Ranking the Most Likely Destinations for the Top 2013 NHL Free Agents
In one of the NHL’s first major offseason moves of 2013, would-be free agent Sergei Gonchar reportedly signed a two-year deal with the Dallas Stars, who had just traded for his rights with the Ottawa Senators. TSN's Darren Dreger reported the news.
Between the impending trimming of the salary cap and a relatively shallow pool of restricted and unrestricted free agents, this summer’s spree may be underwhelming in contrast to previous years. That is why the likes of Adam Proteau from The Hockey News cautioned everyone not to “get all giddy about July 5,” when free agents are turned loose for collection without any return packages required.
Nonetheless, there is still a decent quantity of names that are hardly a lock to return to their current teams and will be apt to percolate intrigue.
(As an aside, please note the distinction between those who are “hardly a lock to return to their current teams” and those whose re-signing with their current teams would make the most sense. Those in the latter category will not be seen on this list.)
Based on who might fit in where and who is affordable for whom, here is a short list of soon-to-be NHL free agents whose movement would be less than surprising and the top teams that would make sense for them. Or vice versa.
At the moment, Jonathan Bernier remains the celestial Jonathan Quick’s backup after trade talk failed to come to fruition before the latest deadline. But as he approaches the age of 25 in August and restricted free agency a month prior, he will be in a prime position to leave Los Angeles and seek a better opportunity to challenge for a starting slot.
1. Philadelphia Flyers: Assuming established No. 1 goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is among any Flyers buyouts, there should be both crease space and cap space for Bernier. In turn, he can engage Steve Mason in a heated competition for the starting job.
2. Edmonton Oilers: While listing the Oilers as a potential destination for the pricey Roberto Luongo, Tony Gallagher of The Province elaborated that they “seem to be ready to proceed with Devan Dubnyk...but he was 14-16 with a 2.57 goals-against average.”
Should Edmonton seek insurance, though, Bernier would be more practical than Luongo. That way, the Oilers would avoid any deals involving the export of assets―to a divisional rival, no less―and Bernier could compete with Dubnyk in a similar fashion that he would Mason in Philadelphia.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Transactions guru Lyle Richardson of Spector’s Hockey believes moving Marc-Andre Fleury is a possibility for the Penguins, but cautions that “they’ll have to get an affordable (preferably young) goalie to back up Vokoun.” In that event, Bernier could be a more cost-effective replacement and perhaps function as aging veteran Tomas Vokoun’s apprentice.
In every playoff round, Bryan Bickell of the Chicago Blackhawks is turning in performances to indicate that his productivity is not as fluky as it initially appeared. In turn, with the prospect of minimal room for the 'Hawks to accommodate him from both a roster and salary standpoint, he ought to draw interest from these clubs, among others:
1. Detroit Red Wings: Ansar Khan of M-Live noted that the 6’4”, 233-pound Bickell could be a target for Detroit. It would make sense considering his potential to replace an aging Todd Bertuzzi as a productive, hulking forward.
2. Florida Panthers: The Panthers have good size in rising star Nick Bjugstad, followed by pending restricted free agents Jack Skille and Shawn Matthias and unskilled penalty magnet George Parros at the top.
If Florida needs to reel in a heftier striker with more seasoning than Bjugstad and more skill than Parros, Bickell could be the answer. TSN’s Scott Cullen says as much when he lists Bickell, along with Clarke MacArthur and Viktor Stalberg, as potential choices for “an upgrade at a reasonable price.”
3. Vancouver Canucks: This is certainly a reach given that the Canucks are down to less than $50,000 in cap space and have only nine committed forwards. But the window may crack open if they can successfully rid themselves of Luongo.
If there is any possibility of bringing in Bickell, Vancouver should try to make it work. Having lost eight of its last nine playoff games, all in the first round, it can benefit immensely from his upfront, all-around prowess.
While focusing primarily on the status of New York Islanders captain Mark Streit, a recent report by Arthur Staple of Newsday pronounced Brad Boyes “unlikely to return” to Long Island.
This despite the fact that Boyes scored 12 more points (35) in 48 games this past regular season than he did (23) in 65 outings with Buffalo in 2011-12. His cap hit also dropped from $4 million to $1 million when he transferred to the Isles over last summer.
Regardless, there should be some places where the 31-year-old Boyes can build on his bounce-back campaign.
1. Florida: Having finished among the bottom four on the league’s offensive leaderboard each of the last four seasons, the Panthers’ need for quality depth is hardly a secret. Inserting a player like Boyes should not only be cost-effective, but also put him in a position of not too much and not too little demand.
On the one hand, he would likely have established scorers Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg among his allies. On the other, his presence would help tone down the rush and ease the burden on youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore, Bjugstad, etc.
