Not long ago they were considered prospects. Then they gained significant NHL seasoning and began making an impact in the highest level of hockey.
Now these centers seem prepared to do some real damage:
Derek Stepan, New York Rangers: After two solid NHL seasons, he emerged as a true No. 1 center last season while scoring 18 goals and earning 26 assists in 48 games. His plus-25 rating gave him a plus-47 raring for his 212 NHL games. Stepan, 23, is due for a big long-term deal – but the Rangers are up against the salary cap after refusing to buy out Brad Richards. If he signs a “bridge contract,” he will have every incentive to drive up his value this season.
Nazem Kadr, Toronto Maple Leafs: His long-awaited breakout occurred last season: 18 goals and 26 assists in 48 regular seasons and another four points in seven playoff games. During his previous two NHL tours he scored just 19 points in 50 games. Kadr, 22, did fade late last season – scoring just five points with a minus-5 rating in 12 April games – so he has room for growth.
Cody Hodgson, Buffalo Sabres: He was stuck in a secondary offensive role in Vancouver, behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Nobody is blocking him in Buffalo. He scored 15 goals and earned 19 assists while playing all 48 games last season. Once he finally signs his new contract, Hodgson, 23, will get every chance to establish himself as the No. 1 center for years to come.
Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils: The loss of star wingers Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk has greatly diminished this team’s offense. Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe are questionable replacement. That will make it that much harder for Henrique, 23, to live up to his new six-year, $24 million contract. He scored 11 goals but earned only five assists in 42 games last season, quite a step back from his solid production (16 goals, 35 assists) in 74 games the season before.
Lars Eller, Montreal Canadiens: He is a strong two-way center, capable of anchoring the third and pushing for work on the second line as well. His production has climbed steadily during his three NHL season and he produced 30 points (eight goals, 22 assists) in 46 games last season. Eller, 24, scored 13 points in 14 April games last season to prove he could fill a bigger offensive role.
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames: In 170 NHL games over parts of four seasons, he has scored 23 goals and earned 39 assists. Now the Flames want Backlund, 24, to break out as their No. 1 center. This has been a long time coming for the 24th overall pick of the 2007 draft.