Senators 2021 Free Agent Targets: Centremen

The Ottawa Senators have a lot of positives that they can take from this season. Regardless of where they finished in the Scotia North division standings, they had a strong finish, and the future core players had promising results. We can hope that those players like Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, and Drake Batherson continue to take strides into next season, but expecting a repeat from them might be premature and frankly unrealistic.

It’s fantastic to see that the Senators most likely have found the next generation of young talent in the organization alongside Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk, but now the next step in the process to becoming a contender is to build around them. This is usually done through the draft, and the Sens still have many pieces in their system yet to debut, like Jake Sanderson, Ridly Grieg, and Egor Sokolov, to name a few, but in the meantime, the voids in the lineup can be filled through trades and free agency.

Ottawa Senators Pierre Dorion
Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

The Seattle Kraken expansion draft has yet to happen, so teams will probably stay away from trade talks until their rosters receive a shake-up as a result. However, free agency gives us a chance to really examine what’s available right now and who the Senators should be looking at signing if they want to improve going into next season. Today we will look at three centremen that Ottawa should target once free agency begins.

Paul Stastny

It may appear that the Senators have some potential depth down the middle already, but it’s unfair to assume that Norris, Colin White, Shane Pinto and Chris Tierney will all have good if not great seasons next year. The Senators have plans to play Stützle in the middle, but I don’t think that will come to fruition next season. While they wait, there’s a veteran available that might be a perfect fit.

The centre ice position is one that should not be overlooked in the NHL as the general consensus is that the centreman is the most important position on the ice so having someone who can play in a variety of different situations is crucial. A name that stands out for this description is Paul Stastny. At 35-years-old, age isn’t affecting Stastny as much as it would other veteran players in the league.

Paul Stastny Winnipeg Jets
Paul Stastny, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Stastny has played for four different franchises in the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche drafted him 44th overall in 2005 and he spent the next eight seasons with the Avs recording 458 points in 538 games. After leaving Colorado, he went on to play for the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets (on two separate occasions) and the Vegas Golden Knights. In 2018, he left Winnipeg for Vegas in free agency but was ultimately re-acquired by the Jets as Vegas was looking to shed some dollars and Winnipeg tried to bolster the centre position for a Cup run. The talks surrounding the Jets and Stastny this time around have gone quiet and he’s indicated he’s in no rush to sign a deal, wherever that may be.

“Whatever happens, I’ll probably just take my time away with it. Now that I’m older, options are probably more limited but you have an idea of what’s best for me, what’s best for my family. With the expansion draft and everything that’s going on, teams are going to be busy trying to figure that stuff out. When it comes to dealing with my agent and my old man, we kind of all sit there together and figure it out. We’ll be patient about it. There’s no rush,”

– Paul Stastny (from ‘JETS SNAPSHOTS: Veteran Stastny has ‘nothing but good things’ to say about Jets, but in no rush to figure out next contract’ Winnipeg Sun, 10/06/21)

Stastny went on to continue to say that having a chance to win is something that’s always at the forefront of his decision. While the Senators may not be atop the list of winning teams to go to, I still believe that they are just a few pieces away from being competitive. That might be a reach considering how I mentioned initially that it’s unfair to expect another big step from the top players. Still, if they are surrounded by the right kind of guys, every scenario is on the table.

The uncertainty of which White or Tierney you’re going to get on a nightly basis, how Pinto performs in a full season, or which rookie will step up next (if any) all are reasons why the Sens should pursue someone like Stastny. They currently have a projected $28 million in cap space for starters, so there’s more than enough cash to spend (even with Tkachuk signing long-term). I would assume he would still be looking for a deal that’s around three years, given his age and veteran status.

Vegas Golden Knights Reilly Smith Paul Stastny
Vegas Golden Knights Reilly Smith celebrates with Paul Stastny (AP Photo/John Locher)

If the dollars make sense, and I am projecting Stastny would be asking for something around the ballpark of $5 million as the average annual value over three years, then the Senators should be willing to pay for him. He has been a part of a winning culture in more than one franchise, he can play almost anywhere in the lineup, including the power play, and he would be a perfect voice and leader on and off the ice. The age once again doesn’t concern me as Stastny has been pretty consistent over the course of his NHL career but what does raise my eyebrow is his inability to stay healthy. Even still, I think it would be worth the risk and the reward could be twofold.

