NHL Free Agency: Five Teams One Player Away from the Stanley Cup
There was a lot of progress made on the first day of free agency. 44 players were signed and 33 found new homes.
There have been 77 players signed in total since July 1, including Sergei Gonchar, who went to the Ottawa Senators, Chris Mason, who signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, and Paul Martin, who is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.
Despite the number of signings, there is still a number of impressive free agents still on the market.
Ilya Kovalchuk is rumored to be close to a decision, while Evgeni Nabakov and Bill Guerin have still not signed anywhere.
For some teams, all it takes is signing one key player to get the over the hurdle and into the Stanley Cup Finals. A couple of teams have already signed that player, while a few more are still searching.
Here are five teams who may be just one player away from a Stanley Cup.
Vancouver Canucks—Bill Guerin
If there was one thing the Canucks lacked during their two-round playoff run in 2010, it was a veteran skater like Guerin.
The Canucks have an incredible amount of talent. Roberto Luongo is one of the best goalies in the game, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows are developing into terrific two-way forwards, and the Sedins are in a class of their own.
The Canucks don’t have a lot of money to throw around, but they should have enough to land Guerin for a season. Guerin is looking for about $2 million for this upcoming season, but I think are he will accept less if it comes from a contender—which Vancouver is.
As a whole, the Canucks are a fairly young team. They have just a handful of players over the age of 30—defenseman Sami Salo is the team’s oldest player at 36-years-old.
Guerin would bring experience and, more importantly, two Stanley Cup Championships to a team that could use that veteran presence.
The only thing keeping Guerin out of Vancouver right now is that he has said that he would like to spend another season or two in Pittsburgh and possibly finish his career there.
Tampa Bay Lightning—Dan Ellis
Bear with me here.
Ellis has been part of a goaltending duo his entire career with the Nashville Predators.
With the exception of the 2007-08 season, his numbers haven’t been overwhelming. But as a backup, or at least the second half of a duo, for all of his career, Ellis hasn’t had the greatest number of chances to prove himself.
However, when Ellis has gotten a chance, he has put up some incredible numbers.
He rarely plays more than two games in a row—actually Ellis only did that twice this past season—which makes it incredibly difficult to get into any kind of groove.
But here is a staggering stat for you: Ellis was 5-0 this season when playing in a game after Pekka Rinne had started at least three games in a row. He surrendered just eight goals in those five games.
The Lightning missed out on the playoffs by eight points this season, and Ellis could have gotten them in. And as we all learned in the postseason, anything is possible once a team gets in.
No starting goalie has been named for the Lightning yet. As of now, the odds are in favor of Ellis over Mike Smith, who had a rough year with the Lightning.
Goaltending has left the Lightning stagnant since their 2004 Stanley Cup. If Ellis finally gets a starting position and plays more than 44 games—his career-high—then expect him to lead the Lightning very far next season.
New Jersey Devils—Ilya Kovalchuk
With the Los Angeles Kings out of the picture in the Kovalchuk race, the Devils have become the front-runners.
In fact, by the time you read this, Kovalchuk could already be a Devil.
Obviously Kovalchuk’s first go-around with the Devils didn’t work out as planned, but they should give the guy another chance. While his production may have gone down slightly with the Devils, he still finished with 10 goals and 27 points in 27 games with New Jersey.
The Devils’ shortcomings in the postseason were really not the fault of Kovalchuk. In just his second playoff series ever, the 27-year-old finished with two goals and six points in five games.
With more experience on a winning team like the Devils, Kovalchuk’s ability to win big games will eventually come. Plus, it’s kind of tough to pass on a guy who has scored at least 41 goals in every season since the lockout.
Kovalchuk’s second chance with the Devils will probably pay off with a Cup in the long run, if not next season.
Washington Capitals—Evgeni Nabokov
The last thing the Caps need is another player who chokes in big situations, but Nabokov would be a match made in Heaven—or a match made in the Verizon Center.
Nabokov has proven time and time again that he cannot handle the big stage—like in the NHL playoffs years 2007-2010 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. However, there is a specific appeal here.
Nabokov would be right at home playing with countrymen Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and backup goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
As much as some Washington fans would like to see Varlamov take over the reigns in goal, it might be best for him to learn a few more things for the future. Not only would Varlamov gain important experience from watching Nabokov, but he would probably be more comfortable learning from a fellow Russian he watched growing up.
Slowly, but surely, the Caps could transition Varlamov into the starter he has the potential to be.
The Caps don't have a lot of "cap room" (funny, I know) to work with, but they should be able to work out a two or three-year deal worth maybe $5 million a season. The chance to win a Cup should be more than enough to entice Nabokov to come to Washington.
Worst case scenario: Nabokov chokes in the playoffs again but Varlamov still picks up valuable knowledge—like how to under-perform in the playoffs.
Best-case scenario: The Caps win the Cup.
Colorado Avalanche—Teemu Selanne
The Avalanche proved a lot of critics wrong last season by showing what a ton of youth can do for an entire season.
The Avs finished the season with 43 wins and 95 points, securing the eighth seed in the Western Conference in the process. Despite losing 4-2 to the San Jose Sharks in the opening round, the Avalanche still had a heck of a season.
It has been reported that Selanne is looking for a two-year with the Anaheim Ducks, where he would like to finish his career. However, even with a few players still left to sign, the Avalanche have some money to throw around.
If the Avalanche were to give Selanne a two-year deal for maybe $1 million more than what Anaheim offers, there is a serious possibility the 40-year-old will find himself in Colorado for the second time in his illustrious career.
And don’t let his age fool you. Although he has had a share of injuries the last three seasons, Selanne is still producing close to a point per game. He has combined for 54 goals in the last two seasons, despite missing 45 games in that span.
Selanne’s playoff experience and goal-scoring touch is just what the Avalanche need to make it through four rounds of postseason hockey, as opposed to one.