Two First-Time UFA Centers Whose Defensive Prowess Should Entice You

Everyone loves to go after the big-ticket scorers during free agency, but we've got a couple pivots who will help win on the other side of the puck.
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Casey Cizikas (right). Photo by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Casey Cizikas (right). Photo by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Phillip Danault – Montreal Canadiens

Of all the upcoming UFAs in the NHL, none did more for his stock this spring than Phillip Danault. Danault – who hails from Victoriaville, Que., and turned 28 in February – hits unrestricted status for the first time in his career while coming off a playoff run that had Montreal fans exclaiming “See!?” after years of extolling his virtues to anyone who would listen.

A run to the Stanley Cup final may have announced Danault’s supreme shutdown status to those who didn't already know about it, but his game has been at this level for quite some time. He earned Selke Trophy votes in both 2018-19 and ’19-20, placing seventh and sixth, respectively, in those two seasons. This season, he replicated that sixth-place finish from the ’19-20 season. And as more and more people take notice of Danault’s chance-suppression game – and Selke staples like Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar make their ways toward their twilight years – Danault stands an eminent possibility of winning the plaudit before too long. In fact, because a forward's defensive value is such a difficult thing to quantify, Danault could wind up eventually winning the award as just a “this-guy-has-been-too-good-for-too-long-and-we-can't-not-reward-him” prize.

So in consistently garnering votes for an award with such difficult-to-quantify requirements, what has Danault done to win over voters?

Over the past three seasons, Danault has consistently been among the NHL’s elite possession-game players. Since the start of 2018-19, 388 forwards have skated at least 1000 cumulative minutes at 5-on-5. Danault ranks fourth in Corsi-for percentage (58.08), seventh in expected goals percentage (57.90) and 16th in high-danger Corsi, at 57.66 percent. If you find yourself partial to the more traditional stats, we can look at plus-minus. At 5-on-5 only, Danault has been on the ice for 154 Montreal goals in the past three seasons. Opponents, meanwhile, have scored 112 goals at 5-on-5 with Danault on the ice. That means Montreal has a 57.89-percent share of twine-bulgers when Danault is on the ice, placing him 34th in that 388-forward sample. For context, with Danault off the ice in the past three seasons, Montreal has scored 287 goals at 5-on-5 and allowed 296. That 49.22-percent share of the offense would place Montreal 19th during that three-season sample if not for Danault’s contributions.

Danault has achieved those figures while spending the bulk of his ice time against top-level competition. Per puckiq.com, Danault has spent just over 48 percent of his minutes facing elite competition in the past three seasons. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound center has consistently been tasked with shutting down star divisional opponents like David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Auston Matthews and (as the result of COVID realignment) Connor McDavid. And those rock-solid possession numbers hold up even against that stiff competition.

Just this past season, Danault was a determining factor in Montreal’s relative efficacy in shutting down McDavid, who managed ‘just’ 12 points in nine games against the Habs. Only Toronto did a better job of shutting down No. 97 (10 points in nine games). Danault played just under 45 minutes against McDavid at 5-on-5, with Montreal and Edmonton scoring four goals each during that time and Montreal having a slight advantage in the possession game.

That play – and coach Dominique Ducharme’s trust – carried over to the post-season, where Danault matched up against superstar duos like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of the Leafs and Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty of the Golden Knights. Carey Price obviously played an important role in Montreal’s limitation of those players’ offense, but so did Danault. The center skated around 120 cumulative 5-on-5 minutes against those players in the 13 games Montreal played against Toronto and Vegas; the Leafs and Knights duos combined for three goals in those 120 minutes.

Danault is also a top penalty-killing forward and contributed greatly to Montreal’s otherworldly PK efforts during their 2021 playoff run.

All this means Danault hits the open market in prime position to get paid. Beaucoup bucks. But with the big-boy price tag will come expectations Danault may not necessarily be equipped to meet. He’s by no means inept offensively, but for the ticket he’ll command this summer, his attacking game may leave fans wanting more. The Montreal pivot had five goals and 24 points in 53 games this season and followed that up with a goal and four points in 22 playoff games. The two seasons prior to 2020-21 were a bit better; Danault had 25 goals and 100 points in 152 games in those campaigns. In an 82-game season, that’s 13 goals and 54 points at the peak of his offensive output.

Is that enough for a player who could pull down $5 million or $6 million annually? For someone with Danault’s defensive prowess, it may be. But whichever fanbase's team signs him needs to go in with eyes wide open.

Danault is coming off a three-year deal that paid him a hair over $3 million per season. It’s hard to imagine Montreal letting its fan-favorite go, but some GM may make Danault an offer too good to pass up, so anything’s possible.

Casey Cizikas – New York Islanders

The New York Islanders used the 92nd overall pick in the 2009 draft to pluck Casey Cizikas from OHL Mississauga, way back when they were still known as the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.

That fourth-round pick would, appropriately, eventually become part of the NHL’s premier fourth line. Cizikas, along with "identity line" mates Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck have become fan favorites on the Island, despite each carrying hefty tickets for fourth-liners. Both Clutterbuck and Cizikas pull down more than $3 million per season, and Martin earned $2.5 million until taking a $1-million haircut in the 2020 off-season.

Cizikas is a do-it-all type player. He’s a decent offensive contributor for a bottom-sixer, plays physically, kills penalties and has become solidly above average on faceoffs. He’s also fantastic defensively. Remember the 388-forward sample from our discussion on Danault? Cizikas ranks 13th among them in xGA/60 in the past three seasons.

Cizikas had his best offensive season in 2018-19, when he scored 20 goals and 33 points in 73 games for the Isles. That season was a statistical outlier, where Cizikas shot at 18 percent versus a career average of just over 11 percent. But for a fourth-liner, Cizikas isn’t bereft of offense. Overall, in the two seasons since, he has 17 goals and 28 points in 104 games.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound center turned 30 in February. He’s coming off a 5-year, $16.75-million pact with the Isles and will be a popular down-the-lineup target for NHL GMs this summer. With the Isles in a cap crunch, it may be difficult for them to retain his services, but they’ll most assuredly try.

Other notable first-time UFA centers: Derek Stepan – OTT, Sean Kuraly – BOS

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