- Sean Allen
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If it's anything like 2007, July 1 will be a fast and furious day in the NHL. On the first day of free agency last year, almost all the big-name free agents found a home before the day was through. The New York Rangers made the biggest splash by landing two of the most-sought-after centermen, all in a 15-minute span. It will most certainly be an interesting day, but there has been plenty of action to talk about in the week preceding the opening of free-agent season.
The most notable move so far has been the Tampa Bay Lightning's trading for the negotiating rights to players they covet rather than letting them hit the open market. One of them, Ryan Malone, has already signed on, while Gary Roberts and Brian Rolston are still exclusively tied to the Lightning until they become free agents on Tuesday. Malone steps into a top six that includes Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, likely Steve Stamkos and possibly Jussi Jokinen (depending on who else signs on). As a forward with a little more brute force than most (I'm still hesitant to call him a power forward), Malone would look pretty good on a top line with Lecavalier and St. Louis. Keep that possibility in mind while ranking him because he could wind up as a No. 2 fantasy winger if that happens. Malone scored a career-high 27 goals playing on a high-octave Penguins offense, usually riding shotgun for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, so he knows how to take advantage of gifted centers like Lecavalier. There are few situations in the NHL in which Malone could have maintained -- or potentially increased -- his value, and this was one of them.
Now, if Rolston or Roberts also end up with Tampa Bay, it would be fair to start getting a little more excited about Stamkos. As it stands, the Lightning don't have any top-talent wingers to line up beside him, as Lecavalier will center the No. 1 line, but with a finisher like Rolston or a veteran like Roberts and the speedy Jokinen also in the fold, Stamkos would certainly have something to work with right away.
Let's take a look at some of the other notable transactions that have taken place since draft day.
Buyouts and Cuts Galore
The list of free agents who will hit the open market on Tuesday is strangely growing, instead of shrinking. Despite the jump in available cap space (not to mention the new minimum cap that exceeds $40 million), teams are cutting bait on several potential fantasy darlings whose contracts contained a buyout clause. Here's a look at some of the newer names to the list of free agents.
Emery out in Ottawa
Ray Emery is a great goaltender who was treated like a yo-yo in Ottawa, and I'll be taking a chance on him in all my fantasy drafts, wherever he lands. After missing the start of last season while recovering from surgery, Emery had to wait for his turn to start because Martin Gerber shot out of the gate and forced the Sens to play out his hot streak. That wasn't a bad strategy for an NHL team to use and it certainly wouldn't bother most goaltenders' psyches, but coach John Paddock (now on the unemployment line) never did give Emery the feeling that he was his No. 1 goalie. Every time Emery struggled even a little bit, Gerber would get another chance to get hot and keep the job. That does count as messing with your goaltender's head, no matter how strong his psyche. Locker-room issues aside (as I find them generally irrelevant in hockey), Emery was nothing more than a little rusty last season. The Senators turned their back on the same goaltender who carried them into the playoffs with a 33-16-6 record in the 2006-07 season and then stayed hot right into the Stanley Cup final with a 2.25 goals-against average in the playoffs. Now an unrestricted free agent, Emery is going to land somewhere with a chance to win the starting goaltender's job. I expect to see the same caliber of goaltender we saw two years ago, and I'm willing to give Emery a free pass for last season. Ottawa is going to regret not doing the same.
Big Bert needs a home
With the signing of Corey Perry imperative for the Ducks and Scott Niedermayer already confirming his return, there is no cap room for Todd Bertuzzi in Anaheim. Living right up against the salary cap, the buyout of Bertuzzi will allow GM Brian Burke to re-sign Perry and still add a couple lesser free agents. Bertuzzi limped through October and November last season, but then built up to a huge January (14 points in 13 games) only to peter off and be irrelevant for the remainder of the season. Bertuzzi looks to be at a point in his career where he won't be the monster stat-filler he was before "the incident." He will still be worth taking a chance on in drafts because there is always the outside shot that he returns to form, but those are pretty long odds. It is worth noting that his fellow linemates from his peak years -- Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison -- are also free agents. How wild would it be to see them reunited outside of Vancouver?
