2011 NHL Free Agency: 7 Natural Leaders Who Can Help Deliver a Cup

James ConleyContributor IIIJune 21, 2011

2011 NHL Free Agency: 7 Natural Leaders Who Can Help Deliver a Cup

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    Championship NHL teams possess skilled scorers, dependable goaltenders and complimentary role players.

    Lacking any one of those three elements, no team can shortcut its way to a Stanley Cup title.

    Scoring forwards are the most attractive of the elements, but as Philadelphia demonstrated in their second-round loss, no number of good forwards can nullify having a goaltender who is either very good or very hot.

    Boston, meanwhile, demonstrated how valuable it can be to have a very good goaltender who is playing very good hockey. Tim Thomas took home the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup trophies this year, and is merely waiting for the ink to dry on his Vezina Trophy as the league's best regular season goaltender.

    Put shortly, scorers and goalies are big news.

    So what of the lesser guys? Role players are often signed in the later days of free agency, plucked from the waiver wire or called up through a club's farm system—but they are pivotal players nonetheless.

    Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins what they're worth. With a lineup including Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, both Game 7 goals of the 2009 Finals were scored by Maxime Talbot, a career grinder and prototypical role player known better for his locker room presence than scoring touch.

    Some of these players come with big names and big price tags, but their experience can be invaluable. Others may not command the same salary or bring the same point production, but as role players are too vital to be ignored.

    Seven free agents who can bring a championship presence to the ice and behind the scenes:

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Jamie Langenbrunner

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    The former captain of the New Jersey Devils and the 2010 silver medal-winning Men's Olympic Hockey Club, Jamie Langenbrunner has played the role of leader for years.

    Langenbrunner was named Devils captain in 2007, a title he carried until 2010-11, when he was traded to the Dallas Stars, the team with which he made his NHL debut in 1996-97.

    A two-time Cup winner (1999 Dallas, 2003 New Jersey), Langenbrunner has a wealth of playoff experience. Even more valuable is the experience of understanding how to win. It seems at first a strange concept, but is often displayed in highly talented young teams coming up just short against an opponent who knows how to win.

    Think Penguins vs. Red Wings in the 2008 Cup Final, or Blackhawks vs. Red Wings in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. Those teams were young and absurdly talented, but were beaten by a team that had demonstrated an ability to win in big situations.

    In each following season, the Penguins and Blackhawks took home the Stanley Cup.

    Getting a club to that point requires experience on the part of its best young players, but that process can be expedited by adding a veteran to the locker room—one who has the history of winning, which Langenbrunner does.

Ed Jovanovski

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    Phoenix already lost one big-name free agent in Ilya Bryzgalov, who seems ready to sign with the Flyers (if they can somehow navigate that feat of salary-cap gymnastics).

    With ownership uncertainty ever-looming and a fanbase in the low thousands, another pivotal player in Ed Jovanovski may be ready to hit the free-agent market.

    Jovanovksi, 35, has been a staple of the Phoenix blue-line since joining the team in 2006. One of the highest-paid defensemen in the league, Jovanovski came with a cap hit of $6.5 million last season—a number he surely won't match when he hits free agency at the age of 36.

    He will, however, have the chance to move to a team that can help him capture his first Stanley Cup.

    Jovanovski has played for the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks and Coyotes, but came closest to winning it all in his rookie season with the Panthers in 1996. Since then, Jovo hasn't returned to the finals.

    As with each season of free agency, there will be no shortage of teams looking to add an experienced, two-way defenseman.

    Washington always seems to need a No. 1 defenseman, and Jovanovski might like to land with a stable franchise that has a legitimate chance at winning it all.

    Then again, if Jovo's looking for stability and a good title track, Brian Rafalski's $6 million just came off the books in Detroit...

    Just saying.

John Madden

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    A three-time Cup winner, John Madden was pivotal to the Chicago Blackhawks title run in 2010. If Minnesota continues to commit to the youth movement, expect Madden to land with a team just on the cusp of a title run.

    The experienced two-way center has won Stanley Cups with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003, and again with Chicago a year ago. Known as a defensively-responsible center, Madden brings experience and an ability to win that also makes Langenbrunner an attractive commodity.

    Madden recorded only 25 points in 76 games with the Wild last season, but his value lies less in his ability to score than his ability to set a defensive tone along the lower forward lines.

    Madden won the Frank J. Selke Award in 2001 as the league's best defensive forward.

    That void was never filled in Chicago this year, a team which experienced a tremendous swoon in goals-against from 2009-10 to 2010-11.

    Washington failed in its bid for an experienced center with Jason Arnott, and the New York Rangers will also be looking for depth at center.

    Madden made only $1.25 million last season, a hit which doesn't figure to increase. If the center has his choice of club, look for him to land with a talented young team looking to straighten out its locker room.

Brooks Laich

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    Brooks Laich may be playing his way out of Washington—a team with limited cap space.

