Free Agent Centres: Western Conference

Jonathan Willis
June 17 2013 10:50AM

With the likely departures of Shawn Horcoff, Eric Belanger and Jerred Smithson this summer, the Edmonton Oilers are in a position where they need to rebuild their depth chart at centre. Aside from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who underwent surgery this summer) and Sam Gagner (an unsigned restricted free agent), the Oilers simply don’t have reliable NHL options.

Could some of the answers be found in this summer’s class of unrestricted free agents?

We’ll look at the Eastern Conference options later on; for now let’s look at the West.

The Western Conference Class

This isn’t a strong group, and it gets weaker once seen through the prism of the Oilers’ needs. The names that stand out to me are as follow (in alphabetical order).

Steve Begin. The 35-year old enjoyed a surprisingly effective campaign in Calgary after getting released by Vancouver last year and spending the season before that in the minors. He’s a smallish (6’, 192 pounds) agitator who hits, fights and kills penalties; there is no questioning his effort but there are better players on this list.

Kyle Chipchura. Chipchura really found a home in Phoenix the last couple of seasons after bouncing around the league over the last few years, but despite improved offensive totals he’s in the same range as most of the fourth-line guys on this list; he has yet to crack the 20-point mark in the majors and was never particularly prolific in the minors either. He has decent size (6’2”, 203 pounds) and fights more than most of the guys on this list but he’s not a regular penalty-killer and his on-ice totals aren’t particularly good.

Matt Cullen. He’s definitely a little on the old side (he turns 37 in November) but he’s coming off a very strong season and has been a reliable secondary offensive option for his entire career. Like Filppula, he plays centre and wing, both special teams and wins faceoffs (54.7 percent last year); at 6’1”, 200 pounds he’s also slightly bigger.

Valtteri Filppula. The Finn with the impossible to spell name is coming off a disappointing 2013 campaign, one where he picked up just 17 points over 41 games. On the plus side, he has a history of offensive production (generally in the 35-40 point range, though he recorded 66 in 2011-12), he can play both centre and left wing, he’s a strong faceoff man (winning 55.4 percent of his draws last year) and he just turned 29 in March so he’s in the prime of his career. He’s played on both special teams in Detroit, though primarily on the power play. As far as negatives go, there aren’t many; the most glaring one is that he hopes to cash in this year (reportedly seeking more than $5 million per season). He’s also a little on the small side (listed at 6’, 195 pounds).

Boyd Gordon. Bruce McCurdy wrote a nicely detailed piece on Gordon as an Oilers option a few days back; he’s a defensive specialist and a very good one. Like both Cullen and Filppula he’s a mid-size forward (6’, 200 pounds) and not overly physical; unlike those two he is a dedicated checking centre who has never topped 30 points in an NHL season. Ownership uncertainty in Phoenix means he may very well find himself looking for a new home this summer, but he’s a guy who likely tops out as a third-line centre.

Maxim Lapierre. Every time I say his name I feel the urge to duck; the Canucks agitator is roundly disliked in Edmonton but that doesn’t mean he would be a bad fit for the team. Like Gordon, he’s a defensive specialist who wins faceoffs, kills penalties and sits in the prime of his career; unlike Gordon he is significantly bigger (6’2”, 207 pounds) and extremely physical. Vancouver has been slow to talk to him, so he’s likely heading elsewhere this summer. His offensive numbers also have some possibility of improvement – like Gordon, he’s never cracked the 30 point barrier but he has been a ~20 point scorer in situations where he started almost exclusively in his own end. In a more balanced role, he might deliver more.

Manny Malhotra. One of the best third-line centres in the league between 2005 and 2011, Malhotra’s career is in some jeopardy after suffering a major eye injury near the end of the 2010-11 season. No player in the Behind the Net era has played more defensive minutes; given how close Malhotra came to zero offensive zone usage under Alain Vigneault it’s possible no player in NHL history has started a higher portion of his shifts in the defensive zone. The question is whether the 6’2”, 220 pound centre – who still kills penalties and excels in faceoffs – has lost his game to that eye injury, or whether he’d rebound if given less Sisyphean minutes.

Brad Richardson. Richardson has a Stanley Cup ring, but far more importantly once upon a time he fought Teemu Selanne:

He’s been an effective utility guy with the Kings, but unlike many of the other options here he isn’t a penalty killer and despite playing a chippy game he isn’t all that big. On the other hand, he’s had some pretty good offensive seasons for a fourth-liner – he was a point-per-game guy in the minors and despite poor totals the last few seasons has occasionally challenged the 30 point mark in limited minutes.

Jerred Smithson. Oilers fans have had an opportunity to see Smithson firsthand, and he isn’t especially exciting. What he might be is useful as the team’s fifth centre – the guy who sits in the press-box much of the time and fills in as needed. He kills penalties, wins faceoffs, makes safe simple plays and adds a bit of size (6’3”, 209 pounds) and a willingness to hit. If he comes cheaply enough, the Oilers could do worse in a reserve role.

David Steckel. The Oilers could do a lot worse than David Steckel in a fourth-line role. The 31-year old stands 6’6”, kills penalties, wins faceoffs (he’s one of the best in the league in that role) and has an above average physical game. He’s also a guy who does a consistently good job of limiting shots and chances against in a highly defensive role – over the last four years he’s generally been on the ice for three defensive zone draws for every two in the attacking zone. He doesn’t add a lot offensively – he’s in the 15-20 point range most years – but given role and minutes played that’s not bad.

Recently around the Nation Network

It's very possible that we could be witnessing the final days of the Phoenix Coyotes - after years of staving off relocation, it appears the club is in serious jeopardy of moving to Seattle:

Quoting a statement by Seattle's mayor, Mike McGinn, Hansen introduced a pair of potential investors to Seattle city council. McGinn said to KING TV, "As recent news reports indicate, it appears the NHL is taking the new ownership proposal seriously."

Click the link above to read the whole piece, or feel free check out some of my other pieces here:

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#201 LinkfromHyrule
June 18 2013, 10:13AM
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Whether seguin is gaining good experience or not from (possibly) getting another Stanley cup, I think hall is going to turn into a better player. Seguin plays on the third line and gets third line minutes. Hall has basically become our best player and learned to carry the team on his shoulders. Hall will get his chance to go far in the playoffs, barring any more managerial screw-ups.

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#202 Quicksilver ballet
June 18 2013, 10:32AM
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Tikkanese wrote:

Gags is the Featherweight Champ of the NHL, has heart, improves every year, our #1 C will be on the shelf to start the year, we have zero C depth... yea lets get rid of him for some other team's #3C.

Or better yet lets trade up a whopping 2 spots to get a rookie center to be our #1C while Nuge heals, then be our 2C after because he's ready to play by some reports. Yea that spells playoffs. Don't use those same parts to get any of the other 10 positions that we actually need or anything.

Lapierre is overrated. How useful is he while he's serving all those misconducts? Or making googly eyes at the opposition from the bench when the coach is trying to coach him & the rest of the team? The guy is a cancer, period.

Seguin is playing what 10-15 mins a night while usually on the wing his entire NHL career? Yea great #1 center...

Johansen/Jenner? Yea all the Oil need, more prospects/suspects.

Do you people actually think before you type this nonsense?

You new here?

Where the heck have you been. This is the National Hockey Leagues Oilers we're talking about here. Do you really believe Kevin Lowe would let it get as bad as you've described here?

I have really high hopes for you and your input here. Please let us know what's best for the Oilers.

We await your invaluable analysis on how to fix this problem/lack thereof. If Sammy's your answer, i'm afraid of what the question was.

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#203 Tikkanese
June 18 2013, 10:51AM
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The Beaker wrote:

It's odd, personally I get the sense most of those advocating to move up for Barkov arent assuming hes going to be a huge roster solution next year. (DSF said a long time ago he'd be better than Gagner next year and forever after that but.... well thats DSF). They see Barkov as being pair of a 1-2 punch down the middle that will be viable for the next decade though.

I believe most are saying move up to get Barkov then move Gags for another needed part. All while forgetting we have zero C depth and Nuge is on the shelf to start the year. How do they expect to compete for the playoffs with a rookie C playing 1C to start and 2C the rest of the year?

Gags had his best offensive season last year while mostly playing with a mostly brutal Hemsky and PRV or Yak on his wrong wing. All people focus on is his defensive stats, forgetting he played with a rookie(yak) or near rookie(prv) and a terrible hemsky most of the year. All Gags does is improve every year, be a great team guy, does what coaches ask, produces all to get dumped on by trolls.

How much will Gags improve yet again with Yak on his proper wing or Ebs on RW; and on LW with hopefully a C Stewart, Horton, or another banger with hands? I'm excited for that, not excited for a 3C trying to do be a 2C, or yet another prospect being asked to do to much.

