12
Photo Credit: © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Free Agency 2017: The Market For Centres

Free Agent Frenzy is almost upon us. We’ve gone through an Expansion Draft, the Entry Draft, and on Saturday, the annual tradition of throwing a bunch of money at players will begin. Over the next few days, I’m going to dive into the unrestricted free agent market and map out who’s available and who’s going to be interested.

I’ve looked at free agent goalies and defencemen, now I’ll move on to forwards. You want to add a good, top six centre to the mix? Good luck. Boy oh boy.

Who’s available?

Joe Thornton 

It’s difficult to imagine Joe Thornton not wearing a San Jose Sharks jersey. I mean, I guess you’re a quick google search away from seeing him in a Bruins jersey, but it’s been over a decade since Jumbo Joe was sent from Boston to San Jose in that hilariously lopsided exchange. Thornton loves San Jose, and San Jose loves Thornton. But after a first round playoff exit at the hands of the younger Oilers, it might be time for the Sharks to move on from the face of their franchise. 

Thornton is old. He’s turning 38 the day after free agency begins. But there’s no doubt he can still play. Last season, Thornton put up seven goals and 43 assists in 79 games, a decrease in what we’re used to seeing from one of the game’s best all-time playmakers, but still productive nonetheless. Apparently he’s seeking a three-year deal, which is a little sketchy. But still, where else can you find a player that can immediately make your top-six better like Thornton can? 

Martin Hanzal 

The Minnesota Wild paid a massive price to acquire Martin Hanzal at the trade deadline. Come July 1, somebody is probably going to pay a massive price, this time in the form of cash, to sign Hanzal in free agency. The Wild would surely love to keep Hanzal, as he was exactly what they expected he would be down the stretch, but there’s no way they can afford him based on their current cap picture. 

He doesn’t produce at a high level offensively, but Hanzal is a good two-way centre. Last year’s total of 20 goals between Arizona and Minnesota was a career-high, but Hanzal’s calling card is a smart and responsible game, which can be seen in his impressive underlying numbers. He turned 30 in February, meaning Hanzal is on the wrong side of the aging curve. He’s likely going to get a long-term contact that he’s worth in the first few years, but isn’t in the final few. If he can be signed by a team who can pay a higher annual salary over a shorter term, it would be ideal. 

Nick Bonino 

After winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it appears Nick Bonino is going to become a salary cap casualty this summer. Bonino played a key role on those Penguins championships as the team’s third line centre, chipping in a little bit offensively and playing heavy defensive and penalty kill minutes. Over the past couple of seasons, Bonino has carved out a nice niche as a two-way, middle-six centre.

You know what that means? He’s going to get paid this summer. Bonino, who turned 29 in April, is a similar kind of deal to Hanzal as I mentioned above. He hasn’t produced at a high level offensively, posting a career-high of 22 goals back in 2013-14 with the Ducks, but is strong defensively and has solid underlying numbers. The contact he signs has the potential to be an albatross down the road, though it’ll likely be worth it in the short term, especially for a team ready to contend right now. 

Sam Gagner (C/RW)

A completely forgotten, low-key addition a month into free agency by the Blue Jackets last summer, Sam Gagner had a shockingly good season in 2016-17. He produced a career-high 50 points playing in a middle-six, power play specialist role in Columbus, helping the team to their best season in franchise-history. 

It feels like Gagner has been around forever. He broke into the league with the Oilers back in 2006-07 as a baby faced 18-year-old, putting up an impressive 49 points and leading the hype around Oil Change Version 1.0. That 49-point output would be the best of his career in Edmonton, as Gagner slowed down with some terrible Oilers squads and was eventually passed in the depth chart by Oil Change Version 2.0 and 3.0. He was dealt to Tampa Bay for Teddy Purcell, flipped immediately to Arizona, then to Philadelphia, and bought out. 

That’s a long Wikipedia page for a guy who turns 28 in August. Gagner is an interesting but somewhat risky free agent. A lot of his production came on the power play, but his underlying numbers at even strength have always been solid. He may end up being overpaid because of this thin market, but is a good bet to produce offence if put in the right situation.

Brian Boyle 

Regarded as one of the league’s elite pure shutdown centres, Brian Boyle will be an attractive player on this summer’s market. He won’t garner a big contract like Bonino or Hanzal does because he doesn’t quite have the offence, but Boyle is a damn good fourth line centre. The Leafs said they’d like to have him back, as did the Lightning, but many teams will be interested in adding Boyle, who’s 32 years old, to anchor a checking line.

David Desharnais 

Once a 60-point player, David Desharnais’ production completely fell off a cliff last season. The diminutive centre scored just four goals and 10 points in 31 games with the Habs before being sent to Edmonton at the deadline to fill the Oilers’ third line centre role. He didn’t accomplish much in Edmonton, but he was solid on face-offs and came up with a huge overtime goal in Game 5 against the Sharks. 

Desharnais is coming off of a four-year, $14 million contract signed back in 2013. That contract was criticized pretty heavily by fans in Montreal as Desharnais’ production declined over time. After back-to-back seasons scoring under 30 points, it’s hard to imagine Desharnais getting signed to anything more than a cheap one- or two-year deal to be a depth centre. 

Mikhail Grigorenko 

Two years ago, Mikhail Grigorenko was a key part coming back to Colorado in the Ryan O’Reilly trade. He spent two forgettable seasons with the Avs, recording 16 goals and 50 points over 149 games, and ultimately wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer this summer. 

Grigorenko is only 23 years old and once upon a time was one of the top prospects heading into the 2012 Entry Draft. He hasn’t been able to figure it out at the NHL level, as his career-high in points is 27, but there’s still some serious talent there. It’s hard to imagine him not getting a shot as a reclamation project somewhere this summer. 

