NHL Free Agents 2012: Top 25 Most-Coveted Free Agents Heading into Summer

Jason Sapunka@moreSapunkaCorrespondent IIDecember 27, 2011

NHL Free Agents 2012: Top 25 Most-Coveted Free Agents Heading into Summer

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    The 2011-2012 NHL season is nearly halfway through. Most teams have played 33 games already, roughly 40 percent of the schedule.

    General managers understand at this point whether or not their team has a chance to compete in the playoffs. From now until the trade deadline, those team executives will have to make decisions on whom to move and not to move.

    Upcoming free agents immediately enter the conversation; if the team is missing the playoffs and not planning to re-sign a useful player, sending him to a contender is always a smart move.

    The NHL has a lot of talent available in the upcoming summer. This list includes the best NHL players who will be both unrestricted and restricted free agents.

Honorable Mention: Jaromir Jagr

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    Philadelphia's Jaromir Jagr should technically be much higher on this list; a living legend, effective leader and point-producing winger is sure to draw a lot of interest if the Flyers choose not to re-sign him.

    However, like other upcoming FAs (Niklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur, Teemu Selanne) it is unlikely Jagr would choose to go to a different team if he returns for the 2012-13 season.

25. Jarret Stoll

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    The Kings' 29-year-old center is already the talk of trade rumors. After a career high of 68 points in the 2005-06 season, Stoll's production has never come close. He has a relatively terrible nine points through 33 games this season.

    Stoll is going to be a bargain if he continues to be a non-productive player, but a different team could reignite the once-valuable playmaker.

24. Kristian Huselius

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    Huselius missed half of last season with ankle and lower body injuries. This year he has been limited to two games due to pectoral and groin issues.

    The fragile Columbus Blue Jackets winger has durability issues, but when healthy he can set up plays very effectively. He's had three 60-plus-point seasons in his career.

    Huselius' current contract carries a $4.75 million cap hit. The 33-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent.

23. Dustin Penner

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    The huge, 6'4" 245-pound Dustin Penner is somewhat underperforming this year. With eight points in 22 games, the 29-year-old is behind his normal production level.

    Penner is making $4.25 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer.

22. Tomas Vokoun

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    The 35-year-old signed a contract for just a single season with the Washington Capitals.

    Though he came at a bargain of $1.5 million, the veteran will definitely draw interest this summer. Even if he is used as a backup to a more elite goalie, Vokoun is going to be one of the most sought-after netminders for the second consecutive summer.

21. Chris Stewart

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    The 24-year-old Stewart picked the wrong time to have a down year.

    Making $3.25 million, Stewart is having his least productive season since his 19-point rookie year of 2008-09. He has just five goals and seven assists through 30 games, on pace for 33 points.

    Last season he totaled 53 points in 62 games.

    His potential is certainly there, but a team could be able to get a bargain on Stewart if his production continues to be as low as it has.

    However, he is a RFA, which means that the Blues might simply be keeping him at a discount.

20. Ondrej Pavelec

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    Pavelec is a quality option for any team seeking a young, promising goaltender. The 24-year-old has shown the ability to shut down opposing teams throughout his short career thus far, though he is at times unpredictably inconsistent.

    Pavelec is an upcoming RFA making $1.3 million this season.

19. Sam Gagner

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    The Oilers' 22-year old Sam Gagner has scored at least 40 points in his first four seasons, and is on pace to do so again in his fifth year.

    Gagner is one of a number of free agents Edmonton will need to consider re-signing this offseason.

18. Erik Johnson

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    The big, 6'4" Johnson is a minus-11 this season.

    However, Johnson is just 23 and has already established himself as a point-producing defender capable of contributing more than 40 points per season.

    Johnson has a $3 million salary this season and is a RFA.

17. Ryan O'Reilly

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    After two nonchalant 26-point seasons, the 20-year-old Ryan O'Reilly is starting to make a name for himself.

    Not even halfway through the season, O'Reilly is three points shy of tying his career high. He leads Colorado with 23.

    If a team sees this as O'Reilly's breakout, rather than a short-lived hot streak or career year, he would certainly be pursued, though as a RFA.

16. Jake Voracek

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    One-half of the robbery that Paul Holmgren pulled on the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jake Voracek was signed for just one season this past summer.

    Voracek is scoring more points per game (0.64) than the player he and the eighth overall draft pick (Sean Couturier) were traded for. Jeff Carter's 13 points in 22 games puts him at 0.59 per game.

    Voracek is going to be tugging Ed Snider's pockets at the conclusion of his 50-point season.

    Holmgren would be wise to sign Voracek to an extension before the 22-year-old becomes a RFA.

15. Evander Kane

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    The fourth overall pick in the 2009 entry draft, Kane's play has improved every season since he was a rookie at age 18.

    His point total rose from 26 to 43 last season. This year, he is on pace for 64.

    The 20-year-old winger has plenty of potential and would draw a ton of interest if the Winnipeg Jets do not re-sign the RFA.

14. Tuukka Rask

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    Even though the Bruins have the best goalie in the NHL with Tim Thomas, they would be crazy not to re-sign backup Tuukka Rask.

    The upcoming RFA is making $1.5 million this season. As one of the league's best backups, the 24-year-old could command a lot of money should Boston look to keep their goalie of the future.

13. Kris Versteeg

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    On his fourth team in the past two years, Kris Versteeg has finally found a place to dominate: on the Florida Panthers' first line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann.

