NHL Free Agency 2014: Predicting the Landing Spots for Top Players
How would one classify this year's free-agent pool? It's not fire; it's not ice. More, as Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls might have said, like lukewarm water. More "meh" than "wow."
Some names that might have made it more of the latter than the former—say, Ryan Callahan or Marian Gaborik—re-upped with their teams in the final days before Tuesday's start to the open auction. As this piece went to cyber-press, other players were still battling the temptation of going to market or settling back with their own clubs. Paul Stastny of the Avalanche and Jarome Iginla of the Bruins come to mind.
Others, though, are testing the market no matter what. They include Thomas Vanek, Matt Niskanen, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Ales Hemsky, Jussi Jokinen and several others. We'll attempt to successfully prognosticate where the biggest names will go.
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The Minnesota Wild have made it plain to Vanek's agent, Steve Bartlett, that they're interested. Bartlett told the Pioneer Press that his client, a Minnesota resident and former Golden Gopher at "The U," has interest from a group of other teams, too.
He said Tuesday could be an interesting day:
I think it's going to be quite a bit of fluid activity over the next few days and as we get through the draft and see if any trades impact anything, the cap space announcement and all that stuff. There's a lot of moving pieces right now that we'll get sorted out in time, but I don't think it's going to be a case of a clear-cut thing.
The pros on Vanek: He's a proven scorer. That's what he does; he scores you 25-40 goals.
The cons: He's widely seen as a one-dimensional, occasionally lazy player who doesn't play with fire. His cap hit the last few years—with Buffalo, the Islanders and Montreal—has been $7.1 million. If any team meets or exceeds that figure, they will very much be overpaying. But maybe he'll still get it.
The Wild have the cap room and are expected to lose Matt Moulson to free agency. Therefore...
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Minnesota Wild. He's a Minnesota guy. It all fits.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Ducks, Rangers, Devils, Avalanche, Capitals.
The Wild won't attempt to re-sign Moulson, which just adds to the supposition of those who think deadline trades and free-agent signings rarely work. Minnesota once thought this guy could help them win a Cup, but the truth was he didn't do much of anything for the Wild in their two-round playoff run.
Still, he has proven numbers as a scorer, and so he'll unquestionably get between $3-5 million a year on the open market come Tuesday.
Moulson will be 31 in November. He's turning into a mercenary type of player. Trouble is, he's never helped any of his team really win anything. Some team is sure to overpay for him, though.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Pittsburgh Penguins. I see him as the replacement for James Neal.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Islanders, Rangers, Sharks, Flyers.
When the Sabres bought out the remainder of Ehrhoff's contract Sunday, per Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine, a bunch of teams immediately began getting their offers ready.
Yes, Ehrhoff was grossly overpaid in Buffalo and never made sense as a big-dollar signee. But on the open market as a $2-4 million kind of guy on a short-term deal, he'd make a lot of sense to several teams.
The Detroit Red Wings are one team that immediately signaled its interest, and that is where I predict he'll end up. Mike Babcock will be the perfect type of coach for his skills, and no doubt he'd like playing on a veteran team like the Wings. That's probably where he should have gone the first time around, but the Wings still had Nicklas Lidstrom then.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Detroit Red Wings.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Sharks, Flyers, Panthers, Islanders, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Lightning.
Speaking of guys who best illustrate the buyer-beware world of trade-deadline dealings...
The Blues couldn't wait to get Miller from the Sabres, believing he was the final piece to a first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Now, they have no interest in keeping him.
General manager Doug Armstrong messed up big-time with the Miller deal. The longtime former Sabre just never seemed mentally ready for the kind of Cup-run situation he was thrust into with St. Louis. It always seemed like he was still trying to get over having left Buffalo after 11 years there.
So now, it's goodbye Blues, hello...?
The market seems limited; most teams have a No. 1 goalie already. If not, they have a youngster or two in the system for whom they are holding the net until then. But if there's a team that seems like the best match, it might be the Vancouver Canucks.
