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: