The Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild have very lucrative jobs up for grabs – both in reality as well as in fantasy hockey. The job available? No.1 center. It’s anyone’s guess who will line up at center ice when the puck drops to start the season for those teams, but if you managed to secure him late in your draft…hoping…then you will likely hit the jackpot.
This is the second straight season for those teams in that position, but it seems as if the options are even more intriguing this time around. As an aside - you could also add the Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes to this list, but it is quite clear at this point that they are going with Shawn Horcoff and Peter Mueller respectively.
In Atlanta, the solution last year was to throw Niko Kapanen, Steve Rucchin, Bobby Holik, Jason Krog and Glen Metropolit out there and hope that one of them winds up clicking with Ilya Kovalchuk while another one clicks with Marian Hossa. The result? Kapanen played himself onto the first flight to Phoenix, Rucchin missed most of the season with a concussion, Holik played the Holik plays (i.e. like a third liner), while Krog and Metropolit proved to be a little too inconsistent to warrant even second-line ice time. Slava Kozlov was moved to center where he worked even more magic with Hossa, but Kovalchuk suffered through a miserable season by his standards.
This year, the Thrashers landed Todd White, who will play with his old Ottawa linemate Hossa, while Kozlov moves back to the left wing, where the team is more comfortable with him. Kovalchuk, however, is still in the same boat. The sniper needs a setup man. The candidates are Holik (again), Rucchin (again), Eric Perrin and Bryan Little.
Dobber’s Take: The Holik thing has been tried time and again. It didn’t work before and it won’t work now. Rucchin will probably retire from his concussion problems, but even if he doesn’t he is too fragile to hold the No.1 spot for long. Perrin has shown offensive talent at other levels and in Tampa Bay last season he had more than a point every two games in the second half. If he lands the plum role, he could potentially surprise with his big numbers. However, I see a lot of Metropolit in him – as in, he will win the job and put up points in spurts, but will be yanked off it too frequently to mount any significant momentum. Little is close to being ready for the NHL this year. He is also signed to an entry-level deal, which doesn’t necessarily mean he has a job locked up, but it helps. Give Little the inside track for the role and if he does get it you can expect him to contend for the Calder Trophy.
In Columbus, the options are Sergei Fedorov (again), Gilbert Brule, Dan Fritsche, Geoff Platt and Kris Beech (believe it or not).
Dobber’s Take: Fedorov’s 42 points just doesn’t cut it for the job. Besides, he’s been moonlighting as a defenseman lately. Pencil him in on the second line. Fritsche excelled last year under Ken Hitchcock, but as a right winger. Don’t expect that to change this season. Brule showed tremendous improvement over the last 25 games of the season, but he’s probably not ready to take the leap necessary. Beech got off to a great start in Washington and he has already proven to be better than the AHL. But much like my Metropolit example, he is too inconsistent and at the age of 26 it may be too late to hope for great things from the former centerpiece of a Jaromir Jagr trade. That leaves Platt, my pick for the job. A dark horse to say the least, in that he has been all over the depth chart according to different experts, ranging from fifth-line left winger to third line right winger. He can line up at any forward position, he has improved with every NHL game and he was recalled on February 27 and was on the team to stay from that point on. He makes a high-risk/high-reward selection.
In Minnesota, there are three options. The first one is the status quo – keep Pavol Demitra at center with Marion Gaborik on the right side and Branko Radivojevic on the left. The second option is to insert newly acquired Eric Belanger into center and push Radivojevic to the third line where he belongs. The final option is to throw 19-year-old James Sheppard into the fire.
Dobber’s Take: A fourth option, Mikko Koivu, is best suited on the second or third line…but so is Belanger. Both would be an upgrade to Radivojevic, but I don’t think the Wild will go with any of the three. I think they will give Sheppard a long look in camp. He has already played extremely well in development camp and the team is already penciling him onto the roster. If he makes the team and gets that opportunity, he will join what is becoming a long list of players who will compete for the rookie-of-the-year honors.