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OHL: Strength Starts Inside

by Chris Gates on Mar. 1, 2010
The strength of the National Hockey League is a central discussion.

Central, that is, on the ice. Gone are the days when high-flying wingers ruled the league and dominated the point’s race, replaced by strength down the middle for stability.

Many general managers will likely give a hard look at the Ontario Hockey League for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, where many of the top prospects at center currently play.

“If you can get an elite centerman, you’re bang on,” Kitchener coach Steve Spott said. “They’re very, very difficult to get. It’s very difficult to trade for a top two-line centerman in today’s game.

“If you’re gonna have success (in the NHL), you’ve gotta have guys down the middle that can play.”

A quick glance at the NHL’s scoring leaders shows four centers — Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Nicklas Backstrom — in the top five.

Accordingly, the last two Stanley Cup Champions were anchored by their centers. Detroit won in 2008 with strong play from centers Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper and Valtteri Filppula. And last year the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal down the middle.

That type of production is reflected in the OHL as well, especially in its upcoming draft class.

Spott has the No. 1 goal scorer in the league, Jeff Skinner, with 47 goals and 86 points in 61 games. He leads Tyler Seguin — 46 goals and 99 points in 57 games — in scoring for centers entering the 2010 draft.

Ryan Spooner of the Peterborough Pete’s, Ryan Martindale of the Ottawa 67’s and Alexander Burmistrov with the Barrie Colts, are some of the other top scoring centers to enter the draft.

“I think the top of the class is very skilled and offensive minded,” Sudbury coach Mike Foligno said. He coaches another top prospect on many draft lists, John McFarland, who is the sixth highest scoring draft-eligible center.

Foligno and McFarland have been working all year to prepare for the draft, focusing on McFarland’s defensive skills in order to become a better two-way player.

“We’re trying to work with John on a daily basis so that he understands (all) aspects of the game,” Foligno said. “He came to us as a highly touted player, a great goal scorer.

“We want John to make sure, when he leaves Sudbury, that he’s ready to start in the NHL and won’t have to step back once he steps in to the NHL.”

Ottawa coach Chris Byrne believes Martindale’s combination of size and skating ability gives him an advantage over the rest of the class of centers. Martindale stands at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds.

“I don’t know that there are a lot of guys his size that can skate and have good vision and skill,” Byrne said. “For him, he’s a taller, leaner kid. He’s gonna fill out and be a big man once he’s done growing and putting on the weight he needs to play at the next level.”

Byrne described the class as having many “high-end” players. Foligno used the description “highly touted” on several occasions. Spott followed suit, using the term “impact player” to pin the top centers for 2010.

Whatever the language, the OHL has proven it should be the center of attention come draft day.