The 2021 UFA window opens in just over a week. NHL GMs are running out of time to make their preparations ahead of the off-season's most frenzied period. Fortunately, though, there are at least a few viable options whose values have been known around the league for quite some time.
Today’s blog will examine five centers aged 35-plus who could still very well be useful off-season additions. Why 35? Each UFA who signs past the age of 35 does so under slightly different conditions to their younger counterparts. You can read an explanation of the details at the wonderful capfriendly.com.
Here are the top 35+ UFA centers for 2021.
David Krejci – Boston Bruins
Having turned 35 on April 28, David Krejci barely qualifies for this list. So it should be unsurprising that he is also coming off by far the best offensive season of any of its members. The Czech center had 44 points in 51 games this past season; no other 35-plus UFA center had more than Paul Stastny’s 29.
The Boston Bruins drafted Krejci with their first of back-to-back picks at the tail end of the 2004 draft’s second round. He’s gone on to play 962 games – all for the B’s – and score 215 goals and 730 points in Black and Gold. The man Boston selected as a follow-up? Latvian right winger Martins Karsums, who played just 24 career games (six in Boston), picking up one goal and six points. Interestingly, Karsums would later be part of the trade that brought Mark Recchi to Boston in 2009. Recchi was a vital part of Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team, so Karsums had his utility. Of course, Krejci led that 2011 Bruins team in playoff scoring, with 23 points in 25 games, so it’s fair to say he had the measure of his fellow 2004 draftee there, too.
Krejci’s walk-year scoring was buoyed massively by the acquisition of fellow 2021 UFA Taylor Hall. The Bruins traded for Hall on April 12, at which point Krejci had two goals and 23 points in 35 games, with Boston having 17 games remaining. In the rest of the regular season after Hall’s acquisition, Krejci tied teammate Brad Marchand for third in NHL scoring, with six goals and 21 points in 16 games (Krejci and most other Bruins stars sat out the final regular-season game). Of the 21 points Krejci scored in that time, 16 came with Hall on the ice.
Don’t let that fool you though, Krejci is still capable in his own right. Playing second-line minutes for Boston between 2018-19 and ’19-20, Krejci still played to a 67-point pace while playing effective possession hockey.
The 6-foot, 188-pound center is coming off a six-year deal that paid him $7.25 million per season. He doesn’t carry that kind of value any longer, but he’s still a splendid second-line center. He probably stays in Beantown and should hit the 1000-game plateau with the Bruins midway through 2021-22.
(If Martins Karsums or another member of the Karsums clan is reading this, it’s important to point out Karsums' Moncton Wildcats did win the 2006 QMJHL championship, while Krejci's Gatineau Olympics were eliminated in the second round.)
Joe Thornton – Toronto Maple Leafs
After spending 15 seasons as a franchise pillar in San Jose, Joe Thornton departed Northern California in the 2020 off-season, signing a one-year, league-minimum ($700,000) deal to join the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 16, 2020. With the Leafs’ bevy of both high-end talent and overall depth at center, Thornton played primarily on the wing in 2020-21 – most commonly skating with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But Thornton has otherwise played the pivot position throughout his 23-year NHL career, so he finds his way onto this list.
The London, Ont. native celebrated his 42nd birthday on July 2 and is the second-oldest active NHLer, behind only 44-year-old Zdeno Chara. When the Bruins drafted Thornton first overall on June 21, 1997, Thornton’s 2020-21 linemate Mitch Marner was just over a month old; Auston Matthews was still nearly three months from being born.
But the generational gap didn’t rob the trio of on-ice chemistry (it seemed fine off the ice, too), as three of Thornton’s five goals and 13 of his 20 points in 2020-21 came with at least one of Matthews or Marner on the ice. Of those 20 points, 15 – including all five goals – came at even-strength. It makes sense, given Thornton averaged the third-fewest minutes of his career on the man advantage this past season, playing just under two minutes per game up a man.
The offense is unquestionably trending downward for Thornton. In the past three seasons, he scored 28 goals and 102 points in 187 games (12 goals, 45 points in an 82-game season), whereas in the three seasons before that, he scored 39 goals and 168 points in 208 games (15 goals, 66 points per 82 games). Hey, age comes for even the best of us. But Thornton is far from an on-ice liability. Of the 277 forwards to skate at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Thornton was solidly inside the top 20 percent in expected goals share (55.2 percent), Corsi (55.5 percent) and on-ice scoring chances (56.38 percent). And if you extend back a couple of seasons, though he does take a slight rankings hit, Thornton remains solidly in the black in each category, despite playing for a dismal Sharks team in 2019-20.
Thornton is still in pursuit of a maiden Stanley Cup ring; it’s the only thing he has left to chase in his career, after winning the 2006 Hart and Art Ross Trophies, being named a first- or second-team all-star four times and winning an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada on home ice in 2010.
Thornton missed 12 games in 2020-21 with injury and 35 regular-season games (plus 10 playoff games) after MCL surgery in 2017-18 but has otherwise held up well into his twilight NHL years.
The Leafs have already re-signed fellow greybeard center Jason Spezza to another one-year, league-minimum contract. So could Thornton’s role be redundant in Hogtown? Maybe, though the cap-crunched Leafs could certainly use another body on a cheap contract.
Paul Stastny – Winnipeg Jets
Stastny had 13 goals and 29 points in 56 games for Winnipeg in 2020-21, placing sixth among Jets forwards in scoring. He followed that up with one goal (an OT winner) and two points in six playoff games, missing the first two games of the second round with injury. The 15-year NHL veteran hit the 1000-game mark in Winnipeg’s penultimate contest. The offense has started to slow down, but he’s still a quality option. The 35-year-old is coming off a three-year, $19.5-million contract signed with Vegas in 2018.
Ryan Getzlaf – Anaheim Ducks
Getzlaf is a savvy veteran leader who plays effective playoff hockey. The massive pivot is 36 and on the downturn, but could be the final piece of the puzzle for a contending team. Getzlaf earned an AAV of $8.25 million in the past eight years. That'll come down. By a lot. He may want to stay with the Ducks, with whom he's played all 1101 career games.
Eric Staal – Montreal Canadiens
Staal quietly tied for fifth on the Habs in playoff scoring, though his 2020-21 season was an overall disappointment – both in Buffalo and Montreal. Hits UFA status a couple of months shy of his 37th birthday alongside younger brother Marc. Staal was effective for Minnesota between 2018-19 and '19-20.
Other 35+ UFA centers: Travis Zajac, Tyler Bozak, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nate Thompson