As the clock ticks to noon E.T. on July 1st, the entire hockey world watches as new contracts begin to pour in by the dozens. It's that special time of year: free agency.
This summer, hundreds of free agents, most of whom are UFA's (Unrestricted Free Agents), will hit the market looking for work. Only some will get that much-anticipated next contract. Fewer still will generate competition between teams. And only a very select group will make the headlines as the biggest signings of NHL Free Agency 2011.
A great number of those signed will be forwards; the goal scorers, the playmakers, the spotlight-grabbers, the bulk of any team's roster and, for many, the most important players on the club. This year, there may not be a plethora of superstars available, but the depth of the mid-line forwards out there is stunning. From Radim Vrbata to Tomas Kopecky to Cory Stillman, any team looking to fill out their second and third lines is certainly in luck.
Though the sheer quantity of free agents is always overwhelming, we've picked out 17 top forwards that seem to be the best finds and, in most cases, the top targets of 2011.
Note: Keep in mind that even though we will be estimating the upcoming contract for each player, these rankings are not based on price but simply skill only. We will also be updating this article up to and beyond July 1 with the team each mentioned player signs/re-signs with.
If Antti Miettinen heads into July still unsigned, it will be a fitting end to his stint with the second team of his six-season career. Miettinen will walk away from the Minnesota Wild with his last goal (and point) coming as a game-winner in the season closer against Miettinen's first team, the Dallas Stars.
The former seventh-round pick would be signed by a third franchise with the knowledge that while Miettinen may not bring flashy plays to the ice, he's one of the most consistent forwards around. He's never had any recurrent injury problems, has a respectable 472 NHL appearances under his belt, and has scored between 15 and 20 goals and 34 and 44 points in each of his last four years.
Miettinen, at age 30, could be an under-the-radar free agent forward. On the other hand, we're still not sure exactly how much attention he'll get, and, subsequently, where he will end up ranking in the month's biggest contract signings, coming off of a three-year, $7.0 million deal.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $4.0 million
Hopefully, at least from Alex Frolov's point of view, one season in which everything went wrong won't translate into a career in which everything suddenly went wrong.
Frolov, then 28, signed with the New York Rangers a year ago after seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings in which he topped the 20-goal plateau five times, the 30-goal mark twice, and had an ongoing streak of five 50-plus point seasons.
Then, it all collapsed. Frolov played 43 games for the Blueshirts, tallying just nine goals and seven assists, and then, on January 8th, was sidelined for the rest of the season.
He'll hit the free agent market for the second summer in a row as a much-downgraded target, but also one that could become a steal for a team willing to take a risk or two. No matter what, though, his $3.0 million cap hit from this past year won't stand up.
Estimated Contract: One year, $2.0 million
Eric Belanger, a 33-year-old now and a former fourth-round pick of the 1996 NHL Draft, has never been anything close to a star; in fact, he's never even had a 20-goal season! But he has certainly been one thing: consistent.
In 10 career NHL seasons with six different teams, Belanger has scored between 13 and 17 goals and between 33 and 41 points in each of the eight most recent of those years. In fact, in three seasons with the Wild from '07 to '10 (even though he was traded after 60 games in the third one), the Quebec native posted back-to-back-to-back seasons with stat lines of 13 goals and 24 assists, 13 scores and 23 helpers, and 13 tallies and 22 assists.
The quality center has proven to be a valuable forward in his own niche with the Kings, Hurricanes, Thrashers, aforementioned Wild, Capitals and Coyotes, most recently, where he had 13 goals and 27 assists this past regular season. He's made the playoffs six times with five different franchises and brings that experience to the table as well.
As it typically is, expect Belanger to get another low-paying contract this summer, one of a long line that he's steadily built up, though perhaps a slightly increase (even at the age of 33) from his one-year, $0.75 million deal from this past year.
Estimated Contract: One year, $1.0 million
Signed with: Edmonton
Recent journeyman Chris Higgins, member of four different franchises in two seasons, may be looking forward to his third straight one-year contract this summer. Higgins' career has steadily gone downhill after peaking in the summer of 2008, at which point the former 14th-overall draft pick was coming off of three consecutive years of 23, 22 and 27 goals with Montreal and had one year remaining on his contract.
Since then, Higgins missed 25 games to injury in '08-'09 and compiled just 12 goals and 23 points in his final year with the Habs. In '09-'10, the winger had six goals, 14 points and a minus-nine rating in 55 games with the Rangers and two goals and three points in 12 games playing for the Flames. This most recent season, the now-28-year-old remained unsteady with 11 goals and 23 points in 48 games for Florida and then two goals and five points in 14 games for Vancouver.
A four-goal, eight-point, plus-one playoff effort in 25 more appearances for the Canucks might help the resume slightly, but, for the moment, Higgins remains a risky signing. He might not even match his one-year, $1.6 million deal from '10-'11, and despite being one of the younger worthwhile forwards, he has lost many of the expectations built by the strong start to his career in Montreal.
Estimated Contract: One year, $1.3 million
Re-signed with: Vancouver
Stillman is seen here fighting for the puck in a huge crowd of Blackhawks.
2011 Trade Deadline acquisition Cory Stillman, who returned to the Carolina Hurricanes, may watch his second stint with the 'Canes end much shorter than the first. If so, he'll bring a boatload of experience to the table, including two Stanley Cup rings, along with the burden of age due to his 1,025 career games.
Stillman, who was a rookie all the way back in '95-'96 with the Calgary Flames, has spent a lot of time around the NHL: six seasons in Calgary, parts of three in St. Louis, one in Tampa Bay, parts of four in Carolina, half of one in Ottawa and almost three in Florida. He's hit the 20-goal plateau a whopping eight times. Even at later ages, he's stayed productive, though never as good as in his '03-'04 and '05-'06 seasons (sandwiching the lockout), in which he won consecutive Cups with 80- and 76-point years. He capped off the second of the two with a nine-goal, 26-point postseason performance.
At 37, Stillman is entering the final seasons in a very long and accomplished career, but for now is still in the running for a sizeable contract. He is still a quality top six forward on any lineup.
Estimated Contract: One year, $2.5 million
Up until this spring, 27-year-old Sean Bergenheim looked destined to become a career underperformer following his first-round selection in '02. In five partial and three full seasons with the New York Islanders, Bergenheim's best effort was a mere 59-game, 15-goal, 24-point performance in '08-'09. In his first and perhaps only year with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he did top career bests in goals and points, but those career record-breakers simply translated into a mediocre 15-goal, 29-point season.
Then came Bergenheim's first career playoff appearance. Suddenly, it all changed. Bergenheim scored nine goals, 11 points, and earned a plus-two rating in 16 games. During a stretch from April 20 to May 14, the winger scored all nine tallies in a run of just 10 games played, including the series-winning goal in Game 7 against the Penguins. In the end, his 19.6 shooting percentage was third among all forwards in the playoffs.
With a skyrocketing reputation and the advantage of relative youth, Bergenheim is probably looking at his first contract with a salary over one million dollars per season, whether it comes with the Bolts or not.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $3.0 million
Signed with: Florida
If not for Tomas Fleischmann's mid-season blood clot, he'd be a lot higher than 11th on this list.
The 27-year-old is coming off a by-far career-best 23 goals, 51 points and plus-nine rating in '09-'10 for the Washington Capitals. He might've struggled with the Caps for the first half of this year, but after his trade to the Colorado Avalanche, he returned to flying high and continuing the upward spiral of his career.
In 22 games for the Avs, Fleischmann posted a fantastic eight goals and 21 points—almost a point per game—for one of the worst teams in the league. But then, injury struck.
As July 1 approaches, and as Fleischmann probably isn't looking to return to Colorado next season, the former second-round choice of the Detroit Red Wings will be a somewhat underrated yet still dicey signing for a team looking to find a young forward with a good deal of talent. Fleischmann's soon-to-end one year deal is worth $2.6 million, which is better than triple his salary from the year before. While we don't expect another tripling this summer, he likely isn't in for a salary drop, either.
Estimated Contract: One year, $2.5 million
What pops to mind when you think of Scottie Upshall? For us, without question, it's "injuries."
Indeed, it's quite true; from his rookie '05-'06 season to his '09-'10 campaign, Upshall fell short of 82-game seasons by 34, 50, 21, seven and 21 games, respectively.
But this year, he managed to turn it around. Through time with the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets, Upshall managed a complete season, and also broke through on the scoreboard with 22 goals and 34 points, shattering his previous records of 18 goals and 32 points from the '09-'10 season.
