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Revisiting Free Agency: Are There Any Centers the Devils Should Sign?

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There are not many options - and even fewer good ones. But there is a slight chance the Devils can make a significant improvement to the team at this position.

Nashville Predators v Montreal Canadiens
Mikael Granlund would be a huge shift for the Devils at center, likely allowing Pavel Zacha to move to wing.
Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

There are very few options at center in unrestricted free agency this year. That’s not a terrible thing for the New Jersey Devils, as they currently have (ordered by total average ice time):

  • Nico Hischier, age 21. 14 goals, 22 assists in 58 games (18:04 ATOI). 47.83 CF%, 49.95 xGF%.
  • Travis Zajac, age 35. 9 goals, 16 assists in 69 games (17:06 ATOI). 46.91 CF%, 46.85 xGF%.
  • Pavel Zacha, age 23. 8 goals, 24 assists in 65 games (16:16 ATOI). 42.95 CF%, 42.44 xGF%.
  • Jack Hughes, age 19. 7 goals, 14 assists in 61 games (15:52 ATOI). 45.79 CF%, 47.27 xGF%.

They also have among expiring contracts:

  • Kevin Rooney, age 27. 4 goals, 5 assists in 49 games (11:44 ATOI). 43.22 CF%, 44.43 xGF%.

Given the above numbers, the Devils have four NHL centers on the roster, but the three not named Nico Hischier have significant trouble: whether in terms of real production, expected results, or both. For example, Pavel Zacha was terrible when he was without either Jesper Bratt or Nikita Gusev. Without either of them, he had an xGF% of 39.94 and a GF% of 30.00. With just Bratt, his xGF% rose to 41.25 and his GF% to 33.33. With just Gusev, his xGF% rose to 49.16 and his GF% to 50.00. With both, their line had a 48.90 xGF% and a 69.23 GF%.

Then there is the issue of Travis Zajac with and without Blake Coleman. With Blake Coleman (625:18 TOI), he had a 49.84 CF%, 51.30 xGF%, and 44.62 GF%. Without Coleman (264:36), he had a 40.08 CF%, 37.88 xGF%, and 25.00 GF%. Travis Zajac’s resurgence seemed to have partially been built on his combination with Blake Coleman, and now that Coleman is gone the Devils have some decisions and moves they need to make.

If the Devils were to sign another center, it would probably mean moving either Pavel Zacha or Travis Zajac off of center to wing, since Jack Hughes performed very poorly in his time at wing during the 2019-20 season. In the case of Zacha, it would be in the hopes that he can use more of his intrinsic offensive skill. In the case of Zajac, it could probably be justified in that he has lost a lot of his skating speed and his defense at even strength has become weaker. According to Natural Stat Trick, Pavel Zacha played 103:49 with Nico Hischier at five-on-five in 2019-20, and they had a 49.42 CF%, 49.61 xGF%, and 31.25 GF%. While the real results of the line were not great, Zacha did not drag down Hischier’s expected results. So there’s that.

With that said, let’s take a look at potential centers the Devils can sign:

Erik Haula

Over the past three seasons since being taken in the Vegas Expansion Draft, Erik Haula has played 139 games, scoring 43 goals and 43 assists in an average ice time of 16:45. His 43 goals have come on 293 shots for a shooting percentage of 14.7%. He is an above average faceoff taker with a 52.0 FOW%, and has had a favorable 77 to 72 takeaway to giveaway count. After missing most of the 2018-19 season with a knee injury, however, Erik Haula has struggled mightily with limiting defensive chances since his return.

Evolving-Hockey

In his 41 games with Carolina this season, Haula had a 45.43 xGF%, but a 55.0 GF%. His expected results were much better in Florida - albeit in only seven games. Nonetheless, Erik Haula is an intriguing option for the New Jersey Devils, as he is not likely to command a very big contract. According to Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, he is likely to get four years and an AAV of $4.234 million. That is very do-able given the Devils’ current contract situation, and Haula could return to his normal level of defensive play as more time passes since his knee injury. Haula would fit nicely into the Devils’ middle six if they could get him on a favorable contract. He is 29 years old, and should not get too much term given his knee injury and not-great defense since his return.

Mikael Granlund

This one might be considered cheating a bit, as Granlund has played right wing more than center the past couple years. However, he is a natural center. I include Mikael Granlund on this list because he comes without some of the recent issues that Erik Haula has. Over the past three seasons, Granlund has tallied 54 goals and 97 assists in 219 games, with a shot percentage of 10.5% and an average ice time of 18:21. He would be a significant investment as a second line center - and he is only 28 years old. Here’s his RAPM chart from Evolving-Hockey covering his past three seasons:

Evolving-Hockey

As I said, Granlund would be a significant investment for the New Jersey Devils. Evolving-Hockey projects his contract at seven years with an AAV of $6.525 million. However, they only give him a 20% chance of getting seven years, compared to an 18% chance of five years, and a 19% chance of four years. So, it should be possible to get Granlund on a contract that does not take him to his age-36 season. The Devils would also be getting a very good player, who according to Natural Stat Trick has not had a season with an xGF% under 50.0 since his rookie year. With Travis Zajac in the final season of his contract, signing another veteran center to anchor the second line as Jack Hughes continues to develop could be a boon to the New Jersey Devils.

