Free Agent Centres: Western Conference

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:

    • Supernova

      DSF,

      as a canucks fan whats your view on Lapierre?

      Handzus has looked really good in Chicago, he would be well suited to stay on a team that is deep at center that can play him in specialist roles with skilled wingers that have speed, he would be dead in the water in edmonton as he would have way to high of demand on him to “drive the river”

      • DSF

        Well, I’m not a Canucks fan but living on the coast I’ve seen him play a lot.

        He definitely is an agitator but he has been prone to taking bad penalties in the past.

        You have to ask yourself why Gillis isn’t all that interested in re-signing him and I think the answer to that is his lack of production.

        While 10 points in 48 games isn’t all that bad, the Canucks are looking to get more scoring from their bottom 6, exactly what MacT said he wants too.

        It appears the Canucks are going to give their younger guys (Brendan Gaunce and Jordan Shroeder) more of a chance than AV was willing to give them so, for that reason, Lapierre may be deemed expendable.

        Of course, the Canucks also signed NCAA free agent Kellen Lain (6’6″ 220) who may have a shot at #4C on the team.

        As for the Oilers signing him, I can’t see much downside unless he wants a lot of money or term.

        $1.5M on a two year deal sounds about right.

        But the Oilers really need to address their #2C position more urgently IMO.

        • Supernova

          “You have to ask yourself why Gillis isn’t all that interested in re-signing him and I think the answer to that is his lack of production.”

          Valid Question but the Canucks needs and the Oilers needs are different.

          I only want Lapierre for exactly what he has done in Vancouver if he can out produce that it is a bonus. Playing 12 minutes a night winning more than 50% of his draws, hitting, and agitating other teams. I am not asking for alot but the Oil has really missed that. If he can do everything that Belanger has done, and hit and agitate it is a clear upgrade and it won’t take much to overcome Belanger lofty standards.

          This is one move independent of the need to also fill the 2C/3C roles.

          • DSF

            Im not sure their team needs are all that different.

            Both Gillis and MacT have said they want more production from their bottom 6.

            While I agree Lapierre is a significant upgrade on Belanger, for several reasons, if the Oilers are only able to upgrade to that extent and the Canucks upgrade further from there (no guarantee of that), the Oilers fall one small step further behind in the race for the playoffs.

            Given the weakness the Oilers have a #2C, they really should be looking at a bigger upgrade at #3C.

            Of course, if they move Gagner, things change.

          • Supernova

            once again bringing in Lapierre is independent of what happens on lines 2 and 3.

            Quite possible they trade Gagner, or resign him to a long term deal.

            If they resign Gags they will need a really strong 3C.

            Maybe they resign Gags, and sign Bozak (fairly similar players) and Gags moves to wing and only plays center upon injury.

            I think MacT will want to have 5 centers in his line up every night. Which would force someone to play out of position to me that person is Gagner.

            So i am looking for them to bring in 3 Centers this summer for the big club, I don’t see MacT trading Gagner as he has been pretty glowing in his comments about him. I don’t think Bozak is a huge fix but there isnt much available on the free agent front (Wiess will almost certainly be signed for 5.5 to 6 million before July 5th).

            So unless MacT has a big trade in the works, I think he will keep Gagner, try and add someone of a similar skill set and also add a center for lines 3 and 4. Lapierre fills one of these holes.

    • I know. I limited it to guys that stood out to me as (potentially) good signings.

      Roy is only a possibility if Gagner goes, which seems improbable. Handzus is 36, has struggled for years in San Jose, and is having something of a rehabilitating turn in the playoffs for Chicago playing with fantastic players. I don’t see either guy as a good signing.

      Also not included on this list: Saku Koivu (old), Matt Lombardi (ineffective), Scott Gomez (not a great fit, IMO, though I guess I can see the counterargument), Andrew Ebbett (bad fit), Jamal Mayers (old) and Alexandre Bolduc (ineffective).

  • Supernova

    Sign Lapierre, he is that guy like Andrew Shaw, Brad Marchand, not as talented but he is a pain to play against and you despise him when he is on the oppositions line up.

    He is also a good cap hit gamble as well.

    how much do you think he would cost for 2 or 3 year term?

  • In the Grease

    I like the idea of Steckel as 4 line C …
    in fact I liked that idea last season after it was brought up as a possibility several times, and found it vexing Anaheim got him for a prospect(Ryan Lasch, who I admittedly know little about) and a 7th rounder…

    Instead we had Tambo paying a 4th for Smithson.

    If we were going to audition a pending UFA… I know, I need to turn the page and move forward, it’s MacT time.

    How’s Steckel’s footspeed though? I doubt this admin will want the 4th line skating in quicksand.