NHL: The Top 20 Potential Unrestricted Free Agents of 2011

Mark RitterSenior Writer IMarch 17, 2011

NHL: The Top 20 Potential Unrestricted Free Agents of 2011

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    With so many NHL teams locking up their stars to long-term contracts, the window of opportunity to sign a legitimate difference-maker via free agency is getting smaller every  summer.

    The 2011 crop of unrestricted free agents has as many studs as it does duds, but the fact remains that there will be plenty of suitors for blue-chip players.

    While there is no guarantee that all of these players will make it to free agency, looking at the list of potential UFAs, there are 20 players who really stick out.

    Here is my take on the top 20 UFAs available this summer.

Brad Richards, Forward, Dallas Stars

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    Without question, if Brad Richards hits the free-agent market, he will garner plenty of interest from the likes of the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and perhaps a team like the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Needless to say, the Dallas Stars will likely do everything in their power to keep Richards in the fold, but with ownership and salary-cap issues swirling around the Stars franchise, signing Richards may be easier said than done.

    Richards is expected to be looking for a contract in the $6.5-$8.0 million range, which will price him out of the market for many NHL teams.

    While some may question Richards' ability to continue to be an elite player, he is showing no signs of slowing down—he is as good a center as there is in today's NHL.

Tomas Kaberle, Defenseman, Boston Bruins

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    Since coming to the Boston Bruins organization via trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tomas Kaberle has been making a difference.

    His smooth skating style, veteran presence, ability to run the power play and passing abilities will be sought after by a number of NHL clubs, including the Bruins, who like what they have seen of Kabby thus far.

    Quiet and unassuming both on and off the ice, Kaberle is a loyal guy, so don’t look for him to play the market. Rather, I suspect he will sign a new contract with the Bruins—as long as the love is mutual at season’s end.

    Keep in mind, even at 33 years of age, Kaberle still ranks in the top 10 in points (49) amongst NHL defensemen—an impressive feat considering he spent most of the season with the offensively challenged Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tomas Vokoun, Goaltender, Florida Panthers

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    Regarded as one of the most underrated goalies in the entire NHL, Vokoun has had little chance to shine in Florida, so the talented veteran should be looking for change this summer.

    There is no question about Vokoun’s talent, which should garner the veteran goaltender a lot of attention from NHL clubs this summer.

    At 34 years old, Vokoun is not showing any signs of slowing down, posting a save percentage of .919 in 2007-08, .926 in 2008-09, .925 in 2009-10 and .921 thus far in 2010-11.

    Vokoun has also posted goals-against averages of 2.68 in 2007-08, 2.49 in 2008-09, 2.55 in 2009-10 and 2.60 thus far in 2010-11.

    Let’s face it: As far as consistency goes, Vokoun is near the top of the league—another factor that will not go unnoticed by potential suitors.

    Given his age and assumed desire to compete for a Stanley Cup, it is hard to believe that Vokoun would re-sign with the Florida Panthers.

    Look for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche to make a pitch for Vokoun as well as the Panthers, who will be hard-pressed to replace Vokoun.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Defenseman, Detroit Red Wings

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    Before we get carried away here, let me get this over with—if Nicklas Lidstrom hits the free-agent market, he will only re-sign with the Detroit Red Wings.

    Why? Well, for starters, Lidstrom has spent his entire career in the red and white and, given his performance this season (14 goals, 41 assists, for 55 points) the Red Wings are not going to let the ageless veteran go anywhere.

    There were retirement whispers last summer. You can expect more of the same this summer, especially if the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup this year.

    Bottom line—Lidstrom will be a Red Wing for life, end of story.

Andrei Markov, Defenseman, Montreal Canadiens

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    While it is expected that Andrei Markov will sign an extension with the Montreal Canadiens, the demand for Markov will likely depend on his health, or at least the perception of his health.

    Hampered by injuries, Markov has played just 45 games this season. His most serious injury came in November of 2010, when he sustained a serious knee injury from which he has yet to come back.

    The Canadiens have said all along that they believe that Markov will make a full recovery, but until Markov proves that he is "back," many NHL teams will be hesitant to offer the talented veteran a long-term, big-money contract.

