Lack of center depth in 2019 NHL free agency serves as a cautionary tale

As the end of the Stanley Cup Final quickly approaches, the NHL offseason appears on the horizon. Despite being a league with an unusual amount of parity given the amount of teams, general managers still tend to throw a remarkable amount of money around when free agency comes around.

As seen with Tyler Bozak and the St. Louis Blues this season, or with David Backes and the Boston Bruins, centers are usually of hot commodity and sought after during this time frame. Sometimes, like these instances, the signings work out, but it seems more often than not – such as with Dave Bolland in Toronto – they do not.

This is an especially troubling phenomenon for this offseason. Most of the good crop of unrestricted free agents are wingers or defensemen, with Artemi Panarin, Jeff Skinner, Erik Karlsson, and Joe Pavelski, among others, highlighting it. One exception to this case is Matt Duchene. Other than him, however, the center market is concerningly thin.

The New York Islanders recognized this early on, locking up consistent 20-goal scorer Brock Nelson to a six-year, $36 million extension. After the departure of John Tavares last summer, the Islanders have been weak down the middle, albeit Barry Trotz made it work this season in due part to large contributions from Nelson and Casey Cizikas. Still, losing Nelson would have been a disaster for the franchise given the state of the league’s assets at the moment, so Lou Lamoriello was rightful to move quickly in this regard.

Had Nelson gotten to the unrestricted free agent negotiation period at the end of June, he would have almost undoubtedly hit an average annual value of $7 million with some team. Nelson is a formidable sniper and a decent two-way player in the right system but inching up into that range for him is a testament to the weak market this season.

Outside of Duchene, other options down the middle this offseason include Kevin Hayes, Joe Thornton, Markus Kruger, Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, Riley Sheehan, and Oscar Lindberg. Ryan Dzingel could be grouped here, but he shifted more towards the left wing position as his career moved along.

So, in essence – its not good. Hayes is a terrific player with reported significant interest from multiple teams already, including the Chicago Blackhawks who initially drafted him. After Duchene, Hayes will be the guy that most teams look to during free agency to fill a gap down the middle. A big power forward, Hayes is capable of being a solid middle-six center, but he will certainly not provided his worth in money based on his next contract.

Next, Thornton is nearly 40 years old. Coming off a one-year, $5 million deal, it is hard to see Thornton playing in any color besides teal. He still showed that he can play in the league based on his playoff performance – which included nearly willing his banged up team to a victory over the Blues. Although it seems as though Thornton will be heading back to San Jose, you never know where his will to win a Stanley Cup before he retires will bring him.

After those two, it gets even worse. The list is still made up of undeniable NHL players, but none that will make a game changing difference on a team that needs one. Most guys remaining are bottom-six penalty killers – definitely valuable, but not what you need when looking to spend some cash in free agency.

Kruger has bounced around between Chicago and Carolina and has failed to establish himself as well as he was a few years ago. Boyle, coming off an inspiring story, still has plenty left in the tank and will land a nice new deal with a team. One of the league’s best net-front presence and penalty killers, Boyle is a coach’s favorite.

Herein is where the problem is for this offseason. Nearly all of the aforementioned players, if not all, are fantastic additions to playoff teams or fringe teams. However, when general managers get cash in their pockets and needs to fill, things get dangerous in July. Deals on a weak market can hurt a franchise heavily long-term, though. It turns into a bad case of supply and demand.

As for the rest of the market, Filppula and Sheehan can still play an NHL game. Sheehan recovered from his near-goalless year a few seasons ago with Detroit and found a role in Pittsburgh and ultimately Florida. Filppula appeared out of the league before revitalizing his career as a penalty killer and consistent third-liner on the Islanders. He’ll land another one-year deal somewhere, maybe back in the same place.

Lindberg has had a very strange career trajectory. Starting hot with the Rangers before heading to a number of other franchises, including the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, he has not had a consistent role ever. With how much potential he had, it is hard to argue against the claim that with ice time and the right system that he could thrive.

As for everyone else, it’s simply a mix of fringe-league guys and AHL players. Three of the top-paid centers from past contracts in this haul are Jason Spezza, coming off an $7.5 million average annual value deal, and Jori Lehtera, coming off a deal worth $4.7 million, and Dave Bolland, coming off one at $5.5 million. The latter two are heading out of the league, and Spezza is barely hanging on for life as a distinguished veteran and is supposedly looking at a return to Ottawa.

Luckily for a number of teams, this year’s draft is loaded with talent down the middle. One of the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers is going to get elite talent Jack Hughes. After him, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras, fellow Americans with Hughes, look like real special players. Dylan Cozens, heading on a unique path to being one of the few Yukon, Canada born players in the league, is another safe bet. Peyton Krebs and Kirby Dach can also play down the middle.

The range of center prospects being nearly NHL-ready drops after that, but there is still an above-average group. In a year where free agency lacks down the middle, the draft certainly makes up for it. For general managers playing the long game, at least that is to be thankful for.

There is admittedly plenty to still being decided. Where Duchene lands (early prediction: it will be Montreal) has a lot of say in how things go. The draft and unexpected trades, such as the Blues picking up Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia, nearly always change things. The looming expansion draft in Seattle must also have general managers and advisors thinking carefully as well.

Enjoy the battle between the Blues and Bruins, but prepare for the mental warfare off the offseason ahead. There is plenty to be aware of.

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