There are still several viable players available on the NHL free-agent market. Now that many of the biggest stars have been signed in the 2014 offseason, there are whispers abound regarding potential veteran bargains.
Nikolai Khabibulin is well past his prime at age 41, yet multiple teams are rumored to be courting him to fill out their rosters as a backup. Meanwhile, Calgary Flames defenseman Chris Butler is a hot commodity, as is another defender in Michael Del Zotto, who last played for the Nashville Predators.
Let's take a closer look at the speculation surrounding this particular trio, with analysis and a glimpse of what the interest could mean for the players' futures.
Kings Join Maple Leafs In Pursuing Nikolai Khabibulin
The past several seasons have not been banner years for Khabibulin by any means. In four starts for the Chicago Blackhawks this last season, he had a woeful .811 save percentage and a 5.01 GAA.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs are nevertheless entertaining the notion that Khabibulin has something left in the tank, per Sportsnet.ca's Josh Rimer:
Hearing that Maple Leafs have some interest in signing Nikolai Khabibulin to back up Bernier. It may not happen but told there's interest.— Josh Rimer (@JoshRimerHockey) July 4, 2014
Apparently Toronto isn't alone in that thinking. Even the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings seem to have some sort of faith in Khabibulin, according to Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period:
Kings looking at veteran goalie as precaution in case Quick isn't ready to start season off wrist rehab. Voukoun/Khabibulin being considered— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) July 8, 2014
That is in spite of the fact that Khabibulin underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, cutting short his 2013-14 campaign, in which he was also dealing with a groin injury. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman didn't paint a flattering picture of Khabibulin's future outlook when he was scheduled to be operated on.
"(It was) one of those things where you try to rehab it to avoid surgery," said Bowman, per a January report by Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com. "With him being out with the groin, [he] could work on it the last six weeks or so. It just never got better to the point where it wasn't going to heal without surgery."
As anything more than an emergency backup, Khabibulin can't contribute much to an NHL club at this point. However, the Maple Leafs have two young, promising goalies in James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier already, with Reimer thought to be seeking a trade.
Khabibulin could either serve as a backup to Bernier, presuming he is the long-term answer between the pipes or mentor both should Reimer decide to stay.
The reasoning behind Khabibulin's potential landing in L.A. is outlined well in Bernstein's analysis, which hints at how elite goalie Jonathan Quick is recovering from offseason wrist surgery. In either instance, Khabibulin is no more than a fringe No. 2 option and has a wealth of experience to offer anyone he shares the locker room with.
Chris Butler's Market Is Strong
Butler has made the best of a difficult situation in Calgary, playing defense and keeping his effort at a high level in completing all 82 games this last year. With those dues paid, now may be the time for him to move on to a more promising organization.
CBS Sports Radio's Andy Strickland reports that a multitude of teams are attempting to land Butler:
For the price that Butler can likely be had—though it'd be a more expensive price tag than either Khabibulin or Del Zotto would command, for comparison's sake—he's certainly worth the investment. Check out this statistic from CapGeek.com as proof:
Only three remaining UFA d-men averaged 20+ minutes a night last season: Chris Butler, Andre Benoit and Jamie McBain. http://t.co/oDWDaAk9TY— CapGeek (@capgeek) July 7, 2014
He may have logged significant minutes, but it's sometimes difficult to tell how much impact a player has on a struggling team. Only the Edmonton Oilers were worse than the Flames in the Western Conference, contributing to Butler's plus/minus rating of minus-23.
It would be fascinating to see what Butler could do as a member of a Stanley Cup contender. If he had a better supporting cast and superior goaltending behind him, there is a chance Butler could prove to be one of the underrated steals in free agency.
Offers Rolling In For Michael Del Zotto
After bursting onto the NHL scene as a teenager, Del Zotto has been a disappointment. There is no questioning his talent, but he should be preparing to land his first big payday instead of sitting on the sidelines without a home yet.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post recently criticized Del Zotto, encapsulating how he's perceived in this excerpt:
The burden of proof is on the player. It means Del Zotto can’t — or shouldn’t — sell himself for a premium. For right now, five years down a road filled with speed bumps and now a dead end, Del Zotto is perceived as difficult to coach. This is surely a primary reason why Del Zotto remains without a job in a league of third, fourth and fifth chances.
The Fourth Period's David Pagnotta notes that Del Zotto still has a choice of destinations at his disposal:
Michael Del Zotto has attracted interest from multiple teams. Continuing to dissect options and offers.— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) July 3, 2014
But Dan Rosen of NHL.com feels that Del Zotto should have been picked up already based on his skill:
If Michael Del Zotto was a RH shot he likely would have a job already. That no team has taken a flier on the 24 yr old is surprising to me.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) July 8, 2014
Del Zotto has flashed the potential to be a dynamic two-way threat when he's properly engaged, but the perception that he doesn't take to coaching too well will be tough to shake.
Which free-agent defenseman would you prefer your team to sign?
A stable organization, with perhaps a load of veteran defensemen already in place to guide him, would benefit Del Zotto as he tries to get his career back on track. There is so much upside to explore, along with past flashes of brilliance—including when Del Zotto had 37 points in his rookie year with the New York Rangers.
Among the threesome of players in question, Butler has the best combination of experience and recent performance to land a more lucrative deal. On the other hand, he still has something to prove, so his pursuers can cite his team's poor record as a point of leverage in negotiations.
In the case of Khabibulin and Del Zotto, 24, they are in far different places in terms of age yet are trying to salvage their standing as passable NHL players.
Both have been relegated to lower-level hockey, which should only grow the chips on their shoulders. It would be understandable for Khabibulin to finally hang up the skates, but if Del Zotto can't right the ship, he will officially be smacked with a "bust" label as a former first-round pick.