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NHL Free Agency 2011-2012: Power Ranking the Top-10 Available Players

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIJune 6, 2011

NHL Free Agency 2011-2012: Power Ranking the Top-10 Available Players

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    Ilya Bryzgalov could help a lot of teams that are looking for a solid goaltender-does that make him the top free agent available?
    Ilya Bryzgalov could help a lot of teams that are looking for a solid goaltender-does that make him the top free agent available?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The 2011-2012 crop of free agents may not have the marquee names like those in previous years but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of help for teams looking to get better in some way.

    Squads looking for help in their own zone will have plenty to choose from in this group with a majority of the better players available being either defensemen or goaltenders. 

    Teams looking for more spark up front may have to be willing to take a risk on a guy like Tim Connolly or Alexander Frolov (and could even reap some serious rewards), but these names are a far cry from the big names that have hit the market in off-season's past.

    When making this list I considered what kind of impact a player could make on the team he joins immediately—if I were a GM, who would I most want on my team. 

    Here are the ten best players that could hit the market on July 1st.

Honorable Mentions

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    Andrei Markov celebrates a goal in Montreal.
    Andrei Markov celebrates a goal in Montreal.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    There are several players available who could make an impact for teams looking to fill some gaps but don't quite make the top 10 for one reason or another.

    Tomas Fleischmann was beginning to look right at home on a line with Matt Duchene in Colorado, putting up 21 points in 22 games for the Avs. Then a strange blood clot in his lung sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

    As of late May he still hasn't been cleared to play hockey.  Will the Avalanche take the leap and sign him for a year regardless of his status?  Or will they leave that risk to another team.  The kid can obviously put up some solid numbers when he is healthy.

    Alexei Kovalev may find a home elsewhere for teams desperate for any kind of offense, but two goals in 20 games for the Pens probably pushes him out of Pittsburgh.  He hadn't fared much better in Ottawa, prompting the team to dump him on the injury-decimated Pens.

    He may have something left in the tank somewhere, but if a move back to familiar territory didn't spark much for Kovie, why would anything else?  The guy has too much talent to not land a job somewhere, but his production and play doesn't warrant a top-10 spot.

    Andrei Markov may deserve a place in the top few slots of this list.  However, the sheer volume of dependable, solid blueliners forces him out in my opinion.  He only played seven games last year and 45 the year before.

    It's obvious that when healthy Markov can be one of the best offensive defensemen in the game.  The question about his durability may steer some teams clear, and towards the other guys available in July.  He'll be a consolation prize for someone and the pickup may even pay off in a large way.

    Eric Brewer is a minute munching, stay-at-home blueliner that looked pretty good after arriving in Tampa.  One has to assume Yzerman will do what he can to keep him in town, but dealing with Stamkos is the team's number one priority at this point.

    He can still play in the middle of the top six for mostly any team and brings leadership and a presence in the locker room to the table.  I was tempted to slot him at the No. 10 spot on this list but there are too many good defensemen available to warrant that.

    Brewer will be an under-the-radar signing that could really pay dividends next season and into the playoffs.

    Brooks Laich is a guy who can play all positions, run the point on the power play and does all the little thing teams and coaches look for in their down-low players.  He's a big bodied player who puts up 40 or 50 points on a consistent enough basis that he'll look very attractive to teams looking for a second or third line, second power play unit player.

    Like Brewer, Laich will be one of the signings that will get lost in the free agent shuffle but whichever team lands him should be pretty happy with the investment.  These kinds of players can often be a difference maker for a close-but-not-quite team.

No. 10: Villie Leino

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    Villie Leino sans wicked playoff beard.
    Villie Leino sans wicked playoff beard.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Villie Leino's name may not pop off of the page like some other free-agent forwards, but one shouldn't be too swayed by history—Leino is a very under-rated player for the Flyers.  That all could change with an address change and the right line mates.

    He put up a respectable 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) in 81 games played last year.  That number is a bit more impressive considering he only logged an average of 16 minutes per game.

