Ranking the Top 10 Centers in the 2014 NHL Free Agent Class

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMarch 13, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Centers in the 2014 NHL Free Agent Class

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    This year's pool of free-agent centers is deep, but contains only a few select game-changers. In Paul Stastny there is at least one legitimate top two-way center, along with only a small handful of legitimately strong second-line centers, joined by an abundance of great checking line pivots. Which of them are the best?

    As a starting point, the high-level value of each player was established for every available free-agent center listed over at Cap Geek. This was done with Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), courtesy of Hockey Prospectus, which is an all-in-one estimate of a player's overall contributions, both offensive and defensive.

    The expected GVT of each free-agent center was calculated based on their previous three seasons, with each year weighted twice as heavily as the previous. This means that past seasons are included in the estimate, but the more current performance is worth more.

    Since GVT is only a crude high-level estimate, each free-agent center was also placed on a player usage chart to see the context in which they were used, and how effectively the team was when they were on the ice.

    Those with softer assignments and/or whose teams were less effective were dropped down our initial list, like Derek Roy, while those whose teams did well while they played tough minutes, like David Bolland, were lifted up.

    In the end we found the top 10 available free-agent centers and identified their strengths and weaknesses. While only one team can sign Paul Stastny, and likely at maximum expense, there could be some potentially value-priced bargains for the NHL's other 29 teams who are hunting for a center this free-agent season. Let's begin.

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


Honorable Mention: Checking Line Centers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    There is a wealth of veteran defensive-minded centers who can win faceoffs, block shots, throw hits, kill penalties and play tough minutes against top opponents.

    Almost all of them can be had for around $1.5 million and are one of the safest investments available this summer.

    While one additional checking line center was included in our upcoming list, the following represent the remaining best of this breed. 

    • Steve Ott, St. Louis Blues
    • Jay McClement, Toronto Maple Leafs
    • Michal Handzus, Chicago Blackhawks
    • Manny Malhotra, Carolina Hurricanes
    • Vernon Fiddler, Dallas Stars
    • John Mitchell, Colorado Avalanche

10. Jesse Winchester, Florida Panthers

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Looking for a bargain UFA? While most of the defensive line centers were listed in the honorable mentions, Jesse Winchester has a far less publicized upside that warranted inclusion on the actual list.

    Winchester first captured the attention of the analytics crowd with his great possession numbers in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Either those figures were boosted by playing limited minutes against weak opponents, or he was a hidden gem.

    Then in 2011-12, Winchester moved into one of Ottawa's primary penalty-killer roles, and took on most of the defensive zone situations at even strength, albeit still largely against the depth lines. He unfortunately missed the second half of the season with a concussion, and spent the next year in Finland.

    Now in 2013-14, he showcased a nifty offensive upside in Florida. He is currently fifth on the team with nine goals, which is particularly impressive given that he averages only 13:40 per game.

    Winchester is a reasonably physical player, averaging around nine hits per 60 minutes throughout his career. He's above water possession-wise, and won 52.1 percent of his faceoffs this year, which is actually lower than his typical range of 53.6 and 56.8 percent in Ottawa.

    Potential Weaknesses: Even at age 30 with 275 games of NHL experience, Winchester is not a proven commodity beyond the depth line.

    His offensive upside could merely have been the results of some lucky bounces. After all, Winchester scored on just 11 of 363 shots going into this season, or 3.0 percent. That's almost as if he were aiming for the crest.

    What He's Worth: Winchester's last three contracts have been between the league minimum and $750,000, which is roughly where he will land again this free-agent season.

    Given how effectively he played the depth line role in Ottawa and Florida that will be a bargain, with the added potential of being a real steal.

9. Olli Jokinen, Winnipeg Jets

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    What He Brings: At his very best, Jokinen could stretch into a second line role, though would be far more safely used on the secondary lines.

    Looking only at his post-Florida days, which stretch from 2008-09 through the present, scoring expectations should be set in the 20-goal and 50-point range at best. And even that would presume plenty of power-play time, in which capacity he was effective in Calgary, but of only secondary value in Winnipeg.

