Jul 18, 2014
Prior to the trade deadline during the 2011-2012 season, Nashville acquired the services of face-off specialist Paul Gaustad to help the Predators in their search for a Stanley Cup Championship in return for their first round draft pick in the upcoming entry draft. Three months later, Nashville would be out of the playoffs, dispatched by the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference semifinals.
At the time, Gaustad was finishing up the final year of a four-year, $9.2 million contract, averaging roughly $2.3 million a season. A solid deal for a player that essentially was brought in to be a shutdown center. What was particularly befuddling was how Nashville doled out a four-year, $13 million contract the day before Gaustad was to hit the open market. While half of his contract is now off the books for the Predators, and for a team that has an overwhelming depth at his particular position, there are other more viable options that could provide what Gaustad offers plus more.
It’s been clear, at least from general manager David Poile, that Gaustad’s role will be singular: center the fourth line. He said as much during an earlier press conference introducing Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy to the team. However, what’s confusing is why Gaustad and the $3.25 million he’ll be paid this season, fourth highest amongst forwards, is still necessary on a team whose basic landscape is changing day-by-day.
Two separate articles from Predators beat writer Josh Cooper at The Tennessean, both published nearly a month apart, provide a peek in the looking glass at how Nashville could still find Gaustad useful in his current role.
In a June 18th article titled “Paul Gaustad an interesting case for Predators”, Cooper asked Poile if Gaustad was a “luxury they can no longer afford”:
“Paul does what he does. He’s a checking center, best in the league at faceoffs and penalty killing. To me this is the good and bad news. Paul Gaustad is way more effective when our team has a lead, way more effective on our team as a shutdown guy. Give us the leads in the third period and the leads out of the gate and I think his role is better.”
When you breakdown Gaustad’s on-ice numbers, everything seems to go against him being an effective shutdown center when the Predators have a lead. Gaustad’s possession statistics were team-worst among centers when Nashville was playing 5-on-5 and was leading on the scoreboard, bottoming out with a 36.9% Corsi for and 37% Fenwick for. Give Nashville a two goal lead and things get even worse, dropping to 30.6% Corsi for and 29.4% Fenwick for. In his 75 games last season, Gaustad was Nashville’s only center to be on the ice without the team scoring a goal when already ahead by two or more (0 goals forced, 5 goals allowed).
Breaking it down even further, the only time Gaustad showed any measure of success on the ice last season was when Nashville was down by only one goal, posting a team-high 49.1% Corsi for and and 49.7% Fenwick for, only besting fellow center Matt Cullen.
Moving to the penalty kill, while Gaustad saw the most time on ice shorthanded of any center on the team, he was still third-best in possession numbers and saw more goals allowed while he was on the ice (22) than nearly both Mike Fisher and Nick Spaling combined (25).
Granted, Gaustad is a fantastic faceoff specialist, winning 58% of his draws on 1200 total faceoffs. While Boston’s Patrice Bergeron is nearly a full percentage point better on 500+ more faceoffs, Gaustad is still one of the best in the league. That being said, is being great at face-offs but not much else quantify holding on to a $3.25 million fourth-line center?
In a July 17th article titled “Paul Gaustad more important than ever to Predators”, Cooper left us with the following about Gaustad and his staying relevance to the lineup:
“There are lots of reasons why contracts turn out the way they do and I won’t get into all the details. However, Gaustad should be a vital cog. He’s 6-foot-5, 223 pounds and can match up defensively against the top centers in the conference…Despite his high price tag, he will be invaluable for the Predators.”
Here’s the inherent problem with this: Nashville appears, based on every conversation that Poile has had publicly about it, set to just settle with Gaustad as their fourth-line center. Unfortunately, even for a 6-foot-5, 223 pound man, that’s not enough. Gaustad is, for all intents and purposes, a defensive-zone face-off specialist for the Predators. Even with Gaustad’s face-off win percentage, it comes matched up against the weakest competition from the opposition. While saying he can “match up defensively against the top centers in the conference” is all well and good, that’s not how he’s utilized in the organization. Could he match up against the top centers in the conference? Sure, but is Peter Laviolette going to throw him out against the likes of Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar? Highly doubtful.
Gaustad saw the least amount of minutes against weaker opposition last season for the Predators. That’s not an opinion, that’s statistical factual analysis.
Nashville had the opportunity to use a compliance buyout on his contract through the last two weeks of June, but opted not to. So that leaves the dilemma of what can be done differently? Easy: waive Gaustad and insert Cullen in his place. Nashville has an over-abundance of centers on their roster, that much is true. Instead of trying to slap Cullen onto a wing, even if he spent time there last season, place him where he can be effective.
Last season, Cullen was either Nashville’s best possession center or second-best center in nearly every 5-on-5 situation, except 5 on 5 Tied and on the penalty kill (where Cullen only registered 30 seconds all season). Cullen’s 772 faceoffs and 56.7% win percentage placed him third on the team behind Gaustad and Fisher. Comparatively speaking, Gaustad was fourth in the NHL overall in face-off win percentage, Cullen was sixth.
The only major difference? He’s four inches and 23 pounds lighter than Gaustad. Something I think can easily be overlooked with how successful he is across all situations on the ice.
If Nashville doesn’t think Cullen is big enough to put in place of Gaustad, then why not finally insert Colin Wilson into that position? Wilson was middle-of-the-pack in terms of his possession numbers, but saw the fourth-toughest competition amongst centers for the Predators. If Nashville decides not to trade Wilson and wants to give him a shot to prove himself, then they have another option ready as well.
Even if the organization doesn’t feel that Cullen and Wilson can bring what Gaustad brings to the table, maybe Colton Sissons or Austin Watson can. I’ve clamored for them in the past, but both could easily slot into a fourth-line center role.
For anyone to argue that Gaustad will be invaluable to the Predators, I pose one simple question: name me one thing that he offers to the lineup that no other center in the organization can offer. This isn’t to be taken as a slight to Gaustad as a player, but more so that Nashville’s $3.25 million could be better spent elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua
Possession statistics provided by ExtraSkater.com