Right before the 2012-2013 NHL season opened, anyone who examined the roster of the Buffalo Sabres probably noticed that the Sabres were rich in defensemen, but lacking at center. Sure, the Sabres went out and grabbed Steve Ott in the offseason, but certainly not to use him as a first-line center. For a while, it was assumed that Tyler Ennis would make a claim as Buffalo’s number one center, but the early results are in, and Cody Hodgson has done far more to earn that title so far . . . sort of. If you are only comparing the players on the Sabres’ roster to each other, than sure, Hodgson is your number one center right now. The problem is, the Sabres play in the NHL, against other teams, and only a total homer would look at the roster of the Buffalo Sabres and be satisfied with what he sees. How many truly elite centers would you rank Cody Hodgson above? Uh-huh.
Lacking a true number one center has crippled the Sabres attack. It’s no secret that Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are off to a torrid start – ranked 7th and 13th in the NHL, with 9 and 8 points, respectively – but the offensive numbers drop off the face of the earth once you focus the spotlight on the rest of the team. There’s not another Sabres player in the TOP 100 of the NHL’s players; Hodgson is sitting at 110, with just three goals and no assists so far this season. Behind Hodgson? Christian Ehrhoff, with three points, ranked number 162, and Tyler Ennis, he of the two points and ranking of 196 in the NHL.
Compare that to the San Jose Sharks, who have five players among the top 30 NHL scorers right now: Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Dan Boyle. Or look at the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, who can each boast having four of the top 30. The combined records of San Jose, Chicago, St. Louis and Tampa Bay? 20-2. With the exception of St. Louis, each of those teams has at least one center ranked among the NHL’s top 30 scorers: Jonathan Toews for Chicago; Steven Stamkos and Cory Conacher for Tampa Bay; and the afore-mentioned Thornton, Couture, and Pavleski for San Jose. Right now, folks, with the rust from the lockout still causing defensive lapses and an unnatural amount of turnovers, offense wins games. And while defense may prevail in the Stanley Cup playoffs, your team has to be able to get to the playoffs, which means they are going to need offense, baby. Filling their void at the center position is the only way the Sabres are going to transform a middling attack into a playoff-caliber offense.
Why are centers so valuable to a team? Well, for starters, centers win faceoffs, giving your team possession of the puck. Toews, Couture and Thornton currently boast a faceoff win percentage of over 50%, and Tampa Bay still has Vincent Lecavalier winning more faceoffs than he is losing. Buffalo’s best faceoff men? Ennis and Hodgson, winning 39.4% and 39.2% in the circle. Guess where Buffalo ranks when it comes to faceoffs in the NHL – dead last, at a paltry 40.1%. Oof. It’s pretty hard to score goals when you can’t gain possession of the puck. An elite center would go a long way to curing this ill.
Of course, having a top-tier center should do more for your team than boost your FO%. A great center runs the offense and creates opportunities for his teammates – it’s no surprise that 13 out of the 30 top assist men in the NHL right now play center. An elite center can also control the middle of the ice, pouncing on loose pucks in front of the net, drawing defenders to him and creating open passing lanes for the rest of his offense. In short, an elite center can make a good line a great line, plus it allows a team a bit more flexibility in its line-up. With an elite center, for example, Buffalo could afford to shift Jason Pominville or Thomas Vanek to a second line, since those guys have proven that they can both find their own offense and help create some for those around them. In that situation, Buffalo would now have two solid lines, instead of the one they currently have.
The ’12-13 season may be just getting started, but from what I have seen of the Buffalo Sabres’ offense, I can honestly say that it is time for Darcy Regier to swing for the fences. Buffalo needs a number one center, and it needs one now.
Tomorrow, I look at possible targets, as well as breaking down some of the myths the Sabres brass need to avoid dwelling on as they pursue acquiring an elite center. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts here, or Tweet them to me @theaveragedick.