A good way to gauge just how important NHL general managers consider the center ice position is to look at past draft results, and how centers generally dominate the top half of the first round of every draft. And although only two centers were taken within the first 10 picks of last year’s draft, it is all but guaranteed that there will be far more selected in the first round this coming June.
Headlining the list of top draft-eligible pivots is Team USA’s Jack Hughes, the younger brother of 2018 first rounder Quinn Hughes and the best American-born prospect since Auston Matthews was picked first overall in 2016. Hughes, like Matthews, is an exceptional talent who should serve as the centerpiece of any team’s rebuild. The gap, however, between Hughes and the rest of his center peers is not as wide as one might think. Alex Newhook, who plays for the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies, is a prized NCAA recruit committed to played for Boston College. Both he and Alex Turcotte are three-zone centers have the potential to impact a franchise’s fortunes no less than what Hughes is expected to do.
Out west, the WHL should rebound from not being represented by a single first-round pick in 2018 to having centers Peyton Krebs, Dylan Cozens and Kirby Dach as legitimate possibilities to crack the top five. In Europe, Russian-born center Yegor Spiridonov is one of several two-way pivots expected to be leaned on by their respective nations at most prominent international events; possibly even for the under-20 world junior championships.
- Jack Hughes (U.S. U18, NTDP — 5’10/166): An early-season favorite for first overall in the 2019 draft, Hughes is the most dynamic and explosive of all the draft-eligible centers and likely will be Team USA’s top-line pivot at the world juniors in December. Keep an eye on how he performs against a murderous NCAA schedule.
- Alex Newhook (Victoria, BCHL — 5’11/190): Newhook is a Boston College-bound center who was the BCHL’s top rookie as a 16 year old last season. He is an excellent stickhandler and set-up man, but he also owns a hard shot with pinpoint accuracy. Being a late cut from Canada’s under-18 Hlinka should have no bearing on how dominant a player he projects to be.
- Alex Turcotte (U.S. U18, NTDP — 5’11/194): A creative yet powerful 200-foot center who skates effortlessly, Turcotte has distinguished himself as an elite draft prospect despite playing in Hughes’ shadow since last season. He’s never met a one-on-one situation he didn’t like, and Turcotte plays with a ton of confidence while doing anything asked of him.
- Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL — 6’3/185): The spearhead behind Canada’s win at the Hlinka, Cozens is an athletic multi-tool weapon with quickness and acceleration. He plays with a controlled intensity and will uses his large frame to his advantage. Cozens also plays wing.
- Peyton Krebs (Kootenay, WHL — 5’11/180): Krebs is a heady center who like Cozens played a critical role for Team Canada over the summer. A tough competitor with a high hockey IQ and impressive puck skills, Krebs contributes in all areas and can either adjust his game or dictate the tempo. There’s a lot to like about his approach to every shift, and his team-first attitude and work ethic on the ice reveal the makings of a future leader.
- Trevor Zegras (U.S. U18, NTDP — 5’11/160): It’s not often you see three centers from the same team clumped together at the top of any prospect ranking. But Zegras most certainly has top-line potential thanks to a fast-paced attack style and turn-on-a-dime agility. He effectively runs the power play and can make any one of his teammates a threat to score.
- Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL — 6’4/195): Arguably the draft’s best pure playmaker after Hughes, Dach is off to a red-hot start to his WHL season, winning the CHL Player of the Week with seven points (2g, 5a) in his first two games. He dominates the puck and can control it for lengthy periods to tire out opponents during cycles. Dach isn’t the fastest skater among his peers, but he has tight-quarter quickness and agility that help buy him just enough time and space to create.
- Valentin Nussbaumer (Shawinigan, QMJHL — 6’0/166): This Swiss import plays a North American style that features a combination of hard work and finesse plays. Nussbaumer may not be as unstoppable as fellow countryman Nico Hischier was at the same stage of his QMJHL development, but he should nonetheless be a rookie of the year candidate and top liner for Switzerland at the WJC.
- Ryan Suzuki (Barrie, OHL — 6’0/171): The younger brother of 2017 first rounder Nick Suzuki is just as skilled a center but a tad more exciting to watch. Ryan is an excellent skater with top-end speed and agility, and he can make difficult played look easy, especially during odd-man rushes. Suzuki is a smart, calculated puck distributor who should be Barrie’s primary offensive weapon following Andrei Svechnikov’s graduation.
- Yegor Spiridonov (Stalnye Lisy, MHL — 6’2/192): A powerful two-way center who is off to a fast start with nine points (4g, 5a) in his first 10 games, Spiridonov is one of the draft’s most defensively-aware pivots, and he dominates the face-off circle. He centers one of the MHL’s best lines, but also is the top penalty killer and late-game option for a squad that relies on him heavily.
By Steve Kournianos @TheDraftAnalyst