Why does SKA see Matvei Michkov as a Center? And why should you?
When the interview came out where Matvei revealed that SKA General Manager Roman Rotenberg saw him as a centreman and Matvei also wanted to be a center, I immediately became lost in a furious frenzy of key strokes that ended up analyzing the decision from every single angle.
I could break out the technical reasons for why Roman would make this decision and why Michkov would want to do it. I could tell you how it’d benefit his game style, what drawbacks it would have, and the opportunity cost of playing winger over center form an on-ice perspective. In later articles, I might.
I’m going to be more broad for this one. I want to get philosophical, because this decision is ultimately one of philosophy. Matvei Michkov isn’t a candidate to be a center because of what he can do on the ice. He’s a candidate for center because of who he is, and nobody knows that better than the organization that sought him out to sign a professional contract before he turned 16.
What is a center? And why do teams care so damn much about it?
I could break down what a center does on the ice, but really, the importance of a center’s role on the ice is usually exaggerated. The way people talk about a 1C, you’d think they have godly powers or something.
A center–at the end of it all–is a leader of men.
There’s a reason centers are so highly prioritized on draft day, and it isn’t because of how hard it is to find someone who can play low in the defensive zone and high on the forecheck competently.
Teams want someone down the middle who will control games. Centers direct a unit of 3 men, and depending on the offensive involvement of the defensemen, perhaps even a unit of 5 men. It’s not for everyone.
MacKinnon and Crosby communicate religiously and enforce absurdly high standards on their linemates. They control the game zealously. Obsessively.
In a center, teams want someone who will organize rotations in the defensive and offensive zones. Since the center is often the first one to make a rotation and cover that player’s spot, you want someone vocal and proactive. A leader and orchestrator on the ice.
That’s the greatest responsibility of playing the middle. Since the middle is almost always the closest man to rotate, it’s the man in the middle who maintains organization.
Since the center is going to have more pucks in space on the breakout, you want someone who will both make themselves an easy outlet for their defense and then make the correct play to advance the breakout rather than having to rely on a dump out.
Why did I choose not to focus on the way centers actually play?
I had the whole run-down ready. Then I went to breakdown some tape. I watched MacKinnon. I watched McDavid. I watched Crosby. I watched Hintz and Larkin. I’ve always kept a close eye on both Aleksander Barkov and Auston Matthews.
I studied all of their tape, and I saw many of them playing the center position the way you would all assume it should be played, but there were two exceptions so notable that it changed the entire premise of my writing.
Nathan MacKinnon flies the defensive zone as early and as fast as any winger, relishing in any opportunity to use his speed to immediately put the opposing defensemen on their heels. He can take many NHL defensemen 1 on 2, so he’s always a threat. You have to respect him as he flagrantly ignores every hockey tactics textbook ever published.
It isn’t textbook, or necessarily what a center should do. But the Avalanche won a Cup with this philosophy from their superstar center. Given MacKinnon’s 5v5 dominance, he may be the best player of the center position in the sport. Nobody plays that position as well as him.
That’s an easy argument to make even if you think McDavid’s 5v5 success and historic PP dominance makes him the best in the world generally.
And yet, as good as MacKinnon is, he breaks just about every rule on a frequent basis. Matters are helped by playing on a line with Mikko Rantannen, who is a gifted centreman himself and has the hockey IQ to seamlessly switch positions with MacKinnon on the fly.
He’s hardly the only center to take these liberties, either. He isn’t even the only superstar center who has won Cups.
Sidney Crosby spends as much time as any center playing high in the defensive zone, and sometimes, even leaving the screen entirely and camping out for a pass in the neutral zone.
The way he does it is different from MacKinnon, especially nowadays where age has sapped Crosby’s foot speed.
Crosby floats out of the defensive zone gradually. He lingers higher and higher until he’s behind the front layers of a forecheck and he’s only got the defensemen to deal with. At that point, when Sidney Crosby has the puck with only two obstacles to navigate and teammates on the way? The opposing team is in trouble.
Crosby’s “complete and 200 foot game” is real, but people often falsely attribute that to never cheating. Crosby will get down low and battle for that puck harder than any defenseman when he needs to. But contrary to popular belief, he cheats all the time. He just never gets caught. Even his cheating is often timed to perfection.
Anticipation is his superpower and he doesn’t merely use it. He abuses it. Moreover, Crosby knows who he is. And he understands the assignment.
An assignment that goes deeper than center or wing or defensemen. He’s one of the greatest scorers this game has ever seen. An offensive force for the ages. That’s his mission. To create offense in ways and at a volume that others can’t match. So he cheats to do it, and that won him 3 Stanley Cups. He’s still a 90 point player with a sterling analytical profile who drives possession at the age of 35, turning 36.
That’s why I changed everything I wrote, because I realized something along the way. It’s an idiom that’s applicable to any walk of life, and it’s no different with being a centreman in hockey.
When you’re good at something, you follow the rules competently. When you’re great at something? You break the rules, because you’ve learned to recognize when they’re nothing more than shackles that prevent you from reaching your true goal or fulfilling your actual purpose.
Like a writer intentionally making technical errors because those words in that specific sequence adds dramatic weight to their prose which didn’t exist before.
Like a boxer or an MMA fighter dropping their hands to add an extra layer of deception to their punches and to tempt strikes from their opponent, because they trust their understanding of distance and their ability to evade strikes so much that no safety net is required.
Crosby is smart enough to color outside the lines. He always has been.
It’s probably odd to think of an 18 year old kid as someone who has reached a level of greatness that they can start flagrantly ignoring the rules. But that’s exactly what Michkov is to hockey. He hasn’t just figured out how to follow the rules. He’s figured out that you have to break them, sometimes, to get what you really want.
Some people are so talented that they intuit this naturally in their field of choice.
Michkov’s tendency to fly the zone or his willingness to cheat on breakouts does not happen because of a deficiency in awareness or a lack of interest in defense. It comes because he understands his assignment. He already knows that his job is to create offense, and he won’t let a silly little thing like rules or structure prevent him from accomplishing his true purpose.
Sidney Crosby would agree, and approve. But Crosby might suggest that he cheat a bit more subtly. Maybe do it a bit less blatantly and don’t make as many mistakes in when you choose to go against the grain.
How am I so brazenly confident that this explains it with Michkov? Just look at this thread of his work as a centreman. This is all from one KHL game.
Wow! Like magic, he follows all the rules to perfection. He just flips the switch. But here’s the thing? Matvei doesn’t need to stop cheating.
He just needs to adjust his mindset. He needs to get better and more subtle at cheating, like Crosby has.
Fortunately, Matvei seems to understand that given his choice of who to emulate.
Rotenberg doesn’t want Michkov as a center because of what he can do on the ice, but because of who he is on the ice.
In the dying minutes of a 2-2 game when his team is on the power play, he’s finding open ice and beating his stick on the ice like it’s a beaver’s tail. He’s desperate for that puck. He wants nothing more than to be the guy who creates that goal and wins his team the game in their last chance to avoid overtime, where anything can happen.
Oh, perhaps I should mention, this is a real life example. Matvei Michkov actually did all of this… and it was a preseason game. That need to control the flow of the game is the essence of a top NHL centreman.
He doesn’t have Adam Fantilli’s ideal set of physical tools for the job, but his intelligence and control oriented mindset means that he has the ideal psychological profile of a centreman.
That is, if I had to guess, what Rotenberg saw. He didn’t necessarily mean that a 5’10” scorer was born to be a center.
He meant that a kid who wants to control every outcome and be the fulcrum behind every play is exactly the kind of kid who should be a team’s #1 center.
Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports