Brad Richards and the Top 8 Players of the NHL Offseason

Alan O'Sullivan@@rollingpucksContributor IIIJune 15, 2011

Brad Richards and the Top 8 Players of the NHL Offseason

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    The Stanley Cup Finals end tonight in Vancouver, in a dramatic end-of-the-world Game 7 scenario, so there's no better time to look past it toward the offseason.

    As teams gear up for the draft and free agency, a handful of players will dominate the headlines, discussion and generally aimless speculation as to who will land where and cost how much.

    Here are the top eight, because nine would be too lazy (why not 10?), 10 would be too obvious (seriously? A top 10?) and 11 brought me to Simon Gagne (and that's just a bridge too far for a list like this).

Shea Weber (NSH), 2010-11 Salary: $4,500,000

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    The big enchilada of the 2011 offseason is, undoubtedly, Shea “I will kill you with my death stare” Weber.

    He’s a restricted free agent, and usually that would dampen speculation of his whereabouts come puck drop in October, but not with this beast. He is the everything and anything of NHL defensemen and he’s only 25 years old.

    While the Nashville Predators hammer out the details of their curious “Will we or won’t we have a ‘No Shea Weber’" rule for this franchise next season,” the rest of the league will be lining up to tender offer sheets and trade for negotiation rights. 

    If the penalty for said offer sheets was 100 first-round draft picks, 90 percent of the league would still go right ahead and tender them anyways.

    Conceited and clichéd understatement of the day: He’s just that good.

Brad Richards (DAL), 2010-11 Salary: $7,800,000

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    Another curious franchise decision—this one chalked up to a volatile ownership situation—the Dallas Stars have already stated that they won’t be re-signing unrestricted free agent and team leading scorer Brad Richards.

    At 31 years old, this career minus player will attract significant but not universal attention. His offensive abilities are beyond reproach, but his age (31), potential price tag and injury history (which most recently consists of a severe concussion) will put off all but the more bombastic suitors (see: Brian Burke, Glen Sather, et al.).

    He’s a player every general manager would have on their team in a heartbeat, but given the reasons already stated, only a handful will express serious interest.

Ilya Bryzgalov (PHO), 2010-11 Salary: $4,500,000

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    If you listen to local sports radio in Toronto then you’re already privy to the inside scoop: Ilya Bryzgalov is the Toronto Maple Leaf’s next Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

    But tell that to the Philadelphia Flyers, who jumped the gun and acquired the goaltender’s negotiation rights from Phoenix last week.

    But tell that to Dan Hamhuis, whose negotiation rights the Flyers traded for last offseason, and who ended up signing with the Vancouver Canucks instead.

    But tell all that to The Breeze himself, who one way or the other will look to test the market. He’s a high-caliber product in an increasingly empty-shelved local Walmart, and he seems more than content to be the center of a bidding war over his services.

    One thing is for certain, he won’t be signing in Winnipeg, because according to him, they have no parks.

Tomas Vokoun (FLA), 2010-11 Salary: $6,300,000

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    Another high-caliber goaltender who’s there for the taking on the open market. If he’d been anywhere other than Florida for the last few seasons, Vokoun would be entering this offseason with as much hype and speculation as any of the previously mentioned players.

    But he did spend the last few seasons in Florida, and as a result he’s the largely forgotten man—who just happened to post a .922 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average and 22-28-5 record on (one of) the league’s most embarrassing rosters/teams/franchises.

    He’s too good to be completely overshadowed by the hunt for Bryzgalov, but he isn’t getting the attention he deserves either. At just 34 years old (still a toddler, in goalie years) he’s still arguably a better option than Bryzgalov, and will probably come even cheaper.

Kevin Bieksa (VAN), 2010-11 Salary: $3,500,000

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    As of this writing, the Vancouver Canucks are neither Stanley Cup champions nor Stanley Cup choke-artists.

    If they win, they’ll struggle to keep parts of their roster in tact. If they lose, expect a fire sale, gutting and all-around house cleaning.

    (Don’t expect that, but if they lose, they’re out of the family—this one anyway.)

    Bieksa, the one they call “Juice”—for reasons literally no player will go on record to explain—is a throwback blueliner. He plays with a casual and apathetic air and never seems to lose his cool. He is, in no uncertain terms, the 007 of NHL defensemen.

    He can hit, score and make some of the most moronic plays you’ll ever have the (mis)fortune of witnessing. (Enter Brian Burke.)

    But for all his detractions, he’s a beast who gives a team large dollops of various intangibles which others only have in whispers, if at all.

    Sorry Toronto, expect the Canucks to re-sign him, at any cost.

Christian Ehrhoff (VAN), 2010-11 Salary: $3,400,000

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    The other half of the major Vancouver Canucks offseason conundrum, Ehrhoff is everything Kevin Bieksa is not—not mean, not belligerent, not one-punch deadly.

    But he can skate the puck and gain a zone like he’s playing in a parallel dimension, immune to human touch.

    He’s on display now in the Stanley Cup Finals, and his lackluster performance is hurting his future bottom line. This only benefits the Canucks, who would love to bring him back if they can squeeze both him and Kevin Bieksa in under the cap.

    His shoulder has been a rotting plate of spaghetti since he got slammed midway through the San Jose series, and he’s been struggling ever since. By October of next season though, he’ll be back to his now-usual 50-point ballpark pace (10-plus of which will be outright goals).

    A rare and incredibly valuable commodity in today’s NHL.

Tomas Fleischmann (COL), 2010-11 Salary: $2,600,000

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    Unrestricted. Twenty-six years old. Offensively ascendant. Blood clots in lungs. The walking definition of both the “high-risk, high-reward” cliché and the “remember, at the end of the day it’s just a game” cliché.

    On hockey merit alone, Fleischmann should and will attract serious, serious attention, and the Colorado Avalanche will most likely do everything in their power to retain him. After years of toiling in the shadows of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin, Fleischmann exploded with the Avalanche once placed into a significant top-two center role.

    He was on a point a game pace in Denver, and there’s no reason to think he can’t pick up where he left off.

James Wisniewski (MTL), 2010-11 Salary: $3,250,000

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    The Wiz had decent offensive numbers (21 points in 32 games) with the epically terrible New York Islanders before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. And he had similarly paced numbers after the trade (30 points in 43 games).

    Predictably, what changed for the better was his plus-minus (minus-18 to plus-4), and he finished the year with a very impressive 51 points in 75 games.

    That actually puts him ahead of Weber, Bieksa and Ehrhoff.

    He won’t be the sexiest blueliner available during the offseason, but he’ll be much sought after.

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