Ranking the NHL's top centers for 2021: Execs, coaches, players debate the top 10

There are the Academy Awards, and then there's the Oscar for Best Picture. There are the NHL awards, and then there's the Hart Trophy for most valuable player.

There are the 2021 ESPN positional rankings for wingers, defensemen and goalies -- and then there's the one everyone's been anticipating since the series started, the top 10 centers in the NHL.

"I could have given you a top 20 and they would have all been outstanding players," said one NHL coach, as he enthusiastically shared his ranking. "The centers -- by far -- had the best players on any of these lists."

As a reminder on how these rankings were produced, we canvassed 10 active NHL players -- seven skaters, three goaltenders -- and 10 individuals in team hockey operations, from coaches to general managers to player personnel executives. The surveys were conducted over the past two months. Respondents were asked to rank their top 10 players at center, winger, defenseman and goaltender, based on a predetermined list of the top 20-30 players at each position. Players who were ranked in the top 10 on each ballot were given a numerical score -- No. 1 earned 10 points, No. 2 earned 9 points and so on.

Following our lists of the top 10 wingers, top 10 defensemen and top 10 goalies, here are the positional rankings for centers for the 2020-21 season, according to those in the NHL we surveyed. Much as our coach discovered, taking what could be a top 20 and narrowing it to a top 10 means some very worthy candidates end up in the honorable mentions.

Stats are collected from sites such as Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
193 points | Age: 24

McDavid, 24, was the clear No. 1 among our respondents, matching Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the most first-place votes (16) in our positional rankings. Since 2017-18, no player in the NHL has more points (385) or a higher points-per-game average (1.47) than McDavid. He leads the NHL in even-strength (259) and power-play points (120) in that 262-game span.

McDavid leads all players with 64 points through 38 games this season.

The knock on McDavid has been that he's a one-dimensional player. "McDavid is obviously a fabulous player. But he hasn't filled in all of his holes yet," said one NHL coach.

While he's not a Selke Trophy finalist yet, McDavid has shown a discernible improvement defensively this season in expected goals against at 5-on-5 (2.22 per 60 minutes). He's also on track to get over 50% in faceoff wins for the first time in his career.

He has two scoring titles, two player of the year awards from the NHLPA and one Hart Trophy. He's Connor McDavid, and he's the best center in the world.