Centers the Devils Should Not Sign

Carl Soderberg

I don’t think Carl Soderberg is a bad player. He had 17 goals and 18 assists in 70 games for the Arizona Coyotes this season playing just 15:54 per game. However, he was a late bloomer - having broken out in the 2013-14 season with Boston when he was 28 years old. Since then, he’s gained a reputation as a solid two-way forward. Now nearly 35 years old (he will be in October), what’s left of his defensive ability is not much to talk about. From HockeyViz, here’s his isolated impact summary from the 2019-20 season:

HockeyViz

The Devils already have one declining center in Travis Zajac - and they do not need to add another one in Carl Soderberg. Evolving-Hockey projects his contract to be three years with an AAV of $4.325 million. I don’t think he’ll get that much - and I find it more likely he ends up with their second-most likely given outcome of two years and an AAV of $3.658 million. Regardless, both of those options are unlikely to help the Devils. Soderberg has only had one positive xGF% season in the past five years, and it is only likely the Devils drag him down, rather than him pull the Devils up.

Any Fourth Line Centers

The Devils have plenty of internal options to fill their needs on the fourth line moving forward - and I would only want the Devils to sign a center if they were good enough to necessitate moving Zacha or Zajac to wing. But if they ever need a fill-in fourth liner due to injury, they could re-sign Kevin Rooney. They could play Janne Kuokkanen at center rather than wing. They could also call-up Michael McLeod and give him another chance. They could call-up Yegor Sharangovich, who has five points in six games on loan for Dinamo Minsk in the KHL so far this season. To make a depth signing at center when the Devils have several internal options would be counterproductive to the young players’ development. So signing any of Derek Grant, Zemgus Girgensons, Nate Thompson, Thomas Nosek, or any of the other subpar centers in free agency who do not play very important (or many) minutes for their team should be out of the question. They would not add anything the Devils cannot probably find within their own organization.

Concluding Thoughts

If the Devils were to sign any centers, I’d most prefer it be Mikael Granlund - but only if he signed for less than seven years. After that, a three-to-four year contract for Erik Haula could be beneficial to the Devils. Unfortunately, their options are limited as three of their possible options - Jason Spezza, Mikko Koivu, and Joe Thornton - are very old for the NHL and probably do not want to leave the teams they most recently played with. Spezza took under a million dollars to play for Toronto, Mikko Koivu could conceivably retire now that Minnesota is moving on from him, and I can only see Joe Thornton continuing with San Jose or retiring now that he’s into his 40s.

So there are two possible and good options. The Devils do not necessarily need a center, but giving the chance to move Zacha or Zajac to wing could help alleviate some of the issues the Devils had last season. Zacha did not fare well in expected goals stats when he was not playing with either Nikita Gusev or Nico Hischier - and he played the majority of his time away from those players. Zajac similarly relied on Blake Coleman last season - but fortunately for the Devils and fans he barely played without Coleman.

The only remaining question is if Granlund would get in Jack Hughes’ way. Hughes seems poised to turn into at least a second line center in the next few years given his playmaking ability, creativity, and skating ability; and Granlund is a second line player right now. However, even with a lengthy contract, I think Granlund would be an ideal signing candidate. He has played more time at wing than center with Nashville, and the Devils can use him at center now - giving Zacha or Zajac the chance to improve their play at wing. When Zajac has departed or retired, and Hughes becomes a good-to-great NHL player, the Devils can either move Granlund to the third line as a center or have him play on Jack Hughes’ right wing. When Bruce Boudreau moved him back to center in the 2018-19 season, Granlund said he did not mind the change given his lengthy history playing the position (he moved to wing in the 2016-17 season). According to his 2018-19 game log, he played approximately nine games at center, scoring three goals and two assists (he had not scored in 13 games prior to the switch). Therefore, it seems he is comfortable at both center and wing, and that would aid the Devils in their efforts to not hold any of their young players back.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about the options provided in the article? Do you think the Devils should make a run at Granlund to make a more viable and consistent top six? Do you think they should go for Haula to improve their shorter-term secondary scoring? Do you think they should sign nobody and allow Zacha, Zajac, and Hughes to just play their natural positions? Or do you think at least one of them needs to be moved? Is there anyone you think the Devils should sign that I did not list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to Hockey-Reference, Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, and CapFriendly for statistics, analytics, and contract information.