Mar 14, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (87) watch the puck on a face off at the Air Canada Centre. Pittsburgh defeated Toronto 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Free Agency: How Much Is A First Line Centre Worth?


The Anaheim Ducks have become one of the most surprising teams of this shortened NHL season, currently sitting in second place in the tough Western Conference. The Ducks have benefited from outstanding goaltending from 30-year-old rookie Viktor Fasth, who ranks sixth in the NHL with a 2.15 goals-against-average and eighth in save percentage with a .922 mark. Another big reason for the Ducks’ surge is Ryan Getzlaf and his 36 points, good for sixth-best in the league. Getzlaf was rewarded handsomely for his scoring ability, signing an eight-year contract with a cap hit of $8.25 million (all figures in US dollars and according to CapGeek) per season on March 8th.  Getzlaf’s running mate, Corey Perry, signed a similar, eight-year pact with a cap hit of $8.625 million per season 11 days later.

That’s a lot of money to pay for two players, but was still probably less than they could have garnered on the open market, especially in Perry’s case. Those players deserve to be paid in the upper echelon of the league along with the likes of Alex Ovechkin ($9.54 million cap hit), Sidney Crosby ($8.7), Evgeni Malkin ($8.7), Eric Staal ($8.25) and Rick Nash ($7.8). However, given the nature of a fluctuating salary cap (set to scale back from $70 million to $64.3 next year) and other expensive long-term contracts handed out by the Ducks in recent seasons, that leaves them in a rather dubious cap situation heading into next season.

The Ducks have about $30.5 million tied up in five players for next season: Getzlaf, Perry, Bobby Ryan, Cam Fowler and Jonas Hiller. That’s 47 percent of the salary cap spent on 22 percent of the roster. When you factor in the 11 other players under contract for the Ducks next season, they’re left with $10.4 million to spend on seven players. That means more than likely the Ducks will have to bid adieu to Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Toni Lydman, all veterans playing significant roles, unless they take massive discounts. Ryan, who’s been the subject of a zillion trade rumours and has said he wouldn’t mind playing for his hometown Philadelphia Flyers one day, will probably be shipped out sooner rather than later. Jonas Hiller, who isn’t playing close to the level of fellow netminder Fasth, could also be dealt to a team looking for help in net. The main point is this: While the Ducks were probably left with no other option than throw money at their two best players, the result will probably end up being a significantly weaker roster top-to-bottom next season.

So what does all this have to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Well, with Ryan Getzlaf off the market, that means a lot of centres set to become unrestricted free agents in the off-season will be paid a lot more than they are worth, and that includes the Maple Leafs’ own Tyler Bozak. Here’s a look at some options for the Leafs or any other team looking to upgrade their centre position. (2013 PPG is points-per-game for this season and 3 Year PPG Avg is the point-per-game average over the three seasons beforehand. All stats via Hockeydb.):

Player

Team

Age

Current Cap Hit

2013 PPG

3 Year PPG Avg

Mike Ribeiro

WAS

33

$5 million

1.06

0.84

Nik Antropov

WPG

33

$4.0625 million

0.42

0.65

Derek Roy

DAL

29

$4 million

0.69

0.76

Matthew Lombardi

PHX

31

$3.5 million

0.35

0.5

Dainius Zubrus

NJD

34

$3.4 million

0.44

0.48

Stephen Weiss

FLA

29

$3.1 million

0.24

0.7

Mike Santorelli

FLA

27

$1.6 million

0.15

0.33

Peter Regin

OTT

26

$800,000

0.13

0.36

Pretty slim pickings, right? Ribeiro is the best offensive option on the list, but he’s 33 and playing with a pretty good line-mate named Ovechkin. Derek Roy has had a bit of a resurgence with Dallas after struggling the year before in Buffalo. Since the Stars traded away his teammate Brenden Morrow, they could be looking to ship out Roy to a contender if they don’t plan on re-signing him. These two, along with Stephen Weiss (although he had a very slow start before going down for the year with a wrist injury), look to be the major beneficiaries of Getzlaf’s contract. Oh, and that guy playing on the first line in Toronto, but more on him later.

