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:

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  • O.C.

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