NHL Free Agency 2011: 5 Teams Likely to Make a Splash
While the Free Agent signing period hasn't even begun yet, teams haven't let that deter them from making big trades and big deals. Despite the recent flurry of activity, a number of players remain available, leaving analysts and fans alike wondering what the NHL landscape will look like after July 1.
1: Toronto Maple Leafs
With a solid young core, a phenomenal young sniper in Phil Kessel, and over 18 million dollars in cap space, the Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke are just itching to make a splash in the free agent market.
The Leafs could use a first line playmaker to provide some help to Kessel, a puck-moving defenseman, and a solid backup goaltender. In short: Burke is after impact players.
Brad Richards is one such player. He's got great vision, smooth skating ability, and a very underrated shot. A Kessel-Richards tandem could help vault Toronto from playoff pretender to a playoff contender in 2011-2012.
2: Florida Panthers
When the Panthers hired Dale Tallon as their GM, it was a statement to the rest of the league that Florida wasn't content to sit in last place forever. Tallon, the architect of the Chicago Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup winning team, has wasted no time re-assembling the Panthers.
If his recent acquisitions of Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky are any indication, Tallon is prepared to do whatever it takes to make the Panthers a winner. And he has 38 million ways to entice free agents to spend their next few years in the Sunshine state.
Look for Tallon to pursue veteran playmaking free agents like Ville Leino and Vincent Lecavalier. While the latter isn't a free agent, Tampa is going to need to shed salary after Stamkos is done extorting Yzerman. Moving Lecavalier's 7.7 million dollar cap hit could allow him to re-sign RFA Teddy Purcell and maybe make a pitch to UFA Sean Bergenheim.
Tallon will also make a strong pitch to UFA Tomas Vokoun, who still has a few great seasons left in the tank. With Markstrom still at least a year away from being ready to carry the load full-time, the Panthers really don't have any other options. Vokoun stays in Florida, and he'll have much better help in 2011-2012. Dale Tallon will make sure of that.
3: New York Rangers
No surprise here. Rangers GM Glen Sather has 25 million dollars burning a hole in his pocket, and there is a sure-to-be overpriced veteran center as the crown jewel of the free agent class. I'm pretty sure we all know exactly what he's planning on doing.
Aside from a first line center, the Rangers also would like to add a puck-moving defenseman, and at least one more role player or depth forward. Sean Bergenheim could be a nice addition to the up-and-coming Rangers.
4: Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are already the biggest story of the 2011 offseason after trading franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter late last week. With their combined 108 million dollars off of the Flyers books, GM Paul Holmgren has cap space to use.
The Flyers have already indicated they plan to be active in free agency, and with good reason: if the team hopes to seriously challenge for a Stanley Cup in 2011-2012, Holmgren and Co. will need to add a veteran forward, at least one defenseman, and one special teams/depth forward.
One name that has been tossed around the rumor mill is Erik Cole, the 32-year old former Hurricane. Cole brings everything the Flyers are in need of: size, grit, and veteran leadership. He's got a great relationship with Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, and he's likely to come at a very affordable 2 to 3 million dollars per season.
On the defense front, the Flyers could use either (a) a young puck-moving blueliner or (b) a short-term veteran defenseman to serve as a stopgap until they can find (a). Here's one absolutely crazy option: the Flyers could make a run for Ed Jovanovski. Jovo has yet to win a Stanley Cup, and if Philly is able to add him into the fold, they'll be one step closer.
5: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are my sleeper pick to make big news come July 1.
Columbus GM Scott Howson has pledged to rebuild (well, build) the franchise into a winner, and he has already started to back up that pledge. His acquisition of Jeff Carter gives him a legitimate first-line center to pair with All-Star winger Rick Nash. His trade for puck-moving James Wisniewski gives the Blue Jackets a solid offensive defenseman for the first time in a long time.
Look for Howson to make at least one more major move. He is still in need of at least one top-nine forward and one top-four defenseman, not to mention a reliable backup goaltender.
One target Howson could pursue is Ville Leino, who would have instant chemistry with the newly acquired Carter. Defenseman Anton Babchuk could provide a solid shot from the point and a bruising physical presence on the blue line.
Brian Boucher could provide veteran leadership, stability, and playoff experience at an affordable cost.