FA Centers & the Devils: Jason Williams & Manny Malhotra

With the start of these posts, I took a look at Henrik Sedin and Mike Cammalleri - two very productive, offensive talents who will end up becoming much richer in July.  While they would be a benefit, I felt the cost of either would be prohibitive.  I also realized that they are not really second line centers or players, but first line players.  Guys you would have the offense really revolve around.  The Devils really need someone to center the second scoring line with Elias and Gionta (or Rolston, if Gionta doesn't return).  Someone to win faceoffs, help set them up, and put up about 50-60 points to provide that secondary scoring threat behind the ZZ Pops unit. That can be had for much less than what Sedin and Cammalleri can justifiably command and demand this summer.

And wouldn't you know it, Columbus has two unrestricted free agent centers available who can come in at center and be of use to the New Jersey Devils.  Actually, they have five and while all of them aren't (and will not) pull down a lot of money this summer (see this list at NHL Numbers), I feel there are only two worth focusing on.   One of which, some of you mentioned in the comments here, is Jason Williams; but the other is someone I thought I'd get a mention or two - Manny Malhotra.

Let's begin with the center who could play on the second line: Jason Williams.


Jason Williams

#29 / Center / Columbus Blue Jackets

5-11

185

Aug 11, 1980

2008-09 Salary: $2.2 million



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Jason Williams 80 19 28 47 -4 24 7 0 4 1 153 12.4

Williams' 2008-09 season requires a little explanation.  It really was a tale of two seasons for the pivot.  After an injury-shortened 2007-08 season in Chicago (sports hernia), Atlanta signed him up on a one-year deal to see how he would do.  In 47 games, Williams put up a massive 7 goals and 11 assists in 41 games in a role where he had plenty (OK, Ilya Kovalchuk) to work with. The Falconer summed up his initial gladness for the Williams signing and his disappointment for how he did in Atlanta perfectly.   Talk about underachieving! 

Yet, one cannot dismiss Williams out of hand.  You see, his season almost did a complete 180.  He did very well in Columbus.  In the 39 games with the Blue Jackets, he put up 12 goals and 17 assists.  At the Cannon, Andy Newman was pleased but asked the most pertinent question I'm sure most GMs have about Williams:

Jason Williams (2.200) - played extremely well in Columbus after a bad start in Atlanta. Does he want to be a complimentary player on a good team making an average salary, or does he want to cash in again and go through the motions playing for a bad team?

This is the vital question. If Williams is willing to be a part of a good team, then I can see him as a Devil.  If not, then it'll never happen.  Ironically, given how uneven his season was, I don't think he's going to command a lot of money anyway.  I would be shocked if he got more than $3 million/year, and really, I don't think he'll get that much.  This could make him a great signing in terms of money - the Devils can keep Gionta if they desired, or get other players.  But if Williams doesn't want to be that complimentary, second line center, then it won't work at all.

The good news is that his scouting profile notes, as an asset that he "Can put up solid numbers and works well with talented linemates."  But more intriguing to me is his one of his weaknesses listed: "Must play a grittier game in order to maximize his productivity on a scoring line."  Now, maybe I'm reading too much into this, but wouldn't New Jersey be a great fit for both.  Williams would have the very talented Patrik Elias to his left and a shooter like Brian Gionta or Brian Rolston on his right, so that meets the asset.  Given how the Devils tended to fight for the puck on offense, win it back, and keep the pressure down low last season, should it continue, Williams will have to play grittier to do that.  OK, he's not going to replace Zubrus' size, but the way the weakness is written, it's not an issue of softness but in terms of the use of grit.  That is if he uses it more, it'll be for the better - and he will get to do that as a Devil.

I also don't know if he'll be able to replace Zubrus at the faceoff dot.  Keep in mind Zubrus did win 51.2% of his faceoffs and took just under 1,000 faceoffs.   Like Cammalleri, Williams didn't take nearly that many faceoffs - only 681 faceoffs.   That's more than Cammalleri took, but that suggests to me that he didn't play the full season at center, but where?  Was he a center where he did very well in Columbus; or was he a pivot in Atlanta, where he struggled? Was he a center when he broke out with Detroit back in 2005-06? This raises is another crucial question.  If Williams is less effective at center, then it makes no sense at all to stick him there and by extension, no sense to sign him.   Putting that aside for now, unlike Cammalleri, though, Williams didn't exactly sparkle when he did take faceoffs.  Williams' winning percentage was at 46% and who knows how that would be affected if he takes significantly more faceoffs.

Lastly, quickly looking at his career numbers, I just want to point out that there is a very good chance Williams may not put up more than 60-65 points.  His career high is 58 back in '05-'06 and he has never scored more than 20 goals since then (19 this year was close).  This may not be a big deal.  The idea would be to play him as a second line center.  He won't be carrying the offense, just complementing it with timely plays and shots here and there.  That said, I would love to see him shoot more.  I don't think it's coincidence his career bests came in the same season where he put up 177 shots on net.  Williams hasn't come close to surpassing that total yet and I feel that if he did, perhaps he'd have better production - just like with, say, Dainius Zubrus.

