Puck Daddy - NHL

(Ed. Note: In the coming days, we'll be taking a look at the unrestricted free agent crop for each position, because the old-boys network in the NHL prevents us from having real fun with restricted free agents.)

Just like on left wing, there's one big-ticket star unrestricted free-agent player at center that should be coveted by the rest of the NHL. Unless, of course, Patrick Marleau(notes) has already re-signed with the San Jose Sharks as you read this, thus completely ruining our fun.

The UFA center crop features some dynamic offensive players that would solidify a second line and some lower-line grunts that can be the difference between contending for a Stanley Cup and winning one. There are also some preposterously overpaid players who you'd only welcome on your team after a significant pay cut. One of who may or may not be named "Olli."

Here are 10 UFA center that, should your team sign them, shouldn't ruin your week.

1. Patrick Marleau (2009-10 Cap Hit: $6.3 million)

Last summer, the popular opinion was that Marleau would have to take a pay cut when he went unrestricted, after following up his 38-goal season with an underwhelming playoffs and getting his captaincy taken away by the San Jose Sharks.

Then came a 44-goal, 39-assist season followed by an outstanding postseason: 8 goals and 5 assists in 14 games, which is pretty much superhuman for a Shark in the playoffs.

So he's back on top of the UFA center list, and he'll likely get paid handsomely again. It's hard to envision the Sharks not being his primary suitor, but a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets would certainly make a ton of sense. Then there are the potential Cup contenders for whom the acquisition of a center on Marleau's caliber could catapult them to the next level.

Say, the Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings both have some cap space ...

2. Tomas Plekanec(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $2.75 million)

From the Montreal Gazette, here's the status of the Montreal Canadiens' talks with their leading scorer:

Gauthier and agent Rick Curran have had continuing talks about the team's leading scorer, who is looking for a raise from the $2.75 million U.S. he earned last season. There is no agreement in sight, and either side has the option of walking away. Plekanec might wait until July 1 to test the free-agent market, while the Canadiens may allow him to slip away and use the money saved to shop for a centre with more size.

Yes, because if there's anything the Habs have done in the last several months it's add size...

Plekanec is only 5-11 and under 200 pounds, but he's a 70-point guy at the pivot who led all Habs forwards in average shorthanded ice time (2:44). Yes, his 16 games without a goal in the playoffs (after three goals in three games to start) is a turnoff; but Plekanec was a major reason why the Canadiens made the cut in the first place.

3. Matthew Lombardi(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $1.817 million)

Lombardi's best offensive year was in his contract year: 53 points in 78 games for the Phoenix Coyotes. While that might give some people pause, Lombardi's still expected to garner massive interest as a speedy center who plays good two-way hockey and is aces on the power play. The price will climb, but it'll still be more affordable than either of the two centers ahead of him here.

4. Saku Koivu(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $3.25 million)

One gets the feeling that it's Anaheim Ducks-or-bust for the 35-year-old center, especially with Teemu Selanne(notes) making noise about returning to Anaheim if Koivu's re-signed. He had 52 points in 71 games last season, and led the team in faceoff percentage (51.4) for players with at least 40 games played. Near the end of the road, but hasn't arrived there yet, and could help any of the League's 30 teams for the right price. OK, make that 29 teams.   

5. Vaclav Prospal (2009-10 Cap Hit: $1.15 million)

Prospal is the hockey equivalent of Dijon mustard: Surprisingly versatile, able to elevate the flavor of the most expensive thing on the plate ... but sometimes, you'd just rather have ketchup.

He was a great complimentary player for Marian Gaborik(notes) last season, much like he was for Vinny Lecavalier in previous seasons. He's had two tours of duty with the Philadelphia Flyers and three with the Tampa Bay Lightning; his game can sometimes slip into enigmatic mode, but he can be very productive for the price if he can find the right linemates.  Just be aware than he's streakier than your windshield after a homeless guy cleans them.

6. Olli Jokinen(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $5.25 million)

Speaking of prices: If they aren't right for Jokinen, then he doesn't belong on this list.

Seriously: $5.25 million for 15 goals and 50 points total last season between the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers, along with one shootout miss that put the Flyers in the postseason? No thanks.

Jokinen's a center that doesn't make his linemates better. He hasn't averaged a point per game since 2007 with the Florida Panthers. He has six playoff games to his credit in his career. It's hard to ignore the regular-season point totals and his offensive potential in the right setting. But it had better be for a steep discount than the cap hit that was wasted on him (and his admittedly fabulous mustache) last season.

7. Eric Belanger(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $1.75 million)

A deadline acquisition for the Washington Capitals who showed what kind of valuable, physical role player he can be on a deep team. Great supporting player for what should be an affordable price; and just think of the savings on dental bills.

8. Matt Cullen(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $2.875 million)

Oh, Matt Cullen: Is there anything you can't do?

He's a lower-line forward that can kick in some offense (48 points last season), dominate the faceoff circle (58.7 percent winner with the Ottawa Senators) and play some defense as well. As his agent Pat Morris told ESPN: "He can play the point on the power play and can play wing if need be on a deep team."

9. Manny Malhotra(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $700,000)

One of the grinders the Sharks brought in to give their team a little backbone, and Malhotra did that and more, contributing 33 points in 71 games.  He'll cost much cheaper than other defensive centers available, too. Gutsy addition to a lower line.

And speaking of guts ...

10. Kyle Wellwood(notes) (2009-10 Cap Hit: $1.2 million)

From The White Towel, why the Man Who Inspired a Legendary Twitter Meme might not be back with the Vancouver Canucks:

For one, he'd like to be in a situation where he can be a team's No. 2 centre and get the resulting upgrade in ice-time. That won't happen here with both Henrik Sedin(notes) and Ryan Kesler(notes) signed long-term. Don't think there won't be a few bottom-feeding NHL clubs out there who are willing to give him a shot at that role.

For another, the Canucks want to see an injection of young players on entry level contracts in the coming season - which also works against his return. Wellwood, 27, made $1.2 million last season, but had just two goals at the Christmas break - despite reporting to training camp in excellent condition. He appears to be a prime candidate for replacement by Cody Hodgson(notes) (assuming his back is healthy) or another young player.

Did they just sneak "feeding" into a Wellwood story?

Look: There's no question that the guy can contribute something offensively. And for all the rotund humor, he did get himself into better shape, in the sense that John Daly once did as well. You should be excited if Wellwood signs with your team. Not as excited as local Chinese buffet owners, but excited nonetheless. 

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