Brooks Laich

The Leafs used their financial flexibility back in February 2016 to acquire Brooks Laich and his albatross contract from the Capitals in exchange for a handling fee. He played 21 games with the Leafs to close out the 2015-16 season, but was buried in the AHL for the entirety of the 2016-17 season. A few years ago, Laich was a damn good two-way centre. I mean, there’s a reason the Capitals gave him a six-year, $27 million deal. But there’s also a reason they dumped him, too. 

Laich’s game has fallen off a cliff since he missed the majority of the 2012-13 season with a groin injury. Since then, he’s recorded seasons totalling 15, 20, and 14 points, nowhere near the production he put up in his prime years in Washington. He wasn’t claimed when the Leafs waived him last year, but at 34 years old, he might catch on a one-year deal somewhere. 

10124571-nhl-stanley-cup-final-pittsburgh-penguins-at-nashville-predators-850x560

What does the market look like? 

It’s very, very uncommon you can acquire a No. 1 centre via free agency. There’s a reason centres are such valued commodities, because they almost never hit the open market. This summer is about a close as you’ll get, and it’s still a stretch. Joe Thornton, if he does in fact move on from San Jose, is pretty much the closest thing you’ll see to a high-calibre, game-changing centre in free agency. He’s old, but can still play. Whoever signs him is taking a bit of a risk because his game could quickly fall off a cliff, but there aren’t any other ways you can add a very good centre to your top six just like that. 

After Thornton, Nick Bonino and Martin Hanzal are the two biggest names. With that, though, they also have massive potential to be dangerous contracts. Both are good players. They’re responsible defensively, experienced in the playoffs, and can chip in offensively. But since this is free agency and good centres are unicorns, they’re going to be paid a lot and likely won’t be able to deliver. 

But where else do you find a middle-six, two-way centre? Certainly not in the bargain bin. The rest of the market for centres is rounded out with players who don’t belong higher than a bottom six. I said this when evaluating the market for defencemen, but it’s pretty clear when looking up and down this list how important drafting and developing is to success.

Reminder: This is an NHLNumbers article cross-posted on all Nation Network sites. As a result, the comments section will also be crossed among the sites. 

Read also: 2017’s free agent market for goaltenders, 2017’s free agent market for defencemen

  • Skylardog

    We are looking for a forward that has the ability to play with JG and Monahan. That means, not a centre. The other option is to move Bennett to the wing.

    We have Backlund, so the defensive guys are not what we need.

    That leaves Thornton, or possibly Gagner. Thornton at 3 years is not a good move. Gagner, is he an upgrade down the middle if we slide Bennett to the wing? Probably not. But it may be an option if a top 6 forward – a RW is not in the cards.

    The next problem is cap space, it is getting tight. Without moving someone out I estimate we have $2-3 million left, and should get a 5-6 dman yet.

    Need the RW blog for more info.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    As lopsided as that Thornton to San Jose trade may have been, one of those teams has a certain banner hanging from their rafters and one does not. In retrospect, could it have been addition by subtraction for the Bruins? I think Thornton is one of the great players of this era, but he’s always been a little bit disappointing in the playoffs (eg: he has only once in his career, in his best season in 06-07, averaged a PPG in the playoffs. Compare that to Sakic, who played about as many regular season and playoff games as Thornton has, and who did it 9 times). I think Thornton will probably help a team out in the next couple of years, but he’s always sorta struck me as a regular season player who will get you to the playoffs but won’t get you the Cup.

    • Elliot McKenzie

      Cannot like this post enough, so so true. There is far too much emphasise put on the regular season when all that matters is how ou perform in the playoffs. Nick Bonino is a perfect example. 70 playoff games, 40 points, 6 game winners, a plus 15 and a key contributor to two Stanley Cups. He’s earned that big UFA contract and there’s no doubt who won that trade for Sutter. Go get paid Bones, you deserve it.

      • TD

        Bonino’s playoffs have been good, but that was in a 3rd line centre role behind Crosby and Malkin. His best playoffs came with Kessel and Haglund as wingers. Can he perform the same way if being paid as a first or second line centre against harder match ups? He is bound to be paid a ton tomorrow, but will that be another example of an over pay on July 1?

      • truthseeker

        Give me a break. You obviously didn’t watch a single canuck game while Bonino was playing for them. Guy was one of the biggest floaters I’ve ever seen in a canuck uniform and that’s saying a lot.

        I don’t care what the guy has done since. He was terrible, and trading him made absolute sense.

  • Oil9744

    Thornton would be the best pick up but he would probably want more money then Edmonton would want to give him, Marleu would be a solid pick up being able to play wing or centre and both players have a history with Mclellan so hopefully that plays in our favour, if we can’t get neither of them I would really like to see Boyle here for a 3rd line centre incase Drai is gonna play the wing again. Sharp or Williams would be nice as well, lots of options out there, Lets go Oilers!

  • OYYC

    Far too many GM’s go into the free agency period with the long term planning of a mayfly. “Cool, we’ve got some money left over, who should we get?” The default question to ask shouldn’t be who, but why do we even need this player in the first place? This isn’t a draft – you really don’t have to pick somebody.

  • myshkin

    I hope Linden locks Benning in the closet without a cell phone tomorrow. Eriksson was a disaster last year and there should be some good players looking for a reasonable contract by August.

  • everton fc

    Gagner’s not that old. Interesting option, perhaps, for the Flames…

    I could see a guy like Grigorenko finding his game – not the game everyone thinks he has in him – and being a valuable player for some team willing to take a chance on him.

    Bonino or Hanzal centering Bennett and Versteeg would be a nice line. BT knows Hanzal from Phoenix… But I know he’ll want term and come in too expensive.