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Free Agent Centers & the Devils: Steve Sullivan

Last season saw the return of a few former DevilsBrian Rolston and Bobby Holik were both signed last summer as free agents.  In the middle of the season, Brendan Shanahan donned the Deviled J logo for a second go-around.  This offseason, the Devils have a chance to bring back another Devil: Steve Sullivan (as suggested in this comment by drhgzang)

Truth be told, Sullivan didn't really make his mark as a Devil.  The former ninth-round selection in 1994 earned some time up with the big club in the 1995-96 season.  While getting more notice and more playing time in the following season, Sullivan became part of the 1997 trade that brought Doug Gilmour to New Jersey.  It took another two seasons in Toronto before his skills led to some noticible production.  Well, not so noticible to the Maple Leafs as they waived Sullivan. The Chicago Blackhawks took a chance on the forward and enjoyed some very productive seasons from Sullivan.  Poor Toronto!  Chicago moved Sullivan to Nashville for two picks and he has remained there since 2004 - playing when he is healthy.

Steve Sullivan

#26 / Left Wing / Nashville Predators



Jul 06, 1974

2008-09 Salary: $3.2 million

2008 - Steve Sullivan 41 11 21 32 2 30 3 0 2 0 83 13.3

Let's start with the positives for Sullivan - he is a consistently productive player.  He's got great offensive awareness, he's a slick passer, and his shot's not too bad.   According to Behind the Net's even strength numbers, the goals for per 60 minutes shot up from 1.99 to 3.01 when Sullivan hits the ice.  Yes, his CORSI is negative at -5.8 and the shots for per 60 minutes actually decreased from 26.7 to 25.4.  Yet, it's apparent that his presence is contributing to scoring.  Even with the injury shortened 2008-09 season, Sullivan's numbers are pretty solid at a 0.78 point-per-game pace.  A quick look at his season-by-season numbers and you'll see that he consistently puts up at least 60 points when he plays the majority of the season.  In my opinion, that's more than acceptable as secondary scoring.  Who knows how he would do with another skilled winger on his left in Patrik Elias and a shooter like Brian Gionta or Brian Rolston on his right.     On paper, given his prior numbers, and given his skillset, I think Sullivan should be able to put up 20+ goals and at least 55 points.  I would love to think that Sullivan would be a fantastic fit as the second line center in New Jersey.

Only, I can't say that at all due to two major issues.  And his small stature isn't one of them.

The first issue is similar to the issue I had with Mike Cammalleri.  Steve Sullivan is not quite a center.  Sullivan has played on the wing - left wing, apparently - in Nashville.  In fact, the last time Sullivan was seemingly a center was in 2001-02 when he was a Blackhawk, where he took 758 faceoffs. Since then, he hasn't come close and last season he took a grand total of 4 faceoffs - and lost them all.   Now, the fact is that he's played the position before, unlike Cammalleri.  But given he's played in Nashville for 4 seasons at wing, who knows how well he would do if switched to center.  Perhaps he could adjust and he can play the position just fine. Though based on the last time he was at center, don't expect him to suddenly own the faceoff dot; he only won 48.9% of all faceoffs back in '01-'02.

Now, the second issue is more pertinent: his back.  Sullivan didn't play a game in 2007-08 due to back spasms and missed half of last season with back surgery.  Hopefully, for his own sake, his back problems are a thing of a past! Either way, it remains as a big risk for anyone who wants to sign Sullivan.  Can he stay healthy and play most of the season?  Mind you, Sullivan's turning 35 this summer and players tend to become more suscepticle to injury as they get older.  This is the big issue Dirk Hoag discussed when evaluating his value as a player (and whether the Predators should try and keep him).  It's rightfully listed as a weakness by Kent W. at Matchsticks and Gasoline when he looked at the player.  And so it goes here. Yes, Sullivan has the offensive game most teams would desire for a second line (or a first line) position, but it means little if he's going to be on the injury list for significant portions of time.

What makes this potential signing more tricky is his salary.  He made $3.2 million this past season and you can say it's a justifiable salary.   It's not Sullivan's fault his back wouldn't let him play.  Dirk Hoag at On the Forecheck helpfully pointed out that in the last 29 games he played, he put up 11 goals and 18 assists. (He also pointed out that Sullivan may not be all that strong defensively, but these are the Devils, the team could back him up if necessary.) I'm sure his agents will definitely point that little stat as well.   Basically, offensive talent and consistent production with said talent comes at a premium.   Many teams will rightfully be wary of his health problems, but that won't mean he won't get some serious offers.  Even Hoag at On the Forecheck puts him at the $3-4 million/year mark while considering his age and injury problems.

Even if Sullivan played center the last 5 seasons, I'm not really sure the Devils should be one of those teams making such an offer to the former Devil.  Not unlike Koivu, Sullivan's health problems are a risk that will have to just be expected.   However, much unlike Koivu, Sullivan has not been featured at center in recent seasons, and his style of play isn't necessarily going to fit in well with New Jersey as I think Koivu's "fireball" style would.  Granted, take the style of play with a grain of salt as the Devils will have a new head coach in the near future.

Now, if Sullivan can show he can play at center for a season and if his back problems are now a thing of the past, then by all means, Lou should make a good effort for Sullivan.   I wouldn't mind Sullivan returning as a Devil in that case.  Yet, right now, if I had to decide between both Koivu and Sullivan - both injury-prone scoring forwards in their mid-30s, I would prefer Koivu because I feel that he would be a better fit the Devils right now.  Given that both Koivu and Sullivan aren't long term solutions at the position, how they would fit, I think, is important and should be a difference maker.

As usual, it is time for you.    Do you think he could return to center without a problem? Do you think he's going to win the Masterton Trophy?  Do you just hope he won't develop some other critical injury?   Have your say in the comments below about Steve Sullivan.  If you would like to suggest a center, please leave a comment in this FanPost instead.