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Second to Everyone

Today, Ian Mendes posted on his Sportsnet blog a story about how Mike Fisher is a pretty good second line center. The original piece can be found here, although I’ve copied and pasted the article below and will break it apart FJM style. Aside from the first headline, my thoughts will be in bold.

Mike Fisher may be No. 2 on Ottawa’s centre depth chart, but he’s No. 1 in Ian’s heart. (Headline)

Mike Fisher isn’t really a No. 2 centre. He’s a great third-line centre, masquerading as a top-six forward.”

That statement has been uttered by every single Ottawa Senators fan at some point in the past 18 months. (Other popular lines inside Scotiabank Place include, “When are we getting a new scoreboard?” and “Hey – sit down and stop clapping. You’re ruining it for everyone.”)

Conspicuously absent from Ian’s popular lines list is “Hey, there are 10 minutes left in the third. Better beat traffic.”

Fisher, according to the vast majority of Ottawa fans, is a gritty centreman who doesn’t put up the offensive numbers generally associated with players in the top six. But because Fisher is being paid like a top-six forward ($4.2 million cap hit), head coach Cory Clouston has to pencil him in as the No. 2 centre every night.

There is only one problem with this line of thinking: It’s completely false.

It is completely false. Fisher isn’t the second line because of his paycheck. It’s because the other alternatives, like Kelly and Winchester, share a characteristic with the Venus De Milo. They simply lack hands.

Not only is Fisher a legitimate second-line centre — he’s one of the better ones in the NHL. And yes, I’m speaking of Fisher from an offensive standpoint.

Somehow in this twisted world of ours, we’ve created a bizarre set of unrealistic expectations for our second-line centres. We expect them to be playmakers who are offensively gifted. A lot of us are still stuck in the early 1990s mode of thinking when second-line centres were guys like Ron Francis, Craig Janney, John Cullen and Sergei Fedorov. When the Habs won their Stanley Cup in 1993, their second-line centre was Stephane Lebeau, who racked up 80 points during the regular season.

Note to self: Ron Francis, Craig Janney, John Cullen, Sergei Fedorov and even Stephane Lebeau… all more offensively gifted than Fish.

Even after the high-scoring days of the early 1990s ended, we expected second-line centres to be offensively-oriented. A perfect example was a guy like Andrew Cassels, who was seemingly the answer to every team’s second-line woes on trade deadline day. Cassels continued to perpetuate the stereotype of the soft, play-making centre who needed to be the anchor of the second line. That is the image that many of us still have today.

For those of you who are too young to remember Andrew Cassels, he’s like the retro version of Robert Lang. Albeit, he has the distinction of making a productive player out of Geoff Sanderson. How many centers out there can say that?

But perception and reality are two different things.

Much like unicorns, Big Foot or a local investor for the Phoenix Coyotes, a second-line centre is a mythical creature. That idealized version of the No. 2 centre doesn’t exist in today’s NHL. We created him in our minds and we can’t seem to get rid of him.

Reality and perception are two different things. However, I would like to know this: If the second line center is a mythical creature, who are those overpaid clowns masquerading as first line centers around the league? Anyone who has watched Tomas Plekanec or RJ Umberger play can testify as to what I’m talking about.

To verify my claim, I decided to do a little bit of research, looking at the statistics from last year’s regular season. I added up the point totals for each team’s second-line centre and the numbers it yielded were interesting to say the least.

The average second-line centre in the NHL had the following statistical line from 2009-10:

18 goals

30 assists

48 points

My guess is that most people would predict those numbers would have been a bit higher. But try to remember, this isn’t 1994 anymore.

Duly noted: There’s no Stefan Lebeau walking through that door.

Fisher’s season total of 25-28-53 put him well ahead of the average second-line centre in goals. Fisher’s five-year average since the lockout has seen him produce an average of 21 goals and 45 points. (Numbers that would be higher if you removed his atypical 2008-09 season when he was an underachiever and suffered through an off-year. It’s safe to call him a fairly consistent 20-25 goal scorer in the NHL.)

Fisher’s offensive production put him alongside some of the best second-line centres in the NHL last season. He fits right in with the following list of players whom I feel are the best second-line centres in the game. (This includes players like Patrick Sharp and Danny Briere, who often switch between centre and wing, but for the purposes of this piece, I considered them centres).

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to give you the stats from the past three years for each of the following players that Ian mentions.