    As harsh of a blow as that could be for a sometimes directionless Capitals locker room, it could be an equally good signing for the team which is lucky enough to land him.

    Laich is considered one of the leaders of the Capitals locker room; he likely would have been named captain if the title had not been given to franchise staple Alex Ovechkin.

    "Brooks is Brooks," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said of Laich in 2009. "He will lead, and he leads by example. I don't think a letter on his jersey is going to make him lead more or lead less."

    Aside from his leadership qualities, Laich is becoming a quality hockey player. He experienced a drop in production this season (as did all Capitals forwards), but scored 20 or more goals and recorded 50 or more points in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

    Laich exemplifies the heart-and-soul-type of player that teams absolutely must have in order to win a championship. If his leadership hasn't resonated inside the Washington locker room, there will be plenty of teams willing to acquire Laich—at a rate higher than his current hit of $2.066 million—simply for his leadership abilities.

Maxime Talbot

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    Heart and soul? Max Talbot has plenty of both.

    A lifer in the Pittsburgh organization, Talbot made his debut with the team in 2005-06 and has become one of the most recognizable faces of the post-lockout team, even if he's not counted among Ray Shero's guild of "core" players.

    Talbot is a favorite, both in the locker room and amongst Penguins fans. His personality went on display during the HBO 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic series. He's one of the players most likely to be found in the bars of Pittsburgh's south side. 

    Talbot isn't very big, doesn't score a lot of goals and will never earn a nomination for the Selke Trophy. It doesn't matter. Talbot is willing to sacrifice himself for his team.

    His most famous moment in Pittsburgh—perhaps aside from scoring both goals in Game 7 of the 2009 Finals—was his fight with Daniel Carcillo in the first round of those playoffs. Down 3-0 in Game 6, Talbot drew the bigger Carcillo into a fight, getting himself hammered in the process.

    The fight worked. The Penguins seized the momentum, scored five unanswered goals and won a series in which the Flyers appeared to have gained all the steam.

    His shushing of Flyers fans after the fight has become his trademark. Should he leave via free agency, his "shh" maneuver will be the enduring image of Max Talbot among Penguins fans.

    Talbot will probably command a salary of no more than $1.5 million or $1.75 million, numbers the Penguins may not be willing to offer (his production has slipped steadily in two seasons since winning the Cup in '09).

    If Talbot goes, another club will be adding a likeable, hard-working grinder to their roster.

Dwayne Roloson

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    Dwayne Roloson's trade to the Tampa Bay Lightning was a mostly unheralded move when it took place early in 2011.

    After shutting out the Washington Capitals in his debut, Roloson was tagged for five goals in an 8-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Questions about his age arose. People wondered if the 41-year-old had one more miracle playoff run in him.

    Roloson and the Lightning came within one goal and one game of appearing in the Stanley Cup Final. Roloson provided the magic even at the age of 41.

    Though he'll be another year older in 2011-12, Roloson could help a team make a similar playoff run, if not play a complimentary role as part of a goaltending tandem.

    As is becoming a trend in hockey, quality goaltending tandems are starting to usher out lone superstar goalies. Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas enjoyed the best seasons of any goaltenders in the league, and each played in tandem with goalies who could have been starters elsewhere (with Corey Schneider and Tuukka Rask, respectively).

    Roloson's influence on Mike Smith could be seen, as Smith became a much stronger goaltender in the latter parts of the season.

    Among the interested teams? The Carolina Hurricanes have put a heavy load on Cam Ward for years, and Ondrej Pavelec could use a veteran teammate in the now-rebuilding Winnipeg franchise.

    Carrying a small cap hit of just $2.5 million last season, Roloson's value could lie as much in his ability to mentor a talented young goalie as to help shoulder the load of an 82-game season.

Mike Grier

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    Mike Grier is the prototypical fourth-line player. A penalty-killing specialist who can score the occasional goal and who brings his lunch pail to the rink every night, players like Grier set the tone for the line-mates.

    The Sabres fielded a surprising stable of forwards this season who made their mark as hard-skating, hard-hitting pests. Barring a couple of controversial non-calls and a Game 7 collapse, the Sabres were on the verge of entering the second round of the playoffs after spending much of the season outside the playoff bubble.

    Grier was one of those hard-hitting, hard-working grinders who are so instrumental to a team's third- and fourth-lines. As a penalty killer, Grier has made a living. Teams have ranked fourth (SJ), second (BUF) and first (SJ) in penalty-kill percentage with Grier on the unit.

    A veteran, Grier has played in over 1,000 NHL games with Buffalo, Edmonton, San Jose and Washington. He has often put his toughness on display, several times playing with a dislocated shoulder.

    The winger made just $1.5 million last season, and Buffalo would like to have him back. With new owner Terry Pegula willing to open his wallet, the Sabres are in a good position to retain Grier, should they wish to do so.

    If they don't, Grier will hit the market as an affordable, effective lower-line presence.