Maple Leafs continue to mail-in 2008-09 season
If you needed more proof that the only goal the Toronto Maple Leafs have this season is to improve their chances of drafting John Tavares, look no further than the waiving of Kyle Wellwood and Andrew Raycroft. OK, so Raycroft isn't a big deal and probably should have been waived last season, but getting rid of Wellwood, who was a restricted free agent, is nothing more than a way of saving money for the upcoming season. Wellwood is exactly the kind of player that a rebuilding franchise would want to lock up long-term: a skilled, playmaking centerman who knows his position and has vast untapped potential. Anyone who tries to deny that Toronto is intentionally tanking this coming season, is probably named Cliff Fletcher. There are going to be a couple of useful fantasy players on the Leafs, but no more than a couple. As for Wellwood, if he lands on a team that has depth on the wings like Columbus, he could have a real breakout fantasy year. Then there is the buyout of chippy forward Darcy Tucker. His fantasy relevance has been inflated in recent years by the lack of any other skilled wingers in Toronto, but that doesn't mean Tucker won't land in a similar situation somewhere else. As the finisher on the Maple Leafs power play -- basically, standing at the side of the net with the man advantage -- Tucker racked up 33 power-play goals in the two years immediately following the lockout, but it's his tendency to eclipse 100 penalty minutes that makes him intriguing. On a team that is good on defense but is lacking standout wingers -- like the Devils or the Wild -- Tucker could wind up being very valuable in fantasy leagues this season.
Lightning part ways with Denis
Paving the way for an official changing of the guard, Tampa Bay has bought out the contract of goaltender Marc Denis. The Lightning's disappointing post-Stanley Cup tandem of Johan Holmqvist (traded to Dallas) and Denis are now out of town and a new guard will be moving in. Karri Ramo (whom I hyped extensively to no avail last season) still has a chance to shake off a rough rookie campaign, and the surprising Mike Smith will also get another shot at the starting job after coming over from Dallas. Riku Helenius is also going to hover in the background, as the Finnish goalie crossed the pond and put in a year in the WHL last season. New coach Barry Melrose will probably pester his goaltenders a lot less than John Tortorella did (actually, any coach would), but looking at Melrose's three years of NHL coaching with the Kings in the early '90s, it's hard to guess how he might deploy his netminders. Kelly Hrudey played 50, 64 and 35 games, respectively, in those three seasons -- representing 61, 78 and 73 percent of the games. So clearly, Melrose likes to have a No. 1 guy he can rest frequently. Then again, he hasn't coached for 13 years, so who knows what he will do? Hopefully, Melrose can give someone an endorsement before the season begins, but if not I am going to side with Ramo again this preseason. I think he and Helenius are close when it comes to overall potential, but obviously Ramo is closer to being NHL-ready. Between Ramo and Smith, Ramo is clearly the goalie of the future, and Tampa Bay will be in a transition year, so why not play him? Not that I would draft whoever wins the job as a No. 1 goalie, or even as a No. 2, depending on league size.
Carolina cuts role players
Not that Jeff Hamilton, Ben Clymer or David Tanabe represented huge assets in fantasy leagues, but the move to buy out all three players does have some ramifications. With three more contract players out of the picture, prospects like Brandon Sutter, Bobby Hughes, Zach Boychuk and Jamie McBain have a better shot at cracking the lineup. Thanks to the 'Canes system of using five forwards on some power plays, Boychuk and Sutter in particular have a good shot at finding a fantasy-relevant role with Carolina. As for the three pending free agents, Hamilton is the only one that is a little intriguing. If he were to land on a team with little depth down the middle, he could play his way into a scoring-line role. I picture Buffalo as a good home for him.
