Predicting Which Teams Will Make the Biggest Splash in 2014 NHL Free Agency

Dave LozoNHL National Lead WriterJune 24, 2014

Predicting Which Teams Will Make the Biggest Splash in 2014 NHL Free Agency

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    With the salary cap set to rise by about $7 million for the 2014-15 season, every team in the NHL has enough money to land at least one big-time player when free agency opens July 1.

    Not every team will do that for a variety of reasons—internal budgets, unattractive destination, only so many big-time players available—but there should be some wild spending coming down the road.

    There's also the trade avenue that seems to involve more top-notch players than usual, especially at the center position—Joe Thornton, Ryan Kesler, Jason Spezza are all rumored or, in the case of Spezza, are available at the right price. Considering the second-best center on the free-agent market after Paul Stastny is either Brad Richards or David Legwand, that makes for an interesting wrinkle for teams looking to improve down the middle.

    So which teams will be making the most noise in free agency?

    Some teams have big decisions on their own UFAs (Montreal, Colorado, N.Y. Rangers) while others could be factors on players reaching the open market (Minnesota, Anaheim). This is all speculation, but here are eight teams that are in a position to change their fortunes for the better via free agency.

     

    (All statistics via NHL.com, all contract information via CapGeek.com)

Minnesota Wild

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    Estimated cap space: $23 million

    Players signed: 17

    Needs: Forwards, an offensive defenseman

    Breakdown: The contracts of Dany Heatley and Matt Moulson have expired, and while the former's abilities diminished over the years and the latter was just a rental, the Wild need to replace them up front. The Wild were 24th in goals per game (2.43) last season, but Michael Russo of the Star Tribune reported that the team is no longer guaranteed to pay for Thomas Vanek or any veteran free-agent forward.

    The top free-agent defenseman is Matt Niskanen, who had 10 goals and 46 points for the Penguins last season. Dan Boyle is a veteran option who will command less money and fewer years than Niskanen. 

    No matter what, the Wild should be one of the major players in early July.

     

New York Rangers

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Estimated cap space: $24 million

    Players signed: 12

    Needs: Center, Defense

    Breakdown: The Rangers can't spend wildly, as RFAs Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore will eat up some of that space. But this is the Rangers, who regularly make waves during the offseason, whether it's signing Brad Richards or acquiring Rick Nash. Besides looking for an adequate replacement for Richards, signing UFA Anton Stralman should be their biggest priority. 

    If Stralman leaves, Matt Niskanen (prepare to see his name a lot in this slideshow) could be an expensive replacement, although the Rangers would likely look to an in-house fill-in.

Anaheim Ducks

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    Estimated cap space: $23 million

    Players signed: 19

    Needs: No. 2 center

    Breakdown: There may not be a more attractive free-agent destination this summer than Anaheim. The Ducks have money to spend, had 116 points last season and it's tough to beat southern California as a destination.

    The problem for the Ducks is two-fold: After Paul Stastny, who could still re-sign with the Avalanche, the next best center on the market is Brad Richards, and while the Ducks have cap room with the retirement of Teemu Selanne, they don't want to block any of their young and up-and-coming players that are ready to contribute.

    If the players they covet aren't available, the Ducks could land their center behind Ryan Getzlaf by trading for either Jason Spezza or Ryan Kesler, but that would require giving up young assets. The Ducks have plenty to offer in a trade, but if they can land Stastny without relinquishing picks, prospects or young players on the roster, that would be ideal.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Estimated cap space: $25 million

    Players signed: 17

    Needs: Sign P.K. Subban, another defenseman, forward help

    Breakdown: The Canadiens may not be the biggest of players in the UFA market, but they will look to lock up P.K. Subban to a long-term contract after deciding against that notion two years ago. Andy Strickland of Fox Sports Southwest and other outlets reported that Subban is looking for a contract "north" of seven years and $45.5 million, which seems like an understatement since he is worth far more than $6.5 million per season.

    What Subban earns will play a role in what GM Marc Bergevin can spend to replace Brian Gionta. It looked as though Andrei Markov would not be back, either, but the 36-year-old Markov just signed a three-year, $17.5 million extension on Monday, per ESPN.

    The biggest move Montreal will make is re-signing Subban, but it has work to do in other areas and money to spend.

St. Louis Blues

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    Estimated cap space: $22 million

    Players signed: 18

    Needs: Offense

    Breakdown: The Blues finished seventh in offense (2.92 goals per game) last season, but it was their lack of offense that submarined their season in the playoffs, as they were held to five goals over four consecutive losses to the Blackhawks in the first round (after winning the first two games). In their final 14 regular-season games, the Blues scored just 21 goals.

    The team allowed Ryan Miller to walk via free agency and will go with the inexpensive tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, who combine to cost $3.3 million against the cap in 2014-15. That will free money to spend on any available offensive threat they can land or perhaps make a push to land Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Ryan Kesler or any other talented forward available via trade.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

    Estimated cap space: $23 million

    Players signed: 18

    Needs: A top-four defenseman, O'Reilly/Stastny signed

    Breakdown: The Avalanche are in for a fun offseason no matter how things go down with their own free agents. Paul Stastny is a UFA and the team wants him back, as long as it's the right price.

    "We're hopeful we can sign him," Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic said during a conference call this past weekend. "We have our structure, and I know he understands that. He's earned the right to be unrestricted. If he chooses that path, he has the right to do that and see what's out there. But we're definitely hopeful to keep Paul here."

    Ryan O'Reilly is an RFA, one who signed an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames in 2013 before the Avs matched it. The team has elected to take him to salary arbitration, and if a long-term deal can't be worked out, O'Reilly could receive a one- or two-year deal—but that bridge won't be crossed until after July 15. Either way, unless the relationship is destroyed, O'Reilly should be back for at least next season.

    O'Reilly drama aside, the Avs will need to replace Stastny should he depart. Considering the drop-off in talent among free-agent centers beyond Stastny, the Avs should consider overpaying a bit to keep him long-term.

    Andre Benoit is a UFA and logged 20:12 per game last season. Tyson Barrie could be ready for a bigger role next season, but the Avs need some help along their back end for 2014-15.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Estimated cap space: $36 million

    Players signed: 15

    Needs: Professional hockey players, lots of them

    Breakdown: When it comes to major players in free agency, it's easy to look at Cup contenders with money to spend. The Sabres don't fall into that category, but they will have no choice but to spend money on free agents because they are about $18 million below the estimated salary-cap floor. 

    The Sabres have five RFAs that will help them get closer to the floor, but new GM Tim Murray will have to shell out a few dollars to UFAs to reach the bare minimum for team spending. It will be especially complicated since no high-priced free agents will want to play for Buffalo, which means Murray will have to piecemeal a roster with UFAs to reach the floor.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Estimated cap space: $14 million

    Players signed: 18

    Needs: Help on defense, another forward

    Breakdown: The Lightning could be the most attractive destination in the East. They are loaded with great young players, and with Steven Stamkos entering his prime, the Lightning should be a force in the conference for years. 

    If the Lightning choose to buy out the final year of Ryan Malone's contract, that would give the team about $18.5 million to spend on free agency. Negotiations are ongoing with right wing Ryan Callahan, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Rangers for Martin St. Louis.

    Matt Niskanen would be a welcome addition to the Lightning's top four defensemen alongside Matt Carle, Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer. Niskanen would be a pricey addition but one the Lightning can afford if Malone is out of the mix.