General Manager Tom Fitzgerald is having himself a Summer. He stated after the 2021 NHL Draft that he wanted a ‘1B’ goaltender, a quality defenseman, and a top-six forward. Since then, he has been able to sign Jonathan Bernier, Dougie Hamilton, and Tomas Tatar. All three signings fit those exact needs. Prior to that, the New Jersey Devils brought in Ryan Graves and Christian Jaros in deals while also re-signing the majority of their internal free agents. The blueline has been remodeled. With only Janne Kuokkanen left to be re-signed, the Devils may be done with their NHL transactions until training camp begins. Is there anything else the Devils could need? I think so. The Devils will need to determine who their centers are.
The top two centers are easy. It is Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Or Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. They are young. They have proven to handle top-six minutes. They have shown enough effectiveness for the Devils to build their forwards, if not their team, around both of them. They are the cornerstones for what the Devils will become in this decade.
The Devils re-signed Michael McLeod, who played center last season. He was often with Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood after a successful January weekend in Buffalo together. The energy “BMW” line had nights of goodness amid nights of being picked on. As Bastian is now a Kraken, there is reason to be concerned how effective the Devils will be when McLeod took a shift. McLeod without his Superbuddy was really bad in the run of play in 2021. However, the Devils gave him a big bump in ice time after Travis Zajac was traded to the Islanders; he averaged 13:56 of 5-on-5 ice time per game since that trade - the fourth most among Devils forwards. That is not someone that the team would look to change positions. Whether you see him as the fourth-line center he probably is or the third-line center he was actually used as last season is beside the point. McLeod will be a center next season.
That is three centers. Who will be the fourth? That is the question. The Devils have two ways they can go with this one. They can look for someone already in the organization or look for someone not in it.
Options Within the Organization
The Devils have amassed a large number of young players in their system. Such that the 2021 Top 25 Devils Under 25 will have at least 50 players in it. It will include the aforementioned Hischier, Hughes, and McLeod. There are others who have at least played the position before.
The first option is someone you may feel is better as a winger: Pavel Zacha. Zacha had himself a 2021 where he perhaps turned a corner or two. He also played center much more often than you may think. He took 606 draws last season, third only to McLeod (633) and Hughes (613). He also won most of them too. Even though there were shifts and nights where he lined up at left wing, he took to the dots plenty of times as well. In 5-on-5 play last season, Zacha’s on-ice rates were not that great. But they were better than McLeod’s and Zacha had plenty of different teammates that could have held back those rates. I do worry that his 13.85% shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play last season - his highest ever - is going to fall and suddenly he is not past a corner by perception. However, he could be the best internal option as a center unless someone makes a massive improvement.
That someone would be Jesper Boqvist. Now the wearer of #70 since Tatar will be wearing #90, Boqvist played in his second NHL season in 2021. He was drafted as a center but has been touted as being able to play all three forward positions. In practice, he was mostly used as a winger since he only took 73 draws in 28 games in 2021. As an example of how many a center would take, Hischier took 361 in 21 games last season. Also, Boqvist’s on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play were the worst on the team among forwards who played at least 10 games last season. Whether you prefer CF%, xGF%, or something else, Boqvist was largely ineffective. The coaches likely thought the same as they kept Boqvist to play 10:29 per game in 5-on-5 in his 28 games. The soon-to-be 23 year old likely needed more seasoning in the AHL rather than struggling on a bad NHL team, but that option was not always viable with the scheduling issues of the AHL last season. I have seen his name pop up among fans penciled into a bottom-six center spot. But I do not believe that makes sense. If the Devils have been wrecked in the run of play when Boqvist was taking shifts at wing last season, then why move him to a position with more demanding responsibilities at both ends of the rink? Should he show a massive improvement, then it is a different story.
There is an out-the-box option on the NJ roster: Yegor Sharangovich. Recall the hype for Sharangovich ahead of last season. He was lighting it up and playing a lot on loan with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. Apparently, he did so as a center as lined up for 510 faceoffs in 34 games during his loan spell. He did not do so well on those draws, but the coaches gave him a ton of minutes in that role and he at least produced enough to warrant those choices. Also recall that the KHL was arguably more talented last season due to the number of NHL players on loan there. That Sharangovich was a pivot in the second best league in the world means it is not entirely unthinkable to try him as a center in New Jersey. Especially as Jesper Bratt or Tomas Tatar could be lined up with Hughes, and it would free up Zacha to go play wing as well. I would not recommend it. The Devils found success with Hughes and Sharangovich together. We know Sharangovich can produce and handle the top-six role. Generally, it is a good idea to keep those players together unless better options appear. Maybe that is Tatar. Maybe that is even Bratt. Until it is seen in camp, preseason, or in the first few games of the season, I would not move Sharangovich down and hope he can be a center in the NHL. It may end up holding back what Sharangovich can contribute. That stated, if the team really wants to move Zacha to wing and cannot trust Boqvist, then this may be something that is tried out.
In the system, there are not a lot of appealing options. In Utica, Nate Schnarr and Aarne Talvitie are listed as centers. I think both will need to show much more in the AHL before warranting a longer look in the NHL. Chase De Leo was signed primarily to be a player for Utica; I doubt he could be a viable solution. He is not in pro hockey yet, but Dawson Mercer is a center in the prospect pool that has a bright future. He did play center for Chicoutimi last season. However, unless he turns out to be amazing in camp, I think the best option for the 19-year old is to go have a full, final season in the QMJHL for 2021-22.