2. Dallas: The Stars are once again trying to reform and bounce back after missing a fifth straight postseason. They have a little less than $14 million to work with, are well-stocked on defensemen and could use a couple more NHL-caliber forwards.
3. New Jersey: The Devils are coming off an offensively famished season of their own with only 2.29 goals per game.
The Boston Bruins are not short on grit, but they are on cap space (less than $6 million) and will need every dewdrop of diligence to retain ongoing playoff sensation Nathan Horton and new No. 1 netminder Tuukka Rask.
Defenseman Andrew Ference, therefore, looks to be the odd man out when it comes to the top three members of Boston’s 2013 free-agent class. This top-four-caliber defenseman, a soon-to-be veteran of two Stanley Cup Finals with leadership qualities, should draw interest from these parties:
1. Carolina Hurricanes: What else is new? The Hurricanes are hollering for a more defensively specialized blueliner after once again averaging more than 32 opposing shots per night this past season. It was the same story in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when they finished at the bottom of that leaderboard.
The last time Carolina confined its opponents to a nightly average of less than 30 shots, it was one of 16 teams to do so in 2009, which was also its last trip to the postseason.
2. Pittsburgh: With portions of their series with the Islanders and Bruins raising questions about their collective defensive sturdiness, the Penguins ought not to startle anyone if they pursue Ference’s services.
3. Detroit: Rising rookie Danny DeKeyser, fresh out of Western Michigan University, is one of six Red Wings blueliners currently under contract through 2013-14. If Detroit wants to stave off a bridge year, signing the likes of Ference while letting youngsters such as DeKeyser develop in the minors is advisable.
This from a recent report by Brendan Savage of M-Live as to Valtteri Filppula’s contract status with the Red Wings, or lack thereof: “After making $3.5 million this season, he’s reportedly seeking more than $5 million and the Red Wings don't want to pay him that much. As a result, contract talks broke off months ago.”
So, where can Filppula go if those discussions don't pick back up?
1. Calgary Flames: Filppula is a former linemate of Wing-turned-Flame Jiri Hudler, and Calgary has plenty of cap space to work with. If they desired, the Flames could pencil him in with his reportedly desired salary, giving them 13 NHL-level forwards on their payroll, and still have plenty to address their defensive needs.
2. Anaheim Ducks: This would partly depend on what becomes of Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, a pair of aging veteran forwards who are likewise on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. Those two have continued to lend the Ducks depth up front, though that depth may need replacement regardless of whether they commit to another season.
As of this writing, the Ducks have locked in 11 NHL-level forwards, six blueliners and two goalies, leaving them with a little more than $8.5 million of open room. Accommodating Filppula, a Finnish countryman of Koivu and Selanne, with the demands Savage alludes to may not be out of the question.
3. New York Islanders: The Isles are on the rise and have the most cap space for next season in the league. Even with the prospective addition of Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome, Filppula could still fit in and lend invaluable depth.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have less than $8 million in cap space, a hefty portion of which they will need to re-sign at least two forwards and a spare defenseman. Of those who are pending unrestricted free agents, late-blooming breakout Pascal Dupuis is impossible to envision going elsewhere and will likely warrant a higher salary than his current $1.5 million intake.
Depending on what Jarome Iginla, whose most recent cap hit was $7 million, commands, it might not be practical for the Penguins to keep him.
He very well could return to Pittsburgh for a do-over after the false start to his search for a Stanley Cup. But if he does not, the soon-to-be 36-year-old power forward could get a conceivable opportunity to try his luck in either of these locations:
1. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings currently have the most cap space (more than $11 million) among the four teams Iginla reportedly approved, according to Sean Gentille of Sporting News, before the Flames dealt him.
In addition, they could stand to shore up their offensive depth more than most Cup contenders and are coached by Darryl Sutter, one of Iginla’s former bench bosses in Calgary.
2. St. Louis Blues: The Blues should be a contender on the rise, but have twice stumbled to postseason defeat at the hands of the stifling Kings.
Furthermore, they still list Jamie Langenbrunner on injured reserve and just lost 35-year-old alternate captain Andy McDonald to retirement, meaning they could use a booster injection of veteran presence up front.
As Katie Carrera noted last month in The Washington Post, “[Mike] Ribeiro earned $5 million this season and he could easily command the same annual amount on the free agent market, where he would be one of the few elite forwards available.”
As of this writing, the Capitals had less than $6 million in projected cap space for 2013-14, and that’s without a new deal for fellow forwards Marcus Johansson and Matt Hendricks or a spare seventh defenseman.
But there are plenty of teams with more flexible payrolls who could stand to elevate their offensive depth with Ribeiro's help.
1. Ottawa Senators: The Senators have 19 players on their NHL payroll for next season, including 12 forwards, and more than $22 million of cap space to work with.
With or without Daniel Alfredsson and Guillaume Latendresse, both pending free agents, still lacking a new deal, the Sens could use a little more seasoning. As promising as Cory Conacher, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad all are, they combine for only a modicum of major league experience.
Adding the likes of Ribeiro and having a healthy Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek just might boost Ottawa to bona fide Cup-contender status.
2. Buffalo Sabres: On a team that already had a decent amount of cap room, goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Drew Stafford are two players with hefty hits whose names have surfaced in trade chatter. If the latter were to move, thus leaving another void up front, Ribeiro could be a candidate all the more to join in on the Sabres’ ongoing overhaul.
3. Nashville: Although the Predators still need to sign or re-sign multiple defensemen and a goaltender, they may have enough space to enlist Ribeiro for help with their shortage of elite offense.
A report at the end of last month notes that Michael Ryder’s second stint with the Montreal Canadiens will end with the expiration of his current deal.
In the contract preceding that one, the 33-year-old Ryder’s income and cap hit took a small dip from $4 million to $3.5 million when he was with the Stars.
Assuming he seeks no more, or at least not much more than that, Ryder will be an enticing middle-tier offensive commodity given his regular-season output of the last two years and his playoff performances in 2009 and 2011. With all of those factors, he could fit in with these franchises:
1. N.Y. Islanders: If the aforementioned Boyes is, in fact, not to return, then Ryder could fill a void on the right wing and serve as an upgrade over the likes of Colin McDonald.
2. Winnipeg Jets: Ryder and Blake Wheeler have a history of linking up on a line from their days as teammates in Boston. Back then, they helped boost the Bruins from barely playoff-eligible to Cup contenders. The Jets could now have a similar rise in store, especially with realignment finally giving them a more reasonable travel regimen.
3. New York Rangers: With their current allotment of cap space (a little over $14 million) and a handful of key skaters still yet to re-sign, the Blueshirts might be a tad strapped to pursue Ryder. However, if they can make it work, he can bring invaluable aptitude and experience, especially if this franchise is moving on from Brad Richards.
Newsday holds that Mark Streit will be donning a new combination of crest and colors next season. Assuming that report is fully accurate, teams seeking a decently productive point-patroller renowned for his reliability on the power play will have an enticing option.
1. Ottawa: Like the aforementioned Gonchar, Streit is a left-handed-shooting offensive specialist who had a similar power-play output in 2013. Gonchar tallied a 2-10-12 scoring log on the man advantage for the Sens, while Streit amassed 3-8-11 totals in that situation for the New York Islanders.
Perhaps more to the point, though, Streit is seasoned, but still four years younger than Gonchar at age 35.
2. N.Y. Rangers: Regarding the Rangers’ search for a power-play remedy, ESPN New York’s Katie Strang recently wrote that “a right-handed defenseman with a big shot to quarterback their power play... will be one of the team’s top priorities this summer.”
Naturally, the “right-handed” aspect rules Streit out at first. However, if the Blueshirts cannot land anybody after a painstaking search and the former captain of the crosstown rival is still available, he might be a better option than nothing at all.
3. New Jersey: In reference to another pending free agent, Marek Zidlicky, TSN’s Scott Cullen notes, “Zidlicky has been the Devils’ best offensive defenceman, so if the 36-year-old does move on, that would leave a role to fill on the power play.”
Putting two and two together, that would mean adding New Jersey to the scroll of conceivable Streit suitors.
Thirty-year-old blueliner Ryan Whitney needs a change of scenery after his past two seasons as an Oiler, which yielded a cumulative 7-26-33 scoring log and minus-10 rating in 85 games, made him look 10 years older than he actually is.
1. Buffalo: Beyond Christian Ehrhoff (five goals, 22 points in 47 games), Buffalo could not cultivate much production from the blue line this past season. Ditto the previous year, when Jordan Leopold and Tyler Myers, who missed 27 games, finished a distant second and third to Ehrhoff.
The recently traded Leopold peaked on offense (so far, anyway) in 2010-11 with 13 goals and 35 points for the Sabres. Whitney is a couple of years younger and had a 59-point season with Pittsburgh in 2006-07 and a 40-point campaign the year after.
2. Philadelphia: Flyers beat writer Bill Meltzer of Hockey Buzz is apt to caution against going after Streit due to the potential commitment and cost. As mentioned in the Bernier slide, Philadelphia is more strapped than anybody else and has even more pressing needs in net.
But Whitney could still be an all-around cheaper, better-than-nothing option to inject a little offensive defense.
3. Ottawa: Just as it is with the Flyers, Whitney could be an alternative resort for the Senators if they decide to pursue, but ultimately fail to land, the aforementioned Streit.