Seven centers who could move this summer – and where they’ll end up

Joe Thornton

It’s an unusual year for centers. When you build a team these days, this is a position you really need to be strong in. The Kings are deep down the middle, just as the Hawks were when they won and the Bruins in 2011. It’s a key spot on the depth chart, so when you get a good center, you tend to want to hang on to him.

This summer, though, there are more than a few pivots who are potentially available. Whether it’s by trade or free agent signing, if you’re looking to fill a center spot on your roster, there are actually options this off-season. They’re not all equal, but they’re all available.

Here is a look at seven centers your team may be able to acquire this summer and the most likely destination for each.

Jason Spezza: He’s already requested a trade and since he’s one year away from unrestricted free agency, he’ll be gone somewhere this summer. Where is the most likely landing spot for the Senator? Even though I think Ryan Kesler is the better fit in Anaheim, I think the Ducks are the most likely destination for Spezza. They’re in the West, well away from Ottawa, and they have piles of young assets with which to barter. Exactly what the Sens need. The Ducks have a pile of cap space and it’s no secret they are going to chase after a second line center this off-season. A 1-2 punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Spezza would make up one of the better playmaking center combos in the league.

Joe Thornton: A lot could happen in San Jose this summer and Thornton has been at the forefront of those rumors. A superior playmaker and solid possession player, Thornton may be 35 at the start of next season, but he’s coming off a 76-point year. He’s also got a fresh new three-year contract kicking in that, inconveniently for the Sharks, has a no-movement clause. So even if you did want to trade Thornton, you’d have to do it on his terms – and he’s not likely going to want to go to a team that won’t win the Cup in the next three years. The Sharks committed to Thornton and Patrick Marleau when they re-signed them this season. If a big shake up is what needs to happen in San Jose, GM Doug Wilson should explore trade options for Brent Burns and even Joe Pavelski first. But Big Joe needs to stay for a ton of reasons, not least of which is that the market would be narrow. Most likely destination for Thornton? Right back in San Jose.

Ryan Kesler: He hasn’t been the same player he was in 2010-11, but Kesler is still a lethal, ferocious center if you’re acquiring him for the second or even third line. With better linemates, on a better team, he would have had a better scoring season too. Kesler is a great target for a team that is one or two players away from really challenging hard for the Stanley Cup. And while I think Anaheim is a nice fit for him, it’s probably more likely he gets shipped to the Eastern Conference. The Penguins were after him at the trade deadline and now that they have to make some adjustments this summer, look for them to touch base with the Canucks again. Part of me believes he’ll start next season in Vancouver and be traded during the season, but my most likely landing spot for Kesler is Pittsburgh.

Paul Stastny: He’s coming off a deal that paid him $6.6 million against the salary cap, but is he worth that? There’s a sense that while Stastny likes Colorado and wants to stay, the team wants to sign him at a pay cut.

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Stastny logged 79 points in 2009-10, but has hovered around 60 ever since. Still, he’s one of the best possession players the Avs have and he doesn’t get many favorable zone starts. He is also the top faceoff option on the team. There’s value that would be missed there without Stastny, who would fare very well on the open market. Colorado has $25.9 million in cap space with four RFAs to re-sign. One of those is Ryan O’Reilly, who was taken to club-elected arbitration. Does the team have a better long-term relationship with the 28-year-old Stastny? Is O’Reilly the more likely of the two to move on this summer? The Avs like Stastny and Stastny likes the Avs – and the team has the cap room to keep him. Expect the negotiation process to pick up in short order. And look for Stastny to stay with Colorado for 2014-15 and beyond.

Sam Gagner: An annual trade candidate, this appears to be the summer it finally happens. The Oilers, again, not only failed to live up to expectations, but they didn’t even really improve. The current core needs some kind of a shift, but don’t expect any of their recent first-rounders to be used as the trade bait to bring about that change. Gagner is the guy and he’s been linked to Columbus and R.J. Umberger (although that move doesn’t make a ton of sense to me). It could be that he lands in a destination that loses out on Ryan Kesler or Jason Spezza, or he could be one of the first to go on draft day, to a team that may find Spezza’s contract too expensive and Kesler’s body too banged-up. Could Gagner be a piece the Florida Panthers find interesting in a larger deal for the first overall pick? Right now Gagner is a center, but given his defensive liabilities and Florida’s decent young strength down the middle (Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad), the Panthers could acquire him to play wing. After they sign their RFAs, the Panthers may still be slightly below the salary cap floor and acquiring Gagner would bring them above it. They wouldn’t try to acquire him for just that reason, but he’s a good target for them as a player if the price is right. Better than overpaying for a UFA anyway. Most likely destination for Gagner: Florida.

Mike Richards: His off-season conditioning habits have been under fire recently and Richards isn’t the same driver he was when he scored 23 points in 23 post-season games with the Flyers in 2010. A $5.75 million cap hit for an 11-goal scorer is very high, never mind he’s on the books for six more seasons. The thing is, the Kings don’t have to buy him out to work around the salary cap. They have about $13 million in cap space with RFA Dwight King to re-sign, and potentially UFAs Marian Gaborik, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. They won’t struggle to bring the championship team back. And Richards still has value the Kings can squeeze out of a trade if they no longer want him. Simply buying him out and making him a free agent means rivals Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis or any other Cup contender could take a run at him – and you better believe they would. I don’t think this situation calls for a buyout and with so much term left on Richards’ deal, this may not be the best summer to trade him either. The most likely destination for Mike Richards is Los Angeles.

Brad Richards: It’s not official yet, but the sense is Brad Richards’ days with the Rangers are nearly over. If he’s not bought out, it would be a huge shock. By the end of the Stanley Cup final, Richards had become a fourth line player with the Rangers and he’s certainly no longer the UFA target he was in 2011. I’m not sure Brad Richards is the right fit as a second line center for a team with legit Cup hopes (like Anaheim in their search for a two-center), but he could still be a decent and fairly productive contributor for a team that needs help down the middle. After all, he did register 31 assists this season. Richards should be much more affordable on his next deal, and therefore a more palatable option for teams that watch what they spend. There are plenty of potential destinations for this player, depending on how much of a bidding war there is and how high that drives up the price. When Richards signed on with the Rangers in 2011, he talked about wanting to play in the East because it was easier for his family to watch his games. Assuming that preference is still true, I’ll eliminate all West teams right off the bat (though Dallas intrigues me). Well, how about New Jersey? It’s close to his current destination, it’s been a good place for veterans to get back on their feet and, well, the Lou Lamoriello factor can never be dismissed. If they can grab him for a short term, my destination for Brad Richards is New Jersey. (Honorable mention to Washington.)

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