Personally, the internal options are available but not that ideal. It is either betting on Zacha to be a center again, betting on Boqvist to be way better, taking a risk with moving Sharangovich from a successful position to an unknown, or calling up someone who is not likely ready. And this is all assuming McLeod is not going to get dominated as a center again because if he does, then this open position may have to take on more minutes in order to shelter McLeod.
Options Outside of the Organization
Of course, this all suggests that it would not be the worst idea for Fitzgerald to go back into the free agency and find a bottom-six center such that Zacha, Boqvist, and Sharangovich can all remain as wingers. In theory, that is correct. The issue is that I am writing this on August 8. A lot of the prime free agents have been taken. Yes, the Devils signed Tatar on August 5. That is an exception. The list of who is available is not an enticing one. However, the role that needs to be filled is a bottom-six center. It does not need to be a star or a potential breakout candidate. It needs to be someone who can do the job. Who is available? Let us go over some names:
Tyler Bozak is someone who can serve this role in theory. He was a bottom-six center for St. Louis last season. The 35-year old has plenty of experience. While he took only 382 draws, that was the third most on a team that went heavy on Ryan O’Reilly taking them. However, St. Louis were often getting kicked in the teeth in the run of play when Bozak took a shift last season. Combined with the fact that he only played 11:20 per game in 5-on-5, the Devils may as well go with Boqvist and save the money and roster spot. (I feel similarly for Brad Richardson, who is older, played even fewer minutes, but at least was OK in 5-on-5.)
I feel similarly about Artem Anisimov. Injuries held him to just 19 games with Ottawa last season. He did take 88 draws in those 19 games, so there is reason to think he did so for a bit last season. He certainly did with Chicago. But the 33-year old was not productive or all that effective in 5-on-5 in those 19 games with Ottawa last season. Ottawa was indeed a bad team and there were worse performing forwards. His agent stated back in April that he is focused on remaining in the NHL. But if the option is a cheap, one or two season deal in the NHL or a more lucrative KHL contract, then he may not be that realistic of an option.
I am sure there are some who would not mind Travis Zajac returning to the fold. After all, he served the exact role that the Devils now need to fill in 2021. He would be familiar with the coaching staff and most of his teammates. He was more effective in 5-on-5 than your memory may recall of last season. However, he is 36 and so his on-ice play cannot be gauranteed to be good again. More importantly, he may not be that free of a free agent. He may already have a deal in principle with the Islanders. That also applies to Casey Cizikas, someone who has made a career out of being a fourth-line center. He has been effective for the Islanders; but I question if he could do it away from his partners, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin. I also question how much the 30-year old would event want. But if he is already set to return to the Island like Zajac may be, then it is a moot point. Neither would be legitimate options.
There is Ryan Donato available. San Jose opted not to qualify him, so he is an unrestricted free agent. But despite being listed as a center, I am not convinced he has been anything but a winger with Boston, Minnesota, and San Jose. He only took over a hundred draws in one of his four seasons, and that was 102 in 62 games - a rate that suggests that he was lined up elsewhere more often than not. As you would expect from a player who was left to walk by a bad Sharks team, Donato was not particularly good last season in 5-on-5. Bringing him in to play a position he has not played for three other teams may not be the wisest move. Unless the Devils want to shore up the bottom six depth with a 25-year old winger, I would pass. Likewise for Carter Rowney or Tyler Ennis, two other, older bottom-six forwards who have not been centers in recent seasons.
At least those three would be playing next season even if they are not centers. David Backes is thinking of retirement and while Eric Staal may not return to Montreal, the 36-year old’s future is also a question. If Staal is willing, then he may be the best option of a limited group of free agents available. How much he can contribute is up in the air, though. Ultimately, the free agent pool of centers as of August 8 is really, really thin with few desirable options remaining. I am left thinking that the Devils staying in-house may actually be preferable to spending for one the free agent centers (or “centers”) available.
There is one other avenue I have not touched on: a trade. The Devils could make one happen. As of this writing at CapFriendly, eight teams have over $81 million committed for next season and six of them are at least one million over the cap. While they may be able to make some moves to become compliant, Fitzgerald could offer something to make it easier for them and fill this kind of need. That stated, no name or team really jumps out at me as someone I think the Devils should swing a deal for. I would also be hesitant to move significant assets. One of the three fourth rounders in 2022? Sure. Anything more? Let us take a moment to think about it. You can call this the wildcard option. It may yield the most appropriate player mentioned in this post - which speaks to how I feel about the available options internally and externally.
I could be overthinking this, which short and long time readers know I do a lot of when it comes to the Devils. It could be that the Devils’ main four centers will be Hischier, Hughes, McLeod, and Zacha for this coming season. That may be what Fitzgerald, head coach Lindy Ruff, and others in the organization have decided on. It is not only those four, of course. Boqvist is technically an option. Utica will have call-ups. And others may have to step in should a rash of injuries impact the team. But those are the four they have.
It could be argued that, in retrospect, Fitzgerald should have sought after this position on July 28 when free agency began. I get it, but I would not be so critical. Getting Bernier and Hamilton were more important signings as the Devils needed a goaltender and a top-tier defenseman much more than a bottom-six center. As was recruiting and signing Tatar; a top-six winger is more valuable than a bottom-six center in general as well.
I would like to know what you think. Who do you think should be playing center on the 2021-22 Devils along with Hischier, Hughes, and McLeod? Is there someone I missed within the organization or outside of the organization the Devils should have play a bottom-six center position? Is there a trade target you’d like for the role? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this position for the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.