing to do in order to meet Kopitar's 6'3" 224lb frame, but with more development, Forsberg can add some muscle making him even harder to knock off the puck (of which he controls like he has a string attached to it).

Conclusion:

All the centers listed above would be coveted on any team in the NHL. Some like Johansen, Malkin, RNH and Kopitar have been talked about extensively (sometimes unrealistically) as targets for the Predators #1 center position. The realization comes that if Filip Forsberg continues his progression (6 points in 8 games so far), he can become the answer to the Predators supposed woes down the middle and open up the possibility for Nashville to trade for an upper-level left winger, a position that doesn't require as steep a price tag as a franchise center.