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NHL’s young guns not always ready for centre stage

Colorado Avalanche center John Mitchell, front, fights for control of the puck with Washington Capitals center Brooks Laich during a faceoff in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Denver on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP

Sometimes you just need to fumble around for a while before the light clicks on.

Take Tyler Seguin, the 21-year-old Dallas Stars centre, who lit up the Calgary Flames to the tune of four goals last week.

It's not unusual for Seguin, who has flirted with the 30-goal plateau, to score; it is somewhat new for him to be doing it at centre, his natural position.

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After Seguin was traded to the Stars last summer, coach Lindy Ruff decided he'd move his young prodigy to the middle, shunting Jamie Benn to the left wing, and the two have averaged better than a point per game.

"[Playing centre] has been a challenge, I think I've improved but there's the consistency thing that can only improve with time," Seguin said in a recent interview.

Ah yes, the consistency thing.

It's true Seguin, the second pick in the 2010 draft, won a Stanley Cup in his rookie season with Boston, but the Bruins never seemed completely comfortable with him at centre.

Now in his fourth pro season, Seguin has defensive awareness and is trusted with the responsibility of playing the middle.

This is a story that tends to repeat itself in the NHL, where even franchise-player talents like Seguin and Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins initially struggle with playing a complete game.

Peruse the scoring chart and you'll see the two highest-scoring teenaged centres – San Jose's Tomas Hertl (who turned 20 last week) and Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk – play the wing.

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The Habs experimented last week with moving Galchenyuk to centre – it lasted all of four periods, at least partly because of his 30.8 success rate on faceoffs.

Afterward, the slick-stickhandling American explained the challenge.

"On the wing you basically focus on the (defenceman) on your side and maybe on the slot guy, but as a centre you have to control the puck and know where everyone is in the defensive zone," said Galchenyuk, 19.

The NHL has its patterns, and recognizing and dealing with them is most often a function of experience.

"A lot of it is anticipation ... it can take time for younger players," said Galchenyuk's 24-year-old linemate Lars Eller, who knows whereof he speaks.

The game has evolved since the days when fuzzy-cheeked offensive machines could throw on a uniform, fill the net, and learn the grunt work later – the classic example is Detroit Red Wings great Steve Yzerman.

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According to former NHL and Team Canada coach Dave King, there are several reasons why.

"In the mid-90s, we went to zero-tolerance checking, having two referees, and we actually made the end zones bigger ... players are bigger, faster, and they have more room to operate," said King, who now works in player development for the Phoenix Coyotes. "It used to be, separate the man from the puck; now you have to separate the puck from the man."

The fact mistakes usually end up in the net lowers the coach's tolerance threshold.

Of the players who have suited up for at least one NHL game this year, 77 are aged 21 or younger; 27 of them are listed at centre, only a handful regularly play there, with varying success.

Nathan MacKinnon, the 18-year-old top pick from last summer's draft, has 12 points in 19 games and saw time at centre in Colorado, but now takes a regular turn at right wing.

Calgary's Sean Monahan, 19, scored 9 points in his first eight games, and four points in his next 12, posting a minus-6 – he has taken the most faceoffs on the team, which is impressive, but has won 45.4 per cent of them, which is less so.

Third overall pick Aleksander Barkov is playing centre in Florida and holding his own (8 points in 21 games).

But the Flames and Panthers – and Buffalo Sabres, with their teenaged centre tandem of Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko – are dreadful, and can thus afford patience.

It isn't easy to pile up points in the NHL, it's even harder for a young centre to be reliable at both ends of the rink.

There have been recent exceptions, like the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby or Chicago's Jonathan Toews – all-world talent makes life easier.

Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter said training is also surely a factor. Kings centre Anze Kopitar, a stud two-way pivot, "left [Slovenia] and played in ... Sweden when he was 14. If you look at most of those Swedish centremen, they're very hockey intelligent guys. They play 200 feet."

So maybe there is something to the way North American youth coaches teach the detail work of defensive play.

"The more offensive upside you have, the less likely it is that you had to learn to play defence early," King said.

Seguin will never be mistaken for his former teammate Bergeron (he wins only 37.5 per cent of his faceoffs, for example).

But with a little more seasoning, Seguin could well become another of the league's centres of attention.

Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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