Despite all of this, I would like to be optimistic about Jason Williams as a Devil though.  After all, if his position wasn't the cause for his night-and-day 2008-09 season and he can handle playing center without an issue; then I think he would be a good enough fit for an relatively inexpensive player.  Williams will be turning 29 so he's still in the prime of his career and his career could see a renaissance.   On the other hand, if it's discovered that he's been more productive as a winger and he's not really interested in the Devils style, then he's a definite pass.  My main point is that I think that signing Williams would come with some risks.  Yet, the potential reward could very nice without committing a lot of space to the salary cap.  Williams may be worth all those risks and so I wouldn't mind him as a Devil for the right price.

In fact, with that extra space, the Devils can take a look at another Blue Jacket: Manny Malhotra.


Manny Malhotra

#27 / Center / Columbus Blue Jackets

6-2

217

May 18, 1980

2008-09 Salary: $1.5 million



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Manny Malhotra 77 11 24 35 9 28 0 0 3 0 116 9.5

What's this? A checking center?  Well, why not?  I didn't say both Blue Jacket centers would be second line centers, but that they would be useful.   With Bobby Holik retired and John Madden's uncertain future as an unrestricted free agent, you can bet Lou and his people at looking at defensive forwards.   Even if Madden returns, how much more can he go at age 36 and beyond?  I think he's got plenty left, but a heir apparent for Madden's role wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.   Therefore, Malhotra should be definitely considered as he's a very solid defensive center.

First and foremost, Malhotra is not only definitely a center, but he's excellent on faceoffs.  In this last season, Malhotra took 1,380 faceoffs and won 58% of them.  To put this in perspective, only 12 players took more faceoffs and only Rod Brind'Amour had a better winning percentage, 61.0%.  In fact, of the 51 players who took 1,000 faceoffs or more, only Brind'Amour and Kris Draper (60.3% of 1,000 faceoffs) were more successful.   Malhotra isn't just great at winning faceoffs, but he's consistently great at it.  He would be an instant upgrade over Madden in that department.

Second, Malhotra is a solid defensive forward in his own right.  While Madden is no defensive slouch of his own, he finished just off of Mirtle's Top 25 Defensive Forwards list.  Malhotra, on the other hand, finished ahead of him and Mirtle rated him at #16.   As you would expect, Malhotra's even strength numbers at Behind the Net aren't bad at all (actually, that's what Mirtle used to come up with his list)  Yes, the shots against per 60 did go up from 23.4 to 24.3 when Malhotra was on the ice. Then again, 24.3 shots against per 60 isn't bad at all and Malhotra was facing relatively stronger competition than his teammates.  Besides, the goals against per 60 actually fell from 2.22 to 1.96, so it's not like the extra shot per 60 minutes is killing Columbus (or the shots taken when Malhotra is out there).  With respect to the penalty kill, Malhotra was the second leading forward in terms of shorthanded time per game, 2:49 in Columbus.  Given that Columbus' penalty killers finished 13th in the league with a 82.1% effectiveness rate, he's definitely played an important role on that.  This confirms the thought that he's, well, a solid defensive center. 

The one main issue that tends to come up with Malhotra is that his offense isn't all that good.  I don't know how much of that is a legitimate concern?  He put up more goals and assists than Madden despite shooting 16 less shots on net. On the other hand, Malhotra has put up more than 30 points in a season exactly once - and that was for 31 points, back in 2005-06. I don't think Malhotra has the offensive skills Madden, who actually finished with less than 30 points for the first time since 2001-02.   Still, given that the role is more focused on making stops and preventing goals, that Malhotra produces points like Pandolfo doesn't concern me terribly much.

Andy Newman and probably many Blue Jackets fans would love to see Malhotra return.  Why not? After seasons of struggling to find a place, he developed into a more than a pretty good defensive center.   I still think Madden is very good at that same role and, provided he takes some form of a pay cut, I wouldn't mind him remaining in New Jersey.  That said, the Devils have a real chance to have a "changing of the guard" happen and have Malhotra take that third line center spot, moving Madden down to the fourth line and leaving that only question mark at center at the second scoring line.  This way the Devils can continue having a shutdown, defensive line centered by a player who is more than capable; they'll be better at faceoffs overall; and Madden can provide that additional support.

Given that defensive centers who don't score all that much don't get a ton of money, I feel that the Devils should offer $2-2.5 million for Malhotra and that should be sufficient.

Now it's your turn. Do you feel any better or worse about the possibilty of Jason Williams in a Devils uniform?  Do you think the Devils should look for a defensive center like Malhotra, or should they wait another year or so? Maybe you would prefer solely two-way centers instead of pure offensive/defensive types?  Is there anything else you'd like to add or correct to all this? Have your say in the comments below.

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