Why? Because they need a goalie, first off. Second, the new GM of the Canucks, Jim Benning, was the man most responsible for bringing him to the Sabres in 1999 as a fifth-round draft pick.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Vancouver Canucks. Miller forfeited his right to be on a Cup contender with his play in St. Louis, so this will have to do.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Wild, Sharks.
If the Canucks don't get Ryan Miller, they likely will circle back to Hiller. But I think he's going to end up in another place: Washington.
The Capitals' goaltending situation is iffy, especially now that Jaroslav Halak is an Islander. Braden Holtby is the only goalie under contract for this coming season, with a $1.85 million cap hit. The Caps don't have a ton of cap space (about $13 million), but enough to afford Hiller. So give him $5 million a year for three years and be done with the worry of who will play goal in that time. He's a fine goalie, one who helped Anaheim to great records the last two regular seasons. Yeah, he seems like a fragile guy who doesn't always show up in the biggest of games, but this is a player who can at least get you to the playoffs.
For the Capitals, that would be huge.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Washington Capitals. Make new coach Barry Trotz happy.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Canucks, Sharks, Wild.
Because I'm an idiot, I had the Capitals confused with the Islanders in a previous posting here. Alas, the Isles are in good stead with Halak now aboard.
As of Monday, June 30, Iginla and the Boston Bruins were still trying to work things out. But if that was to happen, it almost was/is a certainty that other salary would have to be moved to fit him in under a multiyear deal.
Iginla's agent is Don Meehan of the high-powered Newport Sports group, and in my 20 years of covering this league, I have never, not once, known a Meehan client to take a big hometown discount to stay with a team when he knew he'd get a much better deal elsewhere.
I can promise that a lot of teams will be making nice offers to Iginla once he is officially on the market Tuesday. IF he goes on the market Tuesday, that is.
Assuming he does, I see the best fit as the team I cover in Denver, the Avalanche. I see him playing on a line with two of the last three Calder Trophy winners, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog, and loving it. Iginla is a good buddy—and former linemate in the 2002 gold-medal Olympic run for Team Canada—of Avs de facto GM Joe Sakic.
Iginla would be a great fit in Denver playing under Patrick Roy.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Colorado Avalanche. Sakic and Iginla are big-time friends.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Canucks, Sharks, Ducks, Wild, Rangers, Canadiens.
For sure, some team will overpay for this guy. He's got "future buyout" written all over him. But if he can put up similar numbers to the ones he did this past season with Pittsburgh (10 goals, 36 assists), he will look like a good buy for some team.
Star Tribune NHL writer Michael Russo said the Minnesota native could fetch a seven-year deal somewhere, and the Wild are interested. As I said, this guy has buyout written all over him. He's not that great, but in a weak year for free agents, and with teams always on the hunt for something of a reliable D-man, someone is sure to overpay.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: Minnesota Wild. The Wild love to pay too much for guys, so Niskanen fits right in.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Capitals, Rangers, Coyotes, Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Sharks, Ducks.
He made $6.6 million per for the last five seasons with the Avalanche, and for all that money, Colorado got one playoff-round victory, in 2008 against Minnesota.
Still, he had a nice final year of his contract (60 points in 71 games, 54.1 percent on faceoffs), and at least half the league had contacted his agent, Matt Keator, as of Sunday.
The Avs were still trying to keep him as of Sunday night, so he could still be yanked off the open market before Tuesday. But as a general rule, the closer the calendar gets to July 1, the likelier a player is to hit the free market.
Stastny is a nice second-line guy, but he's not a guy who will get fans out of their seats with his play. He's steady—not spectacular. He's almost certainly not worth more than $6 million a year again, but he might just get it. While his birthplace is listed as Quebec, he grew up mostly in St. Louis, and the the Blues just happen to need a center.
PREDICTED DESTINATION: St. Louis Blues. It would all fit if he were to go there.
IF NOT THEM, THEN: Stars, Rangers, Wild, Canadiens, Maple Leafs.