(Photo Credit: Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean)

By: Tom Calautti | Follow me on Twitter @TCalauttis

The Boston Bruins desperately need a top-line center. It’s hard to believe that last season was the first year since 2003 that neither Patrice Bergeron nor David Krejci suited up for the Black and Gold. Their retirements left a massive hole down the middle of Boston’s lineup, which the team still hasn’t addressed.

Pavel Zacha (21-38-59) and Charlie Coyle (25-35-60) performed admirably in elevated roles, and Matt Poitras is as promising a prospect as this town has seen in a while, but if they want to contend for a Stanley Cup, Boston needs a top-line center. Here are some candidates (via both free agency and trade) that could fit the bill:

Elias Lindholm

Age: 29

Stats: 15-29-44

Previous Contract: Six-year, $4.85 million per

There is perhaps no player in the NHL that the Boston Bruins have been linked to more over the past few seasons than Elias Lindholm. The second news about Patrice Bergeron’s retirement broke, and outlets everywhere began to speculate about whether or not Don Sweeney would try to upgrade the center position by acquiring Lindholm. Now, he has the chance to do it.

The biggest question regarding Lindholm is: Is he a true number-one center, and if he isn’t, what should his contract look like? The longtime Calgary Flame has only crossed the 20-goal plateau four times in his career, the same with the 50-point plateau. Some of that can be attributed to his linemates at the time, but the point is he hasn’t been the consistent offensive force you’d want out of your number-one center. He’d be an upgrade over Coyle and Zacha, but the question is by how much.

The one thing you can say about Lindholm is that he shines when he plays with elite talent. In the one season he skated with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, he posted 42 goals, 40 assists, and 80 points. The other part of his game that entices Boston is his powerplay production. He’s had at least 15 power-play points in seven seasons and spends most of his time in the bumper spot, a position on the man advantage that sorely lacked for Boston last season.

Add in the fact that he’s 53.5 percent on the faceoff dot for his career and has appeared on the Selke ballot four separate times, and what you get is a conundrum. Can the Bruins maximize his offensive abilities? Can he continue to be a defensive force? How much is all of that worth? Signing Lindholm to a mega-deal would be one of the defining moments of Don Sweeney’s tenure in Boston. The question is whether he can make it work.

Steven Stamkos

Age: 34

Stats: 40-41-81

Previous Contract: Eight-year, $8.5 million per

What more can you say about Steven Stamkos? Two Stanley Cup rings, nine 30-goal seasons, seven 40-goal seasons, and a 60-goal season. He is undoubtedly one of the best pure goal-scoring talents in NHL history. Yesterday, Stamkos’ agent posted on Twitter that the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning will hit the open market on June 1st.

Despite being 34 years of age, Stamkos has proven over the last three seasons that if he’s healthy, he will produce. He looks to be the type of player who is aging like Joe Pavelski, able to rack up points until the day he hangs up his skates. It would be almost malpractice for the Bruins NOT to inquire about his availability when free agency opens.

The big issue with Stamkos is his loyalty to Tampa Bay. The Lightning made a blockbuster trade last night, sending defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to the Utah Hockey Club and clearing up $8.5 million in the process. If Stamkos wants to stay, his return to Tampa is almost certain. But if the Lightning overplayed their hand with the future Hall-of-Famer, and he’s open to a change of scenery, he would be more than worth the hefty price tag.

Chandler Stephenson

Age: 30

Stats: 16-35-51

Previous Contract: Four-year, $2.75 million per

Chandler Stephenson would fall firmly into the ‘consolation prize’ category of free agent centers. He’s north of 30, has only three seasons with more than 15 goals, and doesn’t have the most eye-popping advanced metrics. The one thing Chandler Stephenson does well is WIN. He’s hoisted the Stanley Cup for both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights and did so in different roles for both teams. He was a gritty, bottom-six center for Washington, playing hard minutes and grinding against tough competition, and he was an elite scoring machine (10 goals, 20 points in 22 games) during Vegas’ run to the cup.

Stephenson is easy to root for and somebody who, if put in the right position, can contribute to any team in the NHL. I just don’t see him as enough of an upgrade over Zacha and Coyle to warrant a contract. The only scenario I could see him ending up in Black and Gold would be on a short-term deal, biding time for Matt Poitras to develop into a top-six center.

Sean Monahan

Age: 29

Stats: 26-33-59

Previous Contract: One year, $2 million per

Sean Monahan is my wild card in this free-agent class. The 29-year-old’s career got off to a hot start in Calgary, where he posted seven straight 20-goal seasons (with five of those crossing the 50-point plateau). Unfortunately for him, injuries became a major hurdle. Monahan only suited up in 140 of 246 regular-season games from 2020-21 to 2022-23. He was trending downward until this season when his numbers bounced back.

Monahan registered 35 points in 49 games for an unimpressive Montreal Canadiens team this season before being shipped to Winnipeg. There, he scored 24 points in 34 games and began to resemble the player he was at the beginning of his career. Monahan’s advanced metrics have begun to swing back towards their pre-injury levels, and his point production returned as well.

Sean Monahan would be Don Sweeney’s ultimate lottery ticket. He won’t cost nearly as much as Elias Lindholm and has a chance to put up even better numbers. This move would be a major gamble, but if the Bruins like what they see and think his injury history is truly in the past, Monahan could be the choice.

William Karlsson

Age: 31

Stats: 30-30-60

Contract: Three-year, $5.9 million per

We now enter the part of this list where the Boston Bruins would have to engage in a trade to acquire a top-six center. The Vegas Golden Knights are in a wicked cap crunch. They have just under $2 million in cap space, only 11 forwards, and one goalie under contract. They will undoubtedly have to shed some salary to field a roster next season. That’s where Karlsson comes in.

William Karlsson is a Stanley Cup Champion, all-star, Selke candidate, and Lady Byng winner. He’s been a portrait of versatility since the Knight claimed him in the expansion draft, racking up points on the first line, complimenting stars on the second, and playing tough defensive minutes on the third. Karlsson has all the qualities the Boston Bruins like in their centers, and they may be able to acquire him on the cheap.

He’s virtually a lock to put up 30+ assists in a season, has excellent underlying numbers, and would be able to light the lamp consistently while skating alongside David Pastrnak. If Don Sweeney doesn’t like the free agent class and wants to get creative, keep your eye on Karlsson.

Leon Draisaitl

Age: 28

Stats: 41-67-108

Contract: One-year, $8.5 million per

Do you really think I wouldn’t put him on the list? Perhaps the biggest rumor coming out of this season’s Stanley Cup Finals was how Edmonton’s Game Seven loss would impact Leon Draisaitl’s future. Speculation about a potential Draisaitl to Boston trade has been rampant ever since former enforcer George Laraque appeared on a Montreal radio show, saying Edmonton’s star forward would like to play in Boston.

I don’t think I can understate how significant of an improvement Draisaitl would be to Boston’s center corps. He’s only had one year in the last six seasons with under 40 goals and 100 points. He has 16+ power-play goals in each of those seasons and has both a Hart Trophy and several all-star appearances. I’m sure I’ve left some bigger parts of his resume out, but he’s elite, and you don’t get many chances to acquire a player like this.

How much would it cost to acquire Draisaitl? The answer is a whole lot: multiple draft picks, some rostered players, a combination of Matt Poitras, Mason Lohrei, Johnny Beecher, Fabian Lysell, Georgii Merkulov, and probably more. Don Sweeney may wait to see how Draisaitl’s contract situation plays out and choose to pursue him in free agency, but if he gets aggressive, now would be the time to strike.