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2015 New Jersey Devils Offseason: The UFA Centers

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The New Jersey Devils could use a center or two to fill out their roster and potentially improve the team for the re-build they are going on. Unlike the wingers, there are some decent second and third line caliber options available.

Brad Richards: 2015 Stanley Cup Finalist, possible Devil in July 2015?
Brad Richards: 2015 Stanley Cup Finalist, possible Devil in July 2015?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you like the group of upcoming unrestricted free agent forwards or not, teams will have to complete rosters and add assets on July 1, 2015 anyway.  While the 2015 NHL Draft is the next major event on the schedule for all 28 non-Stanley Cup Finalists, free agency will begin shortly after it.  Teams are making preparations, already with some stories revealing that some players will not be brought back.  Namely defensemen, who I'll look at next week.  Since I've covered UFA right wingers and UFA left wingers, it's time to look at the UFA centers.

How the Devils needs centers hinges on two matters.  First, the status of Scott Gomez.  While he was a pleasant surprise all things considered last season, we must accept reality. He's 35, he's not as fast as he once was, he remains pass-first, pass-second, and pass-pretty-much-always on offense, and while he wasn't horrid on last year's team, he's not exactly a play-driver. I do not have high hopes of repeating last season, which was only seen as a pleasant surprise given how bad the team was.  The Devils are re-building, I don't think holding onto Gomez for another year helps that short of an outright tank.  So if he's not coming back, then the Devils will likely have to sign a proper center.

Second, it depends on how Ray Shero and John Hynes see Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias.  If he sees one or both as wingers, then that's a potential gap at center that may be filled.  Given Elias' advanced age and his general decline as a player from last season, I think signing a center to move #26 to left wing would be a decent idea.  I don't think flip-flopping Henrique and Elias would necessarily go well unless Hynes has a new tactic for them.  Combined with Gomez, that could mean two centers.  All the same, the Devils should be looking at pivots to potentially sign and get the organization on the track for better days.

Now, I've been and will use General Fanager's list of UFA centers. You may notice that some of them are not exactly centers.  I will note that as best as I can.   So let's go through some of the biggest names available and discuss whether the Devils should seriously consider signing them.

Young-ish Guys Who They Should Consider

Carl Soderberg really leads the list here.  Per Sportsnet (warning: auto-play video), Soderberg is unlikely to be retained by the Bruins.  The main reason why he's available is because it's unlikely the Bruins will be able to fit him under the cap.  Their issues can be another team's gain as he was quite good on the team last season.  He finished tied for third on the team in scoring and had a second straight 40+ point season despite a drop in shooting percentage (12.4% to 8.0%).  Soderberg was just OK in terms of Corsi. He didn't rank highly on the Bruins and he had a negative relative Corsi but was still at 51.8% when he was on the ice.  While he wasn't a play-driver, he wasn't an albatross either. Further, he averaged over sixteen minutes per game so he was used in a significant capacity.  All that and he's 29 going on 30 in October.  While I wouldn't expect him to be a top-tier center in another system, he's definitely a solid choice for a second or third line.  The Devils have those needs so they should think about it.  That said, expect him to garner a big raise from somebody this summer. It's possible the Devils may provide it - and perhaps justifiably so.

Jiri Tlusty is listed as a center here and at NHL.com. However, he's taken so few faceoffs that he's actually a left winger.  In retrospect, I should have included him in last week's post.  Nevertheless, he's one of the youngest in this pool at 27.  HappyCaraT made a fairly good case at Arctic Ice Hockey as to why the Jets should re-sign Tlusty despite a lackluster amount of production since being traded to Winnipeg.  Her conclusion is that, at a minimum, he can be a depth player for the Jets.  I agree, but the Devils may be able to offer a more significant role if it comes to that.  Again, he's really a left winger, so unless he wants to switch back, it may be a tougher fit.  Given he's been a recently positive possession player and he does chip in more than just a handful of points when he's not shooting at less than 4%, the Devils should think about him anyway.  Though they should stay away from any significant raises over the $2.95 million he got last season.

Moving back to centers, Eric Fehr is the opposite case. He was a winger for the Capitals before being switched to center.  Kareem E. at Japers' Rink put an overview of his season better than pretty much anyone else I've seen. In it, he notes that the bad parts of Fehr's season were really out of his control.  Whether it was injury or a dip in shooting percentage, Kareem concluded that Fehr proved he could be a third-line center and was good in that role.  The readers at Japers' Rink tended to agree.  Fehr underwent elbow surgery in June, but he should be good to go in 2015-16.  However his rehabilitation goes, he will likely be able to sign a sweet deal from somebody likely to give him more than $1.5 million. While he does not appear to be a significant producer, I think he's more likely to put up 30-40 points than, say, Scott Gomez on a league minimum contract.   The Devils should at least think about Fehr's availability.

Young-ish Guys Who They Should Not Consider

While the three I just wrote about were never significant producers, they're better off than some of the other U-30 UFA centers.  The Devils shouldn't really look to Mike Santorelli, James Sheppard, or Shawn Matthias for answers.  Santorelli has cracked 30 points only twice in his career; while he shoots a lot, injuries have kept him off the ice; and he's never been much of a play driver. He may be had for somewhat cheap, but I think the Devils should look elsewhere.  Sheppard has only cracked 20 points only twice in his career and he was most recently used in a depth position.  The Devils need centers who can play on a second or third line, not fourth-liners.  Lastly, Matthias averaged thirteen minutes per game last season with Vancouver; while he scored 18 goals, he also shot at a career high of 13.6%; and he's never been a positive possession player. He is young, but I don't think he's worth going after for a signing.

