Free Agent Possibilities: Fourth Line Centre

It’s been nearly a week now since unrestricted free agency opened, and the best players on the market have already signed contracts with their new teams. For a team in need of depth NHL’ers, however, there remain options.

The Oilers are arguably such a team, and the good news is that there are still players available to fill the fourth line or spare centre slot.

We had profiled some of these players before free agency began; now we’ll have a look at what’s left.

The Remnant

Photo: Leech44/Wikimedia

Steve Begin, previously earned $525,000 in Calgary. Older, smallish forward who nevertheless plays an honest game – hitting, fighting, killing penalties – and had an effective season for the Flames in 2013.

Eric Belanger… Just kidding.

Tim Brent, previously earned $800,000 in Carolina. Tim Brent’s offensive production disappeared in 2013 – he went from 20 and 24 points in two preceding seasons to three. Some of that probably had to do with injury, and the rest with an unbelievably bad 3.45 on-ice shooting percentage. The depth centre has built a career on doing little things relatively well – he can kill penalties, is a decent faceoff man, hits a bit and blocks shots.

Scott Gomez, previously earned $700,000 in San Jose. The 33-year old Gomez found a role in San Jose as a depth centre at even-strength and a second power play option. Despite his ugly plus/minus, he didn’t actually have a terrible season by the shot clock – the Sharks were a team that out-shot the opposition and they were a hair better at with Gomez on the ice than with him off it. Unfortunately for San Jose, their depth lines were snakebit all season percentage-wise (six regulars has an on-ice shooting percentage below 6.0 at 5-on-5) and so that out-shooting didn’t pay off offensively. Gomez managed a very respectable eight points on the power play, and wins faceoffs – coming away with a 55.9% win rate in 2013.

Jeff Halpern, previously earned $700,000 in Montreal. Played tough minutes, starting three of four non-neutral zone shifts in his own end of the rink, which goes some way toward explaining why he only had three points last year. A 37-year old with almost 1,000 NHL games under his belt, Halpern was a pretty decent scorer not all that long ago, and still adds faceoff ability, penalty killing and a bit of toughness to the lineup.

Manny Malhotra, previously earned $2,500,000 in Vancouver. Malhotra’s a special case, in that he was one of the NHL’s best third-line centres before an eye injury threatened his career. Vancouver shelved the two-way stalwart – one of the league’s best faceoff men and penalty killers – and clearly believes his career should end; Malhotra reportedly disagrees and wants a chance to show he can still play, being unready to give up at the age of 33.

Marty Reasoner, previously earned $1,400,000 in Long Island. The 36-year old ex-Oiler had some decent seasons out East as a third-line forward, but slowed down after joining the Islanders, with one goal in 92 games and a cumulative minus-28 rating. He had something of a bounce-back 2013 campaign in that he went from minus-25 to minus-3 (a renaissance mirrored in the shot numbers, which went up dramatically) and he did it despite playing brutal defensive zone minutes. Also, according to no less a source than Matt Greene, he’s an offensive juggernaut.

Jerred Smithson, previously earned $800,000 in Edmonton. I’ve previously described him as a reserve centre, and I think that still holds true. He’s essentially a generic bottom-six centre who can be plugged into a penalty kill or a fourth line and expected to make safe plays while adding size, faceoffs and some physicality.

David Steckel, previously earned $1,100,000 in Anaheim. I’m just going to quote what I’ve said about Steckel previously, because it all still applies: “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.” The only real question with Steckel is contract terms, since he’s coming off a multi-year, seven-figure deal.

My View

Photo: Michael Miller/Wikimedia

With each player, I ask myself two questions. First, is he likely to be a better fit than Anton Lander as the Oilers’ fourth-line centre in 2013-14? Second, if not, is he likely to be a good fit as the team’s 13th forward, a player who comes cheaply enough and offers enough over a Mark Arcobello or Ryan Hamilton or Will Acton to be worth signing?

Of the list above, Steckel is the name I would submit with no qualifications as a better fit than Lander. He fills the same roles (fourth line even-strength minutes, regular penalty kill work), has similar offensive ability and brings more size, faceoff ability and much more toughness to the role than Lander does. More than that, he’s still young enough that on a one-year deal there’s no reason to expect a drop-off in performance.

Aside from Steckel, two other names stand out to me. One is that of Scott Gomez, provided that the coaching staff is comfortable employing Nugent-Hopkins or Gagner (or both) on the penalty kill; if they aren’t, Gomez hasn’t regularly killed penalties since 2009-10 and would be a risky addition.

The other name is Manny Malhotra: he is, without question, a gamble, but on the right contract he could be a brilliant one for the Oilers. Provided they were able to get him without overpaying, one of three things might happen. He might rebound, in which case he’s a brilliant value signing. He might come back part of the way, in which case he’s a strong fourth-liner. Or, he might genuinely be done, in which case the Oilers have a ready substitute in Lander and haven’t spent a lot of money on Malhotra.

