- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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With apologies to the free agents from the summer of 2010 who are still looking for jobs, we turn your attention to the unrestricted free agent Class of 2011.
We'll start in goal because you might be surprised to find out that Detroit Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard, nominated for the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) last season, is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. What, you say?
Well, he'll be 27 by next July 1 and without a contract, so that gives him UFA status. There's your liberalized free agency at work in this collective bargaining agreement.
The 26-year-old Howard is in for a big raise from the $800,000 he's earning this season. Red Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com via text on Sept. 24 that there are "no talks as of now." There is a lot of time to hammer something out between now and July 1 (and there's no way Howard is going anywhere).
Here are other goalies that are UFA-eligible on July 1:
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes: If he can duplicate what he did last season (he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy), he's in for quite the payday. Mind you, his $4.25 million cap hit under his expiring deal isn't too shabby. GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com during training camp that talks really can't get going until the team's ownership situation is resolved.
Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche: The Avs pulled off a theft of a deal a year ago, signing the goalie for two years and just over $1.8 million annually. If he has another standout season, he'll be getting a sizeable raise.
Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers: There are no talks going on right now in terms of an extension, a source told ESPN.com. No surprise given the direction of the rebuilding team. You have to figure he might be trade bait at the March deadline if the Panthers are out of it, although he controls his fate with a no-trade clause. He has a $5.7 million cap hit this season, and unless he channels the Nashville version of Vokoun, he's likely headed for a bit of a pay drop.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Toronto Maple Leafs: The 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and 2007 Cup champion has a chance to push the reset button this season in Toronto. Giguere is only 33, so we're not sure why people are so quick to write him off. If he can backstop the Leafs into the playoffs, you know it will be because he had a great season. Having said that, his current $6 million cap hit this season is very likely more than what he'll earn in his next deal.
Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa Senators: Things just haven't worked for him so far in Ottawa after being pushed out of Columbus by Steve Mason. But he's only 27. This is a huge season for him. He needs to re-establish himself as a No. 1 goalie and fight off the challenge from teammate Brian Elliott, otherwise he won't touch the $3.8 million cap hit his current deal pays him.
Other UFA-eligible goalies: Mike Smith, Tampa; Antti Niemi, San Jose; Dwayne Roloson, New York Islanders; Marty Turco, Chicago; Jeff Deslauriers, Edmonton; Johan Hedberg, New Jersey; Chris Osgood, Detroit; Ty Conklin, St. Louis; Peter Budaj, Colorado; Mathieu Garon, Columbus; Josh Harding, Minnesota; Alex Auld, Montreal; Jason LaBarbera, Phoenix; Brian Boucher, Philadelphia; Erik Ersberg, Los Angeles Kings.
Just like this past summer, there are some big-name blueliners who are UFA-bound, although we believe several of them will re-sign before the market opens.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: The Bruins have already started talks on this one. "Just preliminary talks, there's no rush at all," Chara's agent, Matt Keator, told ESPN.com via e-mail Saturday. We'd be shocked if Big Z, who carries a $7.5 million cap hit this season, hits the market.
Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: There's not much point in even listing the zillion-time Norris Trophy winner on this list, but technically, the 40-year-old will be a free agent again. He's living on year-to-year contracts now, and if he decides to play again next season, it'll be in Detroit. He's earning $6.2 million this season, and judging from what we personally saw last spring in the playoffs against Phoenix, he's full value for it.
Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens: One can't imagine what the Habs would be without their MVP player. The 31-year-old is among the NHL's premier puck-movers and offensive blueliners. He has a $5.75 million cap hit this season and could be in line for a raise.
Tomas Kaberle, Toronto Maple Leafs: Who would have bet the 32-year-old would still be a Leaf at this point? Offseason trade talks never resulted in the deal the Leafs wanted, so the Czech star remains in Toronto for the time being (his no-trade clause kicked back in and gives him more control over his future). Whether he's traded before the deadline or walks away in July, he remains one of the premier puck-movers in the league. He's also looking to get a raise on the $4.25 million he's earning this season.
"I can't believe they want to trade him," one veteran NHL player from a Western Conference team recently told ESPN.com. "He's the best defenseman on that team. The game is all about puck-moving defensemen now."
The Leafs, however, are way deep on defense and way thin on quality forwards.
Ed Jovanovski, Phoenix Coyotes: The 34-year-old Jovo is an important veteran voice in the Coyotes' dressing room and his solid, dependable defensive play is well-appreciated by a coaching staff that preaches a defense-first philosophy. Because of the ownership situation, extension talks are on hold. Jovanovski told ESPN.com during training camp that he fully understands, but hopes he will stay on. You figure his current $6.5 million cap hit might be hard to duplicate.
Christian Ehrhoff, Vancouver Canucks: The 28-year-old German Olympian posted a career-high 44 points (14-30) in 2009-10, his first season in Vancouver. Now the Canucks want to make sure they get him under contract past this season.
"We've had some preliminary discussions," Canucks GM Mike Gillis told ESPN.com on Friday. "We're confident that we'll get Christian signed. We're beginning the process and we'll see where it goes."
Bryan McCabe, Florida Panthers: The 35-year-old is likely headed for a bit of a pay cut from the $5.75 million cap hit his current deal pays him, but he remains a viable two-way blueliner with potent power-play skills. Since Florida is in rebuilding mode, it's unclear where his future lies.
Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings: Like Jimmy Howard, it's stunning to see such a young guy be eligible for UFA status, but because AHL years also count on the free-agent meter, the 26-year-old is indeed fully free come summer. We can't imagine he's going anywhere, but he's in for a raise over the $900,000 cap hit he carries this season.
Other notable UFA-eligible blueliners: Trevor Daley, Dallas; Andy Greene, New Jersey; Mark Giordano, Calgary; Roman Hamrlik, Montreal; Scott Hannan, Colorado; Eric Brewer, St. Louis; Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver; Joni Pitkanen, Carolina; Sami Salo, Vancouver; Chris Phillips, Ottawa; Craig Rivet, Buffalo; James Wisniewski, Islanders; Ian White, Calgary; Niclas Wallin, San Jose; Steve Staios, Calgary; Brent Sopel, Atlanta; Jim Vandermeer, Edmonton; Hal Gill, Montreal; Kent Huskins, San Jose; Mark Stuart, Boston; Shane O'Brien, Vancouver; Steve Montador, Buffalo; Radek Martinek, Islanders; Anton Babchuk, Carolina; Randy Jones, Tampa Bay; Milan Jurcina, Islanders.
The 2011 UFA market for No. 1 centers, a highly coveted position for GMs, may be pretty thin depending on whether the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrice Bergeron sign extensions with their respective teams, as we suspect they will.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks: While neither he nor Sharks GM Doug Wilson would even hint when ESPN.com snooped around during training camp, we'd be shocked if Jumbo Joe doesn't sign an extension with the Sharks way before July 1. The 31-year-old proud new papa wants to stay and the Sharks want to keep him. His cap number this season ($7.2 million) and perennial status among the league's top-10 scorers is well-earned.
Brad Richards, Dallas Stars: The 30-year-old Richards carries a $7.8 million cap hit this season from the deal he first signed in Tampa Bay, where he was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2004. He is a point-a-game center who excels at both ends of the ice and on special teams. His hockey IQ is off the charts. Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com via text message Friday that no talks had been held yet with the Richards camp, represented by veteran agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports. That's not to say the Stars don't want to keep him; but given the current ownership situation in Dallas, everything is on hold.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Another CBA beauty. He's only 25 years old but qualifies for UFA status because he began his NHL career at 18. His cap hit this season is $4.75 million. The Bruins have already begun talks on an extension and we'd be shocked if he isn't signed by Boston.
Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals: Another 40-goal campaign would certainly rank him as the top winger among UFA forwards July 1. It was interesting that the Caps signed him only to a one-year extension last season, giving him the gateway to the UFA market in 2011. You get the feeling the Caps are not quite sure what they have in the electrifying yet enigmatic Semin. This is a big season for him (he's earning $6 million).
David Backes, St. Louis Blues: Another young stud on the market thanks to liberalized free agency. The 26-year-old power forward, who carries a $2.5 million cap hit this season, would be coveted on the market. Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com this past weekend that "all was quiet" at this point, but we don't think he's going anywhere.
Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals: Sounds like Caps GM George McPhee is going to busy against this year, huh? The 26-year-old Fleischmann really broke out last season and needs another big year to cash in on his next deal, whether that's in Washington or elsewhere. His cap hit this season is $2.6 million.
Simon Gagne, Tampa Bay Lightning: Hard to believe Gagne is only 30 years old; he's been around so long. He gets a fresh start in Tampa Bay after being squeezed out by the Flyers in a salary-cap move. Playing with Vincent Lecavalier shouldn't be a bad thing. Gagne carries a $5.25 million cap hit this season; he needs to find his old scoring ways and stay healthy to remain in that ballpark.
There's way too many to list, but here are other noteworthy UFA-bound forwards: Alexei Kovalev, Ottawa; Teemu Selanne, Anaheim; Tim Connolly, Buffalo; Jason Arnott, New Jersey; Michal Handzus, L.A.; Steve Sullivan, Nashville; Marco Sturm, Boston; Justin Williams, L.A.; Alexei Ponikarovsky, L.A.; Radim Vrbata, Phoenix; Milan Hejduk, Colorado; Alexander Frolov, New York Rangers; Erik Cole, Carolina; Jamie Langenbrunner, New Jersey; Mike Knuble, Washington; Sergei Samsonov, Carolina; Matt Moulson, Islanders; Antti Miettinen, Minnesota; Andrew Brunette, Minnesota; Chuck Kobasew, Minnesota; Scottie Upshall, Nashville; Vaclav Prospal, Rangers; Brooks Laich, Washington; Nikolai Zherdev, Philadelphia; Chad LaRose, Carolina; Alex Tanguay, Calgary; Jussi Jokinen, Carolina; Christopher Higgins, Florida; Tomas Kopecky, Chicago; Vernon Fiddler, Phoenix; Maxime Talbot, Pittsburgh; Mike Rupp, Pittsburgh; Ville Leino, Philadelphia; Eric Belanger, Phoenix; Mike Comrie, Pittsburgh.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
As we kick off our NHL season preview, we look at the stars who will be playing for that new contract. We look at the 2011 UFA class.