Commentary

Free agency: Top forwards

Updated: June 30, 2010, 1:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The 2010 NHL free-agent market opens at noon ET Thursday. Here's a look at the top forwards who are set to become available:

Ilya Kovalchuk

Age: 27
Finished 2009-10 season with: New Jersey Devils
2009-10 salary: $6.39 million
Breakdown: Now matter how you slice and dice it, Kovalchuk is the most dynamic free agent on the market this summer. And no matter how you slice and dice it, he'll end up making much less money than he would have had he taken any of the myriad contract offers set in front of him in Atlanta before the Thrashers dealt him to New Jersey prior to the March 3 trade deadline. A surefire 40-50 goal-a-year guy, Kovalchuk has won exactly one playoff game in his career and appeared in a grand total of nine postseason contests. That's not much of a body of work for a player who will be looking for money and term that suggests an elite NHLer capable of pushing a team over the top.

Who can afford Kovalchuk even at around $7 million a year? Los Angeles will take a run at the big winger. New Jersey also will test the waters. After that? Maybe there's a surprise stalking horse (the moribund Minnesota Wild sure could use a boost of interest), but the list of suitors promises to be short, just like the amount of money likely to be spent on Kovalchuk.

Ray Whitney

Age: 38
Finished 2009-10 season with: Carolina Hurricanes
2009-10 salary: $3.55 million
Breakdown: As he was at the trade deadline, the veteran winger is seen as a nice Plan B to Kovalchuk for teams looking for an impact winger. There were no takers for Whitney back in March, as Carolina GM Jim Rutherford stood firm on his demands for at least a first-round pick for him. But the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension that would have kept Whitney in Carolina (at least not now), and he will be available to the highest bidder July 1.

But one issue remains for buyers: How much term do you offer a point-a-game guy who is 38 years old? Pittsburgh presumably will kick the tires, as will L.A., depending on the Kovalchuk situation. Without Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis could use a veteran presence up front, but Whitney may be too pricey. (He'll no doubt be looking to maintain his level of compensation.)

Saku Koivu

Age: 35
Finished 2009-10 season with: Anaheim Ducks
2009-10 salary: $3.25 million
Breakdown: Koivu scored just 19 times in 71 games this past season after the former Montreal captain signed on with the Ducks a year ago. After a one-year experiment in California, one wonders whether now might not be a good time for the classy 35-year-old to join brother Mikko in Minnesota, where the Wild are desperate for leadership and a playoff berth (not necessarily in that order).

Another interesting theory to consider: What about a stop in Washington to fill the space previously held by Brendan Morrison as a second-line center? The Caps are another team looking for a final piece to the Cup puzzle, and Koivu is one of the game's stand-up guys who'll almost certainly come at a much cheaper price tag than a year ago. He'll never be a 40-goal guy, but the Caps have plenty of those already.

It's worth noting that 29 of Koivu's 52 points came in the second half, and he missed six games over that period with injury. The chances of Koivu staying in Anaheim go up if Teemu Selanne decides not to retire.

Matt Cullen

Age: 33
Finished 2009-10 season with: Ottawa Senators
2009-10 salary: $2.88 million
Breakdown: Like a handful of loyal Carolina soldiers, Cullen was sent off to the playoffs by the Canes at the trade deadline. Things didn't exactly work out as planned for Cullen or the Senators (he delivered just four goals in 21 games with Ottawa), but he did lead all Ottawa forwards in ice time in the playoffs and tied for the team lead with captain Daniel Alfredsson with eight points. Cullen remains an attractive plan for teams that may not have the financial wherewithal to go after the few big guns on the market. Cullen is a skilled player who has scored more than 20 goals in a season twice since the lockout. He can play center and man the point on the power play. Depending on what Toronto does with Marc Savard, Cullen may be a fit for a team with the worst power play in the league.

Paul Kariya

Age: 35
Finished 2009-10 season with: St. Louis Blues
2009-10 salary: $6 million
Breakdown: Here's hoping the stellar career of one of the game's most skilled players doesn't end after a disappointing turn in St. Louis. After returning from hip surgery that cost him most of 2008-09, Kariya managed just 18 goals with the Blues last season. Also, sources tell ESPN.com he doesn't fit into the Blues' plans.

If Kariya feels healthy -- and he's been working out with the idea of playing next season -- it would be nice to see him get a shot to work with someone like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If Selanne does return to Anaheim (the only place the free agent is expected to play if he doesn't retire), it might be fun to see Kariya and Selanne reunited once more. At this stage of his career, money shouldn't be the issue, but rather whether Kariya feels mentally and physically prepared for another campaign. Here's hoping he is.

Colby Armstrong

Age: 27
Finished 2009-10 season with: Atlanta Thrashers
2009-10 salary: $2.4 million
Breakdown: Crosby's onetime roommate in Pittsburgh, Armstrong is an intriguing proposition given his physical style and history of producing offense. He scored 22 goals two seasons ago but saw his production drop to 15 last season. Atlanta would like to bring him back into the fold, but Armstrong's contract demands will have to be modified if that's going to happen. Whether he signs with Atlanta or another team, it's hard to imagine Armstrong commanding the money he made last season.

Christopher Higgins

Age: 27
Finished 2009-10 season with: Calgary Flames
2009-10 salary: $2.25 million
Breakdown: In a market thin on offensive forwards, Higgins could be a sleeper. (Fans in New York will insist that's what Higgins did while with the Rangers last season, but we digress.) True, Higgins didn't produce much when sent to the Rangers from Montreal as part of last summer's Scott Gomez deal (six goals in 55 games), but hey, who produces in Manhattan, anyway?

In the first three seasons after the lockout, Higgins scored 72 goals, but he's scored just 20 in the past two seasons. Can he rebound? In the right spot, perhaps; and given his downturn in production, Higgins likely would be willing to play for less on a short-term contract to try to drive his value up again. If the Bruins deal Savard, would there be room for another Habs retread?

Mike Modano

Age: 40
Finished 2009-10 season with: Dallas Stars
2009-10 salary: $2.25 million
Breakdown: Modano is an interesting case. It appears time has run out on him in Dallas, but he has suggested he might want to play one more season. He is attractive because he's a center who still could help out a power play and, well, he's Mike Modano. But he's 40 years old, missed 23 games last season with injury and would have to be prepared to play for a pittance if he's going to fit in most teams' salary structure. Just wondering, but how about a return to Minnesota to close out the circle? [Editor's note: On Tuesday, Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said Dallas would not extend an offer to Modano, ending the forward's 22-year run with the franchise.]

Alexander Frolov

Age: 28
Finished 2009-10 season with: Los Angeles Kings
2009-10 salary: $4 million
Breakdown: Frolov found himself in coach Terry Murray's doghouse in Los Angeles and never quite got into the groove. He finished with just 19 goals, his lowest goal total since his rookie season in 2002-03. He doesn't fit any longer in Los Angeles, especially if the Kings land Kovalchuk and/or Whitney, which means teams will have to decide whether Frolov is worth the risk at somewhere between $3 million and $4 million. Would he find some chemistry with the big centers in Pittsburgh? If you're Frolov, maybe you take a lot less cash to find out. He doesn't really seem like a Brian Burke guy, but the Leafs are starved for offense and have money to spend.

Olli Jokinen

Age: 31
Finished 2009-10 season with: New York Rangers
2009-10 salary: $5.5 million
Breakdown: It would be a bit of an overstatement to suggest that wherever Jokinen goes, chaos will follow. But for a guy who has so much promise and talent, so little has been accomplished throughout his NHL career. Phoenix couldn't wait to get rid of him after acquiring him from Florida a couple of years back. Then, Calgary overpaid for the big Finnish center and somehow got the Rangers to take him off its hands. He led the Rangers to their first nonplayoff season since the lockout. Next? Someone will take a gamble, although surely no one will match the $5.5 million he made this past season. Still, he is a center, he's big and he's got skills. And as is always the case with players like him, there'll be a GM who thinks he can finally get it right.

