The New York Islanders under Garth Snow have tended to draft forwards who play center, with moves to wing always an option to be named later. This creates the impression of a lot of center depth in the system -- which is true -- but it also reminds us that some of the Islanders' best center prospects won't arrive in the NHL playing down the middle.
I think it's safe to say Anders Lee won't be an NHL center -- he debuted on the wing last year -- and Ryan Strome at least has the chance of debuting as a wing before (hopefully?) moving back to his natural pivot position.
But as we stand here in late July, who has pole position on the open center jobs this fall?
1. John Tavares -- Let's not insult the man by discussing this further.
2. Frans Nielsen -- It's almost a tired trope among comments here, the occasional "Is Nielsen a REAL 2nd center?" debate. The numbers, the usage -- and yes, even the point totals -- unquestionably rate him as the Islanders' second-most important center.
That said, even Nielsen has occasionally said he sees himself more as a "third line center" type of guy, although that definition itself is subject to debate. At some point, if your dog acts like a cat and really wants to be a cat, you let him go ahead and use a litter box. (...on second thought, maybe that's not a common experience. Let's just forget this ever happened and insert your own preferred analogy. Stupid dog.)
There is anecdotal reason to think Nielsen's weaker points in the last two seasons came when he was thrust into more of an offensive-zone role. Wherever one falls on this issue, few would deny the Isles would benefit from an even better offensive center letting Nielsen take on strictly defensive roles.
3. Keith Aucoin -- Aucoin wasn't even always in the lineup last season (he played 41 games) and saw time on the wing as well as at center. That flexibility and scratchability may have been replaced by Peter Regin.
4. Marty Reasoner -- A reasonable signing, Reasoner never lived up to his billing and now finds himself still looking for a job this summer. To the relief of many Islanders fans, it won't be with the Islanders.
3/4. Casey Cizikas -- The rare prospect who already sees himself as a bottom-six guy and embraces the role, Cizikas played some wing and some center last year. It's not clear which position is best, and some of his underlying numbers were affected by playing with Matt Martin in what one hopes was just an off year, possession-wise, for Martin.
He and Martin and Colin McDonald and others at times played wonderfully agitator roles, however, and Cizikas is a strong option to claim a center role. His faceoff percentage of 52.2% trailed only to Reasoner (52.5%) and Kyle Okposo (55.9% on just 186 draws, but a hint he should probably take more of Nielsen's draws going forward).
3/4. Petr Regin -- Regin is a versatile replacement for Aucoin, and perhaps what Reasoner should have been. Regardless, he is not a full lock to make the roster and not a certainty to play center if he does. He has plenty experience at center but can also play wing and is historically weak on faceoffs.
2/3. Ryan Strome -- As mentioned above, Strome might start out on the wing. If he does that moves some dominoes, or rather leaves some dominoes unlabeled down the middle. In camp, Strome could end up competing with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Okposo for the wing next to John Tavares. Or he could blow everyone away and grab a job as a center in the Rob Schremp role -- choice offensive opportunities and minutes while Nielsen handles the trenches.
Prospect scrimmages are a horrible place to conclude anything about anyone, but the Isles' recent camp at least showed that Strome is a determined bat out of a hell in relation to his fellow prospects. The man wants an NHL job, now.
3/4. Brock Nelson -- Nelson is the other Bridgeport deputy with Strome, and barring injuries -- always a concern at Isles camp -- it's tough to see both of them making the team off the bat. Nelson played both center and wing in college, and like Strome he might intern in the NHL at wing. But his performance last year hints at him having a strong chance of remaining a center in the NHL. But not, perhaps, just yet.
4/5. Johan Sundstrom -- Sundstrom is a longshot dark horse for the NHL roster this fall, but stranger things and injuries have happened. His own injuries roughed up a promising start in Bridgeport last year and his time is probably still a year or two off. But he has talent, profiles well for a 3C/4C role, and we should be hearing from him again.
*/*. Josh Bailey -- Drafted as a center, it's hard to see him returning there after finding his groove as a wing. But perhaps in case of emergency...
Ultimately this competition comes down to a few factors: Who performs well at center in camp, which "centers" shine in a wing role at camp, opening up other slots, and how the staff views the all fitting in at this point in their careers.
The Isles are guaranteed to have at least one younger player holding down a non-Tavares center role at the beginning of 2013-14, even if that's just Cizikas. But there are scenarios where you could see two youngsters down the middle.
And one more variable, barring injuries: Do the Islanders continue their habit of carrying 13 forwards and eight defensemen, or do they open with 14 forwards and seven defensemen? If it's seven defensemen and/or Eric Boulton does not hold one of the 23 season-opening roster spots, then there are options here.
If not, then the non-Cizikas/non-Tavares youngsters may start off biding their time in Bridgeport.