Free agents to watch in 2011 and 2012
Our focus will soon be on the playoffs for two months, but before the puck drops, let's take a look at this summer's unrestricted free-agent crop:
Brad Richards, Dallas Stars ($7.8 million cap hit this season): The 30-year-old native of Prince Edward Island was on his way to a top-five finish in the NHL scoring race before a concussion shelved him in February. He had 91 points last season and would have been in the same range again without the injury.
Let's not beat around the bush here: He's in a league by himself among the centers available July 1, the only bona-fide star pivot on the UFA market this summer. Yes, those are cash registers you're hearing in your head. He loves it in Dallas, but Stars ownership had better figure itself out before July 1 if he's going to stay. Expect the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs to be among several clubs calling (maybe even the Washington Capitals). Richards enjoyed playing for Rangers coach John Tortorella in Tampa Bay (they won a Stanley Cup together), and that may loom large when the star player makes up his mind in July.
A Look At 2012 Free Agents
And just to whet your appetite, a sample of names to keep an eye on for in July 2012, when their current contracts expire:
• Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
• Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild
• Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
• Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings
• Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals
• Ales Hemsky, Edmonton Oilers
• Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
Ah, but so much can happen between now and then!
Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks ($4.5 million cap hit this season): Not sure I should have bothered putting the sensational 40-year-old on this list because I doubt he'll hit the UFA market. He's going to re-sign with Anaheim or retire, and I'd be shocked if he signed anywhere else. Still, he'll technically be a UFA on July 1, and talk about a season! The ageless Finnish Flash is top-10 in league scoring with 76 points (28-48) in 68 games as of Friday morning, proof that he has lots of game left and should forget any of those retirement thoughts.
Alex Tanguay, Calgary Flames ($1.7 million cap hit this season): Having found some terrific chemistry with Jarome Iginla this season, the 31-year-old Tanguay will earn himself a nice raise, whether it's in Calgary or elsewhere. He's the third-highest scoring forward among UFA-eligible players, and his 60 points (19-41) in 75 games at this point is his best production since 2006-07.
Curtis Glencross, Calgary Flames ($1.2 million cap hit this season): A 23-goal scorer as of Friday morning, the gritty, two-way winger would help any team in the league. One assumes the Flames will try to re-sign him before July 1; then again, it remains to be seen just where this organization is headed after what appears to be a second straight season out of the playoffs.
Ville Leino, Philadelphia Flyers ($800,000 cap hit this season): The Flyers want to keep the solid, two-way Finn in their fold, but whether they can afford his new raise under their salary cap next season remains to be seen. At 27, he's in his prime and would be a sought-after commodity if he hit the market.
Tomas Fleischmann, Colorado Avalanche ($2.6 million cap hit this season): The 26-year-old was on fire after arriving in Denver and playing alongside Matt Duchene, putting up 21 points (8-13) in 22 games before being shut down by a blood clot in his lung. Providing he comes back fully healthy, Fleischmann can put up some offense and may be had at a cheaper price given the injury scare. That's if the Avs don't re-sign him first.
Tim Connolly, Buffalo Sabres ($4.5 million cap hit this season): You have to think the Sabres will part ways with Connolly after the 29-year-old center put up one of the most disappointing seasons of his career. His 37 points (12-25) in 63 games as of Friday morning is his worst offensive output since 2002-03 (not counting his two-game season in 2006-07). But as he once again reminded everyone with a bullet of a shot to beat Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday night for the winning goal against the Rangers, Connolly always has had great hands.
Jason Arnott, Washington Capitals ($4.5 million cap hit this season): At age 36, Arnott's best hockey is behind him, and some NHL scouts we spoke with believed he looked slower this season in New Jersey. But he looked re-energized with his new team in Washington before getting hurt. A solid postseason might net him another decent, short-term contract.
Brendan Morrison, Calgary Flames ($725,000 cap hit this season): He went from being cut in training camp in Vancouver this past fall to becoming such an important piece in Calgary that, when his season ended with a knee injury March 2, the Flames weren't the same. Morrison, 35, found a fit between Iginla and Tanguay. This season, Morrison proved he could still bring it.
Alexei Kovalev, Pittsburgh Penguins ($5 million cap hit this season): Well, his days of earning $5 million or more per season are definitely over. At 38, you have to wonder what's left here. A solid playoffs with the Penguins is important if he's going to generate any interest come July 1.
Among other UFA-eligible forwards: Milan Hejduk, Colorado Avalanche; Erik Cole, Carolina Hurricanes; Jussi Jokinen, Carolina Hurricanes; Simon Gagne, Tampa Bay Lightning; Michal Handzus, Los Angeles Kings; Jamie Langenbrunner, Dallas Stars; Alexander Frolov, New York Rangers; Scottie Upshall, Columbus Blue Jackets; Brooks Laich, Washington Capitals; Nikolay Zherdev, Philadelphia Flyers; Tomas Kopecky, Chicago Blackhawks; Maxime Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, and Mike Rupp, Pittsburgh Penguins; Eric Belanger, Phoenix Coyotes; Ryan Jones, Edmonton Oilers.
