As the prime trading months of the 2011-2012 NHL season approach, the line between the trade-market sellers and buyers is clearer than ever. But the number of superstars up for sale is low, an imbalance that's quickly jump-starting interest in a different type of acquisition—the bargain players.
With typical playoff-bubble contenders Carolina, Columbus and Anaheim crashing through train-wreck seasons and longtime postseason qualifiers Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Montreal faring only slightly better, a large number of players could be on the market as these franchises prepare for rebuilding.
Those clubs on the decline could have trouble supplying the trade market with a sizable amount of high-end headliners, though. Except for Eric Staal with the Hurricanes and Bobby Ryan from the Ducks, few of those franchises seem willing to part with their valuable team cornerstones.
On the other hand, the market will be competitive on the recipient end. Florida, Toronto, Minnesota and Colorado are all making rare appearances in the playoff picture, leaving each club eager to make a few fine-tuning deals. Slumping powerhouses in Philadelphia and Washington could be interested in adding a few new sparks to their rosters, as well.
So where will the focus turn when the top targets are off the board? Quite a few indicators point towards the lower-salary group.
2012 appears, from all angles, to be the year of expiring contracts—especially regarding players in the second- or third-line range. For under $2 million a season, a variety of young, talented and relatively productive skaters and goaltenders are available.
Could several of those doomed teams be willing to part with them a few months early? Of course. And could they make a significant difference on a contending team? Absolutely.
All in all, the two months until the trade deadline promise frequent deals and eye-catching bargains. So let's look at 10 players in particular—all sporting cheap contracts, promising statistics and open-to-trading GMs—who might just find their way to a new club this season.
Stats: 4 goals, 7 assists
Contract: $1.25 million cap hit, expires 2012
The veteran Brendan Morrison, a career-long mid-liner, has found some success and stability with his fifth team in six years. The 36-year-old has 11 points in 25 games this season after 43 points, including 34 assists, in 66 appearances last year.
Morrison may not be a top-class forward, but he brings experience, consistency and occasional point-scoring explosions to a young contender. With a contract expiring in the summer, the aging center could serve as a perfect low-risk "glue" acquisition in a number of arenas.
Stats: 10 goals, 10 assists
Contract: $1.7 million cap hit, expires 2013
Undrafted right wing Chad LaRose may be on pace for a career high in points, but the 29-year-old's defensive struggles (minus-38 over the past two seasons) and streaky scoring have left him more and more unwelcome in Carolina.
In a less-demanding role, however, the 5'10" winger has the skill set to become a crucial offensive scorer and playmaker. With a great attitude and fantastic work ethic, LaRose certainly possesses the potential to blossom as a mid-line power forward—as long as he has a solid defense to back him up.
Stats: 5 goals, 8 assists
Contract: $0.95 million cap hit, expires 2012
Twenty-six-year-old grinder Daniel Winnik has never fully lived up to the expectations set by his 26-point rookie year in '07-08, but the former ninth-round pick has transformed into a respectable enforcer and decent passer over the years with Phoenix and Colorado.
Winnik comes as one of the cheapest on this list with a cap hit under $1 million, making the cost for his services for the next couple of months barely worth mentioning. With the right situation, Winnik could be a very well-rounded and surprisingly productive left winger.
Stats: 9 goals, 6 assists
Contract: $1.5 million cap hit, expires 2012
Travis Moen may only be 29, but he plays with the decision-making of a veteran (in addition to the skills of a prime-aged player). The former fifth-round draft choice is a career third-line winger—he's hit the double-digit-goal plateau only once in seven completed seasons—but is certainly on pace to change that this time around.
With nine scores in 38 games, Moen only needs a few hot streaks to hit 20 goals...much less merely 10. That number could be even higher if he joins a top-level offense, which may benefit from his gritty, won't-back-down style (674 PIM in 560 appearances over his career) and recent upturn in production.
Considering that Moen's three-year contract expires this summer, as well, and plenty of contenders will be happy to give this solid grinder a try.