    Leino played with one of the deepest forward units in the League with the Flyers last season and it remains to be seen if he benefited by playing against lesser defenders, or suffered due to lack of high-end ice time.

    Another attractive feature of Leino's game may be his apparent ability to show up in the playoffs.  After failing to impress in Detroit after being commonly regarded as one of the best players not in the NHL, he exploded during the '09-'10 playoffs with the Flyers.

    He notched an outstanding 21 points in 19 games played, and was one of the best Flyers forwards on a nightly basis as the team too a run at the Stanley Cup.

    Leino may get a pretty decent contract from a team looking for some depth scoring, or maybe even from a team who wants to try him at the first line on the left side.  What kind of damage could he do with the right center?  He played with some great pivots in Philly, so one could assume similar numbers are in his future.

    At 27 he still has several good years left in his tank and a four or five year deal may not be too much to ask for Leino.

No. 9: Joni Pitkanen

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    Joni Pitkanen is only starting to show fans what he can do.
    Joni Pitkanen is only starting to show fans what he can do.Rich Lam/Getty Images

    Joni Pitkanen would be one of the most highly sought after blueliners during a season where there weren't five or six high quality guys available at that position.  But that's where Pitkanen finds himself:  more than likely around number three or four on most team's wish lists.

    That shouldn't lessen his value one bit though.

    He's only 27 years old, and a lot of onlookers feel that he has only begun to scratch the surface of that he can do.  Pitkanen is the slick skating, puck moving defensemen that a lot of teams want and need, and will be paid handsomely to do so.

    Averaging over 25 minutes a game, and playing in 72 contests for the Hurricanes last season speaks volume for the guys durability, and while he isn't a goal scoring machine he has a good shot from the point to go along with his vision.

    He picked up 30 helpers last season, with 11 of them coming on the power play.

    Whichever team signs him would more than likely be happy if he stayed consistent with these numbers, but there is a possibility that he could tack on more points if he gets comfortable in his pairing, as this is a top four guy who plays big minutes.

No. 8: James Wisniewski

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    if this doesn't scream "warrior" then I don't know what does.
    if this doesn't scream "warrior" then I don't know what does.Mike Ridewood/Getty Images

    James Wisniewski quickly gained popularity in Montreal for his play style and for good reason.  While not afraid the throw the gloves, block shots, or make take the body, he still is a gifted offensive defensemen.

    After the Habs dealt a pair of draft picks for him back in late-December, the guy they call "Wis" didn't disappoint.  There was no drop in his offensive output.  After putting up 21 points in 32 games on Long Island, he popped off another 30 points in 43 games for the Canadians.

    At only 27, it's hard not to think that he has quite a large payday in his future.

    Some may see his plus-minus as an issue, but it shouldn't be viewed that way.  Before playing for the haphazard Islanders, putting up a -18 in the process, Wis had only been a minus player one other time in his career.

    After the trade to Montreal he was a good-enough plus-4.

    Wisniewski has the mentality of a warrior, and odds are he'll sign a long-term contract with a team looking for that kind of player on the back end (which is pretty much all of them).  He'll be a fan favorite where ever he plays, and may still have his best years ahead of him.

No. 7: Alex Tanguay

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    Alex Tanguay proved that he could still put up points last season.
    Alex Tanguay proved that he could still put up points last season.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    After a failed excursion to Tampa Bay in the '09-'10 season, Alex Tanguay returned to Calgary on a low risk contract in an attempt to find his game.  Game found.

    Tanguay played in 79 games this year, which should come as no surprise since he has always been pretty durable (save for the season he played with Montreal.)  In those games, he managed 69 points coming in the form of 22 goals, and 47 assists.

    20-goal scorers are always in high demand, and that won't be any different in his case.  After not making more than $2 million in salary last season, this could be Tanguay's last chance at a decent contract with good length.