Aside from those three, Tim Brent or Jerred Smithson might be worth a look at a near league-minimum deal as press-box forwards to start; the team saw last year the hazards of going into the season without a spare centre and with Lander currently slated to start on the NHL team there isn’t a lot of depth in the minors – just Will Acton, who has yet to record his first 20-point AHL season, and players like Mark Arcobello and Andrew Miller who aren’t good fits for a defence-oriented line.

If it were me, I’d try and get Steckel signed for one year at a reasonable dollar figure; if that were impossible I’d then try and do the same with Manny Malhotra. Failing that, a depth centre like Brent or Smithson seems better than the status quo.

Recently around the Nation Network

At Leafs Nation, Steve Dangle interviews Toronto beat writer James Mirtle, who offers his take on all sorts of issues, and the following advice to up-and-comers:

It can take a long time to break into exactly what you want to do, but then again, that’s the case in lots of industries right now. In the beginning, be willing to work any job and any hours and impress the people you’re working for. Become well versed in new and social media and don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t get discouraged if it takes years to get where you want to go – that’s usually the case for everyone. Know what you’re covering inside and out, try to always get things right and, in the end, if you do good work, you’ll get noticed and rewarded.

Click the link to read more, or alternately, feel free check out some of my other pieces here:

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    Lots of trouble in RiverCity. The bottom 6 going is to be easy to play against. The other top lines are going to circle the games they play the Oilers. This team is going to be very one dimensional, speed is our ONLY game.

    Will we be a strong team on the cycle – no
    Will be able forecheck with one forward – yes
    Will we be able forecheck with two forwards – not with that defense
    Will we play a left/right wing lock – no MacT has called that
    Are we going to play a puck possession game – no will not win enough face offs.
    We will be effective if we can play 1980’s Oilers game consistently

    Quality teams with great coaching and advanced pro scouting are going to figure out the Oilers. I predict a long second half and just missing the play-offs again.

    • Craig1981

      Oilers , like a lot of clubs now are going toward a scoring third line but also defensively sound . A lot have also a very effective shutdown line in the fourth . We appear to be going for a strong offensive third line . Will there be enough grit , size and toughness to make much a difference this year ? We have to be a much better club next year just to compete in our new division .

      We are not there yet , and teams need only play us as they did last year and they should have success once again against us . I don’t see them changing how they play us until we can show we can do better than in previous years of handling it. We have the individual skills in place perhaps , but are team play is sub par . Last season we still were bad playing as a team , and we were in trouble if any team played the board game against us . To Willis : Will any of your list make us that much better than current personnel keeping in mind we need upgrades not last years that were not difference makers . I doubt , and hope MacT. is far from done yet . Some things are encouraging at least . Perron , Gordon and better defensively perhaps .

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    I was wondering why Steckel was still unsigned when I assumed he was around 35. I had no idea he was so young.

    I agree with the poster who suggested Wellwood if we miss out on Steckel. He’s an effective centre and we have Gordon to play the shutdown/PK minutes.

  • I would offer a few more UFA bargain short term deals and see if any stick. Bottom is still brutal.

    Hall – Nuge – Eberle

    Perron – Gagner – Yakupov

    Morrow/Penner – Gordon – Boyes

    Smyth – Steckel – Jones

    D-corps of

    Ference – J Schultz

    Smid – Gilbert

    Klefbom – Petry

    Belov/N Schultz

    Subsitute in whatever we can get for Hemsky and a bubble Dman for one of the UFA signings or package them for prospects or daft picks. Belov

  • Let’s just play Lander ………he deserves a real audition. He was playing with multitude of has been players, and even on his worst day of hockey, he is better than Belenger and Smithson.

    Steckle is intriguing but only if he is going to play tough mean agressive hockey. If that were the case I’s sure one of the GM’s would have picked him up by now. I’m just so happy we do not have to watch Belenger play any more………..almost the worst sigining in the history of the Oilers history. Anson Carter owns that, lock , stock and barrel.

  • Steckel definitely seems worth going after. I imagine several other teams feel the same way so a multi-year offer might be required.

    Is 3 years at $1.25-$1.5/yr reasonable? The only problem I see is that it would eliminate a spot for Lander next year.

  • DSF

    So why haven’t we signed steckle yet. MacT seems like he’s going in the right direction, but it’s painfully obvious that we need another Center, and I’m wondering what the hell is the delay?

  • Supernova

    Jonathon,

    I am right there with you on this same order.

    I wouldn’t go past one year for any of these players, and I wonder if Manny Maholtra would take a professional tryout. I don’t think he is worth the risk on a contract spot with what he has been through the last few years.

    Lander should be our 5th Center called up when a injury happens. If he spent the whole year in the AHL that would be best for him.