For the 27-year-old, the skillful upside (and an age at which growth is still possible) may help him stick around as one of better forwards available. We're not sure a trusting, long-term contract is likely, but Upshall could earn some pretty cash with a one-year deal this summer, building on his $2.25 million cap hit from the past season.
Estimated Contract: One year, $2.5 million
2011 Cup winner Michael Ryder may no longer be a member of the Cup-winning team by the time his day with the Cup arrives. The 31-year-old who was signed to a $12 million deal by the Bruins three years ago failed to live up to his impressive 27-goal, 26-assist '08-'09 regular season and five-goal, eight-assist '09 postseason for the rest of the contract, scoring just 18 goals and 41 points this past regular season. He may now be on his way out of Boston.
His eight-goal, 17-point peformance in 25 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup is, on the other hand, a solid addition to his negotiation power for a new deal, just as we noted in an article before the playoffs started. For Ryder, one of the better late-round picks in hockey history after his eighth-round selection at No. 216 overall in 1998, this new deal might just be telling on the rest of his only-seven-seasons-long career.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $5.5 million
As would be expected, Arnott's performance has dropped over the past three seasons as he inches towards retirement, sitting at age 36 for the moment. His 33 goals, tying a career high, and 57 points with Nashville in '08-'09 dropped to 19 goals and 46 points in his final season with the Predators, and then to 17 scores and 31 points in '10-'11 with the Devils and Capitals.
Arnott, whose career began all the way back in '93-'94 with a stunning 33-goal, 68-point rookie campaign for the Edmonton Oilers after his seventh overall selection in the previous June's draft, has an overwhelming resume, at least in terms of quantity.
Seventeen NHL seasons. 1,172 NHL appearances. Four or more seasons with each of Edmonton, New Jersey, Dallas and Nashville. 400 goals. 904 points. Twelve 20-goal seasons, including 10 straight from '98 to '09. Eleven 50-plus point seasons. Twelve playoff berths. One hundred and fifteen postseason appearances. Seventy-two postseason points, including six this past spring. And an expiring five-year, $22.5 million contract.
While he's going to have to take a massive pay cut from $4.5 million per year, Arnott's veteran leadership coupled with his scoring touch, proven time and time again, will make for a big splash in the free agency front this July.
Estimated Contract: One year, $3.0 million
It's official: Radim Vrbata has completed the comeback.
The comeback from what? Well, from an 18-game, six-point '08-'09 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in which absolutely everything went wrong. Don't worry, though; Vrbata is back, and with his three-year contract expiring at the best possible time for the Czech, he'll hit the UFA market as a respectable target.
Vrbata, who returned to the Coyotes for the past two years, found that desert "A-Game" yet again in Phoenix. In fact, in six seasons outside of Arizona, Vrbata has averaged 13 goals and 32 points per season. On the other hand, in three years with the 'Yotes, he's averaged 23 goals and 49 points per season.
Despite that odd drop-off in play when not under contract for Phoenix, we expect Vrbata to get another fairly nice deal this summer, no matter the franchise offering it. The right winger, now 30, could be one to watch for a well-sized contract.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $6.0 million
Just like Vrbata, 32-year-old Erik Cole doesn't just seem to function when not in a red-and-white jersey (thankfully, he's managed to stay in one for at least part of all nine of his NHL seasons to date). And just like Vrbata, again, he's made the comeback from a possible functionally career-ending season that came just the season before last at age 31.
In '09-'10, Cole missed over half the season with a broken leg and managed only 16 points and a minus-nine rating. For many 30-plus-year-olds, that might just be killer... but not for Cole. The New York-born winger came back in '10-'11 with 26 goals and 52 points, falling short of his 30-goal, 61-point season in the 'Canes Cup year, '05-'06, but also earning himself a new nickname. "Clutch Cole" was created as his nine game-winning goals, four of which came against the now-relocated Atlanta Thrashers, ranked fourth in the league.
The 32-year-old carried a $2.9 million cap hit over the past two seasons, and although a re-signing in Carolina is by no means out of the question, he should remain steady heading into a new deal.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $5.0 million
Unlike many of the players on this list, Tim Connolly may actually be one of those who will be happy to leave his current team—Buffalo—where his name has grown sour in recent years. In a few days, Connolly, already 30, will watch his two-year, $9.0 million contract end his eight years of time with the Sabres that has brought the world of injuries into his career.
