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No, the Wild Don’t Have to Trade For a Center

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one thousand times this week: The Minnesota Wild need a center.

There’s arguably never been a time in history where the Wild didn’t need to acquire a center. Yes, there was a time where Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal roamed the Xcel Energy Center. However, they were approaching their mid-30s, practically dinosaurs in the NHL, and they’ve since gone extinct.

Everyone knows this. Ask a random Wild fan what Minnesota should pursue at the trade deadline, and they’ll almost certainly say center help. The Athletic Minnesota fielded nearly a thousand trade proposals from fans, approximately 995 were fans scheming to land a pivot. No wingers or defensemen need apply.

It’s hard to blame anyone for getting tunnel vision on this. The lack of centers on this year’s team is obvious and frustrating. There are no top-six options, other than Joel Eriksson Ek, who Minnesota buried on the third line until last Thursday. For example, Kevin Fiala has played 75-plus 5-on-5 minutes with Ryan Hartman, Nick Bonino and Victor Rask centering him. Two-thirds of the time, the Wild have a star player who is not in a position to succeed.

The problem here is the same reason the Wild have been historically center-starved: It’s really hard to get centers. You can draft them, but they’ve got a nasty habit of shifting to wing. Because of this, teams hold onto the centers they’ve developed, rarely making any available in free agency or trade.

This is why most of the centers that are theoretically available have warts. Calgary’s Sean Monahan is a massive defensive liability. In Arizona, Nick Schmaltz may be best suited to the wing, and Christian Dvorak has approximately zero above-average skills. Dylan Strome of Chicago is proving he’s nothing when not stapled to Patrick Kane. It’s probably a ridiculous worry, but even Jack Eichel has some people wondering whether Buffalo’s broken him somehow.

Looking at these options, one has to wonder: Is anyone but Eichel actually worth it? Obviously, paying for elite center talent makes sense, but is Minnesota really desperate enough to give up assets for this group?

If they were only looking at this year, they probably would be. Long-term, however, Minnesota may be in much better shape down the middle than anyone suspects.

The recent emergence of Eriksson Ek should change the calculus of the team’s plans at center. We’ve written a lot about his development during his breakout season, but so much more needs to be said.

He came into this season as a third-line center needing to prove his value to his team. He did that and much more, finishing his transformation into a No. 1 center. No, not merely the No. 1 center for this team. Not just one of the best defensive centers in hockey, or a legitimate Selke contender. A bonafide top-line caliber center.

Everyone knew about his ability to tilt the ice with his defense, but his offense also took a huge leap. Minnesota’s generated 3.03 expected goals per hour with Eriksson Ek on the ice at 5-on-5. That’s tied for 12th in the league, alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews. Eriksson Ek controls 60.2% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5.

Now individual numbers are starting to come. His 12 goals in 37 games translate to a 27-goal pace over 82 games, and while his shooting percentage (14.6%) is nearly double that of his career average (8.3%), it’s fully sustainable given how he’s played. He’s got 12.4 expected goals on the year, and is third in the NHL with 1.15 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. As for assists, he’s shown some nice passing over the past few games as he’s gained more chemistry with the team’s skilled players.

Add up his total value, and you’ll find Eriksson Ek has been one of the best centers in hockey for a while. Eriksson Ek’s 6.1 Standings Points Above Replacement has him ranked among the 12 best centers in the NHL. This is more than No. 1 centers like Ryan O’Reilly, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, Mark Scheifele, Mathew Barzal, Sasha Barkov, and Sebastian Aho.

It’s eye-popping to see him ahead of some of the best centers in the game, and one might dismiss it as a fluke or weird glitch in the data. But remember, there’s more than one way to be a Number One Center. You can be a Connor McDavid type and have your value driven by offense, or an Anthony Cirelli type that combines solid offense with elite defense and play-driving. Eriksson Ek is definitely the latter.

In fact, he stacks up very well with the league’s premier two-way centers. Here’s how he compares to this group of Selke contenders at 5-on-5 since last year.

Eriksson Ek leads this field in terms of controlling play, which may or may not be surprising in itself. What will definitely surprise you is that he’s very much in line with these players offensively. In terms of primary points (goals + primary assists) per hour, he’s close to or ahead of everyone here except Barkov.

Maybe Eriksson Ek isn’t the center you want carrying the offensive load, or playing top power-play minutes. It’s reasonable to want him to be the defensive part of a 1-2 punch, with a more skilled center at the top of the lineup.

Minnesota may have just that in store for next year. In fact, if not for complications from coronavirus, Wild fans would likely be watching Marco Rossi in the top-six right now.

Obviously, Rossi’s illness leaves question marks going forward. Darren Dreger of TSN reported that he’s close to being cleared to begin light workouts, but he hasn’t played since January. Given that the virus affects the heart and lungs, we can’t know for sure whether he’ll ever fully get his conditioning back. That’s scary.

Let’s assume that Rossi is able to make a full recovery, get his conditioning and rhythm back in an AHL stint, and make his NHL debut sometime next season. In that scenario, Minnesota suddenly looks very set at center.

Rossi’s draft year was off-the-charts, where he scored 120 points in 56 OHL games. The only two players to produce more points per game in the CHL since 2010 are McDavid and Alexis Lafrenière. Using NHLe — which converts point totals from any league and translates it into an NHL equivalent — Rossi’s performance has him almost destined for stardom.

Things can get shaky when a team relies on a prospect to become a star in order to succeed, but Rossi’s as good a bet as you can make. He also has the defensive skills that should minimize his risks of eventually shifting to the wing.

If the Wild have the opportunity to land an elite, elite center like Eichel, Barkov or Barzal, that is always going to make sense. Strength down the middle is a recipe for Stanley Cup success, and anyone has to leap at an opportunity like that should that chance arise.

But should that mindset extend to, say, middle-tier or mediocre center options? No. It’s frustrating to watch players like Rask, Hartman, and Bonino soaking up important minutes and power play time, for sure. Still, the answer isn’t trading for the top-six equivalent of a warm body like Monahan or Dvorak. The cost, both in terms of assets and cap space, is much higher than the upside. It’s much more preferable to bide their time and let Eriksson Ek and Rossi solve their problems down the middle.

All data is from Evolving Hockey unless stated otherwise.

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