Going into the 2017-18 NHL season, the biggest question for the Predators is once again the team’s depth down the middle. It’s the same old story, but there’s some added poignancy this season—would better center depth have allowed the team to overcome the injury to Ryan Johansen and lift the Cup a week ago?
David Poile has expressed an interest in adding two forwards this offseason.
Poile: "Looking at it in my mind, I probably will be looking to maybe get two forwards in the offseason, possibly." #Preds— Brooks Bratten (@brooksbratten) June 20, 2017
Poile will obviously be looking to replace James Neal as well as upgrading the center position. While he may be planning to make one or more trades—Matt Duchene isn’t off the table yet—there are also forwards reaching unrestricted free agency this summer who Poile may be planning to target instead or as well. With the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance this year, and widespread media enthusiasm about Nashville as a hockey town, the Predators may be in the best place they’ve ever been to attract real talent in free agency.
Today, let’s take a look at three players who could be a fit on the second line.
Joe Thornton (C)
Thornton turns 38 this summer. He also underwent surgery after the Sharks’ elimination from the playoffs for a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. He is definitely a risk, and any contract offered to him should reflect that.
However, he’s also an elite playmaker. Despite scoring only seven goals this season (and only four of them on a manned net), Thornton added 43 assists to finish with 50 points. Thornton’s 43 assists would have put him second on the 2016-17 Predators, between Johansen’s 47 and Roman Josi’s 37.
Thornton’s playmaking abilities as tracked for the Passing Project for 2015-2017 are literally almost off the charts.
He’s in the 99th percentile of all forwards at primary shot assists (passes that directly lead to a shot), secondary and tertiary shot assists, and total passing. Despite how rarely he personally shoots, his playmaking has such a strong effect on his linemates’ play that he is also among the very best forwards in the league at making shots happen.
The fact that so much of his offense comes from his passing is hopeful. SBNation’s Eric T. looked at at aging curves and forward production in 2014. While Thornton will be near the very outer edge of Eric’s dataset at 38, the slower decline in assists looks both steady and encouraging.
Understandably, Thornton has had a positive influence on the Sharks’ shot rates. With him on the ice, the Sharks take more shots and give up fewer than they do without him. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Thornton led the team in relCF%, a stat that looks at how much better a team’s Corsi is with a player than without him, at 5v5, and was 29th in the league among all skaters playing at least 500 5v5 minutes. His on-ice CF% of 53.5 is extremely respectable.
He is in every respect except goalscoring, despite his age, currently still a superior first-line center.
(HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck.)
Thornton—a left-handed shot—can also win a faceoff. The lack of left-handed centers was one of Poile’s big concerns when he traded for Vern Fiddler. Thornton’s career FO% is 54.7, though it’s worth noting that this past season’s 50.8% was the lowest of his career.
If Thornton’s knee recovers (which the Sharks announce it’s expected to), and if he’s willing to take a modest contract and move across the country, he could be a great investment.
Martin Hanzal (C)
Hanzal, rented at the trade deadline by the Minnesota Wild, may be looking for a new team. The former Arizona Coyote turned 30 this winter but has never played a full NHL season. In fact, he’s only missed fewer than ten games twice in his ten-year career, playing 81 games in 2009-10 and 39 games in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
However, when he’s been healthy enough to play, he has played well.
Hanzal has consistently produced at respectable second-line rates, putting up about 1.4 primary points (goals and primary assists) per hour over the last three years. On an offense-starved team like the Coyotes, that’s noteworthy. The team shot from better locations with Hanzal, as seen in this image from HockeyViz.com:
Without Hanzal, they were not able to reach the front of the net at all. He was moving the needle for the Coyotes, but struggling to move it much. His shot maps on a much deeper Wild team are too patchy with only a quarter-season’s worth of data to draw solid conclusions from, but in those 20 games the team looked great offensively and defensively with him.
Like Thornton, Hanzal is a left-handed shot with good faceoff numbers, which meets a need Poile has identified. Unlike Thornton, Hanzal has played at all strengths for his teams and could be used on the penalty kill.
It would be interesting to see what Hanzal could do with a team like the Predators. He is a well-rounded offensive player, possibly bordering on first-line quality.
He’s a good passer and setup player, but will also shoot. Playing on a team with more depth, and setting up wingers like Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith—or being set up by players like Fiala, Josi, or P.K. Subban—he might be able to get the points to match his potential.
On a bad team, Hanzal still looks like a superior-quality 2C.
I’d like to see what he can do with a good one.
Sam Gagner (C)
Sam Gagner has bounced around a lot since ending his time in Edmonton. The 27-year-old has played for a new team every year since then—the Coyotes, when they were tanking for McDavid; the Flyers, in a season he missed almost 30 games of; and, most recently, the Blue Jackets. He was part of the absolutely devastating PP1 unit that helped carry the Blue Jackets during their 16-game win streak and kept up its effectiveness throughout the season, and, even more excitingly, Gagner’s role was to go to the front of the net and shoot the puck.
Good things happen when you do that on the power play, and Gagner has been a power-play specialist for a while.
Gagner was also an extremely solid player at even strength for the Blue Jackets, centering a line that got to the front of the net regularly while keeping the opponent away from the front of the net. He had great relative possession numbers and a CF% of 54.1 while scoring at a first-line rate (18-32–50 in under fourteen minutes a game).
Looking only at Gagner’s most recent season, he’d be a fantastic player to target. But unlike Thornton and Hanzal, Gagner’s success doesn’t have years of similar play to back it up.
He’s had positive shot impacts since leaving Edmonton, but never the production to go with them. He only shot at 10.1% this year, barely above his career average of 9.8% and identical to his seven-season average as an Oiler, but something about his career year still feels off. His 50 points were a career high; his 13:43 a night a career low. In years given first-line minutes he never quite matched this, and over the last two years he hasn’t given the kind of on-ice performance that could be expected to produce sustained high-level scoring.
Gagner’s play as analyzed by the Passing Project suggests he’s a borderline second/third line player, probably edging into second line territory. He’s well-rounded but not amazing.
His HERO chart suggests he’s stronger than the typical 2C in some respects, primarily shot generation, but weaker in goalscoring and with average defense. Even in a best-case scenario he is very unlikely to be able to carry a second first line.
More worryingly, the Coyotes’ concerns about his play at center eventually led to his being traded to the Flyers. Faceoffs, not play after the faceoff, seem to have been the primary concern. This season in Columbus Gagner spent part of the season on a line with the rookie Lukas Sedlak, who is listed as a center, but the rest of the season he did spend with players listed only as wingers.
Gagner is likely to want more than a GM can safely pay. At the right price, he’d be a gamble that might work out for the Predators next year like it did for the Blue Jackets this year. At the wrong price, he could be an expensive mistake.