    20 of his points came on the power play, and he also brings the leadership intangible with him as well.  He's won Cups, been in long playoff battles, and knows what to do and say in these situations.  He's played with some of the best leaders in the game (Joe Sakic in Colorado, Jarome Iginla in Calgary, and Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa).

    His resume should be good enough to land him some bucks from a team looking for secondary scoring down the stretch, and a guy who knows what to do come playoff time.

No. 6: Kevin Bieksa

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    Kevin Bieksa scores  a rare goal.
    Kevin Bieksa scores a rare goal.Rich Lam/Getty Images

    The first of two Vancouver defensemen to make this list, Kevin Bieksa plays a ton of minutes and is dependable in his own end.

    Earlier in his career his outlet passing was suspect at times but he has come a long way to shore up that area of his game.  While Bieksa isn't the end-all master of getting the puck to the forwards, he gets the job done more times than not.

    Teams looking for a number one pairing guy could do much, much worse than Bieksa and, at 29, he still has several good years ahead of him before he begins to decline.  He's been instrumental during the current cup run in Vancouver and that surely doesn't hurt his value.

    He has found his goal scoring touch in these playoffs, scoring five goals and adding nine assists.  That goal total is only one shy of regular season tally of six.

    Tack on sturdy play in all three zones (Bieksa is a plus-11 in the playoffs and was an outstanding plus-32 during the regular season) and an average of 25 minutes per game, and you've got yourself a keeper.  Should he make it to July 1st there will be plenty of teams interested.

No, 5: Tomas Kaberle

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    Tomas Kaberle may have played his way out of Boston in these playoffs.
    Tomas Kaberle may have played his way out of Boston in these playoffs.Abelimages/Getty Images

    When Boston dealt two draft picks (a first, and now a second rounder since the Bruins made the Cup Finals) and prospect for Tomas Kaberle they were expecting a difference maker.  And by all accounts they should have got one.

    But somewhere between Toronto and Boston, Kaberle lost the handle on his game.

    After putting up 38 points in 58 regular season games for the Leafs, and generally being considered one of the better puck moving defensemen in the League, Kaberle has tanked in Boston.

    Kaberle is scoring points at half the rate that he was prior to the trade, and his time on ice average has sank down to 16 minutes a game.  Considering that Boston arguably trails in their Stanley Cup series because of their power play shortage, and things aren't pretty.

    That being said, this guy had been a gamer throughout his career in Toronto.  Making a shift after a trade can't be an easy one, but the drop off has been surprising.

    But the talent and numbers are still there.

    Kaberle has one of the best outlet passes from the defensive zone in the League, and while we all may be forgetting that now, a quick trip to youtube will remind you of what kind of player he is.

    Will he come at a bit of a discount because of his recent play?  Perhaps.  But I doubt it.  A few months ago Karberle could have topped this list depending on a team's need.  And he's still probably pretty close to the top for several teams looking for a guy who jump start offense with his passing.

    With the premium being put on puck moving defensemen these days, expect Kaberle to bank on his ability to do just that.  He'll be good somewhere, but it may not be in Boston.

No.4: Tomas Vokoun

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    Tomas Vokoun has toiled away in Florida the last four seasons.
    Tomas Vokoun has toiled away in Florida the last four seasons.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Some fans may have forgotten how good Vokoun can play—which is shocking since the NHL airs so many Florida Panthers games.

    But I digress.

    His record may not sparkle (22-28) like some would like, but that's a rock solid number if you consider the team he was playing for (no disrespect to Panthers fans meant.)  Add in a 2.55 GAA and a .920 save percentage, and it's clear that whatever Vokoun had when he was tearing it up in Nashville, he still has now.

    He's 34 years old, and may be a bit long in the tooth for teams on the rebuild.  But to a team like the Flyers who only seem a goaltender away from a serious run, the three or four plus years of games that Vokoun can bring should be plenty.

    There are tons of goaltenders floating about these days, but few have the all star credentials of Vokoun.  The guy can come on and be a big difference maker for a contender.

