NHL Free Agency 2011: Who Goes Where?
With the July 1 Free Agency deadline drawing closer, many NHL GMs are finalizing their plans for when the madness begins. Prospective free agents are waiting in eager anticipation for their next big payday, and the millions of hockey fans around the world are wondering what moves their favorite team will make.
With stars like Brad Richards, Steven Stamkos, Christian Ehrhoff and Tomas Vokoun set to hit the open market, it's time to take a look at where the biggest names available might end up. Don't take the predictions too seriously, and as always, let me know what you think in the comments section!
Dwayne Roloson (G), Tampa Bay Lightning
The ageless Roloson had another superb season in 2010-2011, going 24-25-5 in 54 games with a 2.59 GAA and .914 save percentage and backstopping the Lightning to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals. With a dearth of quality goaltenders on the market, and as many as six teams looking to add a solid starter for 2011-2012, look for Roloson to be a fairly hot commodity in the coming days.
However, despite all of the attention he's likely to receive, Roloson will end up playing in Florida for another season. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has already stated he'd like to bring Roloson back (at the right price, of course), and with all of the changes likely to take place on the roster as a result of the Stamkos situation, a reliable veteran could be just what the doctor ordered.
Another Possibility: Florida Panthers
With top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom coming off a knee injury and likely to need some additional time to develop, FLA could pursue a reliable veteran like Roloson to serve as a bridge between Tomas Vokoun and the young Swedish netminder.
Erik Cole (RW), Carolina Hurricanes
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Coming off another 25-plus goal campaign in 2010-2011, Erik Cole should be a prime target for teams seeking veteran leadership, physical play and secondary scoring. At this stage in his career, the smooth skating power forward is best suited to a second or third line role on a quality team and will likely not return to Carolina.
One intriguing possibility is a reunion between Cole and former head coach Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia, where the suddenly young Flyers could be in need of a big winger with a physical edge to help offset the losses of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Erik Cole brings veteran savvy, a team-first attitude and another scoring punch to a Flyers team that just lost 59 goals from last year's squad.
Another Possibility: Boston Bruins
With the retirement of Mark Recchi and the anticipated departure of Mike Ryder, Boston might be in the market for another veteran forward to provide leadership in the locker room, secondary scoring and a physical presence on the ice. Erik Cole fits that bill nicely and is likely to come at a reasonable salary.
Tomas Kaberle (D), Boston Bruins
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Acquired by Boston at the trade deadline, Kaberle was expected to provide an offensive spark on the Boston blueline and breathe new life into a dismal Bruins powerplay. The smooth-skating Czech defenseman failed on both counts in Beantown, registering nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 24 regular season games and only 11 points (no goals, 11 assists) during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run. While Kaberle did appear to re-gain form in the conference and Cup finals, his play during his tenure in Boston was underwhelming to say the least.
With Boston drafting prized defenseman Dougie Hamilton in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the writing is on the wall for Kaberle, who will not be returning to help the Bruins defend their Stanley Cup title. Look for Kaberle to stay on the East Coast, signing with the NY Rangers. The Rangers certainly have the money to provide Kaberle with a Gonchar-esque contract (three years, $16.5M), and they are likely in the market for another veteran puck-moving defenseman to improve their powerplay and provide leadership on the backend.
Another Possibility: Columbus Blue Jackets
Blue Jackets' GM Scott Howson has already demonstrated his commitment to putting a quality product on the ice in Columbus with the blockbuster acquisition of Jeff Carter. With a solid 1-2 scoring punch in Nash and Carter, a number of quality role players and a solid defense corps, the Blue Jackets may well be on their way to relevance once again. But this team still needs a veteran, puck-moving defenseman to quarterback the powerplay and provide some offense from the backend. Kaberle has only done both of those things for his entire career. If he can be convinced to sign with an up-and-coming team, Kaberle could be a great fit.
Jussi Jokinen (F), Carolina Hurricanes
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A 30-goal scorer in 2009-2010, the silky-smooth Jokinen is likely to attract attention from clubs seeking to add a dynamic playmaker at an affordable price. At only 27, Jokinen is just entering his prime and will likely continue to produce 45 to 60 points per season wherever he ends up. Jokinen has the benefit of being one of the premiere shootout specialists in the NHL—a skill that holds considerable value around the league.
In recent days, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford has expressed renewed confidence that Jokinen will continue to play in Carolina, and with a new deal for Joni Pikanen announced today, I've been converted to a believer. Jokinen stays in Carolina.