What of Tyler Kennedy?  I'm not sure about him.  He's only ever been really productive with top players on Pittsburgh. On the other hand, he's almost always has been a positive possession player and you can count on him to average around two shots per game. He may actually be a right winger and he does have a right-handed shot.  So for that piece, he may be a better fit than pushing him to the middle.  That said, he made $2.35 million last season.  Should the Devils potentially give him more than that?  I'm not fully confident that they should.

Older Players Who They Should Consider

Among the over-30 set (O-30?), the first name that jumps out to me is Brad Richards.  You can see him on TV these days, what with being in the Stanley Cup Finals with Chicago.  Richards had a massive contract bought out and signed a one-year deal with Chicago for $2 million.  While he only averaged under fifteen minutes per game and shot at a career low of 6%, Richards did put up twelve goals and twenty five assists while shooting 199 pucks on net. Thirty of those points were at even strength, too.  He's been more prominent in the playoffs with twelve points in twenty-two games so far. Richards remains rather disciplined too, that has not changed as he got older.  If that's enough, look at his history at War on Ice - he at least has not been a hindrance in possession with Chicago.  In fact, he was one of their better CF% players in 2014-15. As the Blackhawks are also in a cap crunch, I think Richards will be available this summer.  I think the Devils should consider going down the same route they went with Jagr.  That is, offer Richards a one-year deal at $3 or even $4 million - a raise of a million or two - and see if he bites.   If so, then plug him into one of the top two center roles, and see if he continues to fire away pucks and make plays to help the Devils get better.  Unlike Jagr, Richards just turned 35 so I wouldn't expect a massive decline - even if he isn't the offensive machine he was back with the Bolts.

Should the Devils want a 35-year old who did more than Richards in the 2014-15 season, then they should look no further than Mike Ribeiro.  He finished second in scoring for the Predators and he was their top center.  Jonathan Garcia at On the Forecheck had a glowing report card for him and the OtF readers largely gave him an 'A.'  In fact, Garcia has this other post looking at how many years should the Preds give him. He concludes with two and I think that's OK for anyone looking to sign him this summer.  His career production is tantalizing, Riberio has been quite a productive player with three of his last five seasons earning him over 60 points. He has not, however, been a shooter.  Ribeiro is very much like Gomez in that his offense is driven by moving the puck as opposed to finishing it.  More often than not, he's helping out possession given some very positive CF% values - especially last season's 56%.  I will agree with Garcia that Ribeiro is likely to decline sooner rather than later.  And the Devils would ideally need someone to fire pucks as opposed to adding another pass-first forward.  That said, he could handle big minutes, help drive the play in the right direction, and possibly do so without being so costly.  I would be fine if the Devils do with Ribeiro what I suggested with Richards.

As for over-30 but under-35 players, the Devils should think about Derek Roy.  Roy was a very effective forward with Buffalo from 2005 through 2011. However, those days have passed, his production has dropped, his rate of shooting has fallen, and he's been more and more injured.  Roy did have a better second half of 2014-15 with Edmonton.  He's been credited with improving Nail Yakupov's play, even though Jonathan Willis at OilersNation noted that may not be fully true. Still, twenty-two points in 44 games on a bad team is not bad.  He wasn't even a very poor possession player on the Oilers.  Roy's 32 and it's possible he may something left in the proverbial tank for a third line role.

Older Players Who They Should Not Consider

There's another center who's a bit younger than Richards on Chicago that will garner some attention this summer. That's Antoine Vermette, recent scorer of the game-deciding goal in Game 5.  You may remember Vermette as the guy sulking on the ice at the Rock with Phoenix, anticipating a trade to - well, anywhere at the time.  While he got out of Arizona, he hasn't exactly lit it up with Chicago.  Even though he recently scored a big goal, it was his fourth of the postseason and with the team since the trade.  More concerning is the fact the 32-year old has never been a play driver per his skater history at War on Ice. If he was, the recent lack of production - he hasn't excelled since his last big season in 2010 -  could be forgiven.  In this past season, he wasn't that prolific of a shooter. Especially with Chicago. He may be encouraged to fire away more on a weaker talented team, however, anyone expecting his previous days to return may be disappointed. I think the Devils should not consider Vermette.

Also, as the Devils are re-building and trying to get younger, I don't think the Devils should seek out the services of the other 35+ available free agents.  This means they should stay away from the likes of Olli Jokinen, Mike Fisher, Shawn Horcoff, and Matt Cullen.

Lastly, the Devils should avoid the array of little-offense (e.g. Kyle Brodziak, Jarret Stoll, Manny Malhotra) or fourth-line caliber players (e.g. Ryan Carter) that round this group out. The former doesn't help what the Devils need. Sure, this group of free agents doesn't have a lot of high scorers. But a player with previous histories or coming off a 30-40-plus point season are more likely to give the Devils some needed offense than defensive-minded specialists.  As for the latter, the Devils have plenty of fourth-line caliber players. Sure, if Shero didn't re-sign Jordin Tootoo, then I'd welcome back Carter.  Alas, he did, and given the likes of Stephen Gionta, Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin and others from Albany, that line doesn't need a free agent center to help fill it.

Your Take

At least this group of listed centers - regardless of whether they actually play center - is a bit more enticing.  I think the Devils can find the second and third line centers to at least get them through the re-build while making the team younger and better up front. Whether that means splashing the cash for Soderberg or Fehr, or obtaining Richards on a Jagr-like deal, is up to how Shero sees it.

In the meantime, I want to know how you see it.  Which one of the listed UFA centers do you want the Devils to sign? How would you shift the lineup to accommodate them?  Or would you want the Devils to keep Gomez and either one of Adam Henrique or Patrik Elias in the middle?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.