NHL 2010 UFA Desert: Habs' Plekanec Best Center Out There?

Scott WeldonCorrespondent IMay 27, 2010

MONTREAL, QC - MAY 22:  Chris Pronger #20 of the Philadelphia Flyers defends against Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Montreal Canadiens in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell Centre on May 22, 2010 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The NHL had a vision for unrestricted free agency. Every July 1st would feature fields of free ranging talent being picked over by a few NHL teams. Every team would be able to address needs and rebound from bad years by adding the players they needed at a reasonable cost to make themselves competitive again. 

In some cases it has worked out. The Philadelphia Flyers finished last in the league in 2006/07, eleven points behind the Phoenix Coyotes. They immediately revamped their team through free agency and added Martin Biron, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, and Daniel Briere. They traded for Braydon Coburn, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith. After dropping 45 points in the standings the year before they managed to regain 39 points in the standings in 2007/08. They jumped from worst team in the league into the eastern final playoff series in one year.

Instead of this owner's Utopia however most teams looking for unrestricted free agents find themselves with few or no prospects. This years crop of UFA's seems especially thin. Montreal's Tomas Plekanec is one of the better and younger free agents out there this year. This will make him incredibly hard for the Canadiens to sign.

This year teams with specific needs are going to be bidding for a very few talented players. Especially at center.

Some teams, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Calgary Flames and even the New Jersey Devils are desperate for a top quality play-making center to feed their snipers. Phil Kessel, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla and even Zach Parise are all top end scorers who deserve and would be well served by adding a center talented enough and fast enough to play with them and feed them the puck.   

The Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes desperately need a quality veteran center to lead their offense.

The Islanders tried to run on the cheap last year by using veteran Doug Weight as a mentor for youngster John Tavares. That didn't seem to work. They need a better quality center to take some of that first line load off of Tavares and to help him progress as a player.

Minnesota , Nashville and Anaheim all desperately need a quality second line offensive center. LA could use someone to take that job from Michael Handzus especially if they fear Oscar Moller isn't up to it. Carolina could use a second line center in his prime to help replace some aging veterans and back up Eric Staal.

Buffalo and St Louis are looking for more offense in general and though they seem to have a good group of medium quality centers they could use a top notch first line guy. 

Throw in Montreal and San Jose looking to replace Marleau and Plekanec and that's at least half the league looking for a quality offensive center. How many of those are available this free agent season? who likely will be

A dozen of the UFA's with the highest point totals from last year were Marleau 83, Plekanec 70, Matthew Lombardi 53, Saku Koivu 52, Olli Jokinen 50, Matt Cullen 48, Brendan Morrison 42, Eric Belanger 41, Manny Malhotra 33, Mike Modano 30, Robert Lang 29 and Glen Metropolit 29.  

Those are the twelve centers who had the best offensive seasons last year. You've got five guys who are too old or soon to be too old, in Koivu, Modano, Lang, Morrison and Metropolit. You have three players that are basically checkers. Jokinen has gotten a bad reputation in Florida, Phoenix, Calgary and New York. Lombardi is quick and still young enough but has shown a tendency to have stone hands. Fifty three points may be all you can expect from him. 

At 35 years of age the often injured Pavol Demitra with 16 points in 28 games perhaps can fill someone's need for a talented second line center in a pinch. Matt Cullen managed only 48 points in 81 games last year but also had eight in six playoff games versus Pittsburgh and is also a possibility to be a useful second line center. 

There are a lot of perfectly good UFA checking centers and faceoff specialists available. When it comes to top quality first line centers available as UFA's only Marleau and Plekanec fit the bill. Plekanec because of his size and difficulties in the faceoff circle is probably better suited to be a second line center or first line play making winger. Still he and Marleau are the best available. 

A lot of other players can be expected to be fielding significant offers just because there are so few centers available. Jokinen and Koivu should be in demand. Cullen and Comrie and Lombardi because of his age should all get good offers. Even Jason Williams, Brendan Morrison and Kyle Wellwood will get another chance somewhere.  

Matt Stajan's 57 points from last year would have made him the third highest scoring UFA center available behind Marleau and Plekanec. Throw in the fact that he's defensively responsible and won 52% of the 408 face-offs he took last year and suddenly he looks like a bargain at 3.5 million a year for four years.

Look for Marleau and Plekanec to hit it big this free agent season. They seem to be the only potential point a game centers out there and Plekanec at 27 still has the prime of his career ahead of him. His troubles in the face-off circle (49%) and lack of size might mean he's better suited to a role as a second line center or first or second line winger. He is however a quick skating, top quality play maker who can be a top six forward on any team in the league.

This year he's likely to command first line center money. The Canadiens who already have 45 million dollars dedicated to 13 roster spots before they sign their two RFA goalies Halak and Price, are probably unable to spend 5 to 6 million dollars a season on Tomas Plekanec when they're already paying another center, Scott Gomez, over 7.3 million a year.

This is a shame because Plekanec is one of the few young draft picks who they've managed to develop into a top quality NHL offensive player. Now just as he reaches his prime he's likely to be signed away by another team. His offense will be missed on a Montreal team that had trouble scoring 5 on 5 last year. Picking up a Mike Comrie or Robert Lang or Jason Williams cheap won't replace that lost offense.    







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