    Jokinen's calling card is to take lots of shots, and is 10th among active players with 3,198 over his career. Even looking only at that post-Florida time span, he is still 13th among active centers with 1,124, and averaging a strong 2.61 shots per game.

    Finally, Jokinen's physical game has picked up since taking on a more secondary role in Winnipeg. He was nevertheless ranked fifth among the league's most durable players in my earlier piece for Bleacher Report.

    Potential Weaknesses: Jokinen is 35 years old, weak in the faceoff circle, slowing down defensively and doesn't actually bring much playoff experience for all those years in the NHL.

    In fact, he has just a single post-season appearance and was out in the first round. Even playoff teams that acquired him at the deadline (Flames, Rangers) immediately went on slumps, and one that was fatal to their postseason hopes in the latter case.

    Playing on these weak teams has left Jokinen with a -141 career plus/minus, dead last among active players, according to Hockey Reference. Vincent Lecavalier and Eric Brewer are the only other two in the negative triple digits.

    Though the offensive-minded Finn has never been considered a defensive liability throughout his career, those abilities have been fading fast. He may no longer be effective against top-six opponents and/or too frequently exposed to defensive zone play. This last point is especially true since Jokinen has won just 46.3 percent of his draws this year, which is on the lower end of typical for him.

    What He's Worth: It's clear now that the two-year deal worth $4.5 million per season that Olli Jokinen signed in 2012 was a little rich, and most teams probably realize that.

    Though he's statistically only worth about $2.0 million per season at this stage, Jokinen might get the $3.0 million deal he previously had with Calgary.

8. Mike Santorelli, Vancouver Canucks

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Until his season-ending injury, Mike Santorelli was in the running for the best low-risk, bargain-priced UFA signing of the year.

    Signed for just a single year at the league minimum, Santorelli would have earned his keep with his shootout skills alone, where he has gone 12 for 28 over his career.

    With 19:34 of ice time per game, including an average 1:43 of penalty-killing time for game, the Canucks wound up with a lot more than they paid for.

    Santorelli scored 28 points in 49 games, and that was against top-six opponents, and with a fair share of defensive zone assignments. It looked like the Canucks had finally found the perfect third line center.

    Potential Weaknesses: There is a consistency issue that could scare away some of the offers.

    Santorelli has no prior track record of NHL success, other than a 21-goal, 41-point performance for a weak 2010-11 Florida Panthers team.

    He failed to impress the rest of his stay in Florida, and never got off the ground in stints with Nashville and Winnipeg. Santorelli's success in Vancouver could have merely been the result of the right combination of circumstances.

    What He's Worth: Santorelli earned a $1.6 million contract the last time he had a big year, and he could land something like that again. For some teams that might be a gamble worth taking.

7. Derek Roy, St. Louis Blues

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Roy is a power-play specialist who can provide some secondary scoring while centering the second line.

    A point-a-game player in his prime, Roy has recently averaged about 15 goals and 48 points pro-rated over 82 games since suffering a leg injury in December 2010.

    His scoring has been boosted by his 16 power-play points, which is currently second on the Blues. He was also a great power-play performer in Buffalo.

    Potential Weaknesses: Roy actually received some Selke consideration back in his prime but now at age 30 and on a defensively stacked team, he no longer brings that aspect to his game.

    He has been strictly an offensive resource for the Blues this year. Nobody on the team starts a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone than Roy, who faces below-average competition and still looks shaky possession-wise relative to the rest of the team, according to the data at Extra Skater.

    Roy doesn't kill penalties at all anymore, after being only a secondary option for about four years. His faceoff winning percentage is also below 47 percent for the third time in the past four years.

    What He's Worth: The consensus among NHL general managers seems to be that Derek Roy is worth $4.0 million per season. That's what his one-year deal with St. Louis paid, and his six-year deal with Buffalo previous to that.

    Is he worth it? Only in the right circumstances and at his best, otherwise a deal just south of that would be far more suitable for a team looking for secondary scoring help.

6. Mikhail Grabovski, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Mikhail Grabovski was a solid second-line center, averaging 54 points over an 82-game schedule in the four seasons prior to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

    After scoring at half of that established pace last year, Grabovski's contract was bought out and he found a new home as Washington's second line center, where he is once again on pace for exactly 54 points over 82 games.

