Ranking the 2012 UFA class: Centers

Unrestricted free agency opens on Sunday afternoon with a class of free agents widely considered to be shallow in terms of overall talent. However, there is a small group of elite players at the top of this year’s class that will surely break the bank before any fireworks are lit on July 4.

This is the first of a three-part list ranking the available top 10-15 free agents, by position, based on how popular they will be amongst teams on July 1. Each player will have a short summary beside their names and those I see being a possible target for the Sabres will get a little more attention. Part one will cover the centers.

Olli Jokinen – Age: 33 – 11-12 team: Calgary – 11-12 Cap Hit: $3,000,000

Aside from goaltenders, center is the thinnest position in this year’s class. Jokinen is probably the most offensively gifted center in the class, but is probably looking at limited options. Depending on what teams are looking for, he could be due a little competition. He won’t be back in Calgary, which means the market just got one more skilled addition.

Jason Arnott – Age: 37 – 11-12 team: St. Louis – 11-12 Cap Hit: $2,875,000

Arnott had a respectable season with St. Louis last year, filling an offensive role without being a go-to guy at center. At 37 his intangibles and experience probably offer more than he will over 82 games, but you could still count on 15-20 goals in the right situation. Arnott could be a potential target for Buffalo to bring a bit more experience to a young locker room while filling a role on the third line behind Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis. I could see him being counted on for a solid two-way game if he signs in Buffalo.

Paul Gaustad – Age: 30 – 11-12 team: Buffalo/Nashville – 11-12 Cap Hit: $2,300,000

Told you this was a weak position. Gaustad became a hot commodity in Buffalo because girls think he is cute. Then he started blocking shots and winning faceoffs and other teams took notice. Those hoping he comes back to Buffalo may not want to hold their breath. While he would be a good fit back on the third line, I doubt he takes a hometown discount to return to the Sabres. Gaustad is probably looking at some offers in the 2.85-3 range in terms of a cap hit, that is a little too rich for what he brings to the table.

Dominic Moore – Age: 31 – 11-12 team: Tampa Bay/San Jose – 11-12 Cap Hit: $1,100,000

Moore is an interesting case as he may be looking to stay with San Jose after his wife fell ill recently. He is in a difficult position in his personal life and probably isn’t looking to delve into the UFA market. That being said, if he does explore his options, there will be plenty of teams looking for a defensively responsible center like him.

Jochen Hecht – Age: 35 – 11-12 team: Buffalo – 11-12 Cap Hit: $3,525,000

A player whose injury concerns have cropped up at a very inopportune time, Hecht is probably staring a pay cut square in the face. With lingering concussion symptoms cutting his 2011-12 season short, I wonder how many teams will take a look at him. He does possess some valuable traits, the question will be which teams are willing to invest.

Zenon Konopka – Age: 31 – 11-12 team: Ottawa – 11-12 Cap Hit: $700,000

Konopka has carved out a very nice niche for himself in the NHL. As a gritty forward willing to fight, he has proven to be quite effective in the faceoff circle and as a defensive-minded center. He won’t produce much offense but will win a ton of draws, lay body checks and make your team much tougher to play against. I can see Konopka as a great option for Buffalo simply because he does everything Paul Gaustad does for $1,500,000 less.

Jeff Halpern – Age: 36 – 11-12 team: Washington – 11-12 Cap Hit: $825,000

Halpern was a healthy scratch for a number of games with the Capitals down the stretch last season. He has become little more than a faceoff specialist over the past few seasons. Halpern could potentially find a team who can give him a defensive role with limited ice time. I like Halpern for the Sabres based on his prowess at the dot. I wonder how effective he would be with any more than nine minutes of ice each night, however.

Kyle Wellwood – Age: 29 – 11-12 team: Winnipeg – 11-12 Cap Hit: $700,000

Wellwood is a curious case, mainly because he still has some offensive chops lurking within him. He is a tweener due to his size, but has the versatility to play wing if need be. I wouldn’t expect Wellwood to see a hike in salary or to be pursued by very many suitors.

Ryan Carter – Age: 28 – 11-12 team: New Jersey – 11-12 Cap Hit: $750,000

The ceiling for Carter is quite limited. He won’t fill more than a third or fourth line role. However, he effectiveness in the Devils’ run to the Stanley Cup Final will certainly cause a few teams to give him a call.

Jesse Winchester – Age: 28 – 11-12 team: Ottawa – 11-12 Cap Hit: $750,000

Like Carter, Winchester doesn’t have the potential to fill a top-six role. However, he is capable of playing both ways and killing penalties. He plays with a little jam and, as a relatively young player, offers a bit more than a guy like Halpern might.

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