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Top NHL UFAs by position: Looking at the 10 best centres available

During the lead-up to NHL free agency opening on Oct. 9, we’re taking a look the top UFAs at each position. Today, we’re targeting the centremen who could garner the most interest on the open market.

This year’s class at centre presents some interesting cases. Unlike in the past few seasons, there isn’t really a star centreman up for grabs who can significantly change your team’s makeup. There are, however, several strong depth options — some with top-six upside, and others offering valuable veteran experience and an opportunity to win.

It’s worth noting that several of the players here, while officially listed at centre, often slot in — and have even seen some of their most successful seasons — along the wing. That’s particularly true as most of these players have been in depth roles at various points in the season. We’ve highlighted some of those versatile forwards here, listing them as centres because of their tendency to suit up there and their upside at the position.

1. Mikael Granlund
2019-20 team: Nashville Predators | Age: 28
2019-20 stats: 17G, 13A, 30Pts in 63GP
2019-20 cap hit: $5.75M
Even with that disclaimer about centres who sometimes disguise as wingers, it still feels necessary to acknowledge Granlund in this context — in part because his success at each position has been a topic of much discussion in both Minnesota and Nashville.

It wasn’t so long ago that Granlund was one of Minnesota’s top young stars, factoring heavily into the team’s top-scoring tallies and rising as one of the club’s most talented young playmakers and forwards of the future. But a trade to Nashville at the 2018-19 deadline, which saw Kevin Fiala heading to the Wild in return, brought on a series of struggles for the Finnish forward. His next deal could reflect that, making him a strong contender for a short-term deal to revive his production before properly cashing in a few seasons down the road.

2. Erik Haula
2019-20 team: Carolina Hurricanes + Florida Panthers | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 12G, 12A, 24Pts in 48GP
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75M
Haula was excellent during the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season, tallying 29 goals and 55 points. Unfortunately, a serious injury prevented him from hitting that same level of success in his second year, and trades to the Carolina Hurricanes and then Florida Panthers saw him start to hit his stride but never fully reach that same level as he did in 2017-18. Health will factor into his next deal, but considering his high ceiling and serious versatility — he plays enough left wing to be listed at that position, too — he’ll surely garner plenty of interest on a short-term deal.

3. Carl Soderberg
2019-20 team: Arizona Coyotes | Age: 34
2019-20 stats: 17G, 18A, 35Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $4.75M
Another veteran who’s spent considerable time on the wing, Soderberg followed up his career-high 23 goals in 2018-19 in Colorado with his second-best total of 17 this year in Arizona after being dealt to the desert in June 2019.

New Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong made it clear he’s seeking assets, and he’ll likely be looking to clear a little cap space, too, as he embarks on putting his own stamp on the club. That means older players like Soderberg and fellow Coyotes UFA-to-be Brad Richardson are most likely on the move.

Teams looking for depth scoring and bottom-six versatility without the long-term commitment would be wise to give Soderberg a look.

4. Derick Brassard
2019-20 team: New York Islanders | Age: 33
2019-20 stats: 10G, 22A, 32Pts in 66GP
2019-20 cap hit: $1.2M
He’s not the 50-plus point guy we saw with the New York Rangers in 2014 and 2015, but after a rocky two years that saw him suit up for five different teams, Brassard’s return to New York — the Islanders this time — brought some pretty strong stretches for the veteran forward. Another short-term deal, especially in this current cap climate, on a club with lots of potential for chemistry feels like the most probable move here.

5. Colin Wilson
2019-20 team: Colorado Avalanche | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 0G, 4A, 4Pts in 9GP
2019-20 cap hit: $2.6M
Wilson’s contract year was cut short just eight games into the season due to a lower-body injury serious enough to see him excluded from the return-to-play roster this summer. The Avalanche forward had just signed a one-year pact to stay in Colorado in July 2019, and before speculating on any potential fits — either to stay in Denver or play elsewhere — we’ll have to learn more about his health going forward.