    What happened in 2012-13? Instead of being used as the second line center, Grabovski was used on the checking line with Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement.

    He started 36.7 percent of his non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone instead of the usual 53.0 percent or more. That would take the air out of anyone's numbers!

    Grabovski is a very consistently effective possession-oriented offensive-minded second line center, as long as he isn't being buried.

    Potential Weaknesses: As Toronto learned last year, Grabovski is not a physical, shot-blocking, penalty-killing defensive-minded center.

    Even if he could contribute in any of those ways, it would be a waste of resources to use a solid second-line scoring center on the checking line.

    What He's Worth: Grabovski famously received a risky long-term $5.5 million deal in March 2012, which was bought out after a single season. While the willingness to take risks when investing in players is to be lauded, this particular gamble didn't pay off then, and won't pay off now.

    His previous contract had a cap hit of $2.9 million and his most recent one was $3.0 million. Those are both about right.

5. Saku Koivu, Anaheim Ducks

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    What He Brings: The development of a great defensive line that includes Saku Koivu, Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik has been one of the more undervalued factors in Anaheim's success.

    Their handling of the tough minutes frees up their two superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to focus on what they do best, which is generating offense.

    No Duck has started a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone this year than Koivu, and among current Ducks only Perry and Getzlaf have taken on a higher average quality of opponent, according to the data at Extra Skater.

    Koivu, the fourth highest-scoring Finland-born player in history, according to the data at Hockey Reference, is a classic do-it-all player. For example, he is a useful member of both the power play and the penalty kill, is above average at faceoffs and can contribute on the shootout. 

    He is also a natural leader and hard-working, big-game player. This will be Koivu's 11th time in the playoffs, where he has scored 58 points in 67 games.

    Potential Weaknesses: Koivu is 39 years old and based on his weak possession numbers and his drop to just 15:23 of ice time per game, he can probably no longer handle the toughest assignments.

    Offensively Koivu has never taken a lot of his shots. His career single-season high is actually just 154, and he hasn't averaged two shots a game in 15 years.

    What He's Worth: Will Saku Koivu retire this offseason?

    If not, the 39-year-old Finnish legend's contract will probably fall at the lower end of his usual range of $2.5 to $3.25 million per season.

    Assuming he stayed healthy, that would be just about right for his recordable on-ice contributions, and a value when considering the intangibles.

4. Marcel Goc, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    What He Brings: Marcel Goc can handle the toughest minutes.

    That's what he's been doing in Florida for three years. Nobody on that team has started a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone than him in Florida this year, according to the data at Extra Skater.

    At the time of his trade to Pittsburgh, Goc was also about to lead the team in quality of competition for the third straight season.

    Goc also handles the penalty-killing situations, averaging over two minutes a game all three seasons as a Panther, and was ranked second on the team at the time of his trade.

    Potential Weaknesses: Apart from being quite injury-prone, the major limitation to Goc's game is his scoring. His single-season career high is just 12 goals and 30 points.

    What He's Worth: Goc is concluding a three-year deal that has an annual cap hit of $1.7 million, his richest deal ever.

    How much is a tough minutes center like Goc worth? Based on a close comparable like Boyd Gordon, upwards of $3.0 million per season. That may have seemed rich, but no one is complaining in Edmonton. Well, at least about Gordon, that is.

    While $3.0 million may seem like an overpay for Goc, it would be only a slight one at most, and likely only because of the ever-present threat of injury.

3. David Legwand, Detroit Red Wings

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    Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    What He Brings: They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but even after 15 seasons David Legwand is adding new skills.

    Take a look at his contributions on the power play, for instance. After a career of scoring at a rate below 3.0 points per 60 minutes, which is quite poor, Legwand has been surprisingly solid for the second time in three seasons. His 16 points was tops among Nashville's forwards, just as he also was in 2011-12.

    Legwand is consequently set to earn his third 50-point season ever, and his second in three seasons. He was set to lead the Predators in scoring for the first time in over 10 years when he left for Detroit at the trade deadline.

    And after a career of below-average faceoff winning percentages, Legwand is up over 50 percent for the second consecutive season.