    Versteeg leads the club with 35 points in 33 games. He's on pace to smash his career high by more than 30 points.

    Teams should be wary of making sure the right pieces are there for Versteeg to be successful with, but the potential production of the 25-year-old is very attractive to general managers.

    All it takes is chemistry and the RFA will be worth more than the $3 million per year his current contract pays him.

12. Ales Hemsky

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    The 28-year-old Hemsky has shown throughout his career that, one, he can score tons of points and, two, he isn't the most durable player in the league.

    Hemsky has played just 91 games since the start of the 2009-10 season. His production this year is far below his career numbers.

    Hemsky had scored at a pace no lower than 0.8 points per game since the lockout. This season he is at a deflated 0.5 points per game.

    His lack of production could make him a cheap but risky target for teams. His 2011-12 salary is $5 million. He is set to be an unrestricted free agent.

11. Carey Price

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    The contract of Montreal's starting goaltender runs out after this season.

    Carey Price, making $3 million this season, is set to become an RFA. The Canadiens will likely re-sign Price, having traded away Jaroslav Halak after the 2010 playoffs.

10. John-Michael Liles

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    The 31-year-old Liles is a consistent offensive defenseman who is on pace for career high of 51 points this year. Liles has never totaled fewer than 30 points in a season.

    He is a good defenseman to have on the man advantage; 10 of his 21 points have come on the power play.

    Any team looking for someone to set up plays from the blue line will be looking for the UFA who has a $4.55 million salary this season.

9. Matt Carle

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    The Flyers defenseman is an unrestricted free agent. Philadelphia's lack of cap space and recent extension to Braydon Coburn means that Carle is likely to be playing on a different team next season.

    In a relatively weak market for defensemen, expect Carle to get paid more than he probably deserves.

8. Ryan Suter

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    The 26-year-old Suter is an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season.

    Nashville would obviously like to re-sign their free-agent defenseman, but doing so with their financial resources may be difficult.

    Suter has averaged above 40 points from the blue line for the past three seasons. He is on pace for a career high of 52 in 2011-12.

7. Shane Doan

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    Though Doan will likely stay loyal to the Phoenix Coyotes, it is peculiar that he has not worked out a new contract yet.

    If Doan were to put himself on the open market, there would certainly be plenty of interest for the veteran power forward.

    At age 35, Doan has scored no fewer than 45 points in the past 12 seasons. Not only does he bring that offensive skill, but he is a competent all-around player who is a leader off the ice as well.

6. James Neal

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins have a pleasant issue with 24-year-old James Neal.

    Set to be an RFA in the summer, Neal is having a breakout year. His 33 points in 34 puts him just below point-per-game pace. His 19 goals leads Pittsburgh and puts him one behind NHL leaders Jonathan Toews and Steve Stamkos.

    Neal is going to be able to command a lot of money this summer with those numbers.

5. Matt Duchene

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    Colorado's 20-year-old center is coming off his entry-level contract, which carries a $3.2 million cap hit.

    Duchene was drafted third overall in the 2009 entry draft. He has scored 144 points in 196 games (roughly 60 per 82 games).

    To show that consistent production at such a young age is a good sign. Duchene is worth locking up, and teams may be willing to pay the RFA compensation if it means getting one of the game's next big stars.

4. Mike Green

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    Once nominated for a Norris Trophy, the point-producing defenseman Mike Green is one of two expensive upcoming free agents the Washington Capitals will have to deal with this summer.

    The 26-year-old's current four-year contract carries a $5.25 million cap hit. The Capitals should expect to pay at least that much in order to keep the RFA in Washington.

3. Alexander Semin

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    The other big-name free agent Washington has to worry about is Alexander Semin.

    Semin is an unrestricted free agent who has signed two consecutive one-year contracts. The Capitals' inability to lock up Semin for the long-term, or for a low price, could lead to them losing the 27-year-old sniper.

    Semin has scored above 70 points three times, including a career-high 84 in 2009-10. As one of the best available forwards on the market, Semin could push for a raise to his current salary of $6.7 million.

2. Zach Parise

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    Like Semin, Parise was signed to just a one-year contract prior to this season, for $6 million.

    The Devils, already locked in with cap-space nightmare Ilya Kovalchuk for the next 63 years or so, may struggle to keep their captain Parise.

    New Jersey is already up against the cap, which makes it difficult to keep Parise this summer.

    One option may be in making Martin Brodeur take a pay cut if they choose to re-sign him (assuming he does not retire); Brodeur is no longer worth his $5.2 million salary.

    Parise will be an unrestricted free agent. The 27-year-old is a diligent scorer guaranteed to produce at least 60 points per season.

1. Shea Weber

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    Shea Weber may be the best defenseman in the NHL right now. He is the most valuable defenseman in the NHL when considering his age.

    He's a leader who can shut down offensive players. He can hit and play physical, plus his hard shot helps offensively; Weber is on pace for 67 points this season.

    Nashville had to go to arbitration with Weber before this season to sign him to a one-year contract at $7.5 million.

    He is certainly worth every dollar he's being paid and every team that can afford him will look to add the game's top available defenseman.

    However, since he is an RFA, teams will either have to compensate Nashville or trade for his rights in order to sign the franchise player.

    B/R Featured Columnist Jason Sapunka is available on Twitter.