Stats: 2-4-0, .893 save percentage, 2.75 GAA
Contract: $0.875 million cap hit, expires 2012 (as RFA)
In a world of plentiful rumors surrounding the "elite two" backups in the NHL—Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles and Cory Schneider (who's rapidly becoming a starter) in Vancouver—Nashville's own netminding youngster has avoided the frenzy.
Lindback's stats look poor on the year, but the Sweden native impressed tremendously in his debut '10-11 campaign. He racked up an impressive 11-5-0 record—most of it coming during starting goalie Pekka Rinne's injury absence—along with a .916 save percentage and 2.60 GAA. Lindback may be a risky idea to be handed a starting job at this point, but the young goalie has the potential to shine in a more hockey-centric city.
Stats: 6 goals, 13 assists
Contract: $0.525 million cap hit, expires 2012
Arguably the best player on this list is Frans Nielsen, a 27-year-old Danish center who's rapidly proved himself a minimum-wage steal for the bottom-feeding New York Islanders. Nielsen scored 12 goals, 38 points and a plus-four rating in his '09-10 breakout season before topping it again with 13 goals, 44 points and a plus-13 rating last year.
This time around, Nielsen continues his consistent offensive production as well as a rigorous discipline—just one minor penalty in 37 games. Despite his dark-horse role in the Isles attack, Nielsen has the potential to, and might even be expected to, emerge on the big stage...if he can only find a one-way ticket off of Long Island.
Stats: 7 goals, 25 assists
Contract: $1.25 million cap hit, expires 2012
If Frans Nielsen isn't our best bargain, then his Islander teammate PA Parenteau most certainly is.
The then-27-year-old exploded onto the stat sheet last year with an incredible 20-goal, 53-point campaign—in his first full NHL season. He's on pace to top that mark again this year, an incredible accomplishment for the late bloomer that PA Parenteau is.
With a career of six one-year contracts, Parenteau is no stranger to unrestricted free agency. However, that streak may be broken this year. Although his deal does expire on July 1st, plenty of contenders would be willing to offer him a generous extension this summer—just not before he proves himself a real game-changer this spring.
Stats: 4 goals, 19 assists
Contract: $1.0 million cap hit, expires 2013
The NHL's oddest skater and most aggressive power-play quarterback has experienced a career rebirth in Tampa Bay.
After years of high point totals and equally horrendous plus-minus ratings with a variety of suitors, Bergeron may finally have found his defensive game with the Lightning, where his plus-eight mark puts him on pace for his first year in the green since '06-07. Thankfully, Bergeron's playmaking hasn't declined either—his 19 helpers are second most on the team.
Bergeron clearly remains a risky addition for any GM to invest in, yet his fantastic awareness and coordination in the offensive zone might make Bergeron an option too juicy to pass up.
Stats: 11-10-2 record, .904 save percentage, 2.84 GAA
Contract: $1.3 million cap hit, expires 2013
Lifelong backup Mathieu Garon has been thrust into a starting role for the first time—at age 33. With ancient Dwayne Roloson suffering through both bad health and bad play, Garon, who's never played more than 47 games in any of his 11 NHL seasons, has shown he has the skills to be a starter.
The Lightning are likely looking towards a youth movement, though, and neither 33-year-old Garon nor 42-year-old Roloson appear great candidates for that. As the Bolts look to make room for prospect goalies Jaroslav Janus and Dustin Tokaroski, Garon may be an enticing option for a weaker goaltending team on the verge of the playoffs.
Stats: 3 goals, 8 assists
Contract: $0.8 million cap hit, expires 2012 (as RFA)
Young defenseman Cody Franson, in his third season in the league and first with Toronto, has become somewhat of a "sleeper" trade rumor in the past few weeks. Franson, a third-round selection in the 2005 draft, had 14 goals, 50 points and a plus-25 rating in two seasons combined with Nashville; after his migration north last summer, the defenseman has three goals, 11 points and a plus-three mark.
With his respectable statistics in mind, numerous teams appear interested in acquiring the up-and-coming D-man, and Leafs GM Brian Burke appears equally interested in shopping him. Franson may prove too valuable to be dealt—yet, he may also end up as a key piece of one of this season's best bargain trades.