Joni Pitkanen, Defenseman, Carolina Hurricanes

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    At just 27 years of age, Joni Pitkanen is likely to be in high demand this summer.

    Known for his ability to quarterback the power play, this smooth-skating defender has a ton of upside, which should afford him a healthy raise from his current $4 million salary.

    Through 71 games with the Carolina Hurricanes this season, Pitkanen has registered a total of six goals and 40 assists for a total of 46 points, ranking him 13th among defensemen.

    Pitkanen is as sure a thing as they come. He’s young, versatile, he has a high hockey IQ and he can play in virtually all situations.

    Truth be told, it’s not often you’ll find a defenseman this young and this skilled available in free agency, so if he is available July 1st, Pitkanen may be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market this summer.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Goaltender, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Depending on your personal preference, Ilya Bryzgalov might just be the most talented free-agent goaltender on the market this summer.

    Through 58 games, Breeze (as he is affectionately known) ranks fifth in wins (31), fourth in games played (58), fourth in goals against (148), third in shots against (1,809), third in saves (1,661), 15th in save percentage (.918), 20th in goals-against average (2.58), fourth in shutouts (6) and fourth in minutes played (3,448).

    Needless to say, those are some very impressive stats.

    If Breeze does not re-sign in Phoenix, he will likely get an offer from the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche or any other club that feels it needs a perennial All-Star-caliber goaltender to man the pipes.

Ville Leino, Forward, Philadelphia Flyers

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    After a tough start to his NHL career, the Detroit Red Wings deemed the 27-year-old forward expendable.

    Leino found his way to Philadelphia last spring, where he had a huge impact on the Flyers’ playoff success, netting seven goals and 21 points through 19 playoff games.

    This season, Leino continues to shine, scoring 17 goals and 47 points through 68 games with the Flyers.

    Twenty-goal players do not come along too often in the NHL. Given Leino’s bargain-basement salary of $825,000 (with a $800,000 salary cap hit), one can expect the talented sniper to command upwards of $2.5-$3.0 million on a long-term deal this summer.

    If he does not re-sign with the Flyers, Leino will be in high demand, but I would not hold your breath with the expectation that he is going anywhere.

Pascal Dupuis, Forward, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Known as more of a role player than a goal scorer, Pascal Dupuis would be a valuable addition to any team seeking veteran leadership and playoff experience—both of which Dupuis has in spades.

    He can check, he can score and he has the Stanley Cup ring to go along with it all, which makes him instantly respected in the locker room no matter where he may end up.

    While there is nothing to suggest that Dupuis will not re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins, there will be a market for Dupuis’ services, especially among those NHL teams that feel they are in need of a role player.

    A $2-$2.5 million contract likely gets a Dupuis signing done, and that would put him on par with many other role players and veterans.

Jason Arnott, Forward, Washington Capitals

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    When many NHL fans think of Jason Arnott, they feel his best days have passed him by. While I would agree with their assessment, there is no getting away from the fact that Arnott’s leadership skills, veteran presence and defensive prowess still make him a very valuable addition to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

    Just look at the impact he has had on the Washington Capitals since he arrived in the U.S. Capital—Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are playing their best hockey, as is the Capitals hockey team as a whole.

    Sometimes a small tweak to your lineup can make all the difference in the world—Arnott is that kind of player.

    Nobody expects Arnott to garner another $4.5 million deal, but he could fetch upwards of $2.5 million on the open market. In the right situation, he can be a difference-maker, and with 15 goals on the season, Arnott is hardly done.

James Wisniewski, Defenseman, Montreal Canadiens

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    Since the 2008-09 season, Wisniewski has worn the uniforms of the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens.

    For some, seeing a player get traded that many times sends the message that there must be something wrong with him, but in Wisniewski’s case, it’s more a matter of high demand for a great player with even bigger upside.

    At just 27 years old, Wisniewski will be in high demand for numerous NHL clubs, including the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes and any other NHL team that wants to add a versatile defenseman who can play in just about any situation.

Craig Anderson, Goaltender, Ottawa Senators

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    After years of playing second fiddle in Chicago and Florida, Craig Anderson found a home in Colorado, where he earned the starter's role, posting an impressive 38-25-7 record in 2009-10.

    After a very successful 2009-10 season, big things were expected of Anderson and the Avalanche.