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#204 Tikkanese
June 18 2013, 10:57AM
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@I'd rather have Shock and Awe, over just Bold

So you're saying Barkov is the answer to be our 1C while Nuge mends? Or Lander? Or Johansen/Jenner? Trading Gags this year is stupid, period.

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#205 Spydyr
June 18 2013, 11:02AM
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Tikkanese wrote:

@I'd rather have Shock and Awe, over just Bold

So you're saying Barkov is the answer to be our 1C while Nuge mends? Or Lander? Or Johansen/Jenner? Trading Gags this year is stupid, period.

Anyone can be traded. The trick is getting the right players for YOUR team and WINNING the trade.

There are more than a few players in the NHL that would be better second line centers for the Oilers than Gagner.

Hell 99 was sold.

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#206 Quicksilver ballet
June 18 2013, 11:04AM
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@Tikkanese

You're being overly optimistic if you believe the Oilers will challenge for a playoff spot this coming season. With all the changes expected this summer, this team could easily take a step backward, instead of getting a little closer to the cut line.

MacTavish will be fortunate to even find takers for 83 and 10, let alone get something tangible in return to help this team this season.

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#207 The Beaker
June 18 2013, 11:11AM
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@Spydyr

I dont think he's saying you cannot trade Gags. I think hes saying if you trade gags and replace him with a rookie you are just asking to get pumped.

I think we could trade gags, draft Barkov, Sign a guy like Weiss, Sign a vet 3C and have Barkov playing as a 3/4C guy the whole year and movnig up if he proves he can hack it.

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#208 Tikkanese
June 18 2013, 11:36AM
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@The Beaker

Exactly!

I'm also saying trading parts to move up to Barkov is not in our best interest when we have about 10 other holes in a dire need of filling this year.

Not to mention with all the new faces coming in, trading Gags just adds to the lack of continuity. Which is compounded by the facts C depth is severley lacking and Gags has the type of attitude we want here.

We need much more veteran presence here, not more rookies and wishes.

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#209 The Oilers Shot Clock
June 18 2013, 11:38AM
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There is no answer in the UFA pool this year. There usually isnt. MacT will have to trade his way out of this problem like all good teams do. Hanzal isnt that untouchable in Phoenix. We have the pieces to overpay slightly in a trade for him. Perfect 2nd/3rd line center there. Brian Boyle is even more attainable and just as useful. Overpay slightly for both. A combination of draftpicks, Gagner and Defense prospects could get them both here.

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#210 Shifty
June 18 2013, 11:58AM
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While i'm aware there is a possibility Gagner moves this summer, I find it hard to believe it will actually happen.

First, he fits exactley the description of player that the coach has repeatedly said he wants here.

Second, the free agent pool this summer is extremely shallow.

At the moment, its looking like Gags will be the only NHL center we have to start the season. Last I heard, RNH was 6 months to recover from his shoulder, which would put him into a November return. If we got rid of Gag's, we would have to start the season with 4 AHL centers. Even if they get an NHL center through trade, that would leave us with one NHL quality center.

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#211 Tikkanese
June 18 2013, 12:02PM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

You're being overly optimistic if you believe the Oilers will challenge for a playoff spot this coming season. With all the changes expected this summer, this team could easily take a step backward, instead of getting a little closer to the cut line.

MacTavish will be fortunate to even find takers for 83 and 10, let alone get something tangible in return to help this team this season.

I expect them to improve. The goal is the playoffs. Improving on the Petrell's of the lineup won't be hard at all. They could easily take a step back though. I can't think of a single massive overhaul that was largely succesful in the first year. If they pick up cancers like Lapierre they will take a step back.

I think you underestimate the value of 83. There are takers for him. 10 though I agree is a lot harder to move, especially when he only has to submit 10 teams that he'll go to. I bet none of those 10 teams will be trying to reach the cap floor. He'll probably be awkwardly back until at least the deadline.

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#212 curious
June 18 2013, 12:17PM
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Sounds like Corban Knight is headed down the road to Calgary...

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#213 ColeRoll
June 18 2013, 02:02PM
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Hey Willis, why no mention of the guy in the photo against Horc? Sobotka to me is an ideal fit (along with Gordon) to fill out those bottom two centre slots, and he's got the ability to fill in up the lineup when needed. He can also play wing.

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#214 The Soup Fascist
June 18 2013, 02:25PM
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ColeRoll wrote:

Hey Willis, why no mention of the guy in the photo against Horc? Sobotka to me is an ideal fit (along with Gordon) to fill out those bottom two centre slots, and he's got the ability to fill in up the lineup when needed. He can also play wing.