Zhitnik finished in Atlanta
It would take a perfect situation to bring Alexei Zhitnik back from the realm of the fantasy dead, but it's a possibility we can't just write off. The Thrashers parted ways with the veteran defenseman after an incredibly underwhelming season of eight points and 58 penalty minutes. Granted, it has been a few seasons since Zhitnik logged a 30-point, 100-PIM fantasy campaign, but remember that numbers like those can be very helpful from a No. 3 defense slot. There are a few teams that are very weak on the blue line and that would certainly allow for Zhitnik to ply his trade as a power-play quarterback if he ends up with one of them. Think about the Sharks defense if they don't get Brian Campbell back: Zhitnik would fit in nicely. Or even the Hurricanes, with only Joe Corvo showing any offensive prowess. I'm not saying Zhitnik will be someone to think too much about as drafts approach, but don't write him off until we see where he lands.
Signings and Trades
Calgary locks up No. 1 and No. 2 centers
Rather than go out and test the unknown through another trade or free agency, Calgary has opted to bring back both Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy to play center on the first and second lines. Obviously, Langkow remains a sought-after commodity as he'll surely play another season as the setup man for Jarome Iginla. There will be an interesting side story to see how Conroy's value shapes up, though, because I don't think it's a sure thing that Mike Cammalleri will join Iginla and Langkow on the first line. Both Cammalleri and Iginla are above-average goal scorers, so splitting them up might be in the Flames' best interest. That would allow Calgary to have a stronger overall attack with Iginla-Langkow on Line 1, and Conroy-Cammalleri on Line 2. However, Coach Mike Keenan is known for putting together top-heavy lineups, so this balanced attack does seem less likely under his guidance.
Ruutu back with Hurricanes
After scoring just 21 points in 60 games with Chicago, Tuomo Ruutu found a home in Carolina at the trade deadline and managed to pot 11 points in the season's final 17 games. That wasn't quite the outburst that fellow Chicago cast-off Sergei Samsonov experienced in Raleigh, but it was notable nonetheless. Both Ruutu and Samsonov will make nice late-round gambles for your wing spots because both have the chance to play with some pretty good linemates in Carolina and could wind up on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Visnovsky new power-play QB in Edmonton
With an impressive crop of young defensemen ready to start breaking into the NHL, it should come as no surprise that the Kings shipped off Lubomir Visnovsky. A team in transition like the Kings doesn't have an excuse to not start giving power-play time to Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty or Thomas Hickey. Johnson, in fact, should be in for a huge breakout season, even if Rob Blake ends up playing another season in L.A. Jarrett Stoll's big slap shot from the blue line could also come into play for the Kings. I could actually envision Johnson and Stoll working the point for most Kings power plays, should their roster stay the same. It's definitely fair to bump Johnson up draft boards and look at him as a lock for No. 3 defenseman numbers, with the potential for more. Stoll, too, will likely land a role on the Kings' No. 2 line with either Patrick O'Sullivan or Alexander Frolov. He could be a late-round flier for deeper leagues. Visnovsky should also be bumped up. I looked at him as a weaker No. 2 defenseman in L.A. because the younger players would certainly be stealing his significant minutes, but in Edmonton all the blue-chip prospects are at forward and Visnovsky should be clear to run the power play. I think I'd draft him as a strong No. 2 defenseman now and rank him around 25th among defensemen.
Avalanche ink two defensemen
John-Michael Liles and Adam Foote are returning to Denver. From a fantasy perspective, only Liles is really interesting (though Foote has some deep-league value for PIMs and plus/minus). After two seasons with 40-plus points, Liles finished last season with just 32 and was well outside the range of being a No. 1 or even No. 2 defenseman (because he comes with virtually no PIMs). However, a bounce-back season is to be expected. The Avalanche had a top-five power play two seasons ago, but finished last year with the third-worst percentage in the league -- by and large due to the absence of key players like Ryan Smyth, Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny for varying lengths of time. A healthy season out of those players and the Av's power-play percentage should get back into the top 10, making Liles a No. 2 defenseman again as Colorado's power-play QB.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Sean Allen reviews the latest hockey news and what it means in terms of fantasy value.