To gain a better understanding of what these guys might be able to fetch on the open market, let’s look at some recent contracts handed out to centres and how their point totals stack up (Seguin’s last column is a two-year average because this is only his third season in the league):

Player

Team

Age

Cap Hit

Contract Length

Date Signed

2013 PPG

3 Year PPG Avg

David Desharnais

MTL

26

$3.5 million

4 years

March 15, 2013

0.58

0.64

Ryan Getzlaf

ANA

27

$8.25 million

8 years

March 8, 2013

1.16

0.94

Jamie Benn

DAL

23

$5.25 million

5 years

January 24, 2013

0.92

0.72

Travis Zajac

NJD

27

$5.75 million

8 years

January 16, 2013

0.4

0.65

Tyler Ennis

BUF

23

$2.82 million

2 years

September 15, 2012

0.77

0.66

 

Tyler Seguin

BOS

21

$5.75 million

6 years

September 11, 2012

0.73

0.57

Mike Fisher

NAS

32

$4.2 million

2 years

August 20, 2012

0.53

0.6

There’s a disparity in age and production between this table and the last one, but looking at it you can see which players are overpaid and which players are relative bargains. Desharnais and Zajac are very comparable in both age and production, yet Zajac was handed a contract with a cap hit worth $2.5 million more and for four more seasons. Just goes to show what some teams will pay for a perceived first-line centre.

Weiss’ and Roy’s contracts will land somewhere in between Desharnais’ and Zajac’s. Given they are both only two years older than Zajac and consistently better scorers, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they were able to garner upwards of $5 million. Ribeiro could hit the $5 million mark as well given his continued point production despite his age. If I’m the Leafs, I’m not even giving the agents of these players a call. Let some other sucker general manager overpay.

Here’s a look at the centres the Maple Leafs currently have on their roster as well as each player’s contract status and point totals:

Player

Age

Cap Hit

Contract Status

2013 PPG

3 Year PPG Avg

Mikhail Grabovski

29

$5.5 million

Expires 2018

0.41

0.67

Nazem Kadri

22

$1.72 million

RFA deal expires 2013

1.06

0.37

Tyler Bozak

27

$1.5 million

Expires 2013

0.56

0.55

Jay McClement

$1.5 million

Expires 2014

0.38

0.27

Nazem Kadri, needless to say, will be in line for a huge raise this off-season. The Leafs could opt to sign him to a Tyler Ennis-like, two-year “bridge” contract for less money, but then risk having to pay an exorbitant amount in two years if Kadri continues to lead the Leafs in scoring. I would sign him long-term, preferably to something resembling Jamie Benn’s contract with the Stars. He’s ninth in league scoring and deserves to be paid.

As for the other centre the Leafs will need to make a decision on, one Tyler Bozak, his numbers aren’t bad. He’s not Desharnais, but he’s not Peter Regin, either. My guess is he gets somewhere around $4 million from some team. Will that be the Leafs? I hope not, but who knows. Apparently Phil Kessel is very good friends with him and the decision on Bozak may influence his decision when his contract expires in 2014.

If the Leafs opt to let Bozak go, they won’t have to go after one of the “big fish” in my opinion. They could sign a third-line guy, maybe Dainius Zubrus or Mike Santorelli, and roll with Kadri, Grabovski and McClement on the other lines. They’ll also have to decide what to do with Joe Colborne, whose RFA contract expires in the off-season. Maybe give him a shot playing on a sheltered third line next year and use the money this off-season trying to improve the defense.

With the cap going down next year, the Leafs will have to be smarter with their money. Signing Bozak to more than he’s worth just because he’s been playing on the first line would not be a smart move. The Leafs will need some flexibility if they hope to sign both Kessel and Dion Phaneuf a year from now. It’s time to learn from the past and not get sucked into the free agent frenzy, or else we could be looking at the Ducks’ situation all over again in a couple of years.

Tags: Free Agent Centres NHL Free Agency Toronto Maple Leafs

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