McDavid, then who? The NHL’s best centers right now, according to players and execs

NHL

There’s a reason the top 10 centers are the final list we publish in the NHL Positional Rankings.

It’s the most star-studded group of players in any of these rankings. One could do a top 30 of only NHL centers and still have significant snubs.

So imagine how many there are when the list is limited to the 10 best centers.

Just to calm your fears: Connor McDavid did, in fact, make the cut.

Welcome to the final results from the 2024 NHL Positional Rankings, a unique way to determine the best of the best. Some surveys ask players for their rankings. Others poll executives. The NHL Positional Rankings combine both opinions into one definitive list that blends on-ice savvy with boardroom thinking.

Here’s how it worked: Surveys were conducted over the past month. Respondents were asked to rank their current top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender based on a predetermined list of the top 30-40 players at each position. Players ranked on each ballot were given a numerical score — No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 got 9 points and so on.

Ten NHL players were surveyed — four from the Eastern Conference, six 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 — six from the East, four from the West — including two 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 according to those inside the NHL.

Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.

194 points | Age: 27 | Last season: 1st

Leon Draisaitl gets to see the greatness of Connor McDavid up close and personal.

“I’m lucky enough to see him every day. And every day, it seems like there’s something where you’re like, ‘Wow, like, I’ve never seen anyone do that.’ And if I tried to imitate him, both of my hips would shoot out on either side,” he told ESPN with a laugh. “But good for him.”

What’s left to be said about McDavid? He has topped this list every year of its existence. He has five scoring titles. He has three NHL most valuable player awards and four NHLPA player of the year awards. For players with at least 400 games 600 games played, McDavid has the third-highest points-per-game average (1.51) in NHL history, behind Wayne Gretzky (1.92) and Mario Lemieux (1.88). It doesn’t get more exclusive than that.

“McDavid makes everyone look like they’re playing at a different speed,” one veteran player said.

This season he started slowly by McDavid standards, in part because of an injury. But after the Oilers’ coaching change, McDavid posted 82 points in 50 games. Or as it’s colloquially phrased — he did “Connor McDavid things.”

But for all his individual hardware and statistical dominance, he’s still seeking a championship for the Oilers. If there’s a hole on his résumé, that’s it.

“Those individual awards become a little nicer when you put the Stanley Cup aside them. And that’s how I’ve looked at it,” Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos said before the season. “Connor’s the best player in the world and he has the drive and the determination. It’s going to happen sooner or later.”

McDavid was the only player to appear on all 20 ballots. He was first overall on 15 of them. Every executive had him first overall. Five players did not.


170 points | Age: 28 | Last season: 3rd

There are stretches when the Avalanche star is as unstoppable as, well, an avalanche. It’s when MacKinnon is stringing together weeks of consecutive points like it’s second nature. Take his recent home points streak: 27 straight games in Denver with a point, scoring 22 goals and 34 assists during that stretch.

MacKinnon has 33 goals and 59 assists in 57 games this season, pushing hard for his first Hart Trophy as league MVP. He’s also seeking his first Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer after establishing a career high of 111 points last season in 71 games.

MacKinnon’s stock has risen from last season’s rankings, when he was third overall. He appeared on 18 ballots last year; now it’s 19 ballots. Which does mean that one Western Conference veteran forward left him off of his ballot completely.

He didn’t receive a first-place vote last season. This season, four of our 10 players had him first overall on their ballots, ahead of McDavid. Six of our 10 executives had him second on their ballots; the other four had him third overall.


140 points | Age: 26 | Last season: 2nd

In NHL history, a center has scored 75 goals just four times. Wayne Gretzky did it twice. Mario Lemieux (1988-89) and Phil Esposito (1970-71) each did it once. Matthews is on pace to achieve the feat this season, in what would be one of the most impressive offensive performances of the century.

Since 2019-20, the 26-year-old has 237 goals, which is nearly 30 more than any other player. His plus/minus of plus-113 in that stretch ranks him fifth. Plus/minus should never be the end-all when discussing a player’s defensive prowess, but Matthews has earned the reputation as a quality two-way center in the NHL, having finished top 10 for the Selke Trophy two years ago.

Last season, one of our voters said that Matthews is “in the McDavid vs. MacKinnon discussion.” He still is, except both of those players were clearly ahead of Matthews in this season’s rankings, as the Leafs star slips from second in 2023 to third.

Looking inside the numbers, Matthews was second place on 13 ballots last season. This season, only three voters had him second, all of them executives.

Two Western Conference players left Matthews outside of their top 10 completely, as he appeared on 18 of 20 ballots overall.