No.3: Christian Ehrhoff

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    Christian Ehrhoff could wind up being the long-term gem from this class of free agents.
    Christian Ehrhoff could wind up being the long-term gem from this class of free agents.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Some readers may think that I am crazy for putting Ehrhoff on this list ahead of Kaberle, and maybe even Bieksa.  They may be right—but there is something about this guy that makes me think that he has some big seasons in store for the team he ends up with.

    Ehrhoff puts up points at the same rate that Kaberle does, and I give him the nod because he is younger and (to be honest) hasn't disappeared during these playoffs.

    While he hasn't been as effective in the postseason as Bieksa, Ehrhoff has shown that he can put up numbers on a more consistent basis, and is actually on the rise.  He has increased his points total through each of his last four seasons.

    And at 28, there's no reason he can't continue to add to his totals.

    Looking for a guy that can make an immediate impact on the power play?  How does 28 power play points sound?  He's kept up that pace during the playoffs, putting up seven points with the mad-advantage in 18 games played.

    He's the kind of guy that can really make a difference in the offensive zone, and with so many teams on the look out for puck movers (much less younger ones) Ehrhoff will be a hot commodity come July—especially if he helps the Canucks win the Cup.

No. 2: Ilya Bryzgalov

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    Bryzgalov has had the bad luck of running into Detroit in each of the last two post seasons.
    Bryzgalov has had the bad luck of running into Detroit in each of the last two post seasons.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Phoenix Coyotes have been a legitimate presence in the Western Conference for a few seasons now, and the biggest reason has been the play of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. 

    He's been an absolute boon since coming over from the Ducks.  And it appears he'll now be an impact player on another team.

    The 30 year old masked man had 36 wins last season, only two shy of NHL leaders Roberto Lungo and Carey Price.  He's a workhorse, and is capable of playing a large majority of a team's games—he was fifth in the League in games started with 67.

    That's a lot of hockey.

    He carried a respectable 2.48 GAA to go along with a solid .921 save percentage, and gave his team a chance to win every game that it played.  He was the foundation that the Coyotes built their games on every night, and his consistency can't be overlooked or over valued.

    While Bryzgalov has been a giant during the regular season, he's coming off of two straight questionable playoff performances.

    During this post season he dropped four in a row to the Red Wings, giving up more than four goal a game on average and sporting a .879 save percentage.

    Yikes.

    While those numbers don't shine, anyone who watched that series know that the Wings generally overpowered the Desert Dogs, and Bryz didn't get a whole lot of help.

    He wasn't a whole lot better when Phoenix pushed the Wings to seven games a year ago, but given the playoff performances he turned in with the Ducks one has to believe he has plenty of big game hockey in him.  There are a handful of contenders who need help in net, and Bryzgalov is their best bet.

No. 1: Ilya Kovalchuk

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    NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the Atlanta Thrashers follows through on a shot against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 28, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Just kidding.

No. 1: Brad Richards

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    According to recent reports, Richards is done in Dallas.
    According to recent reports, Richards is done in Dallas.Harry How/Getty Images

    No surprise here.  Brad Richards will be the most sought after free agent after July 1st.  Recent reports suggest that after months of wondering, the Stars will not be able to pony up for Richards.

    His numbers are gaudy:  28 goals, 49 assists in 72 games played.

    He has a Conn Smythe with his name on it as he was mildly instrumental in Tampa's cup victory.

    And he's only 31.

    There isn't anything that can be said about what Richards would mean to a team that hasn't been said.  He brings the acumen and talent of a true number one center; the kind of guy that coaches and GMs dream about centering their best players.

    And he's pretty good on the power play, being able to run the boards or quarterback from the point if need be.

    Teammates love playing with him, coaches love to coach him, and fans love to watch him play hockey.

    He may not have the sheer talent that Kovalchuk brought with him last season, but the guy can have the same kind of immediate impact as one of the top players in the NHL.  It's going to cost them, but the team who lands Richards will be instantly and noticeably better. 

    The same may not be said for the rest of the players on this list, which is why Richards is number one.

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