To say Caps fans are concerned about the the third line center would be an understatement. After a flurry of offseason moves, the Caps now look set at right wing, but have seen Eric Fehr move on to Pittsburgh.
Though I believe the team will not bring in anyone else in the offseason and that Andre Burakovsky will take over for Fehr on the third line, that has not stopped the speculation among fans who all seem to think this remains a major hole on the roster.
Let's assume then, that the Caps are indeed looking for a third-line center and re-evaluate that line.
First, we have to consider who the wings are to help determine what sort of player they should target.
Here's what we know. Five of the top six forwards for the Caps are set. It seems unlikely that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Justin Williams will fall out of the top two lines. That leaves Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson vying for the last spot. Regardless of who ultimately earns the job, neither Burakovsky nor Johansson will be relegated to the fourth line so one of them will play winger on the third.
The other wing in all likelihood will be Tom Wilson. Though he has been used primarily on the fourth line the past two seasons, head coach Barry Trotz wants to see more from him this season. Considering he has more upside than Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich or Jay Beagle, it would be safe to assume he would be given an opportunity on the third line.
This means the Caps would be looking for a center for a line with Burakovsky/Johansson and Wilson as the wings. What this also means is that this would not be a checking line, but more of a skill line.
While Wilson doesn't mind throwing his body around, neither Burakovsky nor Johansson is suited for playing on a checking line. Plus, putting Wilson on a checking line sends him a mixed message. If Trotz wants him to produce more, he should not be put on a line whose primary focus is physical play.
What this means in terms of finding a center is that production is more important than grit. Eric Fehr tallied 19 goals and 14 assists last season. The type of player the Caps should be looking for will be in that 30-35 point range.
With that in mind let's take a look at some available free agents the Caps could sign:
Mike Santorelli (29 years old)
2014-15 season: 12 goals, 21 assists in 79 games
The Predators picked up Santorelli and Cody Franson from Toronto in February and things did not work out. Santorelli scored only two goals for Nashville in 26 total games. Things were so bad, he now sits unsigned in mid-August. His cap hit last season was only $1.5 million so you can expect him to come relatively cheap. The worry with him is his consistency. Sometimes mid-season trades don't work, but he also followed up a 41-point 2010-11 season with an eleven-point clunker in 2011-12.
Derek Roy (32 years old)
2014-15 season: 12 goals, 20 assists in 72 games
Roy's agent recently told the Edmonton Journal that he "can't believe" his client had not yet been signed. A player like Roy certainly seems to have some value, but so far, teams have stayed away. Roy played well for Edmonton after being traded from Nashville, recording 11 goals and 11 assists in just 46 games. He is a bit of a journeyman after having played for six teams in the past four seasons, but has remained fairly productive throughout. His price tag last season was only $1 million and you have to think it could get lower with no offers yet and because he is on the wrong side of 30.
Jiri Tlusty (27 years old)
2014-15 season: 14 goals, 17 assists in 72 games
It's surprising to see Tlusty still available at this point given his age. He has 30 or more points in each of the last four seasons including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. There is some definite upside here. With a cap hit of nearly $3 million last year, he likely is too expensive for the Caps, but the longer he remains unsigned, the cheaper he possibly becomes.
One notable free agent I didn't mention is Mike Richards. Richards' contract was terminated by Los Angeles following the season and the NHLPA recently filed a grievance on his behalf. This one is going to get messy before it's resolved--the Caps are better off steering clear, especially for a player who is steadily declining in production.
How likely is it that the Caps sign one of these players? The answer ultimately rests with Backstrom's health.
General manager Brian MacLellan likes Burakovsky as a center and would be fine if the team started with Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky down the middle. If Backstrom may miss some significant time to start the beginning of the season, this makes a move more likely. The trick will be getting someone to sign for a price that ultimately makes a move feasible.
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