6. Tyler Ennis
2019-20 team: Ottawa Senators + Edmonton Oilers | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 16G, 21A, 37Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $800,000
Another centre-turned-winger-turned-centre again, Ennis is one of those easy-to-root-for guys regardless of where he’s playing, having revived his career after struggling through a long, difficult recovery from head injuries and ultimately having his contract bought out. His success with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators this past season saw him flipped to Edmonton at the deadline, where he immediately fit right in with four points in his first nine games. His post-season was cut short, however, after being sidelined with another injury. Considering his strong play this year and his versatility throughout the lineup, Ennis has earned himself a raise.

7. Cody Eakin
2019-20 team: Vegas Golden Knights + Winnipeg Jets | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 5G, 10A, 15Pts in 49GP
2019-20 cap hit: $3.85M
Eakin’s stock rose with the Vegas Golden Knights, registering career-highs in goals (22) and points (41) in his second year with the expansion club.

The Winnipeg native didn’t get much time to gel with his hometown Jets upon being traded at the deadline, suiting up for just eight regular-season games with his new squad. But five points — including points in three straight games before the pause in March — in that short span suggests strong chemistry was forming with his new club. Unfortunately, that chemistry fizzled out in the post-season as Winnipeg lost bodies to the injury bug, halting any momentum Eakin and his teammates attempted to muster.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff obviously liked Eakin enough to trade for him, and it’s worth wondering if a literal hometown discount — especially in a year where Eakin might not be able to garner as much as we all once thought, due to the flat cap — could be in store here.

8. Alex Galchenyuk
2019-20 team: Pittsburgh Penguins + Minnesota Wild | Age: 26
2019-20 stats: 8G, 16A, 24Pts in 59GP
2019-20 cap hit: $4.9M
Galchenyuk’s 30-goal, 56-point season with the Montreal Canadiens was just four years ago but it feels like longer, doesn’t it? The 2019-20 campaign was not kind to the 26-year-old who, after never fully gelling with Arizona, struggled to strike any chemistry with the Penguins and Wild. With Minnesota now reportedly moving on from the forward, he’s due to hit the open market and is too skilled not to generate interest.

It feels like, with a little time and the right fit, we could see another goal-scoring year for Galchenyuk again — but he’ll have to take a significant pay cut to get there.

9. Jason Spezza
2019-20 team: Toronto Maple Leafs | Age: 37
2019-20 stats: 9G, 16A, 25Pts in 58GP
2019-20 cap hit: $700,000
While this year’s class of centremen isn’t particularly deep, it does have quite a few veterans looking for a few more shots at winning it all. Spezza is one of them. The 37-year-old brought veteran experience and face-off prowess to a depth scoring role on a veteran minimum deal. He’s made it clear he’d like to return, and considering the low cost and strong fit, this feels like a deal that should be done quickly.

“I definitely feel like I have game left and there is nowhere I’d rather be than play another year here in Toronto,” Spezza, who hails from Toronto, said last month via NHL.com. “I do hope it works out.”

10. Joe Thornton
2019-20 team: San Jose Sharks | Age: 40
2019-20 stats: 7G, 24A, 31Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $2M
While the veteran playmaker is indeed a UFA-to-be, listing him as “available” feels perhaps a bit inaccurate. Thornton has signed three consecutive one-year deals to remain in San Jose, and with general manager Doug Wilson saying during a recent interview on NBC Sports that he’s got the “green light” to spend to the cap for 2020-21, it feels really likely we’ll see Jumbo Joe back in teal next season. There were, however, some rumblings earlier in the summer of the St. Thomas, Ont. native perhaps heading north…

More centres to watch: Brad Richardson (ARI), Johan Larsson (BUF), Tomas Nosek (VGK), Nate Thompson (PHI), Derek Grant (PHI), Trevor Lewis (LAK), Zemgus Girgensons (BUF)

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