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Centers of Attention

Friday starts what’s sometimes known as “the silly season” in the NHL, the beginning of the league’s annual free agent shopping spree. This year’s spending comes only six months after the league was in the deep freeze throes of a four-month lockout that resulted in the salary cap for the upcoming season being shaved by about $6 million, the first time the cap has gone down since it was instituted in 2005-06 as a result of the last lockout in ’04-05.


With $180 million ($6 million cap reduction multiplied by 30 teams) taken out of the market, you’d expect to see some restraint and some frugality in terms of both term and dollars. We’ll find out at noon on Friday when the stores open for business.


In a new wrinkle, teams were allowed to reach out to pending unrestricted free agents 48 hours before the players’ actual freedom as a means of gauging interest. That may make for a spate of signings in the minutes immediately following the stroke of noon on Friday, or maybe it won’t. We’re heading into a brave new world here, or at least the possibility of one.


On the local front, the Caps have not come to terms with two unrestricted free agents of their own, forwards Matt Hendricks and Mike Ribeiro. Both were offered multi-year extensions late in the 2012-13 season, but both opted to test the free agency waters. I applaud that; the NHLPA fought valiantly for decades to earn those rights and the window of a career opens and shuts relatively quickly. Players should earn what they can, when they can.


The Capitals have somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million of cap space with which to work. They’ll need some of that space to sign two restricted free agents, defenseman Karl Alzner and forward Marcus Johansson. That’s not likely to leave much to address other needs, which include a top six forward replacement for Ribeiro (if he departs) and a top four defenseman.


Washington is unlikely to be involved in any marquee free agent signings, of which there are few this summer anyway. Given their budget, the Caps are more likely to dabble in the shallow end of the free agent pool, in terms of dollars. The trade route has been good to the Caps in recent years, and that may end up being the best way for Washington to fashion its roster for the upcoming season.


Depending on prices, window shopping might be the best option. But we’re in uncharted waters here, so the next couple of weeks should prove to be interesting.


Here’s a look at the best of the centers on the market this summer. We’ll take a look what’s available at the other positions as the week wears on.


Nik Antropov, Winnipeg – Drafted 10th overall (Toronto) in 1998, Antropov broke into the NHL as a teenager. He has been consistently underwhelming over the years, playing under his size (6-foot-6, 245) and often being more useful on the wing. Antropov had a career year (67 points) in 2009-10, but his offensive production has trickled downward every season since. If he gets another deal in North America, the 33-year-old will earn much less than the $4.062 he’s averaged over the last four campaigns. He is eight days younger than Mike Ribeiro.


Tyler Bozak, Toronto – A righty center who is good on draws and has flirted with the 50-point range, Bozak figures to draw some interest from teams and should earn a raise on the $1.5 million he has averaged over the life of his just-completed two-year deal. Bozak has played first-line minutes (and frequently with first-line talent) over the last few years with the Leafs, playing on both special teams as well. Teams who pursue him will likely be looking to fill a No. 2 or 3 spot in the middle of the ice. There was some buzz about him getting an eight-year extension from the Leafs, which wouldn’t be very sensible on Toronto’s part.


Matt Cullen, Minnesota – Cullen will turn 37 shortly after the start of the 2013-14 season. A veteran of 14 seasons and more than a thousand games in the league, Cullen is a third-line center who plays both special teams and is effective in the face-off circle. His .64 points-per-game rate from 2012-13 is his best since ’09-10. Cullen’s $3.5 million salary over the last three seasons will almost certainly decrease, but he’s a useful player who might be able to get a two-year deal. Re-signing with the Wild is also an option.


Valtteri Filppula, Detroit – On the basis of a string 2011-12 season, Filppula seemed like a guy who was on the verge of getting a big payday this summer. But the 29-year-old pivot struggled in 2012-13 posting nine goals and 17 points in 41 games. Teams will look at him as a second-line center option, and he may come in somewhere around $3 million, which was the average on the five-year deal he just finished. I think he tends more towards the player he was in 2011-12 than 2012-13, and could get a raise if GMs feel similarly.