After missing just three games of action over the first four years of his career, Connolly has missed 190 games due to injury in the past six seasons—an average of over 31 per year. After missing 114 games in just two years from '05 to '07, Connolly has managed put together three consecutive years with at least respectable numbers, scoring 18, 17 and 13 goals and 47, 65 and 42 points, respectively.
With age becoming a factor and too little consistency in his game, the price for Connolly's talent alone will be severely compromised in this next contract, whatever it will be. While he's doubtlessly one of the 10 best forwards available, don't expect anything too pricy headed into his bank account this summer.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $5.0 million
All of a sudden, Ville Leino is in a position he's not really used to: the spotlight.
Leino has jumped from a still-developing bottom-six forward to a top NHL star in just one calendar year. He tallied five goals and nine points in only 13 games in '08-'09 for the Red Wings, followed by six goals and 11 assists in 55 games in '09-'10 for Detroit and Philadelphia. However, he then had a seven-goal, 21-point, plus-10 rating 2010 postseason and followed it up with a breakout in '10-'11 with 19 goals, 54 points and a plus-21 rating.
While some teams may be reluctant to pursue the 27-year-old's lack of proven production, Leino is young and still quite on the rise. He is sure to be a big name this summer. If the Flyers can't find the cap space to re-sign him, Leino will hit the market with a much-elevated status compared when he did so two summers ago; that's for sure.
Estimated Contract: Four years, $17 million
31-year-old, former first-round pick Simon Gagne would be attracting a lot more attention as a UFA if not for one bad season... which, unfortunately, happened to be last year.
Gagne spent the first 10 seasons of his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers, where he balanced out some problematic injuries that limited him to only 46 games in '02-'03 and just 25 appearances in '07-'08 by hitting the putting up four seperate campaigns of 33, 32, 41 and 47 goals in '01-'02, '08-'09, '06-'07 and '05-'06, respectively.
However, after the Flyers dumped salaries last summer and Gagne was shipped to Tampa Bay, he was merely matched (identically, in fact) a disappointing final season in Philadelphia and scored just 17 goals and 40 points. Still, his recent postseason success—nine goals and 12 points in 19 games during the 2010 playoffs, and five goals and 12 points in 15 games this past spring—boost his resume.
As Gagne finishes his fifth straight year of earning $5.25 million, he'll look to keep the pay drop as slight as possible as he joins the list of the best forwards available.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $7.5 million
Jussi Jokinen, best known for his shootout skills that emerged upon its creation during the NHL lockout, has now tranformed into a more conventional and reliable forward and hits the market this summer with a whole new set of statistics to boast.
At one point during his time in Tampa Bay, the Finn had fallen to the edge of the waiver wire and was eventually acquired by the Hurricanes for soon-Europe-bound Josef Melichar and a sixth-round draft pick. With Carolina, though, he turned his career around. After his 17-goal, 55-point rookie season in '05-'06 with the Stars, Jokinen watched that point total drop for four straight seasons until he broke through with a 30-goal, 65-point season as the Hurricanes' leading scorer in '09-'10.
The latter half of his two-year, $3.4 million contract passed by this past season with a 19-goal, 52-point effort. While it's still possible that the 28-year-old will be staying in Raleigh, he could hit the market as one of the better wingers out there and attract plenty of interest from around the league.
Estimated Contract: Two years, $6.0 million
Signed With: Carolina
Even after Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards scored 21 goals and 62 points in his 2000-'01 rookie campaign and followed it up with 62- and 74-point seasons the next two years, Richards never truly reached superstardom until he scored a career-high 26 goals and 73 assists in '03-'04 and added 12 goals and 26 points in 23 appearances on the Bolts' road to a Stanley Cup Championship.
Other than an injury-filled, 48-point '08-'09 campaign got his career in Dallas off to a bad start, Richards has never dipped below the 62-point plateau in 10 NHL seasons. Now 31, the former third-round pick has seemed to get better with age, setting a career high for points (91) in the season before last and then a career high for goals (28) this past regular season.
He won't be returning to Dallas this summer, though, as he looks for a new deal. Despite being one of the top names available, he might be fortunate to get another contract in the range of his previous one, which paid him a total of $39 million over five seasons—$7.8 million per year. Nevertheless, Richards easily cruises to our No. 1 spot for UFA forwards and should also top about any other rankings, too, for this July's free agent class.
Estimated Contract: Three years, $18.0 million