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NHL Free Agency: Top 5 Centers Still Available

Let's take a look at the five best middle men still available on the NHL's free agent market.
Nazem Kadri

The calendar is rapidly approaching August, and a number of key free agents are still out there for the taking. 

A good chunk of them happens to be centers, too. 

In a league that values that position so highly, it's peculiar to see so many names without homes this deep into the offseason. Who are the best remaining options and where could they land? 

Let's take a look. 

Nazem Kadri 

2021-22 Stat Line: 71 GP, 28 goals, 59 assists, 87 points, 19:14 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $4,500,000

What else is there to say? Kadri is the best player on the market by a country mile, having gained that title the very second Johnny Gaudreau signed in Columbus on day one of free agency. 

There are risks with handing him a long-term deal, of course. They've been debated for ages. 

Kadri will be 32 by the time the regular season kicks off in October and only just produced like a top-line player over a full year for the first time in his career. Was his 115-point pace explosion in 2021-22 a representation of Kadri's full potential or simply the benefits of playing on a stacked Avalanche squad? 

That's a question any inquiring team will have to answer for themselves. 

Regardless, Kadri has always been an effective top-six center even before his true breakthrough with 30-goal potential and defensive acumen to spare. There are 32 teams in the NHL that could use someone like that. Get it done. 

Paul Stastny

2021-22 Stat Line: 71 GP, 21 goals, 24 assists, 45 points, 17:46 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $3,750,000

If Kadri doesn't end up returning to Denver like everyone already assumes, there's another two-way center waiting in the wings for a reunion in the Rockies. 

Sure, Stastny finds himself on the back nine of his career at this point, getting set to celebrate his 37th birthday at the midway mark of the 2022-23 season. But the veteran still has plenty left in the tank even at his advanced age, projecting to remain a play-driving contributor down the middle who possesses more than enough offensive pop for his role and can reduce chances in his own end, too. 

What more could you want for an Avs team navigating life (potentially) without Kadri? 

Even amidst a turbulent Jets season, Stastny still managed to tilt the ice in a positive direction whenever he happened to step on it, generating individual expected goal and scoring chance shares of 53.05 percent and 52.71 percent at even-strength, respectively. Couple that with his typical 20-goal, 45-point output, and Stastny was his same old dependable self last season, continuing to impact the game at both ends of the ice as a solid veteran leader. 

On a one-year deal at around $3 million or so, Stastny would fit seamlessly in the Avs' lineup that could then allow J.T. Compher to ease into the second-line center role he seems destined for. 

It just makes too much sense, really. Make it happen! If not, there's still enough teams that would benefit from Stastny's services.

Evan Rodrigues

2021-22 Stat Line: 82 GP, 19 goals, 24 assists, 43 points 15:50 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,000,000

What a meteoric rise for Rodrigues in 2021-22. 

It took Rodrigues just one full season to evolve from a run-of-the-mill bottom-six seat-filler with few intriguing traits to a bonafide middle-six center destined to triple his most recent paycheck. 

He's earned it, frankly. 

When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed the entire first month of last season with respective injuries, Rodrigues helped keep the Penguins afloat up front in their absence, taking on his first taste of top-six usage and looking wholly comfortable in the role. 

Even when Crosby came back in November, Rodrigues continued to hold down the fort in the middle of the lineup until Malkin returned in January, going on a tear for the first 40-ish games that completely changed his standing within the organization. 

Whereas Rodrigues was nothing but a cap-centric throw-in to make the salaries work in the trade that sent Kasperi Kapanen back to Pittsburgh in 2020, his absence is now set to leave a gaping hole in the Penguins' lineup in the event he doesn't come back -- which, given the club's cap situation, seems more likely by the day. 

Teams have now seen what Rodrigues can do as a top-six player. He's a known commodity now, and could seemingly command something in the realm of $3-3.5 million per year on a four-year deal. 

Once Kadri's impending contract re-sets the market, don't be shocked to see Rodrigues sign soon after. 

Sam Gagner 

2021-22 Stat Line: 81 GP, 13 goals, 18 assists, 31 points, 13:37 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $750,000

Gagner has been around for so long that it's easy to miscast him as a Jason Spezza-type greybeard. But Gagner will only be 33 when the regular season begins in a few months' time, four years younger than Spezza was when he first signed in Toronto, and seems to have plenty of tread left on his tires after 15 NHL seasons. 

Despite logging under 14 minutes per night on a bad Red Wings team in 2021-22, Gagner still managed to rack up over 30 points and nearly 15 goals all while beginning just 41 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, providing terrific value as a depth forward making the NHL's minimum wage. 

Who knows what he could do in different circumstances? Perhaps with a better supporting cast around him and the benefit of some offensively-sheltered usage, Gagner could the perfect addition to any contender's fourth line as they gear up for a Cup run. 

There's simply no risk in giving him a shot. And I'd bet as training camp roles around, Gagner finds himself on the receiving end of a few intriguing offers. 

Johan Larsson 

2021-22 Stat Line: 43 GP, 7 goals, 14 assists, 21 points, 15:54 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,400,000

If you're looking for offense, Larsson is not going to give it to you. But what the 30-year-old can give you is an effective defensive center, someone who can start nearly 70 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone and still drive possession at around a 50 percent clip. 

That type of role has value in the modern NHL, a reality that made Larsson a hot commodity at this past season's trade deadline and is sure to land him a shiny new deal ahead of training camp. 

As is the case with four out of the five members on this list, Larsson's free agency is currently being held up by Kadri's still-pending decision, with teams not wanting to commit money to any veteran at the moment in the event it ruins their odds of signing him. 

Once Kadri lands somewhere, though, (he has to at some point, right?) you better believe Larsson will come off the board in a flash. A contending team in need of defensive reinforcement and a skilled penalty killer could do far worse than make him an offer. 

All we have to do now is wait. 

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