NHL Free Agency: 10 Players That Will Help Their Teams Playoff Chances

Stephen Nelson@@Stephen__NelsonContributor IIOctober 18, 2011

NHL Free Agency: 10 Players That Will Help Their Teams Playoff Chances

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    It's October, and though the leaves are falling and the temperatures are dropping, optimism and hope are at all-time highs...that is unless you're in Ottawa (sorry, Sens fans).

    Over the course of the summer season, lot of faces ended up in new places across the NHL. Trades, transactions and of course free agent signings—every move made with the hope that it will bring a team one step closer to the ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup.

    So as each team works to get off to a hot start in 2011-12 and take the first steps toward a playoff berth, let's look inside the 30 locker rooms. Here are 10 free agent signings who improve their team's chances of making a run into the postseason... 

1. Teemu Selanne

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    2010-11 Team: Anaheim Ducks

    2011-12 Team: Anaheim Ducks

    All right, I cheated a little on this one; Teemu Selanne didn't change his address, but special players call for special exceptions. Early this summer, I talked about how Selanne's return was of paramount importance to the Anaheim Ducks

    Bottom line: Without Selanne, Anaheim is out of the playoff picture. Offensive depth is scarce in Anaheim after their top unit of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan. The Finnish Flash is the most reliable source of points after those three.

    The Ducks surprised many last year by finishing fourth in the conference. 2011-12 is the swan song for Selanne, so Anaheim will get everything he's got. It is up to the team to match it and send him off on a high note. Are the Ducks a Stanley Cup caliber team as currently constituted? Maybe not. But as long as Teemu is suiting up, you never know. 

2. Christian Ehrhoff

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    2010-11 Team: Vancouver Canucks

    2011-12 Team: Buffalo Sabres

    Terry Pegula opened up his checkbook this offseason after the Sabres made another earlier-than-desired exit from the playoffs—Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff were the beneficiaries.

    Ehrhoff brings a lot of offensive ability to Buffalo's D-corps. Last year, the German defenseman had 50 points for the Canucks. The Sabres haven't had a 50-point defenseman since Garry Galley had 54 in the 1995-96 season. So to quote the band Staind, "It's been a while..."

    In 2010-11 the Sabres depended on sophomore Tyler Myers to repeat a phenomenal rookie campaign. And when he struggled, it was up to Jordan Leopold to carry the team offensively from the back end.

    The addition of Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr will be key for the Sabres' blueline depth, Ryan Miller's sanity and the team's ability to make a deeper run in the playoffs.  

3. Tomas Kaberle

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    2010-11 Team: Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins

    2011-12 Team: Carolina Hurricanes

    Kaberle is certainly past this prime, but the Hurricanes won't be shelling out $12.75 million over the next three years solely for the defenseman's retirement fund.

    Carolina missed the postseason by two points. Veteran defenseman Joe Corvo requested a trade and got one to Boston. Jim Rutherford filled Corvo's vacancy by signing the Stanley Cup-winning Bruin and longtime Maple Leaf.

    There is always something to be said for championship experience, which Kaberle now has. He also has offensive talent. And remember, even though he is 33 years old, he is also still younger than Corvo, who many feel was a big loss for Carolina.

    Kaberle hasn't exactly lit it up through the first five games this season, but I still feel he is important player for this team's playoff chances.

4. Sheldon Souray

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    2010-11 Team: Hershey Bears (AHL)

    2011-12 Team: Dallas Stars

    At the risk of getting disapproving comments from Edmonton fans, Souray is on this list because I do feel he increases, albeit slightly, the Stars' slim-to-none chances of making the playoffs.

    Last year, the Minnesota Wild spoiled the Stars' postseason party on the last day of the regular season, handing the eighth seed to the Chicago Blackhawks. Then Dallas lost its best offensive player via free agency in Brad Richards.

    They used that money to bring in some depth players like Michael Ryder and Vernon Fiddler—not marquee names by any stretch. But there is some talent playing at the American Airlines Arena. I'm a huge fan of Jamie Benn. Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott and Alex Goligoski are some pretty good hockey players.

    The addition of Souray and his booming shot could be a spark to a Stars' team with low expectations. Don't believe me, Dallas has a win for every Sheldon Souray point: four (4-1-0). 

