3 cheaper right-shot veteran free agents the Vancouver Canucks should explore to fill their third-line centre position
Photo credit:© James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
By Faber7 months ago
There won’t be as many home runs in this year’s free agency class, but there certainly is a bunch of NHL-calibre players who will be looking for contracts this summer.
The Vancouver Canucks have some spots to fill. The defence still needs a lot of work but the big changes there are likely to come from trades and potentially a buyout.
Recently, there’s been a focus on a bottom-six centre position. We are beginning to feel better about J.T. Miller as a centre. He’s been playing well under new head coach Rick Tocchet and if Tocchet can get Miller to be a true top-six centre, that will be great for the top-end of the lineup as we all know what Elias Pettersson is doing this season as he proves that he is a true first-line franchise centre.
A problem that the Canucks will face in the summer is the salary cap and that will limit what they are able to do in the free-agent market. To get the most bang for their buck, the Canucks will need to pay for value instead of paying for a player. They don’t have four million dollars to throw at this problem in their bottom-six but they will have a couple of million dollars to invest in a contract for someone who helps the bottom-six and the penalty kill.
You’re not likely to hit any home runs with these three names but you don’t have to swing your chequebook around very hard either.
These three centres are NHL veterans who have played the position well this season. They are able to fit with their team’s defensive structure and could end up being a piece that Tocchet can utilize in balancing the top-end offence that the team currently possesses with the strong attention to detail and defensive toughness that the coach is looking for.
These players aren’t going to be in the MVP conversation but they are veteran NHLers who help a room feel like they are winners because they know their role and do their job.
Win faceoffs, be reliable in the defensive zone, and make your wingers better.
This is the type of bottom-six centre that this Canucks team needs.
They don’t need to be a burner who scores 20+ goals a year. They simply need to go out and win a bottom-six battle while adding a bit to the special teams game by being an effective penalty killer.
We’ve also mentioned the money. And if the Canucks can find value instead of a player in this position, they have a chance to utilize cap space in other weak areas of the team.
You know you’re getting an NHL player from these three examples.
And you’d bet that they aren’t going to break the bank in free agency.
Derek Stepan, 32 years old, 5’11”, 196 lbs, Carolina Hurricanes
The 32-year-old centre is having a nice bounce-back season with the Carolina Hurricanes after seeing himself earn plenty of healthy scratches through the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
Derek Stepan is great in the faceoff circle, posting a 55.2% win percentage in the dot over his past two seasons. Over those two most recent seasons, Stepan has played in 130 games but only averaged 9:52 of ice time.
His next contract will give him over $50,000,000 in career earnings but he is currently playing on a one-year, league-minimum contract with the Hurricanes. It’s not likely that he earns much more than that this summer in free agency but we’d be surprised if no team is willing to pay him closer to a million dollars to audition for a third-line centre position while also being a safe bet to have on your fourth line.
Context needs to be added to some of these stats because they are very impressive for Stepan.
The Carolina Hurricanes are very good at prevented offence. They have six of the 10 best players in the NHL when it comes to expected goals against per 60 minutes.
Stepan is number one in the NHL when it comes to expected goals against per 60, with a 1.87 xGF/60 this season. In addition to his strong defensive numbers, Stepan also leads the NHL in control of expected goals — posting a 65.3% xGF% through 602 minutes of five-on-five this season.
He is also facing pretty weak competition. But is crushing the competition that he is being given.
Teammates and competition from HockeyViz.
His 0.990 PDO is also indicative that he could probably earn some better goals for and against rates.
In his 602 minutes of five-on-five, Stepan’s Hurricanes have had 370 scoring chances while only giving up 191 scoring chances against.
Stepan is playing in a Hurricanes system that gives him the opportunity to dominate in a fourth-line role and he is knocking it out of the park.
He’s a cheap option who may have another few good years as a bottom-six centre. Perhaps the Canucks want to give him a chance at playing in a third-line role and setting the standard for what is expected defensively in the bottom-six.
Stepan can kill penalties but he has been the sixth-most used forward for the Hurricanes this season. It’s not a specialty of his but maybe he will earn more time on the penalty kill on a different team. His faceoff prowess is surely a good boost to kick off any penalty kill.
As for counting stats, Stepan has five goals and six assists (five primary assists) through 72 games with a 9:08 average time on ice.
Noel Acciari, 31 years old, 5’10”, 209 lbs, St. Louis Blues / Toronto Maple Leafs
Our next centre has never been a high-paid centre and that is not likely to change as we turn towards the 2023-24 NHL season.
Noel Acciari is a solid bottom-six centre who is good in the faceoff dot and brings some veteran savvy to the penalty kill.
He has averaged about 1:40 of penalty kill time per game, he has won 54.1% of the 600+ faceoffs he has taken this season, and his shot chart fits the mould of what Tocchet is looking for in the bottom-six.
Tocchet likes Dakota Joshua because of his willingness to bang in the corners and funnel pucks into high-danger areas. As you can see from the shot charts above, that part of the ice is where Acciari likes to shoot the puck.
Acciari is also 11th in the NHL for hits and is consistent with his physicality. He has thrown five or more hits in 23% of his games this season.
This player feels like a Tocchet guy and won’t be very expensive, as he is coming off of a one-year, $1,250,000 contract.
Acciari is more of a third-line centre than Stepan. This season, Acciari has averaged 14:16 of ice time, has 13 goals and eight assists. He’s probably getting a small raise on his $1,250,000 but we don’t see it being over $2,500,000.
Nick Bjugstad, 30 years old, 6’6″, 210 lbs, Arizona Coyotes / Edmonton Oilers
He’s bounced around a bit after his big six-year, $24,600,000 contract expired in 2021. Nick Bjugstad is a 6’6″, right-shot centre who is currently playing for the Edmonton Oilers after being swapped from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for a third-round pick and a defence prospect.
The most notable thing about Bjugstad is obviously his size but when you go under the hood a bit, it’s pretty interesting to see what he has done to keep himself in the NHL. After 10 NHL seasons of not being a penalty killer, in year 11, Bjugstad has become a shorthanded minute muncher. Averaging close to two minutes of penalty kill time per night this season.
He’s probably the best scorer of the trio of names we’ve mentioned in this article but did benefit from playing up the lineup in Arizona before being dealt to Edmonton.
Even on the poor Arizona Coyotes team, Bjugstad showed well in his own zone and does a lot of his offensive damage near the net.
We also saw Bjugstad matchup against different parts of the opposition’s lineup after he was moved from Arizona to Edmonton. In Arizona, Bjugstad was a second-line centre who primarily matched up against the opposition’s top lines. In Edmonton, he is playing the third-line centre role well and is on a playoff-bound team.
Bjugstad is the youngest of our three names — he will turn 31 this summer. With all of that being said about the big centre, we do expect that Nick Bjugstad will get the biggest contract out of our three names. He’s likely looking at himself as a third-line centre for the coming few seasons and will likely earn something north of $1,500,000, potentially closer to $3,000,000 due to the free agent class being so weak this summer.
Now, in conclusion, these three players aren’t going to save the franchise and it’s also very possible that one or two of these guys fall off from their play this season. The Canucks aren’t going to find the perfect fit for their third line in free agency this season but they could end up finding a good piece as they continue to build towards becoming a playoff team.
Paying for leadership is a thought that has been thrown out the window but having some veteran NHLers join this group and help steer the ship in the right direction certainly wouldn’t hurt and these three names aren’t going to cost you an arm and a leg.
Which name do you think would be the best fit with the Canucks next season?
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