121 points | Age: 36 | Last season: 4th

The oldest player on our list maintains his ranking from last season, earning respect from both execs and peers as he plays to a point-per-game pace again.

Crosby has 55 points in 51 games. His 31 goals are nine more than the next leading Penguins scorer, Jake Guentzel, who not coincidentally plays with Crosby. Sid’s current goals-per-60-minutes rate (1.7) would be his highest seasonal mark since 2016-17. He knew what his team needed, and the captain has tried to provide it. But that might not be enough for the Penguins.

“Around 10 years ago, Sid’s good enough to pull the Penguins into the playoffs on his own,” an executive said. “I don’t know if that’s what he is anymore. Age comes for everyone.”

Last season, Crosby appeared on 19 ballots. His highest placement was second overall. This season, Crosby also appeared on 19 ballots and was given a first-place vote by a veteran defenseman. (For the record, McDavid was second on that ballot.)

The players showed Crosby love, as he finished fourth or better on six of their 10 ballots. Counterbalancing that, five of 10 execs had Crosby below fourth place. One Western Conference executive left him out of their top 10 entirely.

Sid The Kid is still the man. But clearly others are catching up in his twilight years.

“In thinking about this ranking: Would you trade Aleksander Barkov for Crosby at this point in their careers?” one executive asked rhetorically.


100 points | Age: 28 | Last season: 5th

Draisaitl has been asked about playing with McDavid countless times. So we decided to ask McDavid what he likes best about his superstar teammate.

“The best thing about playing with Leo is just how bad he wants to win,” McDavid told ESPN before the season. “Obviously he’s an amazing player. He’s an amazing passer. He thinks the game so well. But just him wanting to win, driving our team that way, it’s a great thing.”

It does help that Draisaitl is one of the best hockey players on the planet. He has 68 points in his first 52 games this season, including 27 goals. His 390 points over the past four seasons is second only to teammate McDavid. His 165 goals in that span are second only to Matthews.

Draisaitl appeared on 19 ballots last year. That number dropped to 17 this season. One general manager and two veteran players left him out of their top 10.

His highest place last season was second overall. This season, he topped out at third, which is where an Eastern Conference executive and two players had him ranked. It all added up to being the fifth-best center in the NHL, again.


67 points | Age: 28 | Last season: 6th

Is the perpetually underrated Panthers center finally “rated” in the NHL? Two straight years of being ranked as the sixth-best center in the NHL would seem to indicate that, but even then, some believe that’s not giving Barkov his due.

“Barkov is never going to get the respect he deserves because people don’t appreciate everything he does in the same way that they do other centers,” a general manager said.

Barkov has 54 points in 50 games this season for the Panthers. That includes just 12 goals — Barkov currently has the lowest goals-per-60-minutes mark of his career (0.7).

Barkov’s offensive output is only part of the story. Some might say it’s even the sidebar to his defensive prowess, which has him favored to win another Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. The Panthers are averaging 1.40 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 when Barkov is on the ice, which is Patrice Bergeron-esque.


66 points | Age: 22 | Last season: 8th

Hughes moves up one spot after his star-making season in 2022-23, and just barely missed catching Barkov for sixth overall, falling short by one point.

He set a new franchise record for points in a season (99) and scored 43 goals in 78 games. His drive to win — and unfiltered personality — made him a star off the ice as well.

“Jack’s too low, in my opinion,” an executive said.

This season, Hughes has 50 points in 39 games, having missed a chunk of time due to an upper-body injury. He’s an elite playmaker and one of the league’s most agile skaters. He’s not perfect, however: His 5-on-5 defense is a bit less effective than it was last season, and he can tend to force things when the Devils are struggling to score. But these are quibbles about an exceptional player who’s still only in his fifth NHL season.

“Jack’s 22. He’s talented, but he’s going to make mistakes,” another executive said.

Hughes appeared on 17 ballots, getting as high as fourth place on three of them: An Eastern Conference executive, a veteran defenseman and a goalie. He was left off the ballot by a coach and two veteran forwards.


56 points | Age: 30 | Last season: 7th

The NHL has a long history of incredible centers who are overshadowed by their flashier wingers. Brett Hull outshone Adam Oates. Alex Ovechkin was the megastar while Nicklas Backstrom kept things steady.

Brayden Point gets his love — being a playoff hero during two Stanley Cup wins has a funny way of increasing one’s profile — but he’s often playing in Nikita Kucherov‘s shadow. He puts up points but without the panache. Point scored a career-high 95 points last season in 82 games, including the quietest 51 goals in recent memory from a perception standpoint.