5. Simon Gagne

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    2010-11 Team: Tampa Bay Lightning

    2011-12 Team: Los Angeles Kings

    Hollywood isn't known for hockey, but that could change a bit this year. Kings' GM Dean Lombardi had an incredible offseason acquiring Mike Richards from the Flyers and inking Drew Doughty to a mammoth contract extension.

    He also signed two-time 40-goal scorer Simon Gagne to a two-year deal. Gagne and Richards have been reunited with John Stevens, who coached them to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance with the Flyers in 2008.

    The 31-year-old spent last season in Tampa and struggled with, you guessed it, injuries—something he has grown accustomed to dealing with.

    Los Angeles has plenty of quality skaters up front from Kopitar and Brown to Williams and Penner. It's a unit that finished seventh in the West last year. With the new additions, many are picking them to contend for the conference title.

    A healthy Gagne clicking on the top-six is one dangerous darkhorse player in 2011-12. 

6. Andrew Brunette

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    2010-11 Team: Minnesota Wild

    2011-12 Team: Chicago Blackhawks

    I've always loved Stan Bowman's decision to bring in "Bruno." He's an ironman and a perfect player for this Blackhawks team. Chicago's 2010-11 depth problems have been well documented. One element they lacked in particular was someone who was willing to pay the price in front of the net. 

    Andrew Brunette solves that problem. His flexibility also allows Joel Quenville to juggle his lines if needed (not that he wasn't experienced in that before).

    Given the Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa's injuries over the past couple of seasons, it also helps having Brunette's dependability in the lineup; the winger defines workhorse.

7. Brad Richards

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    2010-11 Team: Dallas Stars

    2011-12 Team: New York Rangers

    Well, Brad Richards and the Rangers aren't exactly helping me or this list out with their offensive "struggles." I put it in quotes because that is putting it nicely—five goals in three games for New York (last in the NHL).

    That being said, it's only three games, and I don't think many are too worried yet (with "yet" being the operative word).

    Richards made everybody around him in Dallas better, and helped push the Stars toward the middle tier in the West. By adding him to a playoff team in New York, natural progression would say they should be pushed to a middle seed in the East.

    Of course, things don't always progress naturally. 

8. Ilya Bryzgalov

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    2010-11 Team: Phoenix Coyotes

    2011-12 Team: Philadelphia Flyers

    Philly fans, "why you heff to be mad" all the time? Aside from the Eagles rough start, and the Phillies playoff failure, they're probably upset because they haven't seen a legitimate goalie in net for the Flyers in a long time...until now.

    Despite the loss of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, having Ilya Bryzgalov in net keeps the Flyers' contender status in the Eastern Conference. It is largely the same unit, with the continued development of Claude Giroux, that made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. Chris Pronger's healthy is important, but goaltending has long been the question mark in Philly. 

    That question mark is now an exclamation point—something Bryzgalov and the Flyers hope to add to the end of their season in 2011-12.

9. Michal Handzus

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    2010-11 Team: Los Angeles Kings

    2011-12 Team: San Jose Sharks

    Handzus moved from SoCal to NorCal with a two-year, $5 million deal with the Sharks. Again, not one of those headline-grabbing signings, but one that will pay dividends. 

    "Zeus" is a great fit up front for San Jose, providing depth at center for an already talented group. Strong in the faceoff circle, the Slovakian center also plays extensive time on the penalty kill. He led the Kings in PK time last season, on a unit that was fourth-best in the NHL.

    The question about the Sharks lineup is the same every year, "is this the year?" And again, the answer is "maybe." But having Handzus anchor the third line should be nothing but a "yes" this year by the bay.

    And for what it's worth, the center also kind of looks like a shark... 

10. Jamie Langenbrunner

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    2010-11 Team: New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars

    2011-12 Team: St. Louis Blues

    He's no spring chicken anymore, but what Jamie Langenbrunner lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience in winning.

    A 17-year veteran, the Minnesota native has two Stanley Cup rings and a silver medal from the 2010 Olympics on a United States team that he captained. His presence on a very young and talented St. Louis team is valued on the ice and in the locker room. 

    The Blues have to, as the proverbial saying goes, learn how to win. Who better to teach them than Langenbrunner? 

    All of St. Louis' attention will belong to the Cardinals for the next couple of weeks, which is perfect for the Blues, who can continue to work out the growing pains as they battle to return to the postseason in the tough central division.

    Follow Stephen Nelson on Twitter: @Stephen__Nelson