Projecting Roles for the Top NHL Free Agents Who Switched Teams This Summer

Al DanielCorrespondent IIJuly 14, 2013

Projecting Roles for the Top NHL Free Agents Who Switched Teams This Summer

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    Salary cap be darned, 11 members of the NHL’s 2013 free-agent class―whether their contracts expired or were bought out―have found new employment for next season at a cap hit exceeding $4 million.

    With the maximum limit on the cap slimming down to $64.3 million in 2013-14, it is all the more imperative that these players turn in a performance to match their price. Either that, or, if they do not generate a radiant individual output on the scoresheet, their presence must at least  translate to a visible improvement in the team’s success.

    In ascending order of the cap hits on their new contract, here is a look at the 11 highest-grossing free agents through July 13 and how their new teams will most likely try to make their cap hits pay off.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com and all salary information via CapGeek.com.

Vincent Lecavalier

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    With Vincent Lecavalier and the $4.5 million cap hit on his new contract, the Flyers more or less trimmed the cost of their go-to veteran forward by $2 million. Predecessor Danny Briere was carrying a hefty $6.5 million hit at the time of his buyout and subsequent transfer to Montreal.

    The Hockey News currently lists Lecavalier as Philadelphia’s second-line center, sandwiched between Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. Sam Carchidi of The Philadelphia Inquirer concurs, citing Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds as Lecavalier’s prospective linemates.

    That may be the only role that suits him at this point.

    Although his point-to-game ratio increased in 2012-13 (32 points in 39 games), his ability to sustain a head-turning production rate for a full-length, 82-game season is in question. That rules out first-line duties.

    On the other hand, Lecavalier has made few, if any, observers mistake him for a Selke-caliber forward at any point in his career. That means the third line, often a synonym for one’s “checking” line, is also out of the question.

    With all of that being said, assuming he stays healthy, Lecavalier should have enough to help the likes of Schenn and Simmonds feed off of his seasoned offensive proficiency en route to a couple of breakout campaigns.

Ryane Clowe

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    The New Jersey Devils incomprehensibly let David Clarkson get away (more on him later), but they may have found a suitable replacement in Ryane Clowe.

    Clowe has roughly a year-and-a-half in age, one inch in height and 25 pounds in weight on Clarkson. In addition, he has cracked the 20-goal, 40-point and 50-point plateau more often in his NHL career.

    To throw in a caveat, time will tell as to how much of that production circa 2008-2012 was inflated by the fact that Clowe was on a traditionally loaded San Jose strike force. His 3-5-8 run in 12 games with the Rangers after an uncharacteristically goal-less first three quarters of last season with the Sharks is too small of a sample to gauge.

    Come what may, the Devils will need to bank on him filling the role of a power forward with a top-six offensive caliber. He is, after all, easily the team’s third-priciest forward with a $4.85 million cap hit.

    He was the fourth-priciest in that group for a short while, until there was another incomprehensible development in Ilya Kovalchuk’s retirement. The loss of that prolific striker means it will be all the more imperative to foster new, younger talent in the form of Adam Henrique (if they can re-sign him first), among others.

    Clowe could be New Jersey’s man to simultaneously protect and collaborate with those rising producers.

Stephen Weiss

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    Replacing Valtteri Filppula (more on him in just a moment) as their second-line center was all but the consensus rationale behind the Detroit Red Wings pursuing Stephen Weiss.

    They locked in the 30-year-old, career-long Florida Panther for a $4.9 million cap hit.

    Assuming the worst of a limited 2012-13 season (only 17 games played) is behind him, Weiss will earn his career-high cap hit, first and foremost, through playmaking. With Pavel Datsyuk rigidly manning the pivot position on the first line, it will be on him to spell the crafty Russian for the better part of his off-shifts.

    Brendan Savage of M-Live is already venturing to guess that the comparatively gritty and grizzled Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson will flank Weiss. If that happens, then the Wings’ new center will complete a reasonably balanced unit’s formula by bringing the finesse and diligent puck-handling.

    In previous years, Weiss has also been one of Florida’s power-play production leaders. He led the team with 16 helpers in that situation in 2010-11, 12 goals and 22 points in 2009-10, 17 assists in 2008-09 and 10 goals in 2006-07.

    Worst-case scenario in that department will have Weiss looking to lend Detroit some always-welcome depth in the way of special teams.

Valtteri Filppula

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    All-around versatility is Filppula’s strongest plus point. His online profile from The Hockey News notes that he “[c]an play all three forward positions” and sums him up as a “[q]uality two-way forward.”

    Although he is not top-notch in any department and his $5 million cap hit is arguably a tad excessive, Filppula is in a position to serve as a vital brick in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s reconstruction.

    The Bolts are coming off a season where they barely finished with a cumulative minus-two scoring differential, despite allowing a toe-curling 3.06 opposing goals per game.

    More recently, some of the players who fueled an identical 3.06 goals for per night have been cut loose in Benoit Pouliot and the aforementioned Lecavalier.

    Filppula will have an opportunity to help remedy both situations, either as a second- or third-liner. If it is the former, he will need to feed off of his fellow top-sixers en route to reliable production while also using his defensive instinct to bring more stability to Tampa’s transition game.

Sergei Gonchar

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    Granted, the Dallas Stars traded for and signed Sergei Gonchar before he hit free agency, but there are not many big-name, big-money defensemen who qualify for this slideshow.