Another Possibility: Los Angeles Kings
After adding former Flyers' captain and perennial Selke candidate Mike Richards, Kings GM Dean Lombardi is going to want to provide his prized acquisition with all of the tools to succeed. Richards is an excellent passer, and Jokinen is an excellent finisher. Richards is one of the game's best defensive forwards, and Jokinen usually tries to play defense. By adding Jokinen to an already potent offensive attack, the Kings would be capable of lighting the lamp as well as any team in the league.
Ville Leino (LW), Philadelphia Flyers
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In 2010-2011, Leino was one of the best value players in the NHL, posting 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) while earning a measly $800,000. That's all about to change for the soon-to-be ex-Flyer, who's asking price is rumored to be well north of $3 million per season.
The Finnish forward has solid playmaking ability and on-ice vision, which, coupled with his solid puck-handling skills and skating ability, allows him to make sometimes-spectacular plays in the offensive zone. However, his play down the stretch last season tailed off, and his 2011 postseason play was lackluster when compared to his breakout 2010 effort. Despite that, Leino is likely to command a substantial sum from a team looking to bolster its offensive attack.
One such team is Toronto, who could use a playmaker to pair with perennial 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel. Leino's facilitation abilities paid huge dividends for Danny Briere (who notched a career-high 34 goals in his first full season playing alongside Ville), and with Kessel already performing at a high level, the sky is the limit. Maple Leafs' GM Brian Burke is committed to winning, and Ville Leino would be an affordable step in the right direction.
Another Possibility: Philadelphia Flyers
I know I just got done saying Leino was a "soon-to-be ex-Flyer," but I'm not sure I completely believe that. Leino knows he has a great situation playing alongside a great finisher in Danny Briere and a solid power-forward in Scott Hartnell. The trio combined for 170 points last season and was instrumental in helping Philly reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2010. There is still a strong possibility Leino returns to the City of Brotherly Love, especially if he is willing to compromise on his asking price.
Tomas Vokoun (G), Florida Panthers
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With Ilya Bryzgalov off the market after signing a nine-year, $51.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers late last week, Tomas Vokoun has assumed the title of "best available goaltender." With quite a few teams in need of a quality netminder, he is likely to have a number of potential suitors.
Over the past five seasons, Vokoun has been an absolute rock between the pipes, posting an average save percentage of .922 and a GAA of 2.53 while playing for the Florida Panthers and the Nashville Predators, all while playing an average of 58 games per season. Not too shabby.
Despite the number of teams likely to be interested in signing the soon-to-be 35-year-old Czech netminder, expect him to stay put in Florida. With former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon now at the helm in the Sunshine State, the team is looking to post its first winning record since 2008-2009. Tallon has already acquired former Blackhawks Stanley Cup team members Brian Campbell (and his massive contract) and Tomas Kopecky, and is reportedly in the market for Kris Versteeg.
It makes little sense for Tallon to bring together such a group of veteran players if he intends to allow his franchise netminder to walk. Jacob Markstrom is a great prospect, but he's coming off a knee injury and is likely to need another year or two of development/backup experience before he's ready to handle a full-time starting role at the NHL level. Vokoun is the ideal candidate to patrol the crease of the BankAtlantic Center for another few seasons.
Another Possibility: Phoenix Coyotes
Phoenix has already lost their franchise's focal player over the past two seasons in Ilya Bryzgalov, and they don't have a prospect ready to step-up and fill the massive shoes of the departed Russian netminder. Vokoun is a solid, veteran goaltender who can bring stability and a veteran calm to a young, up-and-coming Phoenix team that hopes to build on its success in 2010-2011.
Christian Ehrhoff (D), Vancouver Canucks
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With fellow Canuck Kevin Bieska re-signing in Vancouver earlier this week, Christian Ehrhoff has likely become the best defenseman expected to be available come July 1. The soon-to-be 29-year-old German defender has evolved into a solid all-around defenseman with the Canucks, possessing strong offensive ability, good defensive awareness and good discipline and awareness in all three zones. Over the past two seasons, Ehrhoff has notched 94 points (28 goals, 66 assists), a plus/minus of plus-55 and 51 power-play points (12G, 39A). A workhorse defenseman for the Canucks, Ehrhoff logged nearly 24 minutes of ice time per game in 2010-2011, good for second on the team and 23rd in the NHL.
With his recent trade to the Islanders, Ehrhoff's return to Vancouver for the 2011-2012 season is extremely unlikely. However, quite a few teams are in need of an offensively skilled blueliner just entering his prime. The prime candidate to land the Ehrhoff is Detroit, which has money to burn after the retirement of Brian Rafalski and is in need of a player with Ehrhoff's skill set.
