NHL Players Whose Names Will Dominate Headlines During the Offseason
Regardless of what transpires in the Stanley Cup Final, NHL fans can rest assured this upcoming offseason will undoubtedly be more enjoyable than the 2012 version.
The ominous black cloud of an impending player lockout highlighted the last offseason, even as stars like Rick Nash and Zach Parise switched squads.
This time around, business has been settled. On-ice implications are once again the primary focus of organizations' summer agendas.
There are compelling free agents, emerging standouts set to garner more attention and struggling franchise cornerstones currently shrouded in controversy. All these elements add up to an action-packed offseason for followers of professional hockey.
Here's a look at players you can expect to hear plenty about as another offseason unfolds. Each man commands the spotlight for a unique reason.
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Tuukka Rask is set to become a restricted free agent. Although it's practically impossible to picture the 26-year-old goalie departing Bean Town, he has certainly gained substantial contract leverage with a masterful postseason performance.
Boston wouldn't have sniffed its second Stanley Cup Final in three years without the heroics of Rask, who has stopped more than 30 shots in six playoff games. After eliminating the rival Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, he stifled one of the league's most feared attacks.
Rask limited top-seeded Pittsburgh to two total goals in a four-game sweep. He's earned himself a hefty raise, and it will be interesting to see how Boston's brass handles its new superstar.
Damien Brunner, Detroit Red Wings
Brunner, a 27-year-old who can play at center or on the wing, became one of the league's most intriguing free agents after a strong rookie season with the Red Wings. After spending the early stages of his professional career in native Switzerland, he inked a one-year deal to join Detroit.
After steadily improving during the regular season (26 points in 44 games), Brunner burst onto the scene during an impressive Red Wings playoff run. He scored five goals and dished out four assists in a pair of seven-game series.
Brunner is hardly a household name, but it's hard to argue with what he's been able to accomplish during his inaugural NHL campaign. Don't be surprised if another squad steps in and overpays to pry him away from Detroit.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins own just three postseason series victories since claiming the 2009 Stanley Cup title. As the organization searches for answers, it's easy to point at Fleury as part of the problem.
The 28-year-old netminder has been a Penguins mainstay since the squad selected him with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. Pittsburgh put him between the pipes at 18 years old, and he eventually earned a seven-year, $35 million deal.
However, franchise confidence in Fleury has to be wavering in the wake of another underwhelming playoff performance. He is 14-16 in the Penguins' past four playoff appearances, failing to tally a 90-percent save percentage in each postseason.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma maintains that Fleury is still the team's starting goalie, but questions will swirl around this situation throughout the offseason.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers
New York invested heavily in Nash when it acquired him from Columbus in exchange for three players and inked the winger to an eight-year, $62 million deal last summer. The Rangers sputtered to begin the regular season and, despite an impressive April, failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Fair or not, much of the blame falls on a star-studded lineup led by Nash. Coach John Tortorella has been canned, so the ire of a frustrated fanbase is now directed squarely on a roster perceived as underachieving throughout much of the year.
Nash scored a team-high 21 goals but couldn't shoulder the load during his first playoff appearance as a Ranger. He managed just one score in 12 postseason games, seeming hesitant during much of a second-round loss to Boston.
Nash embraced the big-time setting of Manhattan last offseason. Now he must deal with the scrutiny that so often accompanies a professional sports career in the Big Apple.
Raffi Torres, San Jose Sharks
The 31-year-old left winger continues to garner attention for the wrong reasons. Torres, a key cog in San Jose's 2013 journey, saw his checkered past catch up with him when the league assessed a violent hit he dished out against Jarret Stoll in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal.
The NHL suspended Torres for the final six contests of the series, and ultimately the Sharks' season. The ban came just one year after he was suspended 21 games for a vicious elbow against Chicago's Marian Hossa.
Torres, a former fifth overall draft pick, is a highly effective player but simply can't shake his reputation as "dirty." Now that he's a free agent, we'll see how many squads believe his reward factor outweighs potential risks.
Nathan Horton, Boston Bruins
Horton, viewed as a hit-or-miss playmaker throughout much of his career, has become a stalwart member of Boston's rotation. He headlines an outstanding top line, elevating his efforts in the postseason once again.
The third overall selection of the 2003 draft has hit his stride with the Bruins after meandering his way through a tenure with the Panthers. Horton, who tallied 17 points during the team's 2011 title run, has already matched that total with seven goals and 10 assists.
Horton is one of the hottest players on the planet right now, and it couldn't come at a better time for the Toronto native. He becomes an unrestricted free agent following the playoffs.
Expect his representatives to field plenty of calls when free agency commences. He's far from a sure thing, playing more than 67 games in a season just once since 2008, but that won't keep teams away.
Seth Jones, Presumptive Top Overall Pick in NHL Draft
Star amateur defenseman Seth Jones started his hockey career in Denver. Years later, he's regarded as the top player in an NHL draft dictated by the Colorado Avalanche, who own the first overall pick.
The Avs are expected to field trade offers, but this opportunity seems like the perfect opportunity for a struggling franchise to kick off its rebuilding process. Jones, 18, is a 6'4" specimen who doesn't sacrifice any speed despite his size.
He was regarded as the best player on the 2013 World Junior Championships U.S. squad. Jones would be the first African American athlete selected No. 1 in the NHL draft.
Mike Ribeiro, Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals endured yet another fruitless attempt to reach a Stanley Cup Final. Washington was dumped by the Rangers in Round 1, raising questions about how the franchise should proceed with its current roster.
Ribeiro is among the game's dominant distributors, collecting more than 30 assists for the ninth straight season. He played in all 48 regular-season games, racking up 49 points.
The veteran's contract expired after one season in Washington, and he is set to hit the open market. Ribeiro suffered through a five-year playoff hiatus before this spring, so expect him to prolong his career with a legitimate postseason contender.
Washington would seem to fit the bill, but are the Capitals interested enough to commit to a 33-year-old center long-term?
Pascal Dupuis, Pittsburgh Penguins
Often overshadowed by superstar teammates Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and, most recently, Jarome Iginla, it may be time for Dupuis to test his skills beyond Steel Town.
The right winger established himself as a front-end playmaker during five seasons in Pittsburgh, picking up 172 total points in the past four campaigns.
Dupuis scored a career-high seven playoff goals in 2013, logging more time on ice (18:52) than his previous four playoff runs with the Penguins.
As the 34-year-old prepares to become a free agent, you have to wonder whether teams will be wary of trusting him to maintain production outside of Pittsburgh.
Expect at least six or seven squads to make a legitimate push at signing the savvy veteran.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
Couture lands on this list because he just made the leap to franchise player. The 24-year-old center excelled in the playoffs, posting five goals and six assists in 11 games after scoring a team-high 21 goals during the regular season.
San Jose fans are excited about the team's 2007 first-round pick, who grabbed national publicity by picking up a pair of scores against defending champion Los Angeles during victories in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinal.
He missed just five games in the past three seasons and has grown under the tutelage of team captain Joe Thornton. Couture will enter his fourth full professional campaign surrounded by hype, providing the organization with a fresh face.
Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes
The league's two hottest goaltenders are the last two standing in the 2013 playoffs. That illustrates the importance of having a reliable backstop between the pipes.
Mike Smith is the best of the bunch when it comes to unrestricted free agents. When Detroit locked up Jimmy Howard to a multi-year extension, it ensured Smith would become a hotly coveted player on the market.
Smith, 30, is coming off his two best professional seasons. He accumulated goals-against averages of 2.21 and 2.58.
Just two years ago, another Phoenix netminder made headlines during the offseason when Ilya Bryzgalov brokered a trade to Philadelphia. Smith will be sought after by a number of contenders who view him as a missing link to title hopes.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers
Ah yes, the aforementioned Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian goalie arrived in Philadelphia two summers ago to great fanfare.
The goaltender-needy franchise gave him a nine-year, $51 million deal, but he hasn't earned that cash through his play thus far. He surrendered nearly 2.8 goals per game this season, accumulating a career-low save percentage (90) in the process.
Bryzgalov is a definite candidate to be amnestied or moved by the Flyers. If Philly does indeed dump him, there are sure to plenty of interested parties beyond the City of Brotherly Love.
Considering his track record for rambling and philosophizing, this process could develop into a distraction for the organization if left unresolved.
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Stats can't save Ovechkin from scrutiny anymore. The three-time NHL scoring champion (including this season) saw his squad's campaign come to a crashing halt in the opening round, continuing a troubling series of underwhelming playoff performances for Washington.
The Capitals have since said Ovechkin suffered a left foot injury, creating a legitimate excuse for his pedestrian performance (one goal, one assist in seven games). The two points are a playoff career low, and the Russian superstar is certainly hearing mounting whispers about his ability to get Washington over the hump despite so much individual success.
Unlike Sidney Crosby, the man he's always been measured up to, Ovechkin desperately lacks a signature moment in his career.
Teammate Mike Ribeiro is a free agent, so even more responsibility could fall to Ovechkin during the offseason. You have to wonder if a breaking point is on the horizon for this franchise and its star player if this string of postseason disappointments continues.
Jarome Iginla, Pittsburgh Penguins
Iginla proved he has plenty left in the tank after being acquired by Pittsburgh in a trade with Calgary. The 15-year veteran and Flames legend collected 11 points in 13 regular-season games, seamlessly fitting in with a star-packed group of players after being acquired from the Flames.
He tallied 12 points in the playoffs, the second-best total of his career. Iginla, on the verge of free agency, commands attention because of his remarkable offensive track record.
He has registered 67 or more points in each full season since 2000, scoring at least 31 goals every year. Iginla, 35, fit in well with the Penguins, but contract obligations will make it difficult for Pittsburgh to retain his services.
At this stage of his career, it's all about the Stanley Cup. Iginla is likely to land with one of the league's top title favorites.
Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers
The first overall pick of the 2012 draft paid immediate dividends in Edmonton. Nail Yakupov didn't need much time to make an impact and provide Oilers fans with a refreshing dose of hope.
He led all rookies in scoring with 17 goals and tied the NHL-lead among first-year players with 31 total points. Yakupov, who doesn't turn 20 until October, finished his opening regular season in style.
The Russian product scored six goals in his final three games, including a hat trick in the finale against Vancouver. Hockey's future is in good hands with players like Yakupov.
The NHL would be wise to get his name and face out to the public early and often this summer.