At this point in the NHL, ranking the top centers is like predicting the winner of an Olympic 100 meter final when Usain Bolt was in his prime: Everyone else is just scrambling for second place, at best.
Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid ranked first overall in ESPN’s 2023 NHL positional ranking for centers, which was compiled through 20 surveys that represented those on the ice and behind the scenes. He topped our list in 2021 as well.
This is not a spoiler. This is reality. Other centers might be “in the conversation” for best in the NHL, but McDavid is the standard they’re trying to achieve.
“It’s hard to comprehend how fast he is,” a Western Conference team executive said. “It’s amazing to watch. It’s also impossible to defend.”
Here’s how the rankings worked: Surveys were conducted over the past two months. Respondents were asked to rank their current top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 25-35 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 on each ballot were given a numerical score — No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned 9 points and so on.
There were 10 NHL players surveyed — six from the Eastern Conference, four from the Western Conference. They range from NHL award nominees to veteran role players. To balance that perspective, we surveyed 10 people from the hockey operations departments of NHL teams, including three coaches and three general managers.
Combined, their insights led to rankings that go behind fan conjecture and media narratives to reveal the best of the best — at least according to those inside the NHL.
Here are the top 10 centers, according to our surveys, with additional reporting from yours truly, Kristen Shilton and Ryan S. Clark to add context to the choices. Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.
To the ever-growing accomplishments of Connor McDavid’s brilliant NHL career, we add another: McDavid is the only player in the history of the ESPN positional rankings to earn a first-place vote on every single ballot.
Twenty surveys. Twenty voters that put McDavid at No. 1.
McDavid was voted first in the 2021 edition of the rankings as well, but not unanimously. Back then, there was criticism of his defensive game. It’s still there today, but our voters clearly decided not to dwell on a lack of back-checking for a player on a 148-point pace this season.
“In a league that has gotten so much faster and so much more skilled, he is at a different level skating-wise than anyone else,” a Western Conference executive said. “It’s the moves he makes, the shots he gets off at a high pace. He can do all those things in flight without having to slow down.”
On Tuesday night, McDavid became the fifth-fastest player in NHL history to reach 800 career points. Every player ahead of him played during the 1980s, where 100-point seasons were as commonplace as cassette tapes and leg warmers. What McDavid has done during this era, against better defensemen and goaltending, is nothing short of extraordinary.
No one has scored more goals in the past four seasons than Auston Matthews (174). It certainly helps that the Leafs star posted 60 goals in his Hart Trophy-winning 2021-22 season, becoming just the third player to hit that mark since the 2005-06 season. Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos needed 82 games to accomplish that. Matthews did it in 73 games, the best goals-per-game average (0.82) since the 1992-93 season.
“Matthews scores 50 goals a season. Who else on that list outside McDavid and [Leon] Draisaitl scores 50 goals?” a Western Conference exec pondered. “He’s a 50-goal scorer at center, and he’s doing this in his prime. I’m a big Matthews guy.”
As evidenced by this ranking, McDavid is the current king of NHL centers. Matthews could have the greatest claim to his throne. His offensive credentials are established. His defensive game is superior to that of McDavid. It could be argued he’s the more well-rounded player than his Oilers counterpart, but good luck having that argument heard over the goal sirens generated by McDavid every night.
“I think Matthews is in the [Nathan] MacKinnon-McDavid discussion,” another Western Conference exec said. “He’s a bull. He’s in that tier of center.”
Like McDavid, Matthews appeared in the top 10 on all 20 ballots. Matthews received 13 second-place votes. No one else received more than two. His lowest vote was for seventh among all centers, which was handed out by one Eastern Conference executive. But overall, Matthews is viewed as being right behind McDavid.
“On one hand, Matthews gets a little overrated for his year last year. He’s dinged up this year and gets underrated for his true impact,” a longtime NHL exec said. “It’s hard for me to say he is any lower than three just because of his defensive impact now, too. If you looked at him in a regular year, it’s not just his offensive prowess. He has really worked hard on his defensive side.”
When MacKinnon raised the Stanley Cup for the first time last summer, it was a moment of catharsis and validation. It wasn’t just that the Avalanche finally broke through after a few postseasons of abject frustration; it was that MacKinnon was a driving force behind that breakthrough, just as his friend Sidney Crosby and his boss Joe Sakic were when they finally raised their first Cups.
MacKinnon has the third-highest points-per-game average of any player over the past four seasons (1.38). He’s one of the NHL’s most powerful skaters, and his ability to get his shot off in stride is one reason he has scored 106 goals in that span. According to coach Jared Bednar, some of MacKinnon’s biggest strides have come on the mental side of the game, where the 27-year-old has modulated his intensity and perfectionism.
