Looking Ahead: The Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agents Of 2011
The NHL’s unrestricted free agent crop of 2010 is not a particularly strong one. Patrick Marleau and Thomas Plekanec make up two of the strongest forwards available, while Nik Lidstrom and Evgeni Nabokov are two of the strongest players available on the back end.
It is the belief of most prognosticators that Marleau, Lidstrom, and Nabokov will all re-sign with their current clubs, with Plekanec being the most likely to move on.
Given the suspected lack of movement and the belief that the 2010 unrestricted free agent crop will be very average overall, it may be wise for teams to save their cap space for 2011—or so you’d think.
When you look at the overall picture for 2011 UFAs, it mirrors 2010 very well—great talent at the top, but not much depth. That said, the 2011 crop has some very impressive names available at the top of the list—many of which will be pursued aggressively by many NHL GMs.
With that in mind, let’s look at 10 UFAs for the summer of 2011.
Brad Richards (Centre)
Coming off a year in which he scored 71 goals and 186 points with the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL, Brad Richards was taken in the third round (64th overall) of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Richards scored 41 goals and 124 points in his first two NHL seasons, solidifying his reputation as a strong competitor with a nose for the net and the ability to play a tremendous two-way game.
Known for his strong character and compete level, Richards has carved out a nice NHL career thus far, including a Stanley Cup victory in 2003-04 to go along with his Lady Byng Memorial and Conn Smythe trophies.
Given the Lightning's salary cap restrictions, Richards was squeezed out of Tampa Bay's long-term plans when he was traded to the Dallas Stars in 2007-08.
Hampered by injuries in 2008-09, there were rumblings around NHL circles that Richards had lost his edge—and he may, in fact, have been a poor acquisition for the Stars.
Fast forward to 2009-10, and you’ll find Richards in his familiar spot amongst his peers—top 10 in NHL scoring (21 goals and 79 points through 69 games) and, perhaps, the NHL’s comeback player of the year.
In 689 career NHL games, Richards has amassed 189 goals and 438 assists for 627 points, falling just short of a-point-a-game status.
Richards is a consistent scorer and has exceptional leadership skills. He has been part of a Stanley Cup winner and has a considerable competition level.
These factors and more will attract many NHL GMs to pursue Richards—if the Stars allow him to become a free agent in 2011.
Joe Thornton (Centre)
Originally drafted first overall by the Boston Bruins in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, Joe Thornton spent seven seasons with the Bruins before being traded to the San Jose Sharks in 2005-06.
At the time of the trade, many NHL GMs and fans alike questioned the Bruins for making the move.
Alarm bells went off when Thornton went on to register 92 points in just 58 games with the Sharks— giving him a total of 125 points on the season, which earned him the Art Ross Trophy.
Thornton has since gone on to register point totals of 114 (2006-07), 92 (2007-08), and 86 (2008-09)—and he is on pace to register another 90-point season here in 2009-10.
As good as Thornton has been in the regular season, there has been plenty of criticism for his and his team's lack of success in the playoffs.
Through 40 career playoff games with the Sharks, Thornton has amassed just six goals to go along with 29 assists for a combined 35 points—decent totals, but not all-star-caliber totals.
Criticism aside, “Jumbo” Joe Thornton is one of the NHL’s premier set-up men—and he is regarded as a great leader and a tremendous person off the ice.
Character, competition level, and a desire to win will attract numerous GMs—if/when Thornton becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2011.
Mikko Koivu (Centre)
Originally drafted in the first round (sixth overall) in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild, Mikko Koivu has (very) quietly emerged as an NHL All-Star.
A legitimate 20-goal, 70-point threat, Koivu brings a combination of speed, skill, and size (he’s 6’2”, 200 pounds), that makes most NHL GMs drool. Like his brother Saku, Mikko is a good NHL citizen on and off the ice.
Koivu will be 29 years old once 2011 rolls around. His combination of size, age, offensive talent, and character will attract many NHL GMs—culminating in what should be a rather large free-agent contract.
Koivu plays in an environment that demands he play two-way hockey—which restricts his offense but also makes him a complete player who can play in any situation.
Two-way forwards who can score 20-plus goals and net 70 or more points are hard to come by— which all but assures Koivu will get plenty of attention come 2011.
Alexander Semin (Left Wing)
Originally drafted in the first round (13th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Alexander Semin has quickly established himself as an All-Star-caliber sniper.
Blessed with the advantages that come with playing alongside Alexander Ovechkin, Semin is to Ovi as Jari Kurri was to Wayne Gretzky—a legitimate secondary scoring threat, which makes their line one of the most feared in the entire NHL.
Semin will be 26 years old when the 2011 free agent frenzy rolls around. His age and skill set will be tough for NHL GMs to ignore—making him a major target.
Injuries have conspired to take away from Semin’s totals over the years—that said, he’s still right around a point-a-game player, having posted 287 points in 317 career NHL games.
With Semin, the sky is the limit—and he should/will be compensated as such come 2011.
Martin St. Louis (Right Wing)
Martin St. Louis has been proving NHL GMs wrong for two decades. Unfairly labeled as “too small," “too light," “too soft," and “one-dimensional” for most of his career, St. Louis went undrafted.
He was given a chance by the Calgary Flames in 1998-99 and 1999-2000, but he was quickly shipped off to the Tampa Bay Lightning when the Flames ran out of patience with the offensively gifted St. Louis.
After joining the Lightning, St. Louis quickly established himself as a legitimate scoring threat and a tough competitor. The NHL watched as St. Louis' goal-scoring totals rose from 18 in 2000-01 to 38 in 2003-04.
St. Louis' point totals peaked in 2006-07, when he registered 43 goals and 102 points—both career highs. Through 763 career games, St. Louis has amassed 670 points—proving he is durable and consistent.
This season, through 73 games, St. Louis has registered 26 goals and 85 points, ranking him fifth overall in NHL scoring—which puts him ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk (13th), Zach Parise (14th), Evgeni Malkin (19th), Jarome Iginla (22nd), and Patrick Kane (ninth), and just three points behind the great Sidney Crosby, who is ranked third overall in NHL scoring with 88 points through 72 games.
That’s a pretty impressive list of players to be outperforming (statistically).
Stamina, offensive prowess, leadership, and speed is what puts St. Louis head and shoulders above many of the NHL’s so-called elite players.
The fact is, at 34 years old, St. Louis is getting it done—and he should be a very hotly pursued unrestricted free agent come 2011, despite his age (36) at that time.
Zdeno Chara (Defense):
Originally selected in the third round (56th overall) in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, Zdeno Chara (The Big Z) is one of the most feared defensemen in the entire NHL.
Blessed with a 6’9”, 255-pound frame, Chara consistently handles NHL forwards as if they were Keebler elves—that is to say, he physically dominates them.
Chara’s strength, defensive prowess, and hockey sense is well-documented—as is his super-human strength—just ask Florida Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe or Colorado Avalanche forward Darcy Tucker (both Toronto Maple Leafs at the time) about that! Chara manhandled both of these players when challenged to a fight.
Chara was the recipient of the 2008-09 Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. While he has struggled to find the same success this season, Chara has been a consistent double-digit scorer and a 40-plus point producer for much of his career.
This hulking beast of a defenseman is an All-Star talent who speaks seven languages. He was a huge reason the Boston Bruins fared as well as they did last season.
Toughness, ruggedness, leadership ability, and overall consistency in all facets of the game will make Chara very attractive to many NHL GMs.
Even at 35 years old in 2011, whichever team lands him will reap the rewards of signing this unrestricted free agent giant.
Andrei Markov (Defense)
Originally drafted in the sixth round (162nd overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Markov has become one of the NHL’s most dominant defensive forces.
The Montreal Canadiens went in the tank without the services of Markov this season.
Upon Markov’s return, the Canadiens turned things around, as Markov almost single-handedly turned around the team's fortunes—which, before his return, looked pretty bleak.
Markov will be 33 years old when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2011. His offensive abilities, special teams play, and leadership qualities make him one of the most coveted defensemen to hit the free agent market in quite some time.
Markov is a franchise player capable of making a difference on a nightly basis. Clearly, players of this caliber are hard to find—which should make him a target for many NHL GMs come 2011.
Tomas Kaberle (Defense)
Originally drafted in the eighth round (204th overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tomas Kaberle was a steal.
A perennial All-Star, Kaberle is one of the NHL’s most underrated defensemen. His calm demeanor and ability to play in all zones endears him to coaches and teammates alike.
If there is one criticism that often is thrown in Kaberle’s direction, it is that he often neglects to shoot the puck on the power play.
That said, he has been a little better of late—which may signal that Kaberle is rounding into the total package.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke will have to weigh the value of keeping Kaberle and his cheap contract with electing to trade Kaberle for much needed offensive help.
Either way it shakes out, Kaberle will likely attract a lot of attention if he elects to test free agency in 2011.
Tomas Vokoun (Goalie)
Originally drafted in the ninth round (226th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens, Tomas Vokoun has split the majority of his career with the Nashville Predators and the Florida Panthers.
Not blessed with the most talent in front of him, Vokoun has been a stalwart between the pipes with the Preds and Panthers.
Through 59 games this season, Vokoun is ranked second overall in shots against (1.958), second in saves (1,817), third in save percentage (.928), 10th in goals against average (2.45), and second in shutouts (7). All this on a team that is ranked 18th overall in goals against and 24th overall.
To say Vokoun’s stats are impressive would be an understatement. At 33 years old, Vokoun still has an additional four to five years during which he could be an All-Star-caliber keeper.
If he ever got with a winning program, his win/loss totals would be off the hook—perhaps amongst the best in the NHL.
Whether he stays in the Sunshine State with the Panthers or leaves for greener pastures (on the ice), one thing is for sure: Tomas Vokoun will make a major impact on his team's fortunes—making him a player of interest in 2011 for many NHL GMs.
Ilya Bryzgalov (Goalie)
Originally drafted in the second round (44th overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Ilya Bryzgalov has slowly made the ascent to elite goaltender amongst NHL puck-stoppers.
At 6’3” and 210 pounds, Bryzgalov is a large body goaltender who is blessed with speed and agility to boot. His positioning is superb, and his puck and rebound control is exceptional—making him the complete package.
Through 63 games with the Coyotes this season, Bryzgalov has earned a record of 39-19-4—on a team that many prognosticators believed would be amongst the NHL’s bottom feeders.
Bryzgalov will be 31 come 2011, meaning he is just now coming into his prime as a goalie.
Needless to say, there will be a lineup of NHL GMs waiting, pen in hand, for a chance to sign Bryzgalov to a long-term big money contract—that is, if the Coyotes let him get away (which is doubtful).
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Until next time,