    Unfortunately, the Avalanche struggled to rekindle their magic from the 2009-10 season, as did Anderson, which led to his exile to Ottawa.

    When Anderson arrived in Ottawa, he had a 13-15 record, .897 save percentage and a 3.28 goals-against average. Since then, he has registered a 6-4 record, .938 save percentage and a 2.11 goals against average—all with a team that went through a total dismantling at the trade deadline.

    As bad as Anderson was with the Avalanche, it appears as if Anderson is “back."

    Look for Anderson to re-sign with the Senators (which need a true No. 1 goalie). Other options may include the Toronto Maple Leafs and any other team that needs a legitimate starting goaltender or an upgrade from the current goaltending duo, such as the Anaheim Ducks.

Brooks Laich, Forward, Washington Capitals

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    Known as a gritty player who can play in just about any situation (power play, penalty kill, five-on-five), Brooks Laich will be in high demand this summer.

    Through 72 games this season, Laich has registered 16 goals and 40 points. In the right situation, Laich can be a legitimate 20-to-25 goal scorer, which is hard to come by in today’s NHL.

    Laich currently carries a cap hit of $2,066,667. He is expected to garner a contract in the $2.5-$3.2 million range, which may price more than a few teams out for his services.

    Laich would be a nice fit on just about any team. His defensive prowess and ability to man the penalty kill make him a legitimate target for Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs—a team that needs help on the PK and could use Laich’s scoring prowess.

Simon Gagne, Forward, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    It seems like a lifetime ago since Simon Gagne was regarded as one of the best players in the NHL. Injuries have conspired to derail what once was a very promising NHL career, reducing Gagne to a risky, injury-prone forward, who, while talented, looks to have already played his best hockey.

    In 2009-10, Gagne looked to be on the rise, posting 17 goals and 40 points through 58 games with the Philadelphia Flyers. Gagne followed his decent regular season up with an impressive playoff performance, which saw the talented sniper net nine goals and 12 points through 19 playoff games.

    Carrying a cap hit of over $5 million, Gagne was moved to the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer in an attempt to clear some much-needed cap space for the Flyers.

    At the time of the move, many NHL pundits felt Gagne would fit in well with the Lightning—perhaps finding his dominant form once again.

    Unfortunately, injuries once again derailed Gagne, limiting him to 52 games, in which he registered 11 goals and 26 points.

    While there is bound to be an NHL general manager out there who believes Gagne’s injury concerns are over, I have a hard time seeing anyone willing to offer Gagne a long-term, big-money contract.

    It is more likely that Gagne will sign a one-year deal on the cheap (say, $1.5-$2.0 million) and he will attempt to find his past success.

    Where that will be is anyone’s guess, but with the Lightning watching their pennies, look for Gagne to be moving on from Tampa this summer.

Alex Tanguay, Forward, Calgary Flames

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    When the Calgary Flames signed unrestricted free-agent forward Alex Tanguay to a contract, there were more than a few critics who wondered if then-general manager Darryl Sutter had lost his mind.

    Quietly and without much fanfare, Tanguay has had a very good season in Calgary, netting 19 goals and 56 points through 69 games.

    Coming off a 10-goal, 37-point season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009-10, Tanguay’s 56-point (and counting) season with the Flames should serve notice that he is still a very valuable asset for an NHL team to have—one who can solidify a No. 2 line if given the chance.

    While it’s hard to believe Calgary would let Tanguay leave for a second time (he played in Calgary from 2006-2008), if Tanguay should hit the open market, he is sure to find a home.

Christian Ehrhoff, Defenseman, Vancouver Canucks

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    After parts of four seasons with the San Jose Sharks developing his craft (2003-04, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08), Christian Ehrhoff made the jump to elite defenseman in 2008-09, registering 14 goals and 44 points in 80 games played with the Sharks.

    Deemed expendable, Ehrhoff was traded to the Vancouver Canucks along with Brad Lukowich in exchange for defenseman Daniel Rahimi and forward Patrick White.

    Needless to say, as it stands now, it appears as if Vancouver won this trade in a landslide, as Ehrhoff (who is a plus-15 on the season) has developed into an All-Star-caliber defenseman, solidifying the Canucks defense and registering 10 goals and 46 points through 69 games with Vancouver this season.