Great call on Sobotka, but St. Louis loves the guy's versatility. Tough to pry him out of there without a big overpay, I think.

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#215 DSF
June 18 2013, 02:26PM
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The Oilers need to trade for a veteran two way centre to replace Horcoff...one who should be good enough to hold the fort until Hopkins is healthy.

If MacT doesn't do this in the offseason, he'll be making the same mistake Tambellini did when Horcoff went down.

The real issue with Gagner is that he's going to want to get paid based on his offensive stats, and, if he is, he won't be worth that contract with the gaping holes in his defensive game.

If the Oilers don't move him, they're going to have to pay him and it's going to hurt.

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#216 GVBlackhawk
June 18 2013, 08:30PM
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DSF wrote:

The Oilers need to trade for a veteran two way centre to replace Horcoff...one who should be good enough to hold the fort until Hopkins is healthy.

If MacT doesn't do this in the offseason, he'll be making the same mistake Tambellini did when Horcoff went down.

The real issue with Gagner is that he's going to want to get paid based on his offensive stats, and, if he is, he won't be worth that contract with the gaping holes in his defensive game.

If the Oilers don't move him, they're going to have to pay him and it's going to hurt.

Gagner is worth about $4.5M per season. $4.0M per season would be a value contract for the Oilers.

Over $4.5M and we start to get into 'overpay' territory. His agent is likely trying to get him $5.0M per.

The Oilers can play him at 2C in the short term and pump his numbers. If they can upgrade at that position, then Gagner can be moved for another asset that addresses a different weakness. He likely will get paid too much to consider keeping him at 3RW.

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#217 Walter Sobchak
June 18 2013, 10:15PM
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GVBlackhawk wrote:

Gagner is worth about $4.5M per season. $4.0M per season would be a value contract for the Oilers.

Over $4.5M and we start to get into 'overpay' territory. His agent is likely trying to get him $5.0M per.

The Oilers can play him at 2C in the short term and pump his numbers. If they can upgrade at that position, then Gagner can be moved for another asset that addresses a different weakness. He likely will get paid too much to consider keeping him at 3RW.

His tire's are pumped, the time is now to get max return.

You are bang on, anything over 4.5 will become an overpayment.

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#218 GVBlackhawk
June 18 2013, 11:21PM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

His tire's are pumped, the time is now to get max return.

You are bang on, anything over 4.5 will become an overpayment.

Two problems with trading him right now:

1. The Oilers center depth is poor and RNH will likely miss the start of next season. The team still needs Gagner and his offense.

2. Max value would be obtained if Gagner showed some commitment to his defensive game, while maintaining or increasing his offensive production. I think Eakins might be able to get more out of Sam (I would like to see how it plays out, at least).

One other item: if the Oilers draft Monahan or Lindholm, they should develop in the CHL, SEL, or AHL until such time that they can force Gagner out of that 2C position.

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#219 Oilers4ever
June 19 2013, 01:03AM
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This decision is easy to me... top three.

1) Filpulla. He played in the Wings system. What else do you need to say. He comes from a top notch first class system and has learned under guys named Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, and Babcock... any questions.

2) Lapierre... plays with grit and tenacity.. something the Oilers have lacked for years.. and he's always been hard for the Oil to play against with Vancouver so get him away from there.

3) Richardson from LA... you can say he doens't play PK time with the Kings.. because they have better PK players.. but he'd knock some Oilers out in my mind... he might not be the biggest player but he plays in my mind like Sam... All heart and 100% effort.. something this Oilers team lacks.

Get those three... Lapierre could play wing if need be. This make Gagner your third line center though.. Filpulla is better by a long shot. maybe Sam plays wing too. And sorry but Richardson knocks out whats his name the Swede.. sorry.. names failing me at this hour.

All three players fit the Oilers for the age mould too.. 28 years.. good experience but still 8-10 years in the tank. All bring valuable playoff experience and if you are dumping Hemsky, Horcoff, Belanger et all... you have tons of cap space to sign all three.

This is a no brainer.

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#220 Quicksilver ballet
June 19 2013, 10:58AM
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@GVBlackhawk

Our Oilers are a lottery team with these guys GV. How much worse can it get if they're traded. He's just not a functional top ten player on your team with the warts in his game. Time to move on.

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#221 Mike Modano's Dog
June 19 2013, 02:26PM
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Sorry if this question was asked earlier, but WHY is RNH just having surgery NOW?! Couldn't they have done this immediately after his season had come to an end, to extend his rehab?

That said I've been out of touch since moving...

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