Last year was a little disappointing for unrestricted free-agent signings. The majority of the bigger names, like Tomas Plekanec and Patrick Marleau, simply re-signed with their original clubs. It is early yet, but right now a wide range of top-quality players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st.
Teams with holes may actually have an opportunity to add that checker, first-line center, sniper, shutdown defenseman, power-play quarterback or top-10 goalie, who could propel them to playoff success in 2011-12. Included is a list of players I think are the best UFAs currently available.
My thanks to www.sportscity.com for their list of available unrestricted free agents. I'd also like to thank hockeyrumour.com for their salary estimates. I used nhl.com and hockeydb.com for my statistical information. I have listed the player's name, position and last salary.
Brad Richards was the darling of trade speculation for months but was never moved by the Dallas Stars. He represents an upgrade over the centers who were available last year as UFAs.
Richards has been a point-per-game playmaker for the last two years in Dallas. He has 25 goals in only 65 games so far this year. He's 30 years old and hasn't made the playoffs since his first year in Dallas.
He may have an opportunity to add to his playoff record this year, which would help his marketability. You can always look back at the Conn Smythe Trophy he won with Tampa Bay when the Lightning won their Cup.
There are plenty of teams out there desperate for a first-line center. He may get overpaid again because of it. I can't imagine him making more than $7 million a year in this tight-cap climate, but he could be the solution to a lot of problems on a lot of teams.
Picked up on waivers from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, Ilya Bryzgalov has been a lifesaver in Phoenix. The Coyotes quickly signed him to a three-year contract and he's been a workhorse.
Ilya has had save percentages of .921, .906, .921 and .922 as a Coyote. He was one of the main reasons Phoenix made it into the playoffs last year and is central to their playoff run this year.
At 30 years of age, Bryzgalov is in his prime and playing the best hockey of his career. He is sure to get a raise this time around. He looks like the best goalie available in the offseason.
Nicklas Lidstrom is here simply because it's nice to have the likely Norris Trophy winner on any list.
We know Nick will sign with Detroit in the offseason if he doesn't retire. Despite being the second-leading scoring defenseman in the league this season, look for the 40-year-old to sign for less than the $6.2 million he currently makes.
It is hard to believe Simon Gagne is only 30 years old. He seems to have suffered through injuries that a man twice his age might have expected to have.
His last full season was in 2008-09 with Philadelphia, when he had 34 goals and 74 points in 79 games. He only played in 58 games last year and 57 games this year.
Gagne still has offensive skills, but his health issues are likely to keep the offers low. A good playoff run with the Lightning will do him a world of good.
Christian Ehrhoff has been a quality, half-point-a-game offensive defenseman for the last three seasons. He had seven points in 12 playoff games for Vancouver last year and hopes to improve on that this year.
At age 28, he has been the healthiest defenseman on an injury-plagued squad. Picked up via salary dump from the San Jose Sharks, Ehrhoff has been a very useful contributor in Vancouver and is a power-play quarterback who has been forced to play major on the President's Trophy-winning Canucks.
Look for Ehrhoff to get a raise this year; especially if the Canucks challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Tomas Vokoun is the second team-changing goalie available as an unrestricted free agent this year. He currently makes more money, yet is having a worse statistical season than the other great free-agent goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov. He should still command a great deal of attention.
Vokoun has been the best goalie in the league since the lockout. At age 34 his skills seem to be diminishing slightly in his contract year. Still his .921 save percentage has him tied with Carey Price and Cam Ward in seventh place among NHL starters.
Vokoun has excelled on a Florida team that has maintained one of the most porous defenses in the league. The hope has to be that he could be much more useful on a better team.
Ed Jovanovski, at 34, is a defenseman who could provide a stabilizing, veteran influence on any young team. He has always been a fearsome hitter with a reasonable point shot.
The physical play has taken its toll on him over the years. He is not as fast as he once was, but he still can play a shutdown role and has years of experience.
He can't expect to command the salary he has had in the past, but he could still make a valuable contribution to the right team.
Andrei Markov is another quality defenseman coming off back-to-back-to-back devastating Achilles and knee injuries. When healthy, he is one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league. He only managed to play in seven games this season before he re-injured the knee that was hurt in last year's playoffs.
Markov is a risk now, simply because his last full season was 2008-09. This might be a chance to sign him at a discount and have it pay off should he return to form.
Milan Hejduk was a one-time 50-goal scorer in the NHL and has enjoyed a long, successful career. He has scored more than 20 goals in a season every year since his rookie campaign. The 34-year-old sniper has 20 goals and 52 points in 64 games this year.
This is probably Milan's last chance for another good payday.
There is a pack of checking forwards available as unrestricted free agents this year. Few are as fast or as young (29) as Antti Miettinen.
Miettinen also provides some reasonable offensive skills to go with the checking package. He's usually a half-point-a-game player when playing second-line minutes.
He did score 20 once for Minnesota, though he did spend some of his time that year with Mikko Koivu on the first line. He is probably better suited as a checker, further down on the depth chart.
Miettinen was a valuable contributor during Dallas' playoff run in 2008.
Teemu Selanne has made himself into a desirable unrestricted free agent with yet another good offensive season (68 GP, 28 G, 48 A, 76 PTS) while playing on the second line in Anaheim. Teemu at 40 is the ninth-leading scorer in the NHL right now.
He is likely to sign again with Anaheim, and his age probably precludes anything beyond a one-year contract, but the Finnish flash has earned himself another payday.