    Ehrhoff’s 46 points rank him sixth among NHL defensemen, while his six power-play markers tie him for eighth among defensemen.

    Without question, if the Vancouver Canucks are foolish enough not to tender Ehrhoff a new contract, there will be a line of teams waiting to bid for his services.

    A lot may depend on the Canucks' performance in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, where both the Canucks and Ehrhoff will be expected to deliver Lord Stanley’s mug to the Vancouver faithful.

    Should the Canucks falter, Ehrhoff may be more vulnerable to a move. That said, it says here he ain’t going anywhere.

Bryan McCabe, Defenseman, New York Rangers

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    Spending three seasons in Florida as a member of the Panthers is enough to make any NHL player long for a change. McCabe got just that when he was acquired by the New York Rangers at the deadline in an attempt to solidify the Rangers defense and power play.

    While there are not many teams that will be willing to absorb anything close to the $5,750,000 cap hit he carries these days, there should be a market for McCabe, who can still man a power play and play upwards of 20 minutes per game.

    With six goals (three of which came on the power play) and 26 points on the season, McCabe’s days as an elite offensive defenseman may be over, but there is no question he can still give you some secondary scoring, which is very valuable to NHL clubs.

    At age 35, McCabe is still without a Stanley Cup ring. Look for him to try to sign with a legitimate contender. He can fill a role on an NHL team's second or third defensive unit at a reduced price (in the $3 million range).

Scottie Upshall, Forward, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Known as an agitator and a physical player on the ice, Scottie Upshall does not get nearly enough credit for his goal-scoring prowess. With 20 goals on the season, Upshall is ranked 75th overall in scoring, which, given his paltry 13:48 of ice time per game, is impressive.

    Every NHL team needs depth. Upshall, who can play many roles, is the type of player who can spark a team, shadow the opposition's best player or chip in with the odd tussle.

    Look for his services to be in high demand this summer, but if his salary demands get too out of whack, he may have to settle for a non-contender, with whom he might be afforded a bigger role to justify the price tag.

Evgeni Nabokov, Goaltender, *New York Islanders

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    Fresh off a season in which he registered a 44-16-10 record, unrestricted free-agent Evgeni Nabokov felt his services would garner a long-term deal in the $4-$6 million per season range.

    With no takers last summer, Nabokov did the unthinkable, signing with the KHL's St. Petersburg SKA.

    Needless to say, Nabokov’s KHL experience was not one to remember, as the talented Russian registered a paltry 8-8-5 record to go along with a horrific .888 save percentage and a 3.02 goals against average.

    Known as a "money goaltender" during the regular season, Nabokov has never tasted much playoff success, registering a 40-39 career record, which includes very few series wins.

    Unhappy in the KHL, Nabokov attempted to sign an entry-level deal with the Detroit Red Wings, only to have his plan thwarted when the New York Islanders claimed him off waivers.

    Nabokov refused to report to New York, opting instead to remain on the sidelines until such time as he is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

    While nobody knows how much a year off from the NHL will affect Nabokov, his overall resume (especially during the regular season) is excellent, and that should help him garner some interest from NHL teams.

    Obviously, the Detroit Red Wings are likely to revisit the signing of Nabokov, while it is also anticipated that a few other NHL teams may jump into the mix as well.

    One thing is clear—given his willingness to come back, it appears as if Nabokov will be back in the NHL next season. Where he ends up is anyone’s guess.

Curtis Glencross, Forward, Calgary Flames

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    At 28 years of age, Curtis Glencross is already playing for his fourth NHL organization. He's been employed by the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

    Known as more of a role player, Glencross has been a tremendous surprise for the Calgary Flames organization this season, registering 22 goals and 38 points through 69 games.

    Glencross scored 13 (2008-09) and 15 (2009-10) goals in his past two seasons, and while making the jump to the 25-goal range does not seem like much, it’s a massive jump.

    Averaging nearly 16 minutes of ice time per game, Glencross has been a key cog on the Flames’ penalty kill (ranked a respectable 18th overall) and he can chip in on the power play as well.

    It is his versatility, newly-found goal-scoring prowess and workman-like effort that will garner Glencross a lot of attention this summer should he make it to free agency.