“Point’s not pretty,” a general manager said. “He doesn’t go end-to-end for goals. But he’s got balls. And he’s a good teammate.”

This season, Point has 58 points in 57 games, including 28 goals.

“He’s almost like what Jonathan Toews was,” another general manager noted.

That’s an interesting comment. Toews never hit the offensive heights that Point has in the regular season. The former Chicago Blackhawks star was a four-time Selke finalist with one win as the league’s best defensive forward. There was a moment when it looked like Point could be in the Selke conversation annually, but the analytics point to some serious degradation in his even-strength defensive game in recent seasons.

Point appeared on 16 ballots last season and 15 ballots this season. His highest place in last year’s ranking was two third-place votes. This season, his highest placement was two fourth-place votes, both from veteran forwards.


46 points | Age: 27 | Last season: NR

The greatest beneficiary of the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup championship was probably Adin Hill, who went from journeyman to getting a two-year contract as the team’s starter. But the second biggest beneficiary was absolutely Jack Eichel.

He had 26 points in 22 playoff games for the Knights, after being a point-per-game player in the regular season. He left an impression as a two-way center that he had never approached in his eight previous seasons in the NHL. Most importantly, he was a No. 1 star center who had earned a Stanley Cup ring.

The uptick in respect, including a place on this ranking after missing the cut last season, isn’t lost on Eichel.

“In the public and [the media’s] eyes, it’s definitely changed,” he told ESPN before the season. “I feel like I’m having a little more respect and I’m happy about that.”

This season, Eichel had 44 points in 42 games before an injury in January landed him on long-term injured reserve.

Eichel appeared on 10 ballots, including six of 10 players’. One NHL coach had him second overall on his ballot behind McDavid. High praise indeed.


38 points | Age: 25 | Last season: NR

Pettersson was 13th on last season’s list, but the incredible regular-season success of the Canucks certainly put the Swedish star in a more intense spotlight. He should have been there anyway after last season’s 102-point breakout, which included a career-best 39 goals.

Pettersson appeared on eight ballots last season. This season, he appeared on 10 ballots — six executives and four players. His highest ranking was fifth, given to him by an Eastern Conference executive and a Western Conference player.

There are certainly panelists who felt he deserved higher than 10th.

“I’d have Pettersson ahead of Point and Eichel,” an executive said.


Honorable mentions

If you’ll recall last year’s rankings, there are two significant names that fell off the list. One was understandable: Patrice Bergeron, the Boston Bruins‘ star center who retired after last season. Bergeron finished 9th in the 2023 voting, placing as high as third on one ballot.

The other player who dropped out of the top 10? Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson, who went from back-to-back seasons of goal-scoring dominance — his 85 goals from 2021-22 through 2022-23 ranked him 10th among all NHL players — to an injury-riddled campaign this season that produced just 16 goals in 45 games.

Last season, Thompson was 10th in the ranking and earned a second-place vote from one panelist. This season, the Sabres star was one of 20 centers who did not appear on any ballots. Quite a tumble.

After Pettersson, the next highest vote-getter was his teammate J.T. Miller, who is currently sixth in the NHL in scoring (75 points in 58 games). One executive and one veteran defenseman had Miller fifth on their ballots.

Following Miller was a tie between Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho and Dallas Stars center Roope Hintz, in what might be a bit of a surprise. Both players appeared on seven ballots. Last season, Hintz mustered only two ninth-place votes. This season, one veteran defenseman had him as high as sixth overall — ahead of Barkov and Aho.

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad was next in the rankings. He has 53 points in 55 games on the season. He was the only other center to earn double digits in voting points.

Other centers to receive votes included Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles Kings (8), Sam Reinhart of the Panthers (6), Steven Stamkos of the Lightning, (4), Nico Hischier of the Devils (4), Robert Thomas of the St. Louis Blues (3), Tim Stutzle of the Ottawa Senators, (2), Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders (2) and Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks (2).

Among the centers who did not a receive a top-10 vote in a very competitive field: Blackhawks rookie sensation Connor Bedard, Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier, Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, Nashville Predators center Ryan O’Reilly, Carter Verhaeghe of the Panthers, Stars centers Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin, Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki, Maple Leafs center John Tavares, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, Islanders center Bo Horvat and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, as it wouldn’t be a subjective list of NHL players unless Malkin is getting snubbed on it.

Thanks again to everyone who read and debated our NHL Positional Rankings this season, and to all of the executives and players who took the time to create these lists and share their perspectives. Until next season (and preemptive congrats to Connor McDavid for finishing first again, we assume)!

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