    Gonchar, who will cost the Stars a $5 million cap hit on a two-year deal worth $10 million, remains capable of consuming more than 20 nightly minutes of ice time.

    The same is true of four of Dallas’ defensive holdovers in Trevor Daley, Brenden Dillon, Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas. In the same vein, pursuing Gonchar speaks to the organization’s craving for a more proven asset, which is easy to understand considering its protracted playoff drought.

    With his age, seasoning and playmaking prowess, Gonchar is practically a resident amalgamation of Goligoski and Robidas. In turn, whereas he was a peerless minute-muncher during his final year in Ottawa, his chief job description in Dallas figures to be lending another layer of veteran presence and dependable production from the blue line.

    Packaging those qualities in a single acquisition will be worth all $5 million if Gonchar fulfills the task of actively inciting his new mates to a more assertive start-to-finish campaign.

Mark Streit

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    Just like Gonchar, Mark Streit technically came off the market before free agents were formally turned loose. Nonetheless, the pact he made with the Flyers on June 18 gives him a $5.25 million cap hit, making him the highest-grossing defenseman to switch teams so far this summer.

    For at least one year, Streit figures to join a Philadelphia blue-line brigade that features a similar player in Kimmo Timonen. Timonen is a fellow defender in his later 30s who can still play more than one-third of a game and specializes in power-play point patrolling.

    With fellow minute-munchers Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn in the equation, Streit’s new arrangement does anything but guarantee a repeat of what he had as a New York Islander. He actually consumed more minutes there in 2012-13 (1,120:40) and averaged more nightly ice time (23:20) than any of his new teammates in Philadelphia.

    Depending on how each veteran looks and performs in training camp, Streit could unseat Timonen as the top offensive defenseman and power-play quarterback. But in a worst-case scenario, he will settle for a second-unit role in both situations.

David Clarkson

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs led the league with 1,626 hits last season. Among their forwards, Nikolai Kulemin and Leo Komarov led the way with 122 and 176 checks, respectively.

    Komarov has since gone back to the KHL, and either way, the Leafs could use a little more NHL seasoning up front as well as both physicality and some scoring touch.

    That is where David Clarkson comes in. New Jersey’s previously mentioned loss is the Leafs' gain in the form of a 29-year-old, six-season veteran who was always the most or second-most frequent hitter on the Devils.

    To further justify his seven-year contract with a $5.25 million cap hit, Clarkson has elevated his offensive finish over the past two seasons. He amassed 30 goals for New Jersey in 80 games over 2011-12, then inserted 15 during his team’s 48-game sprint this past year.

Nathan Horton

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    Before he debuts with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have his rights at a cost of $5.3 million against the cap, Nathan Horton will undergo shoulder surgery. The reported healing period of between four and six months can mean anything from missing the first quarter to the first half of the 2013-14 season.

    But once he is ready, Horton figures to play similar minutes to what he did in Boston on Columbus’ second line, hovering around 16 to 17 minutes each night.

    Horton’s skill set, and particularly his scoring touch, make him an unconditional top-sixer. But his history of injuries and cold spells, combined with the fact that the Jackets have a flashier right wing in Marian Gaborik, expose him as less than a first-liner.

    Columbus coach Todd Richards himself has already told The Columbus Dispatch that he envisions Gaborik and Horton working on separate troikas. That arrangement would allow Horton to play an appropriate part in the team’s second wave of offense, blazing a path for the Blue Jackets to attack in droves.

Daniel Alfredsson

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    Precisely how much Daniel Alfredsson can deliver from a productive, practical standpoint is anyone’s guess.

    What is certain, though, is that he will play the role of a motivational spark plug as he approaches the age of 41 in the middle of his 18th NHL season, the first 17 of which ended short of a title in Ottawa.

    Depending on how effective he is in that department, the $5.5 million he is raking in on a one-year deal with Detroit may not be quite as excessive as it initially appears.

Mike Ribeiro

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    Jerry Brown of NHL.com made a vital point on Mike Ribeiro’s transfer to Phoenix, where he will once again play for head coach Dave Tippett. Ribeiro previously answered to Tippett in Dallas, where they went on a pair of playoff runs with the Stars, reaching the third round in 2008.

    Brown termed Ribeiro “[a] legitimate, playmaking, No. 1 center.” The playmaking aspect of that assessment juts out in that the Coyotes have been lacking a dynamic passer since Ray Whitney left for none other than the Stars.

    Before Whitney bolted, he amassed a team-best 53 helpers in 2011-12 and 40 in 2010-11. No Phoenix forward reached the 20-assist plateau during this past season’s 48-game schedule.

    Ribeiro has the means to pick up some of that slack and lessen the need to rely on playmaking defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle. But unlike Whitney, Ribeiro is a bit of an upgrade in that he is a natural center and eight years younger.

Jarome Iginla

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    Reeling in $6 million on a one-year deal, Jarome Iginla takes on a twofold task with the Boston Bruins.

    From a practical, tangible hockey perspective, he will plug the top-six, right-side power forward void in lieu of the aforementioned Horton. That would mean fitting in as Milan Lucic’s fellow rugged scoring winger to sandwich the finesse playmaking proficiency of center David Krejci on the top line.

    From a less tangible standpoint, he plugs the elder statesman vacancy among the forwards, a role that Mark Recchi played from 2009 to 2011 and Brian Rolston briefly assumed in 2012. As the former captain of the Calgary Flames, the 36-year-old Iginla certainly has the requisite leadership credentials, and he still has that Cup craving to fulfill.