“There’s a little bit more inner confidence in what he can accomplish over the years and what our team can accomplish if he plays his role to the best of his ability. It doesn’t have to be the perfect game every night,” Bednar said.
MacKinnon finished second in our 2021 ranking, ahead of third-place Auston Matthews. Their flip-flop here probably has more to do with Matthews’ ascendence than any degradation in MacKinnon’s game. He received two second-place votes and was the clear third choice, with 10 votes.
However, MacKinnon was left off two ballots completely, by one Western Conference executive and one Western Conference skater.
Crosby is the NHL’s fourth-best center in his 18th season, according to our voters.
The Penguins’ captain has 68 points in 56 games this season, having played over a point-per-game pace in every season of his career. He’s a model of consistency on offense and remains the driving force — and steadying presence — behind Pittsburgh’s playoff push. While his defensive metrics are slightly down from his recent averages, which saw Crosby get some Selke Trophy buzz, he’s one of the NHL’s most complete players.
That established, there’s one question about Crosby that a current NHL skater wanted answered:
“My first thought was: Sidney Crosby over Leon Draisaitl?”
Let’s get into it. Crosby finished one single point ahead of Draisaitl in the voting, one of the slimmest margins of any two places in our 2023 positional ranking series.
They both received one second-place vote. Draisaitl received two third-place votes, while Crosby didn’t earn one. Crosby has more fourth-place votes (six) than any other player, including Draisaitl (four). He also outpaced Draisaitl in fifth-place votes, 4-2. Crosby was left off the ballot by one Western Conference skater; Draisaitl was left off the ballot by another Western Conference skater.
Crosby was also fourth in the 2021 ranking. Like we said, he’s nothing if not consistent.
Draisaitl has scored more goals (213) over the past five seasons than any other NHL player. He’s second in that span in points (494) to his teammate McDavid (546), and obviously there’s no shame in that.
Again, the margin between fourth place and fifth place was razor thin. If anything, it reinforces the perception of Draisaitl supporters that he remains an underrated talent, something that’s perpetuated by playing in McDavid’s considerable shadow. The year he escaped to win the Hart Trophy was the year he played seven more games than McDavid and saw the season end early due to the COVID pandemic.
“I never think Draisaitl gets all the credit he deserves, though,” an Eastern Conference player said. “Such a consistent player and one of like four guys who could realistically put up 50 goals a year. That’s incredible.”
Whether you believe Draisaitl or Crosby should be ranked higher, the fact remains that our voters believe they’re a tier lower than the big three.
“If you look at the impact of Draisaitl on the ice, it is impactful,” a longtime team exec said. “But I would say Matthews is a better overall player than him.”
Which two centers were snubbed in the 2023 NHL positional rankings?
Greg Wyshynski shares what he considers the two biggest snubs in the 2023 NHL positional rankings for centers.
Back in 2021, when Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella was an ESPN analyst, one of his hottest takes was that McDavid wasn’t the best player in the NHL — and that Barkov deserved the honor.
While none of our voters was willing to go that far, two of them felt the Panthers’ captain was the second-best center in the NHL behind McDavid. Barkov received second-place votes from two current NHL skaters, one in the East and one in the West.
“Barkov is as good a two-way center as you’re going to find,” a current NHL defenseman said.
One Western Conference executive believes Barkov hasn’t made the leap to a higher tier because he plays with the Panthers.
“Because he’s in a market like Florida that does not get a lot of attention and they have not made that deep playoff run yet, he still goes unnoticed a bit,” the exec said. “But Florida has centered their entire team around and he can help out a team in so many different attributes.”
That said, one current NHL player felt that “maybe Aleksander Barkov is a little high” at No. 6.
Barkov appeared in the top 10 on all but two ballots, having been left off by two Eastern Conference skaters.
The Lightning center doesn’t provide the same kind of regular-season offensive pyrotechnics as his peers — Point is 28th in points-per-game average over the past five seasons (1.00). His defensive play, which had been one of his calling cards, took an uncharacteristic dip over the past two seasons. But Point’s frequently clutch postseason play during the Lightning’s three straight runs to the Stanley Cup Final can’t be ignored.
He clearly has the respect from those inside the NHL. Point received two third-place and fourth-place votes apiece, appearing on 16 ballots in total.
“Point is legit. He’s able to do so much. When you have a player that’s great against the little, fast-skating defensemen or the physical, cross-checking defensemen, I have respect for those guys,” a veteran player said. “There’s a case to be made that he’s better than Matthews, based on his speed and the role he plays on the power play.”
High praise indeed. Point was ninth in our 2021 ranking.
Last season was the first time the NHL caught a glimpse of what Hughes could do. The first overall pick in 2019 posted 56 points in 49 games, with injuries hindering his season. In 2022-23, Hughes has appeared in 53 games and has posted 71 points. That includes 35 goals, putting him fifth in the league. Not bad for a 21-year-old.