Lee Stempniak

Age: 27
Finished 2009-10 season with: Phoenix Coyotes
2009-10 salary: $3.5 million
Breakdown: Stempniak took off after being dealt to Phoenix by Toronto at the trade deadline, scoring 14 times in 18 regular-season games, but he doesn't fit into the Coyotes' plans given their restrictive payroll. Could he be destined to return to St. Louis, where he had his most productive time? Or could he be the kind of low-profile free agent who would appeal to the Buffalo Sabres?

Matthew Lombardi

Age: 28
Finished 2009-10 season with: Phoenix Coyotes
2009-10 salary: $2.35 million
Breakdown: Lombardi may be another Coyote who is victim of the team's cash crunch. A center who scored 19 goals last season, he will be attractive to many teams because he will be cheaper than other centers on the market and would be a nice No. 2 pivot who could help the power play. The Rangers might be interested if they can ease some of their own cap crunch.

Vaclav Prospal

Age: 35
Finished 2009-10 season with: New York Rangers
2009-10 salary: $1.15 million
Breakdown: Prospal was bought out of his contract by Tampa Bay a year ago and then signed a one-year deal with the Rangers, where he enjoyed long stretches of productivity playing with Marian Gaborik. What makes Prospal an interesting asset for teams is he played center for part of that time, and it's possible the Rangers will return him to that post. The problem for interested buyers is Prospal can run just as cold as he can run hot. That's not all that attractive for a team looking for a Stanley Cup piece as opposed to a piece that will simply put up decent numbers during the regular season. Don't be surprised if the Rangers bring back Prospal; he and coach John Tortorella mesh quite well, but he'll no doubt be looking for more money than a year ago.

Alexei Ponikarovsky

Age: 30
Finished 2009-10 season with: Pittsburgh Penguins
2009-10 salary: $2.5 million
Breakdown: The Ponikarovsky experiment turned out to be a rare failure for Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who acquired the big winger from Toronto at the deadline. Ponikarovsky found no chemistry playing with either Malkin or Crosby and ended up a healthy scratch during the playoffs. Still, he's a big body with decent hands and now with pretty modest contract leverage. Ponikarovsky should get a chance to prove he's a top-six winger somewhere. What about Nashville, where money is always an issue, or in Atlanta, where his former teammate Nik Antropov is employed?

Alex Tanguay

Age: 30
Finished 2009-10 season with: Tampa Bay Lightning
2009-10 salary: $2.5 million
Breakdown: The former 29-goal scorer was an unmitigated disaster in Tampa Bay; he scored just 10 goals, and his 37 points were less than half the 81 he scored in 2006-07 for Calgary. Has the ship sailed on the talented winger? One thing is for sure: Teams won't have to spend much to find out. Look for bargaining shoppers to wait until late this summer to take a chance on Tanguay. (Last summer, the Bolts got in on Tanguay in the late going.)

Pavol Demitra

Age: 35
Finished 2009-10 season with: Vancouver Canucks
2009-10 salary: $4 million
Breakdown: Anyone who watched Demitra light it up for the Slovaks at the Olympics will wonder why he is so lightly regarded around the NHL. Anyone who watched him in most of his games for the Canucks will, however, understand entirely. Always a candidate to be on the injured list, Demitra still has 20- to 30-goal potential and likely will be willing to take less in base salary and load up with bonuses, which are permissible for 35-and-older players.

Maxim Afinogenov

Age: 30
Finished 2009-10 season with: Atlanta Thrashers
2009-10 salary: $800,000
Breakdown: The Thrashers landed Afinogenov late last summer, and the move paid big dividends as the speedy, skilled winger scored 24 goals. Still, he is a maddening player to watch sometimes, dashing headlong into danger and giving up the puck at inopportune times. Even so, he should be in line for a significant payday from a team looking to up the offensive ante a bit.

John Madden

Age: 37
Finished 2009-10 season with: Chicago Blackhawks
2009-10 salary: $2.75 million
Breakdown: The former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner got the job done in Chicago, helping the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Now, he's back on the market, and like all former Devils, we assume he'll re-sign with New Jersey. It's hard to imagine anyone matching Madden's financial numbers from last season, although he did chip in 10 regular-season goals and remains a premier defensive forward and penalty-killing asset.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.