Ryan Kesler: 25 goals, 75 points ($5 million cap hit)

  • 80 GP: 21 G, 16 A, 37 pts
  • 82 GP: 26 G, 33 A, 59 pts
  • 82 GP: 25 G, 50 A, 75 pts
  • Totals: 244 GP, 72 G, 99 A, 171 pts = 0.701 points-per-game or approximately 57.482 points over a full season (0.701 x 82 GP)

Patrick Sharp: 25 goals, 66 points ($3.9 million)

  • 80 GP: 36 G, 26 A, 62 pts
  • 61 GP: 26 G, 18 A, 44 pts
  • 82 GP: 25 G, 41 A, 66 points
  • Totals: 223 GP: 87 G, 85 A, 172 pts = 0.771 PPG = approximately 63.222 points over a full season

Tim Connolly: 17 goals, 65 points ($4.5 million)

  • 48 GP: 7 G, 33 A, 40 pts
  • 48 GP: 18 G, 29 A, 47 pts
  • 73 GP: 17 G, 48 A, 65 pts
  • Totals: 169 GP, 42 G, 100 A, 142 pts = 0.840 PPG = approximately 68.88 points over a full season

Brooks Laich: 25 goals, 59 points ($2.1 million)

  • 82 GP: 21 G, 16 A, 37 pts
  • 82 GP: 23 G, 30 A, 53 pts
  • 78 GP: 25 G, 34 A, 59 pts
  • Totals: 242 GP, 69 G, 80 A, 149 pts = 0.61 PPG = approximately 50 points over a full season

Danny Briere: 26 goals, 53 points ($6.5 million)

  • 79 GP: 31 G, 41 A, 72 pts
  • 29 GP: 11 G, 14 A, 25 pts
  • 75 GP: 26 G, 27 A, 53 pts
  • Totals: 183 GP, 68 G, 82 A, 150 pts = 0.82 PPG = approximately 67.24 points over a full season

Mike Fisher: 25 goals, 53 points ($4.2 million)

  • 79 GP: 23 G, 24 A, 47 pts
  • 78 GP: 13 G, 19 A, 32 pts
  • 79 GP: 25 G, 28 A, 53 pts
  • Totals: 236 GP, 61 G, 71 A, 132 pts = 0.559 PPG = approximately 45.83 points over a full season

Patrice Bergeron: 19 goals, 52 points ($4.7 million)

  • I’m not going to bother doing Bergeron’s past three seasons because his numbers have been skewed due to recurring concussion problems. To his credit though, he has posted two 70-point seasons over the course of his career.

Joe Pavelski: 25 goals, 51 points ($4 million)

  • 82 GP: 19 G, 21 A, 40 pts
  • 80 GP: 25 G, 34 A, 59 pts
  • 67 GP: 25 G, 26 A, 51 pts
  • Totals: 229 GP, 69 G, 81 A, 150 pts = 0.65 PPG = approximately 53.3 points over a full season

As you can see by the numbers, the three year average for Mike Fisher isn’t far off the 45 point career mark referred to by Mendes. From the players that Ian listed as elite second liners, Fisher’s point production per game average is the worst of the lot. If you were to take their 3-year sample size point-per-game average and project this over the course of a full 82-game season, you’d see that Fisher would produce 5 to 20 points less than these peers.

Please note that this isn ‘t a personal condemnation of Fisher. He’s a good player who has consistently demonstrated throughout his career that he can average 45-points a season playing with whomever. Regardless of whether he’s lining up with Kovalev or Chris Neil, Fish continues to post numbers near his career average. Frustrating fans in the process by failing to produce at levels that match the physical tools that he possesses.

More importantly, of the names that Ian mentioned in his short list, it any coincidence that their respective teams (sans Fisher and Connolly) are considered to be threats to win their respective divisions?

There is a wide array of players who make up the second-line centres in the NHL. Some like Evgeni Malkin and Vincent Lecavalier are only second-line centres because they play behind Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos respectively. And there are others like Scott Gomez and Chris Drury who have been relegated to second-line status, even though they are paid like first liners.

Hmm, players from Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. (Ed. note: Detroit being another with Datsyuk and Zetterberg.) All teams that have won recent Stanley Cups because of the depth and production that they have had at the center position.

But that group of players listed above represents established centres who are in the prime of their careers, with fairly well-defined roles as second-line centres. Suddenly, Fisher’s productivity and salary seem to be well in line with his counterparts around the league.

We need to change our perception of what we expect from a second-line centre. And once that is done, you will realize that Mike Fisher is a pretty good one.

I don’t see any of this as an affront to Fisher. I think it’s more of a matter of winning and competing for a Stanley Cup. I think the question can be fairly asked. For the Ottawa Senators to take the next step to the elite/contender level, do they have to get more production from that second line center position? (Ed. note: It would also take some of the weight off of Jason Spezza’s shoulders. With the amount of scrutiny that he’ll be under this season, it could only help.)

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