Boyd Gordon, Phoenix – The former Caps first-rounder is one of the best fourth-line pivots in the game. He’s effectively defensively and as a right-handed face-off option, and he led all Phoenix forwards in penalty-killing ice time in each of the last two seasons. He is coming off a deal that paid him $2.65 million for two years and should wind up with something similar. The Coyotes are thought to be interested in bringing him back.


Michal Handzus, Chicago – The Hawks won the Cup with the 36-year-old Handzus – he of the two goals and eight points in 39 regular season games – manning the middle of Chicago’s second line. Handzus had a strong postseason, but he’s a much better fit as a third- or even fourth-line center at this stage of his career. He earned $2.5 million for each of the last two seasons. I expect him to come in underneath or near that figure.


Saku Koivu, Anaheim – Koivu has had a great career but is nearing the end of the line. He is a great character player whose numbers have slipped a bit over the last few seasons, but he could still be a useful piece for some clubs. Koivu made $3.8 million last season, and, if he chooses to keep playing would likely be in for a slight pay cut. There is a strong chance he’ll return to the Ducks, too.


Maxime Lapierre, Vancouver – Lapierre is a righty, fourth-line center who is adept on draws and known mostly for his pesty nature. Lapierre can kill penalties, is good defensively and offers reasonable offensive output for his spot on the depth chart. He averaged $1 million over the last two seasons and should come in a shade higher than that figure this time around, assuming the interest of multiple teams.


Manny Malhotra, Vancouver – Malhotra is a terrific defensive pivot whose career has been impaired by a serious eye injury suffered late in the 2010-11 season. Drafted seventh overall by the Rangers in 1997, Malhotra was one of the best checking line centers in the league for years before his injury. Great on draws and excellent defensively, he’ll draw interest if he’s given a clean bill of health. He played in just nine of 48 games for Vancouver last season. He was paid an average of $2.5 million over the last three seasons, but will likely have to take much less on a short-term deal this time around.


Mike Ribeiro, Washington – Ribeiro was just what the doctor ordered in Washington in 2012-13, a solid fit behind first-liner Nicklas Backstrom on the Capitals’ depth chart up the middle. Ribeiro tied for the league lead in power play points (27), putting up more offense on the man-advantage than at even-strength. Coming off a five-year deal that paid him an average of $5 million a season, Ribeiro is looking for a similar deal in what is likely to be his last big NHL contract. He’s been productive and consistent for the last nine seasons and could find a few teams that would be willing to give him four or five years. I believe a few teams will give Ribeiro what he’s looking for; I also believe there’s at least a slight chance he could still re-sign with Washington.


Derek Roy, Vancouver – A second-round pick (32nd overall) of the Sabres in 2001, the smallish (5-foot-9, 184) Roy spent his entire career in Buffalo before being traded to the Stars a year ago. Dallas moved him to Vancouver at the 2013 trade deadline. Roy had a good five-season run as a top six center, but his numbers have slipped quite a bit these last two seasons – since missing more than half of the 2010-11 season. Roy isn’t a great face-off guy and has had some injury issues over the last three seasons, too. I’m not sure he’ll bounce back to what he was in his prime, and he’ll get signed for less than the six-year, $24-million deal he just finished.


Stephen Weiss, Florida – Chosen fourth overall in the 2001 draft, Weiss has spent his entire NHL career with the Panthers. He was consistent – if a bit underwhelming on a usually mediocre team – in Florida, topping out at 28 goals (2009-10) and 61 points (2008-09). Generally the first line center for most of his tenure in Florida, he’s a good fit for teams seeking a solid No. 2. Weiss was limited to just 17 games (one goal, four points) because of a wrist injury last season, but could still interest enough suitors to surpass the average annual value ($3.1 million) of his just-completed six-year deal. Detroit is known to have some interest, especially if it is unable to re-up Filppula.


Kyle Wellwood, Winnipeg – Wellwood is a righty center whose production has been all over the map during his eight full seasons in the league. He has averaged anywhere from .33 to .88 points per game during that span, toiling for four different teams and drawing the healthy scratch designation on a semi-regular basis. Wellwood had a good season for the Jets in 2011-12, but followed it with an indifferent one in 2012-13. That’s the story of his career, in a nutshell. He’s a “caveat emptor” type who could surprise for short money on a one-year deal. Or he could end up in Europe.