Another Possibility: New York Rangers
The Rangers are in need of some offensive help, especially for their powerplay. Ehrhoff's 51 power-play points over the past two seasons rank among the league leaders (among defensemen). The acquisition of Ehrhoff would also help the Rangers' streaky offense find a more consistent rhythm while providing another workhorse to take some of the load off of 24-year-old star defenseman Marc Staal. The Rangers certainly have the cap room to make a strong offer for Ehrhoff, especially if they fail in their bid to land the coveted Brad Richards.
Dark Horse: Philadelphia Flyers
With the status of Chris Pronger uncertain for (at least) the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren may look to add another powerplay quarterback to help ease the workload of the aging Kimo Timonen. Ehrhoff's ability to provide 45-plus points from the blueline would be a tremendous lift for a Flyers defense corps that had only one defenseman reach the 40-point mark (Matt Carle, 40 points), and his ability to play on the PK would further reduce the wear-and-tear on the "Big Four" of Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Chris Pronger.
One thing is for sure: Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren still has money to burn after shedding Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. What he does with that money remains to be seen. Ehrhoff is one intriguing option.
Steven Stamkos (C), Tampa Bay Lightning (RFA)
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While he may be a Restricted Free Agent, the 21-year-old superstar is still likely to draw a lot of attention come July 1 if he isn't re-signed by the cap-strapped Lightning. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has promised to match any offer for his Rocket Richard Trophy winning center, but the franchise's financial status could impact his ability to follow through on that pledge. The Lightning currently have nearly $27M committed to five players signed through 2014-2015, all of whom have no-trade or no-movement clauses.
With about $20M in available cap space and at least six roster spots to fill (including both a starting and backup goaltender), Yzerman is going to be hard-pressed to match a massive offer sheet for Stamkos (either in terms of cap hit or total contract value). Negotiations between the two sides have reportedly reached an impasse, and Yzerman may consider moving his prized centerman for a package of picks and NHL-ready prospects rather than be forced to accept the four first round picks mandated as compensation by the NHL CBA.
Despite the cap crunch faced by the Lightning, I'm going to say that Stamkos returns to Tampa Bay for at least three more seasons. Stamkos has a great situation in Tampa, playing alongside one of the best passers in the game in Martin St. Louis and an upper echelon power forward in Ryan Malone. With Vinny Lecavalier, Eric Brewer, Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman and Steve Downie, the Lightning have a nice mix of youth, size, speed and skill and represent a very favorable situation for the young superstar.
Another Possibility: Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have already jettisoned two franchise players in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards this offseason, leaving many wondering what GM Paul Holmgren has up his sleeve. One possibility which has been discussed involves making an offer to Stamkos. The Flyers do have some cap room, but any competitive offer would require them to (at least) shed Matt Carle's $3.43 million salary and not re-sign Ville Leino. The Flyers would then be in a position to offer Stamkos a competitive contract, believed to be in the 12 to 14 year range and worth an estimated $80 million to $105 million.
While the cap hit would likely be a manageable $7 million-$8.5 million, the deal could be heavily front-loaded, which may make it near-impossible for Lightning GM Yzerman to match the deal while retaining players like Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis due to the Lightning's ownership group losing a reported $20 million-plus in 2010-2011.
While I don't think Stamkos will end up in the City of Brotherly Love at this time, Paul Holmgren is known around the league as one of its most creative and resourceful GMs. If anyone can pull of a coup d'etat of this magnitude, its him.
Brad Richards (C), Dallas Stars
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Brad Richards is the crown jewel of the 2011 unrestricted free agent class. At age 31, he still has at least four quality seasons left in him. At this point, its obvious he won't be re-signing with the Stars, so the question becomes: Where will the former Conn Smythe winner play next season?
The most likely destination for Richards is the New York Rangers, who have money to burn and a need for an elite centerman like Richards. Further helping the Rangers' cause is their current status as playoff contenders one or two pieces away from being considered bona-fide Stanley Cup contenders. Richards has already expressed his desire to play for a contender, saying recently that it has been far too long since he's played for a Stanley Cup. If he were to sign with the Rangers, Richards would be reunited with his former coach from his days playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, John Tortorella.
Another Possibility: Tampa Bay Lightning
I know I just got done saying how the Lightning are cap-strapped and might not be able to match an offer for Steven Stamkos. But here is an intriguing option: Should the Lightning allow Stamkos to walk, they might be able to sign Brad Richards at a discounted rate and for a much shorter term than Stamkos. The Lightning would then have a very good No. 2 center in Richards, four first round picks to either use or move for younger, cheaper pieces to fill out their roster and some extra cash left over to bring back playoff heroes like Sean Bergenheim and Dwayne Roloson. It is an unlikely scenario to be sure, but this offseason is likely to define Yzerman's career as a GM. If anyone can pull off a miracle, its Stevie Y.