Hughes has taken his biggest strides on the defensive side. While he’s rushing up the ice to create offense, he also makes sure to get back to cover his own zone. He’s in the top 20 in takeaways, hounding opposing players with his stick and speed.
But not everyone is enamored with his defensive game yet.
“I would actually have Jack Hughes lower: He gets absolutely shredded on faceoffs,” one NHL veteran said. Hughes hasn’t been better than 36% on faceoffs in four NHL seasons.
Hughes received one fourth-place and one fifth-place vote. He was in the top 10 on 13 ballots.
From a player who struggles with faceoffs to the player many consider the best defensive forward in NHL history. Bergeron has captured the Selke Trophy more times (five) than any other player; and if the rankings in our NHL Awards Watch are any indication, a sixth Selke is on the way.
Bergeron, ranked seventh in our 2021 voting, is the fulcrum for so much of what the Bruins do, whether it’s holding down the No. 1 center spot or helping to orchestrate their power play or kicking in with quality short-handed minutes. He has always been a puck possession machine and his lines are frequently among the NHL’s best in goal differential.
After 19 seasons, Bergeron’s best offensive days are behind him: His current average of 2.5 points per 60 minutes would be his lowest in seven seasons. But that’s not why Patrice Bergeron is here — and even received a third-place vote — or why he’s so vital to the Bruins.
For example, when coach Jim Montgomery took the Boston coaching job, his first phone call was to Bergeron to make sure the free agent captain was coming back. “I don’t have to go into the locker room very much if he comes back,” Montgomery said. “He’s got good control of what’s going on, and how to lead.”
For all of these reasons, Bergeron makes the cut.
Here’s some incredible irony for Sabres fans: Tage Thompson actually tied for 10th place in total points but won the tiebreaker thanks to having the higher individual placement over the center who tied him.
That center? Buffalo’s old friend Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights, who officially placed just outside the top 10.
Thompson was voted the second-best center in the NHL by one Eastern Conference executive — and for transparency’s sake, we can tell you that executive does not work for Terry Pegula. While that lofty ranking might have been a surprise, Thompson’s place in the top 10 isn’t one. The 6-foot-6 center broke out with 38 goals in 78 games last season, and has only improved on that dominance with 36 goals through 55 games this season.
“I think maybe Thompson could be a little bit higher,” an NHL coach said. “I just think he is pretty dynamic and has thrown that team on his back the last couple months.”
“After going up against Tage Thompson this season, I don’t think he’s high enough,” an Eastern Conference skater said. “That guy is a tank. He’s huge and fast; actually reminds me of Auston Matthews in that sense where they’re both hard to get off the puck just because of their natural builds.”
But others are still taking a wait-and-see approach with the Sabres center.
“He’s a riser. I need to see more of it. But obviously, he burst on the scene,” a Western Conference exec said. “It has taken him some time, but he looks like a pretty special player that’s really popped. For him to move up that chart, I personally need to see it a little longer. He’s obviously good at what he’s doing.”
Eichel, who finished sixth in our 2021 ranking, did receive one fifth-place vote from a current Western Conference skater.
An Eastern Conference executive said that Eichel would make their top 12. “I know he’s had his past struggles. But as for projections in the next couple years … you look at his 5-on-4 time, the way he is playing, he’s playing different and better in Vegas,” the exec said. “That’s someone I would keep an eye on in the next couple years because the list might be different.”
The next-highest-placing center was Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers (22 points), whose highest placement was sixth on one ballot. Right behind him was Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks (21), who also placed sixth on one ballot.
Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho (16 points) had his supporters, too. “The one guy who is not on the list who maybe should be on that list is Sebastian Aho,” one Western Conference exec said. “He is an elite two-way player.”
Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings (15) was one point behind Aho and received two fifth-place votes.
New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal, who finished 10th in the 2021 ranking, received only one 10th-place vote. His new teammate Bo Horvat received one eighth-place vote.
One Western Conference executive felt that Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars, who received two ninth-place votes, should have been higher.
“The only dark horse candidate I would have is Roope Hintz. He’s underrated,” the exec said. “Hintz’s impact with [Jason] Robertson is fantastic. That’s a guy I would definitely consider to be underrated. Take a look at his underlying numbers, they’re amazing.”
Another center who didn’t make the cut but received praise was Devils captain Nico Hischier.
“It’s the 200-foot game. He has areas where he does look like Bergeron,” an Eastern Conference exec said. “His faceoffs and 200-foot play is better with each year. I see him as a guy who might be peaking when some of those other guys are getting older or they are gone.”
Among the centers who did not a receive a top-10 vote in a very competitive field: Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings; Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins; Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets; Nick Suzuki of the Montreal Canadiens; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Oilers; and the Maple Leafs’ Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares.