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Burning Questions as 2013 NHL Free Agency Heats Up

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2013

Burning Questions as 2013 NHL Free Agency Heats Up

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    The first weekend of the NHL's free-agency period is in the books, and there are still many quality players available on the market.

    Free agency is a great place for general managers to improve their team, but landing the top names doesn't guarantee playoff success. In fact, the last three Stanley Cup champions did not make a marquee signing during the summer prior to their title-winning campaign.

    As teams now look at the market and decide which tier-two free agents best fit their rosters, let's answer the burning questions that remain after the first weekend of free agency.

Which Team Will Sign Tim Thomas?

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    Tim Thomas is the biggest wild card on the free-agent market. There's a chance that the 39-year-old veteran could return to the NHL and be one of the best goalies in the world again, or he could fail to play at that level after taking an entire year off from the sport.

    Playing a lot of games late in his career is a challenge that Thomas has overcome many times. He's played in 50 or more games in five of his last six years in the NHL, and even when a hip problem limited his effectiveness during the 2009-10 season, Thomas still appeared in 43 games.

    There are several playoff-caliber teams that may be a goaltender upgrade away from being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. One of those teams is the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose postseason GAA has not been below 2.00 since their run to the Cup Final in 2008.

    Finding a way to sign Thomas would give the Penguins a reliable playoff goalie who won't panic in high-pressure moments and has an impressive resume that includes a Stanley Cup title and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

    Other teams that would be wise to take a chance on Thomas include the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders.

    Thomas may not be the same Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie he was in 2009 and 2011, but on a one-year, incentive-laden deal, signing him is well worth the risk for a team that wants to win now.

Will an RFA Sign an Offer Sheet?

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    With the salary cap going down to $64.3 million and 22 of the NHL's 30 teams having less than $10 million in cap space, we could see an offer sheet this summer as clubs look to make a splash outside of the weak UFA class.

    If a player signs an offer sheet with another club, his current team must match the contract and accept its terms or decline and allow that RFA to leave. If the player leaves, his old team receives draft pick compensation based on the average annual salary in the offer sheet.

    Since the 2004-05 lockout, eight players have signed an offer sheet, and only one of them, Dustin Penner in 2007, has changed teams after his original club declined to match.

    Even if a general manager doesn't think he will successfully sign an RFA with an offer sheet, agreeing to one and forcing a rival team to re-sign a star for more money and longer term than it originally wanted would hurt its salary cap flexibility.

    Here are some players who could see an offer sheet over the next few weeks.

    • Derek Stepan, C, NYR: The Rangers have only $6,555,833 in cap space with Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello to re-sign as RFAs. 
    • Adam Henrique, C, NJD: The Devils signed Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder to UFA deals, which has left them with $7,187,500 in cap space.
    • Sam Gagner, C, EDM: The Oilers already have several forwards on expensive, long-term deals, and there are several more who will want that type of contract in the future, including Gagner. Edmonton might not be able to sign all of its best young players to fair deals.
    • Jake Muzzin, D, LAK: The Kings have $5,203,106 in cap space and seven players with cap hits of $3.5 million or higher for next season.

Which Team Must Make a Splash After Free Agency's First Weekend?

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    The Washington Capitals barely made the playoffs last season as the Southeast Division champions.

    The Southeast had been one of the league's worst divisions since it was created for the 1998-99 season, but with the new realignment plan for next season, the Eastern Conference has only two divisions. Under the new format, Washington will join the Atlantic Division clubs, the Carolina Hurricanes and the rapidly-improving Columbus Blue Jackets from the Western Conference to form "Division C."

    The Capitals won't make the playoffs next year without replacing second-line center Mike Ribeiro, who left the team via free agency on Friday to join the Phoenix Coyotes.

    General manager George McPhee has been searching for a reliable second-line center for many years, and after finally finding one in Ribeiro, he decided to let him walk without a player already on the roster who's ready to replace the veteran.

    Washington has just $8,465,705 in salary cap space remaining and will need to use some of that to re-sign RFA defenseman Karl Alzner. After that deal is finished, McPhee must make a significant upgrade to his roster (ideally a top-six forward or a top-pairing defenseman) for next year if the Capitals are going to contend for a playoff spot.

How Long Will Mikhail Grabovski Go Unsigned?

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    Mikhail Grabovski was bought out of his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs last week and is now one of the best forwards available on the free-agent market.

    He only tallied 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 48 games last year, but in a top-six role on a new team, Grabovski could put up 30-50 points per year.

    The problem for Grabovski is that he didn't exactly leave Toronto with class. He gave an expletive-filled interview with TSN's Jonas Siegel, and it wouldn't be surprising if teams were hesitant to sign him as a UFA after reading those comments.

    With that said, there are many teams that need additional depth and skill at the center position. Here's a list of clubs who should consider signing Grabovski over the next few weeks:

    • Washington Capitals
    • Phoenix Coyotes
    • Vancouver Canucks
    • Nashville Predators
    • New York Islanders
    • Florida Panthers

How Much Money Will Alex Pietrangelo Make as an RFA?

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    Alex Pietrangelo is the top restricted free agent in the 2013 class as a star defenseman with an incredible two-way game and a very bright future.

    Since the St. Louis Blues have $7,850,000 in salary cap space, they have the financial flexibility to sign him, but what exactly will it take to get a deal done? The ideal situation would be to sign him for less than $5 million so the team can also bring back RFA Chris Stewart, one of the team's top scorers and a legitimate power forward.

    But as a No. 1 defenseman capable of excelling in his own end and tallying 45-65 points per season, Pietrangelo could cash in well before he's eligible for unrestricted free agency.

    There are a few recent examples of young defensemen earning long-term deals as RFAs that Pietrangelo's camp will compare their client to. Here are a few of them:

    • Oliver Ekman-Larsson, PHX: Six years, $33 million
    • Travis Hamonic, NYI: Seven years, $27 million
    • Drew Doughty, LAK: Eight years, $56 million
    • Ryan McDonagh, NYR: Six years, $28.2 million

    The fair contract for Pietrangelo would be somewhere between Doughty's monster deal and Ekman-Larsson's team-friendly contract. A seven-year deal worth $43.75 million would be reasonable for both sides.

Which Team Will Sign Damien Brunner?

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    Damien Brunner arrived to the Detroit Red Wings as a 26-year-old rookie last season and immediately showed why he was one of the best players in Switzerland.

    This smooth-skating forward is capable of being productive offensively at center or on the wing and also excels on the power play. He tallied 26 points in 44 games for the Red Wings last season, then added nine points in 14 playoff games as one of the team's most consistent forwards.

    After a successful NHL debut, it's a bit surprising that Brunner remains unsigned after the first weekend of free agency.

    In addition to his goal scoring and playmaking skills, he also protects the puck well, has great speed and would fit nicely with a team that plays a physical style of hockey.

    There are plenty of teams that would be wise to add a player of Brunner's caliber to their roster on a short or long-term deal. Here's a small list:

    • Washington Capitals
    • Phoenix Coyotes
    • Nashville Predators
    • Winnipeg Jets
    • Columbus Blue Jackets

Will Tuukka Rask Become the NHL's Second $7 Million Goalie?

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    Tuukka Rask's decision to take a one-year deal last offseason has proven to be the right choice for his financial future.

    The 26-year-old goaltender was the Bruins' most consistent and highest performing player all season and in the playoffs. His most impressive feat was allowing just two goals in four games against the top-scoring and ultra-talented Pittsburgh Penguins offense in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Even though he's a RFA, Rask will likely become the NHL's second goaltender to earn $7 million per season when his next contract is completed, joining Nashville Predators star Pekka Rinne.

    Boston's netminder already has a proven record of success and still hasn't reached the prime of his career. He's going to be a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie for another decade, and when teams have a young goalie with amazing talent, it's important that he's re-signed long-term as soon as possible.

    At the Bruins' break-up day, Rask talked about staying with the Original Six club for a long time. "That would be an ideal situation I think to play here forever," he said. "I hope we can make that happen."

    We might not have to wait too much longer before Rask re-signs. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli told reporters in a Saturday conference call that the two sides are "very close" to a deal.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. Salary information via CapGeek. All quotes obtained first hand.

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