All of a sudden, the crop of free agent centres has become very intriguing.
In today’s salary cap world, it’s rare for a true No. 1 centre to hit the open market (as we saw Ryan Getzlaf sign a midseason extension) but thanks to some compliance buyouts, the depth of the position in free agency is significantly better than it has been in years.
NHL teams can never have enough depth down the middle, and there are plenty of serviceable No. 2 centres available in this class.
Like always, there will be significant demand for the position (especially in Toronto) and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams overpay to land their desired choice.
That could be good news for a guy like Tyler Bozak. Cha-chig.
We thought buyout candidate Brad Richards could end up on this list as well but he’s back in New York for another year.
With that mind, we take a look at the top centremen on the market when free agency officially begins July 5.
TOP CENTRES AVAILABLE
Vincent Lecavalier (Update: Agreed to join Flyers on Jul. 2)
2012 salary cap hit: 7.73 million
It was considered a shock to some (not me, I predicted it) when the Lightning bought out Lecavalier’s expensive contract last Thursday. Lecavalier’s production had taken a major dip in recent seasons and certainly wasn’t living up to his crazy salary cap hit of $7.73 million per season. Even at 33 years old, Lecavalier can still be a productive player, and there will be several suitors for the 6'4" Quebec native. At this point in his career, he may be more concerned with finding the right fit rather than the highest bidder. Not saying it will be cheap to sign him, though.
Possible fits: Montreal, Dallas, Detroit
2012 salary cap hit: $5 million
Any team in need of a solid 18-goal scorer will turn their sights to Mike Ribeiro. The reliable forward would be an ideal fit for a team in need of an offensive boost up the middle. Ribeiro, 33, was a good addition to the Washinton Capitals this season, but they might not have the cap space to bring him back without a hometown discount. His best role would be as a scoring No. 2 centre. Teams shouldn’t rely too much on his defensive zone coverage – even if it exists.
Possible fits: St. Louis, Washington, Nashville
2012 salary cap hit: 6.5 million
Evaluating Daniel Briere will be one of the toughest decisions for NHL teams. With his lingering injuries, he clearly wasn’t worth the $5 million-plus he was scheduled to earn from the Philadelphia Flyers. That’s why they quickly decided to buy him out. Briere, when healthy, is a dynamic forward who offers a rare bled of speed and playmaking ability. He has been an outstanding playoff performer in his last two stops (Buffalo and Philadelphia), but once again it all comes down to his health and how much he has left in the tank. He had just six goals in 34 games last year. A short-term deal may be the best bet for a team in pursuit of Briere.
Possible fits: Buffalo, New York Rangers, Florida
2012 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Like Briere, it’ll be difficult to determine the value of a player like Stephen Weiss. The longtime Florida Panther is coming off season-ending wrist surgery and was only able to play 17 games last season. He isn’t expected back in Florida and the 30-year-old could draw serious interest as a cheaper alternative to Lecavalier. Before suffering the wrist injury last year, Weiss had scored 20-plus goals the last three seasons. We imagine he is looking to join a playoff team after playing in just seven postseason games in his entire tenure with the Panthers.
Possible fits: Toronto, Detroit, Tampa Bay
2012 salary cap hit: $4 million
It’s pretty safe to say Derek Roy won’t be back with the Vancouver Canucks. The veteran forward hardly made an impact after a midseason deal with the Dallas Stars and the Canucks, who are in salary cap hell, won’t have room to bring him back. Roy’s scoring totals have dipped in recent seasons and the 30-year-old isn’t exactly the most popular player (I remember a Buffalo radio station cheering when he got traded to Dallas). With just seven goals in 42 games last year, Roy shouldn’t be expecting a huge pay day coming July 5. Buyer beware.
Possible fits: Florida, Winnipeg, Columbus
2012 salary cap hit: $1.5 million
The curious case of Tyler Bozak will be one of the fascinating story lines of free agency. In Toronto, he has gotten the opportunity to play on the first line with Phil Kessel when he really isn’t anything close to a No. 1 centre. He will likely be looking for a big pay day as he enters the prime of his career, but that may not come with the Maple Leafs – who are looking to upgrade at the position. Teams should be wary of Bozak as a top-two centre; his ideal fit would be on the third line. He is a strong skater with solid defensive ability. Nothing special, though.
Possible fits: Columbus, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Michal Handzus - Handzus proved to be a solid two-way player down the stretch for the Chicago Blackhawks in their Stanley Cup run. He doesn’t have much left in the tank, though.
Scott Gomez – After a disastrous run in Montreal, Gomez found a solid role on the third line in San Jose. He isn’t much more than a decent depth option at this point of his career.
Nik Antropov – Remember when he was Mats Sundin’s linemate? Yeah, Antropov is still kicking around, but with his play starting to decline we can’t imagine him having much of a market. Good guy, though.
Saku Koivu – Koivu still offered some production on the second line for a very good Anaheim team last year. It’ll likely come down to whether or not they want him back for another go in 2013-14.