Of all the battles for spots on Canada's national junior team, none is as intriguing as the competition at centre.
Now, if Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly weren't playing and staying in the NHL, we wouldn't be able to say that. That foursome would no doubt be Canada's starting lineup in the middle.
Canada is, however, blessed with abundant depth at this position.
But the key now is whether Cody Hodgson is healthy enough to play. Hodgson, who was considered by many to be the best player at last year's tournament, hasn't played a game this season because of a lower back problem. The Vancouver Canuck first rounder is skating, and skating hard, with the Brampton Battalion in practice and has been cleared for contact but hasn't yet given himself the green light to play a game. He's simply not talking about it.
With the national junior team camp opening up a week this Saturday, there has to be some question as to whether he'll be good to go. If he is, one would have to think he's the team captain and undisputed No. 1 centre.
Well, New Jersey's Patrice Cormier is back from last year's team and he'll be a fixture on a checking or shutdown line.
That leaves two, perhaps three, open spots and no shortage of marquee talent fighting it out. L.A. King first rounder Brayden Schenn is thought to have a good chance and Toronto Maple Leaf first rounder Nazem Kadri could be in the mix. But neither of these highly-touted prospects should feel secure. Kadri started slowly this season and the national junior team is looking to see if he's going to play his hard two-way game or just resort to a finesse approach. They like the former, not so much the latter.
Potential No. 1 overall pick in 2010, Plymouth's Tyler Seguin, is also a strong consideration, Swift Current's Cody Eakin is averaging almost a goal a game and plays with intensity and energy. And Windsor's Adam Henrique and Cape Breton's Luke Adam bring a complete two-way game that is not easily dismissed.
Even without Stamkos, Tavares, Duchene and O'Reilly, this centre competition is shaping up to be a battle royale.