We're not even going to bother to list the biggest UFA, Nicklas Lidstrom. The six-time Norris Trophy winner, who will turn 41 on April 28, will retire or re-sign with the only team he's ever played for, the Detroit Red Wings. Lidstrom aside, here are the 10 most noteworthy UFA-eligible blueliners:
Christian Ehrhoff, Vancouver Canucks ($3.1 million cap this season): The 28-year-old German has produced a career-best offensive season, helping key the Canucks' transition game and high-octane power play. The Canucks likely will give it a good college try to keep him after this season, but they've already warned his camp (veteran agent Rick Curran) that a discount from market price is required to help keep the contending core together.
Tomas Kaberle, Boston Bruins ($4.25 million cap hit this season): The Bruins quickly informed Kaberle's camp (Curran) they'd like to talk contract before July 1 comes, so we'll see whether he's a fit there. A big playoff by the 33-year-old Czech for the Cup-contending B's would prove helpful in talks with Boston or other teams come July 1. There's always high demand for a top-notch, puck-moving defenseman.
Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens ($5.75 million cap hit this season): Two serious knee injuries and subsequent surgeries during the past 12 months certainly will lower his stock value. The Canadiens are slated to have a chat with veteran agent Don Meehan after the season to see whether there's a fit to keep him. Montreal almost surely would not want to commit to more than a one-year deal. When healthy, he's one of the NHL's premier puck-moving blueliners and, at 32, should have plenty of hockey left. But obvious health concerns exist.
Bryan McCabe, New York Rangers ($5.75 million cap hit this season): It's too early to tell whether the Rangers will have any intention of trying to keep the veteran trade-deadline pickup. His playoff performance will help tell the tale. But he's added a veteran presence to a young blue-line group and a much-needed power-play boost. At 35, he'll have to accept less money, but he still can play top-four minutes for two more seasons or so.
James Wisniewski, Montreal Canadiens ($3.25 million cap hit this season): Pretty quietly, the Islander-turned-Hab has put together a big offensive season that has him among the league leaders with 49 points (10-39) in 71 games. His minus-16 rating tells you about his defensive liabilities. Still, he's been a nice pickup by the Canadiens. It's not clear at this point what Montreal will do (six of its defensemen are UFA-bound), but if Wisniewski hits the market, he shouldn't have a tough time finding good work, especially at the prime age of 27.
Ed Jovanovski, Phoenix Coyotes ($6.5 million cap hit this season): He's wrapping up a five-year, $32.5 million deal with the Coyotes (nice work, agent Pat Morris). He's been a rock for the Desert Dogs in the past five seasons, and his leadership and well-rounded game are well-regarded. At 34, he's looking at a pay cut, but he still can help a team as a top-four defenseman. The future of the Coyotes clouds his own future. He likes it in Phoenix and wants to stay, but the ownership/franchise issues have to be resolved before he can figure out his next move.
Joni Pitkanen, Carolina Hurricanes ($4 million cap hit this season): The 27-year-old Finn has put up 40-plus points four times in his career, although it appears he'll fall just short of that this season. Still, he's an effective puck-mover and power-play presence. It'll be interesting to see how the budget-conscious Hurricanes deal with him. They like Pitkanen, but they're likely not in a position to give him much of a raise.
Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver Canucks ($3.75 million cap this season): He's one of four UFA-eligible blueliners in Vancouver. The 29-year-old was on the trade block this past summer, but the Cup-contending Canucks are thrilled there were no takers because the rugged, two-way Bieksa had a solid defensive season. He can put up better offensive numbers elsewhere if given the opportunity.
Hal Gill, Montreal Canadiens ($2.25 million cap hit this season): He's part of that six-pack of UFA-bound Habs blueliners. The Canadiens would be wary before investing in the 35-year-old long-term, but they also value his leadership. He's been a huge influence on rookie blueliner P.K. Subban this season and remains arguably Montreal's best shutdown defenseman.
Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings ($900,000 cap hit this season): He makes this list because he's an intriguing name. At 27, his development seems to have hit a snag this season, and he's largely been a disappointment. Yet his skating ability, size and offensive potential no doubt would lure several NHL teams to take a chance on him. That's if he even gets to July 1. The Red Wings have a way of keeping the players they really want.