    Potential Weaknesses: While Legwand is a classic do-it-all player without a facet of his game that could be described as a weakness, there are a few areas where his contributions are more limited.

    The 33-year-old is quite injury prone, for instance, and has just two 20-goal seasons to his credit, the last one occurring in 2008-09. Legwand doesn't take a lot of shots for a second line center, averaging under 2.0 per game for three years.

    Though he's often used in the shootout, Legwand's success rate is league average at its very best.

    Finally, Legwand's days as a top penalty killer are over. He was taken off the PK entirely this year after a couple of years as a secondary option.

    What He's Worth: Legwand is a solid veteran two-way second line center with a proven ability to take on tough assignments against top opponents and in the defensive zone. He can contribute on both special teams and can score up to 20 goals and 50 points, depending on his playing circumstances.

    He is currently concluding a six-year deal that carried an annual cap hit of $4.5 million. While he's very likely to get a deal like that again, statistically he's actually worth a little under $4.0 million.

2. Dave Bolland, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Dave Bolland is a classic two-way second line center who can play the tough minutes. And, unlike many of the other UFA centers, is right in his prime, turning 28 this June.

    Bolland had the highest average quality of competition his last four seasons in Chicago, which is a team with no shortage of great forwards from which to choose. He was a key player in both of Chicago's Stanley Cups, and has registered 43 points in 67 post-season games.

    He was also in the top three among their team's forwards in defensive zone assignments, starting about twice as many in Chicago's own zone as he did in the opposing zone in two of his final three seasons there. Not many NHL forwards can match that claim. He consequently received some Selke recognition in 2010-11 and 2011-12, but not nearly as much as he deserved.

    This year Bolland has average 1:49 of penalty-killing ice time per game, third among Toronto's forwards. This is quite typical, other than more limited usage in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

    Offensively Bolland is a good secondary power play contributor, scoring 12 points in each of his final two full seasons in Chicago. He boasts a 14.8 percent career shooting percentage, but has yet to score 20 goals because he doesn't take a lot of shots.

    Potential Weaknesses: Bolland can be quite injury prone and has played only two seasons that can be described as complete. He was limited to just 15 games this season after severing a tendon.

    Bolland has always been weak in the faceoff circle, but this year's 41.3 percent success rate was his worst.

    What He's Worth: Bolland is currently finishing a five-year deal worth $3.375 million per season.

    That's actually about right, and he might even be in line for a moderate pay increase in the right situation.

1. Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Paul Stastny is one of the NHL's better two-way centers.

    Initially a point-a-game player for his first four seasons, Stastny was transitioned into more of a tough minutes center four years ago. Since then he has settled into roughly the level of 24 goals and 60 points, pro-rated over 82 games.

    He and Gabriel Landeskog take on all the toughest opponents and often in the defensive zone. Though Stastny wasn't used on the penalty kill this year, he has been a primary option on-and-off in the past, and could be again. His 53.8 faceoff winning percentage this year is quite typical for him.

    Offensively, Stastny is a great playmaker and has made stars out of more than one linemate. He is currently ninth in the NHL with a 17.4 shooting percentage, and is quite solid on the power play, consistently scoring between 5.0 and 6.2 points per 60 minutes.

    Potential Weaknesses: Paul Stastny's game is without obvious flaw.

    If signed to a large contract and thrust into an equally difficult assignment, it may prove a challenge for Stastny to produce the level of offense that would be expected, especially should he struggle with injuries.

    Other than that, there isn't much risk in Stastny's addition to virtually any NHL roster.

    What He's Worth: Stastny is completing a five-year deal with Colorado that carried an annual cap hit of $6.6 million.

    Is he worth it? First of all, it's hard to justify pinching pennies when dealing with a player of Stastny's caliber, especially since there are so few (if any) comparable players. He is really the only legitimate first line UFA center available, and trying to acquire someone similar via trade could prove to be outrageously expensive.

    Even though Stastny is statistically worth under $5.0 million, based on a safe or typical career projection, there's no way he could be signed for so little. Some team is going to have to take a gamble and invest at least $6.0 million for the potential difference-maker that he is. Playing it safe is for the other three lines.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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