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.
I still believe there's a better chance than not that Joe Thornton stays in San Jose but the calls he's getting certainly intriguing...— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) June 29, 2017
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?
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.
Many teams in the market for a center have connected with Nick Bonino. At least 10 teams are said to have serious interest at this stage.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) June 29, 2017
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.
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.
Doesn't appear that a Brian Boyle/#tblightning reunion is likely. Tampa not one of the several teams to reach out to Boyle in UFA window.— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) June 29, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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