Over the next week, I’ll be going through this summer’s free-agent market position by position. Today, we have centres.
As I wrote on Wednesday, Ken Holland’s biggest priority this off-season is improving the Oilers’ forward depth.
The team’s inability to score when Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl on the ice has been evident for quite some time now and it has played a role in the team’s back-to-back losses in the first round of the playoffs.
With McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers have likely the best one-two punch down the middle in the league. Behind them, though? That’s a whole other situation. Edmonton used multiple players as their bottom-six centres and none of them were in the green in terms of even-strength goal-differential.
Kyle Turris was brought in last off-season to drive offence on Edmonton’s third line. That didn’t work out, as Turris was completely caved in, posting an 8-to-18 goal differential. Devin Shore and Gaetan Haas were also both deep in the red with 9-to-17 and 5-to-10 differentials respectively. Jujhar Khaira filled into the role adequately, coming close to breaking even with a 13-to-15 differential, but he doesn’t bring as much offence as you’d like for the role.
Ryan McLeod, the team’s second-round pick from the 2018 draft, showed quite a bit of promise during his late-season call-up, but pencilling in a rookie to be your team’s third-line centre is a risky move. Long story short, while adding wingers is the thing on everyone’s mind, Holland also needs to find a pivot to drive the team’s third line.
Let’s look over the options on the free-agent market.
Ryan Getzlaf just put up the least productive season of his career and his future in Anaheim is uncertain. The team’s long-time captain scored just five goals and 17 points on a miserable Ducks squad, the lowest total of his 16-year career by a wide margin. It’s difficult to say how much Getzlaf has in the tank or if he wants to play anywhere else than Southern California, but adding a veteran of his pedigree to the Oilers’ roster is an interesting thing to think about.
Another cagey veteran on this summer’s market is Paul Stastny, who’s coming off a strong season as Winnipeg’s second-line centre. Stastny scored 13 goals and 29 points over 56 games and had a 30-to-26 goal differential at even-strength. He has 15 seasons in the league and is 35 years old but Stastny continues to produce at an effective level.
I mentioned Coleman the other day during my post about wingers on the free-agent market and I’ll mention him again here. A big part of Coleman’s value is his versatility, as he plays centre and both sides on the wing. Coleman scored 14 goals and 31 points for the Lightning in 55 games this season and had a 31-to-25 goal differential at even-strength. I could see him anchoring Edmonton’s third line or playing in the top-six on the left.
The Blue Jackets bought out Alexander Wennberg last off-season after he scored just five goals in 2019-20. Wennberg inked a one-year, show-me deal with the Panthers and bounced back nicely as the team’s second-line centre, scoring 17 goals and 29 points in 56 games. It’s been five years since Wennberg’s “breakout” season in which he scored 59 points but his season in Florida proved he can still be an effective middle-six centre.
Nick Bonino has been an incredibly consistent middle-six centre over the years wherever he winds up. He’s played for the Ducks, Canucks, Penguins, Predators, and Wild and has posted a point-per-game average of at least 0.40 in all but one of his nine full seasons in the league. Most recently, Bonino scored 10 goals and 26 points over 55 games on Minnesota’s third line.
Over the past few seasons, Phillip Danault has emerged as a very good two-way centre for the Montreal Canadiens. He scored 53 and 47 points in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and finished seventh and sixth in Selke Trophy voting those seasons. His production was underwhelming in 2021, as he scored just five goals and 24 points in 53 games, but Danault’s defensive play helped him post a very impressive 32-to-22 even-strength goal differential. He would give Edmonton a legitimate shutdown option up the middle who isn’t totally devoid of offence.
Nobody has bounced around the league more over the past few seasons than Derick Brassard. In 2017-18, Brassard was dealt from the Senators to the Penguins and, since then, he’s played for the Panthers, Avalanche, Islanders, and Coyotes. Before he signed with the Islanders in 2019, there was talk that Brassard was going to end up in Edmonton to be the team’s third centre. After a fine season with eight goals and 20 points in 53 games with Arizona, we’re talking about him again. Though Brassard has quite a bit of skill, he hasn’t been in the green in terms of goal differential since he played in Ottawa.
If the Oilers are in the market for a shutdown centre, Casey Cizikas fits the bill. He’s currently operating as the Islanders’ fourth centre on their playoff push and has only been on the ice for four goals against at even-strength through 12 games. Save for a 20-goal season in 2018-19, Cizikas has never brought much offence, but his strong defensive play generally has him in the green in terms of goal differential. He was in the red 19-to-21 this season but was an impressive 17-to-11 and 32-to-21 in the two seasons prior.
The Oilers apparently had interest in acquiring Luke Glendening before the trade deadline so it wouldn’t be shocking at all if they were interested in him as a free agent this off-season. Ken Holland drafted Glendening in Detroit and had him as a reliable bottom-six center for years. Glendening’s 15 points in 54 games in 2021 are nothing to write home about but his 22-to-23 goal differential is impressive given how bad the Red Wings were.
Another player the Oilers reportedly kicked tires on during the season is veteran Eric Staal. Staal had a horrendous season with the Buffalo Sabres, as everyone on the team did, and he wasn’t much better after being traded to Montreal. All told, Staal had just 13 points in 53 games this season, but he’s been very good for the Habs in the playoffs, putting up seven points through 10 games. Staal is 36 years old now but he continues to be an effective NHL player.
Sticking with cagey veterans, Carl Soderberg continues to get the job done in the NHL as a bottom-six pivot. Soderberg had a solid season with the Blackhawks, scoring seven goals and 15 points in 34 games, and was traded to the Avalanche, where he’s been in and out of the lineup as the fourth centre. Soderberg’s time in Chicago suggests he can still hack it in a bottom-six role.
Though his boxcar stats were never overly impressive, Derek Ryan had a very effective tenure as a member of the Calgary Flames. During his three seasons in Calgary, Ryan scored 80 points in 192 games and had a sparkling goal differential of 89-to-57. Ryan was the captain of the U of A Golden Bears hockey team so him signing in Edmonton would make all kinds of sense.