Other UFA-bound defensemen of note: Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils; Marc-Andre Bergeron, Tampa Bay Lightning; Roman Hamrlik, Montreal Canadiens; Scott Hannan, Washington Capitals; Eric Brewer, Tampa Bay Lightning; Sami Salo, Vancouver Canucks; Ian White, San Jose Sharks; Niclas Wallin, San Jose Sharks; Brent Sopel, Montreal Canadiens; Steve Montador, Buffalo Sabres; Andreas Lilja, Anaheim Ducks; Steve Eminger, New York Rangers.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes ($4.25 million cap hit this season): Another brilliant season has the Russian netminder in line for a nice contract. The question is where, exactly? The ownership saga in Glendale has prevented Coyotes GM Don Maloney from commencing contract talks with his star goalie. The longer it goes on, the more likely Bryzgalov will feel he might see what's out there July 1. Interestingly, two prominent Toronto hockey columnists, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star and David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail, each linked the Maple Leafs to the 30-year-old Bryzgalov in recent stories. Hmm.
Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers ($5.7 million cap hit this season): The perception of the 34-year-old Czech is he has had a disappointing season. And although it has certainly not been his best season, his .921 save percentage is solid as always. If Bryzgalov stays in Phoenix, Vokoun will get top billing July 1.
Ray Emery, Anaheim Ducks ($500,000 cap hit this season): Well, well, quite the story we've got here, eh? A year ago, Emery's career appeared possibly over because of a serious hip injury and subsequent surgery from which most athletes never recover. But here he is saving Anaheim's playoff hopes. Much will play out in the postseason with Emery and the Ducks, so let's see how it ends up. But already he's proved to 29 other teams he's still capable of being a solid No. 1 goalie. Whether he could stand the rigors of an 82-game season, nobody knows for sure.
Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay Lightning ($2.5 million cap hit this season): He's been a nice fit for the Lightning, and GM Steve Yzerman has hinted he might be interested in keeping the 41-year-old around. Roloson won't find a much better role elsewhere with most of the No. 1 jobs taken. Another one-year deal seems likely given his age.
Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders (kind of) ($570,000 cap hit): Well, we don't really know for sure whether he'll be a UFA, now, do we? Technically, that one-year, prorated contract Nabokov signed with Detroit in January, which was scooped up off waivers by the Isles, expires June 30 at midnight. But the Isles have precedent (Alexei Yashin and Ottawa) to try to get an arbitrator to rule that the 35-year-old netminder owes them next season at that $570,000 contract. Ugly. But if the Isles decide he's not worth the headache, Nabokov should draw interest for an NHL team looking for inexpensive insurance in goal. After stinking up the joint in the KHL earlier this season, he'll come cheap.
Jose Theodore, Minnesota Wild ($1.1 million cap hit): The 34-year-old veteran was an 11th-hour addition this past fall by the Wild after the injury to Josh Harding, and Theodore has had a solid season behind Nick Backstrom, posting a .916 save percentage. At the right price, he'd be once again a terrific backup and even a stopgap starter for a team in need.
Brian Boucher, Philadelphia Flyers ($925,000 cap hit this season): Well, the playoffs certainly will help frame his future, right? Whether he gets to play a starring role in net this spring alongside rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky remains to be seen. Boucher, 34, has put up a .917 save percentage and 2.39 GAA this season -- not too bad at all.
Marty Turco, Chicago Blackhawks ($1.3 million cap hit this season): Things have not gone as planned this season for the 35-year-old netminder. Rookie Corey Crawford stole the job from him early in the season and never looked back. Turco likely isn't in Chicago's plans past this season. A one-year deal with a chance to prove himself elsewhere is what he needs.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Toronto Maple Leafs ($6 million cap hit this season): A recurring groin issue really limited the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner this season, while unknown rookie James Reimer took over the Leafs' net in the second half and thrived. Giggy likely will look elsewhere and, like Turco, expect a one-year deal with the hope of proving himself again. Who knows? Maybe Toronto can bring back the 33-year-old for one more year at a reduced rate to further help Reimer's development.
Ty Conklin, St. Louis Blues ($1.3 million cap hit this season): The Blues waived him this season with no takers, so that tells you his future is likely elsewhere after this season. The 35-year-old needs to find a backup job and likely accept a pay cut.
Other UFA-bound goalies of note: Mike Smith, Tampa Bay Lightning; Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa Senators; Johan Hedberg, New Jersey Devils; Chris Osgood, Detroit Red Wings; Peter Budaj, Colorado Avalanche; Mathieu Garon, Columbus Blue Jackets; Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild; Jason LaBarbera, Phoenix Coyotes; Alex Auld, Montreal Canadiens; Joey MacDonald, Detroit Red Wings; Curtis McElhinney, Ottawa Senators; Martin Gerber, Edmonton Oilers; Henrik Karlsson, Calgary Flames.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.