Phillip Danault

The Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of a Cup run, so signing their unrestricted free agents probably isn’t at the forefront of Marc Bergevin’s mind at the moment. However, the time will come when he has to decide, and one of them is on Phillip Danault. Assuming that the Canadiens will be tight for cash even though they currently have a projected $10.6 million in cap space, there are some other contracts that are about to expire or will be expiring in a few years that should be of more importance to them.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen headline the list of their restricted free agents going into next season. With Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans and Alexander Romanov in 2022, I believe that’s where the Canadiens should be focused and Danault could fall overboard. Not to mention that if Cole Caufield continues this pace when his entry-level deal expires at the end of the 2022-23 season, then they will already be strapped for cash. The 28-year-old from Victoriaville, Quebec, is coming off of his third NHL contract and will probably be looking to make a little more this time around, given his role and importance during the Canadiens’ Cup run.

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That would be the make-or-break factor in Danault resigning in Montreal. If the Habs do, in fact, want to keep Danault, the dollar amount will be what makes the difference, in my opinion. He will be coming off a three-year deal with an AAV of $3,083,333 million. I’m not saying Danault should be making more or less than what he currently is bringing in, but if a team like Ottawa is interested, a $4 million price tag could probably entice him to lean towards the nation’s capital and would make the Habs think long and hard about it.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His offensive numbers won’t jump off the page, but his intangible value is what I’m looking at. For starters, he’s a minute muncher and was 3rd among Canadiens forwards this season, only trailing Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli. He held the highest Faceoff percentage (FO%) at 52.5 and is a fantastic penalty killer. His toughness and heart are among the best in the league, he can offer some insurance on a team like Ottawa with so many younger players on the roster as he can play virtually anywhere.

Mikael Granlund

Another name on the list of upcoming free agent centremen is Mikael Granlund. Having spent most of his career to date with the team that drafted him, the Minnesota Wild (9th overall, 2010 draft), Granlund has spent the last two and a half seasons with the Nashville Predators and is once again looking for a new contract. In August of 2017, he signed a three-year, $17.25 million deal with the Wild but was traded to the Predators at the 2019 trade deadline with one year remaining on his deal.

Mikael Granlund Nashville Predators
Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

After finishing the remainder of the season in Nashville, where he had just one goal in 16 games, the Preds hoped that the final one on his contract would be different. Granlund was able to tally 30 points in 63 games the following season before the pandemic cut it short, but strangely enough, he could only secure a one-year, $3.75 million deal for 2020-21. Obviously, the ripple effect from the pandemic and its financial strains on owners and teams might have something to do with it, but Granlund seems like a player you would want to lock in. In any case, he is a proven 20+ goal scorer in the NHL the Senators should make an offer on.

The Preds should be willing to re-sign Granlund, but there’s no clear direction that general manager David Poile wants to go in. He had a great season of chemistry playing alongside Calle Jarnkrok and Luke Kunin on the second line, however, the Preds have other issues on hand. With about $18.6 million in cap space, Poile has decisions on Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg, who both have one year remaining on their contracts and then goaltenders Pekka Rinne (UFA) and Juuse Saros (RFA) who will be looking for deals right now. We can’t predict the future, but Rinne most likely will move on, considering the rise of Saros and Yaroslav Askarov waiting in the wings.

Mikael Granlund Nashville Predators
Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This season Granlund was one of the bigger names mentioned in the rumour mill around the trade deadline. It was believed that teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers were very interested, so he might be inclined to test the market knowing the Preds were already likely to move on from him. If the Senators pursue Granlund, he’d automatically assume a second-line centre position like the aforementioned Stastny and Danault would. A deal somewhere in the neighborhood of four years at a $4.5 million AAV makes sense.

Final Word

All three of these centremen seem like a great fit for the Senators. No one expects Norris to be replaced on the first line since he, Tkachuk and Batherson were phenomenal all season. A quality, reliable number two is what they should focus on for 2021-22. The Sens are hopeful that Pinto or Stützle will eventually slide into that role, but they are, at the very least, a full season or two away from even competing for that spot. White and Tierney have a better chance at taking the position, but even then, neither of those players are viable options if they want to be competitive in the Atlantic Division next season.

White had a great second half to his season, but he has largely been at the forefront of criticism due to his inconsistent play as a Senator and there are better options available on the market. I think White as a third-line centre might be a better role and he’s also a good trade chip if they decide to go that route. It will be interesting to see what general manager Pierre Dorion does leading up to the expansion draft and shortly thereafter.