  • John Chambers

    Not to sure what the love affair is with Smithson. He was beyond brutal as an oiler… Zero speed, zero puck skills, not overly physical, mental mistakes in his defensive zone coverage, bad trade for tambo… I still can’t get over that oil change episode where tambo is asking his scouts if he should make the deal… Umm no Steve you are the gm, the scouts provide you a report and u make that deal… If we are getting a depth centre Steckel at 750 000 would fit perfectly.

    • Numenius

      Smithson was not beyond brutal as an Oiler. For a defence of resigning him, see:

      http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/06/02/the-case-for-jerred-smithson/

      “Still, Oilers probably could do worse for 4th/5th line forward depth; bear in mind that at season’s end Smithson was the biggest active forward on the team, while his seasonal totals in faceoff percentage, hits, and blocked shots were all #1 on the squad. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to have a Barry Trotz-trained veteran as a bottom-of-the-roster grinder on a young team that is still learning the ropes defensively. From this distance such a player might make an ideal 13th forward.”

    • I really don’t think anyone loves Smithson.

      I think most people would prefer almost anyone to Lander. I think there are many people that do not believe Lander will ever be an NHL caliber player.

      He is a borderline AHL player. It would be a huge strech to call him a prospect.

  • G Money

    Steckel at the right price would be great, but as you note, that’s probably unlikely. He’s still unsigned though, so you never know.

    I still think Wellwood’s an option, again at the right price only. While he doesn’t look like the prototypical 4th line C, he is a real hockey player, and in a pinch could play up on line 2 when the inevitable injuries hit. i.e. depth at C – what a concept.

  • Hey JW…nice joke about Belanger…lol.

    I read this today with interest and due to that ya answered a question before for me on this type articel too. In your answer ya gave me ya mentioned Steckel and now reading more about him…I can see why ya like this player.

    I see him as a great fit as a 4th line centre based on your info and I wonder about if he, Smyth and Jones would make a good fourth line altogether.

    That would make the lines start looking a bit interesting with…

    1st line – Hall-RNH-Eberle,
    2nd line – Perron-Gagner(likely)-Yak,
    3rd line – ??? -Gordon-???Hemsky??
    4th line?- Smyth-Steckel-Jones

    Without other new players or changes upcoming…that would likely make Brown, Eager and Joensuu (or even Hamilton) any one of the two extras here (or one can be slotted in somewhere between 3rd to 4th after shifting Jones…so far.

    No matter…I like the idea of Steckel over Lander right now for at least a year while Lander does a bit more to show what he has/can do…from the Barons.

  • John Chambers

    Steckel or Smithson would be fine. Frankly don’t know how hard it is to sign a fourth line center. Rather Lander be a call-up. I am not terribly bullish on him, don’t think he skates or scores at NHL level, and expecting him to be effective for 82 games is a tough task. The holes left on this roster, third line winger, and NHL caliber fourth line center and winger is making me think we are drinking kioolaid and making the playoffs is not in the cards. Either MacT has cards he hasn’t shown or he’s no better then Tambo.

    • Craig1981

      Yes, Gordon is pencilled in as the 3rd line centre for now.

      Where is the Oilers’ 2nd line centre?

      it doesn’t appear to be Gagner, in MacT’s new roster Gagner is a winger, probably on the 3rd line as 1st line has Hall and Eberle and 2nd line has Perron and Yakupov. What is the going salary for a 3rd line winger? It certainly isn’t what Gagner or his agent expects. What happens if the arbitration rules over $4M?

      • Toro

        Gagner will be the second line center you must be smoking crack if you think he’s gonna end up being a third line winger on any team in the NHL, Gagner in my opinion was the second best forward on our team last season and your saying hes a third line winger … Give your head a shake…

      • Craig1981

        I know Gordon currently sits 3rd on the depth chart and yes MacT says he is happy to start the season with him there. I just think a team that is in the top half has him as a 3rd line.
        And what???? You must be trolling cause Gagner is a center, who was 2nd in team scoring. His position is not going to change. I would be HIGHLY surprised if he goes to arbitration.

      • Craig1981

        Not giving up at all. I just don’t think someone with a career high of 8 goals should be your 3rd centerman. What if gagner or rnh goes down. I highly dought both will lay 82 games. You need a guy that can play up and I don’t think he can. I’m a fan of his signing though

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Hey man, you can’t talk to “Uncle Rico” like that. He’s a legend in his own mind.

    His breast enhancer program might not have worked out in his favour, but if coach had given him a shot in College. Darn tootin they would’ve won State!

    Don’t knock livin in a van, down by the river, till you’ve tried it.

  • TeeVee

    Hey Bruno,I can see why she left you.. Paste the
    “L” on your forehead and keep truckin.

    Amazing what a little wild weed can do for your
    relationship….. Take another hit buddy.