By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers need a center and have plenty of options to get one.
Once the free agent signing period opens at noon on Saturday, it will be interesting to see which direction general manager Jeff Gorton goes.
Thanks to the trade that sent Derek Stepan to Arizona last week, Mika Zibanejad is now the club’s current No. 1 center, with Kevin Hayes next on the depth chart. At the moment, the Rangers possess only those two natural centers on their roster. J.T. Miller has played his best hockey on the wing and it’s unclear whether the plan is to move him back to center on a full-time basis.
Should Miller continue to be deployed on the wing, the Rangers, due to the Stepan trade and Vegas poaching Oscar Lindberg in the expansion draft, have two spots to fill down the middle. Matt Puempel and 23-year-old prospect Cristoval “Boo” Nieves could figure into the competition for fourth-line center, but the Rangers are going to need to acquire a second- or third-line center and someone for the fourth line if Miller remains on the wing.
My educated guess is that head coach Alain Vigneault will keep Miller right where he is on the wing and the Rangers will need to fill their openings. Here’s a look at free agent centers who could be on Gorton’s radar:
Thornton will turn 38 on July 2. Age and last season’s dip in production haven’t stopped the six-time All-Star from getting calls from a large number of teams around the league during the free agent interview period. That said, he’s going to have plenty of options to stay in California. In addition to possibly returning to the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks could be appealing.
The former Art Ross Trophy winner posted an atypical 50 points in 79 games last season. His career points per game is 0.96. Few centers have enjoyed more productive careers than Thornton and even fewer can match his vision and puck control.
Thornton is seeking a multi-year deal and could command an average-annual value of $6 million. Of course, the Rangers would love to have Thornton, but they have several needs to fill and they’re a team that’s trending younger. One factor that could help the Rangers’ pitch to Thornton is the opportunity of having close friend and former HC Davos teammate Rick Nash on his wing.
The 37-year-old has spent his entire 19-year career in San Jose. Marleau’s name has been linked to the Rangers in the past. The Blueshirts scouted Marleau when trade rumors swirled in 2015. Marleau will have another birthday before opening night. Age is a concern, but he still possesses good speed and is the kind of consistent goal scorer the Rangers have lacked since Marian Gaborik called Madison Square Garden home.
If the Rangers are looking for championship pedigree, Bonino ticks that box as a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning Penguins. The 29-year-old is not expected to re-sign with Pittsburgh and is reportedly looking for a long-term contract at about $4 million AAV.
Bonino is a solid, all-around center and has been a big-time contributor to Pittsburgh’s penalty-killing prowess. A fine special-teamer, Bonino notched six power play goals and five power play assists last season. To me, $4 million AAV seems like a bargain, given his special teams value and 37-point production.
Gagner’s stock is on the rise after he posted a career-best 50 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He would be a nice fit on the Rangers’ second line and as a right-handed power play shooter. He’s a strong even-strength point-getter and could give the Blueshirts’ middling man advantage a significant boost. The 27-year-old recorded eight power play goals and 10 power play assists last season. His strengths aren’t on the defensive side of the puck, but that weakness could be minimized with the right set of linemates.
Boyle is looking for term and there’s a strong possibility of him ending up back with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 32-year-old was part of a possession-strong fourth line that devoured tough minutes during the Rangers’ run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. The 6-foot-6 center is going to have plenty of offers from teams looking to add one of the league’s best defensive centers.
Hanzal recorded a career-high 20 goals in split duty with the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild last season. If the Rangers are looking for a big-bodied, two-way center who excels at the faceoff dot, Boyle and 30-year-old Hanzal are solid options.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey