It's been well-established that many of the NHL's greatest players of all-time have played the center position. NHL legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier have all manned the middle of the ice throughout their Hall of Fame careers.
Center is a position that carries a ton of responsibility, from being a dynamic playmaker to winning key faceoffs. When it comes to center in today's NHL, that has continued to be the case. Some of the league's most talented players are centers. In fact, five of the top 10 NHL points leaders from the 2022-23 season lined up at center.
Given how important the center position is, I compiled a list of the NHL's top 10 centers. I took a look at their career production, where their career currently stands and how they could perform in the future:
10. Elias Pettersson, Canucks
Pettersson had shown flashes of star potential with 60-plus points in three of his first four NHL seasons. During the 2022-23 season, Pettersson absolutely shattered his previous totals with a career-best 102 points (39 goals and 63 assists) to pace the Canucks. The goal-scoring jump was the most noteworthy. Pettersson had the most goals of his career, while also being tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals (five). At just 24 years old, Pettersson looks to be developing into the superstar the Canucks expected when they took him with the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
The Panthers snuck into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a Wild Card team in 2023, and Aleksander Barkov was one of the biggest reasons for the team's success down the stretch. Barkov registered 78 points (23 goals and 55 assists) during the 2022-23 season, and he recorded the second-highest assists total of his career. The Panthers star also won 54.9 percent of his faceoffs, marking the sixth consecutive campaign in which he's won at least 53 percent of his draws. Barkov is a savant around the net, as he loves to score his goals in close. This is a guy that is as crafty as they come and possesses some tremendous stick-handling skills.
Brayden Point has been a player that has flown under the radar when talking about the top centers in the sport. Following a 92-point campaign in the 2018-19 season, Point had a few down years due to injury and the COVID-19 pandemic. However the Lightning star firmly entrenched himself as one of the top centers that the league has to offer. Point registered a career-high 51 goals to mark just the second time he's topped the 40-goal mark in a season. Since entering the NHL in 2016, Point has racked up 44 game-winning goals (seventh in the NHL) along with 218 goals overall (tied for 10th in the league). Point is a phenomenal playmaker that really thrives around the cage, and he was a big part of Tampa Bay's back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021.
It was a rough couple of years for Jack Eichel, to say the least. Eichel saw his tenure end with the Sabres after the team refused to allow to undergo a artificial disk replacement procedure and wound up trading him to the Golden Knights in 2021. After a shortened season in 2021-22, Eichel returned to the form the hockey world has come to expect from him this past season. The star center tallied 66 points (27 goals and 39 assists) during the regular season, but really showcased his ability throughout Vegas' Stanley Cup run. Eichel racked up 26 points (six goals and 20 assists) in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and showed that he can shine when the lights are the brightest.
6. Jack Hughes, Devils
Hughes had saw injuries cut short a promising All-Star campaign once again in 2021-22. However, the 2022-23 season was where Jack Hughes took that huge step and cemented himself as a star player at the NHL level. Hughes racked up a career-high 99 points (43 goals and 56 assists) and helped lead the Devils to their first postseason appearance in five seasons. The Devils star possesses tremendous vision on the ice on top of having a terrific shot. While Hughes does need to get a little more consistent in the faceoff circle, he has all the makings of one of the top players at the position.
It seems crazy to think there are four centers ranked ahead of Crosby, but here we are. The Penguins star may not be quite as lethal of a player as he used to be, but Crosby is still one of the top guys occupying the center of the ice. Crosby is coming off a season in which he tallied 33 goals and 60 assists in 82 games. It marked Crosby's highest point total since he registered 100 points during the 2018-19 season. Crosby's playmaking ability is still in the elite realm, and it doesn't hurt that he has talented forwards like Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel to pass the puck to. While he is entering the latter stages of his career, it was refreshing to see Crosby bounce back after a few down seasons.
As should come as no surprise, Matthews ranks as one of the top centers the NHL has to offer. Matthews had a marvelous 2021-22 season that saw the Maple Leafs star score a career-high 60 goals and win the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. While the 2022-23 campaign wasn't quite as spectacular, the star center still produced his fifth-career 40-goal season. Matthews was recently($13.25 million AAV) that in the NHL based on cap hit. He is a dynamic playmaker that will continue to make the Maple Leafs a force in the Eastern Conference.
3. Leon Draisaitl, Oilers
The Oilers have a luxury very few NHL teams have: possessing two elite centers on their roster. As talented as Connor McDavid has been, fellow center Leon Draisaitl is just as gifted of a player. Draisaitl is fresh off of a season in which he finished second in the league in points (128) behind only McDavid. The Oilers star is a big-bodied center that uses his size to his advantage when he drives the puck to the front of the net. Draisaitl put that on display when he registered 52 goals in 2022-23, which was good for fourth in that department. There's no better second-line center in the NHL than Draisaitl.
Nathan MacKinnon has really developed into one of the sport's most talented players when the puck is on his stick. Following a 13-goal postseason in 2021-22 during the Avalanche's Stanley Cup run, MacKinnon topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career with a stellar 111-point campaign. It also marked the second time that MacKinnon registered at least 40 goals in a season. When MacKinnon gets a full head of steam, there's very few players as dangerous with the puck. The star forward also isn't half bad when he's dishing out the puck to his teammates: the 2022-23 campaign marked the fifth time over the past six seasons that MacKinnon registered 50-plus assists.
1. Connor McDavid, Oilers
It should be a surprise to no one that Connor McDavid tops this list. He is the top player in the sport because of his spectacular playmaking ability. The Oilers star recorded 153 points during the 2022-23 season, which was a career-high. It also marked the sixth time that McDavid had topped the 100-point mark in a season. McDavid is as flashy as they come when he has the puck on his stick. McDavid and the words "elite" simply go together hand-in-hand. Considering all that he's accomplished in his eight-year NHL career, there's no doubt that McDavid is the top center in the NHL.