As I’ve said before, July 1st is one of my favorite days of the year. It marks the start of NHL free agency, and the annual mayhem that comes with it. In the past, July 1st way a day that would see multiple marquee players swap jerseys and allegiances to join the highest bidder. However with the salary cap that is now in place, teams have taken to signing their stars to long contracts before they ever get to test the waters of free agency. Despite this, there are still a good number of impact players set to make waves this summer, so with that said, here are my top 5, in no particular order, players who could be on the move this summer.
Today’s version will cover only unrestricted free agents, so tune in tomorrow for five RFA’s who could be changing addresses.
C Brad Richards – Dallas Stars (Current Salary: $7.8M)
Richards will turn 31 two months before the start of free agency, and has already seen and done it all. A third round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998, Richards went on to win the Lady Byng, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in 2004, bringing the city of Tampa Bay their first Stanley Cup victory. That same year, he won the World Championships playing for Team Canada.
He signed a 5 year, $39M contract in 2006, and was then when Tampa began to slide in the standings in 2008 (they eventually bottomed out at 30th and picked Steven Stamkos first overall after winning the draft lottery), he was traded to the Dallas Stars along with goaltender Johan Holmqvist for a package of players and picks. Aside from Richards, none of the players involved in the deal currently belong to either the Stars or Lightning, and Richards will likely be the final piece to move on this summer.
Richards has shown that, when healthy, he can put up more than a point per game. Though he is a natural center, he has the versatility to play the wing, and he also plays the point on Dallas’ number one power play unit. He is definitely the cream of the free agent crop this summer, and he would have been the biggest name moved at the trade deadline, were he willing to waive his no-trade clause. He emphatically insisted that he was “a Dallas Star”, but then added that his opinion might change by July 1st. He has stated that his decision to remain in Dallas beyond that hinges on whether or not the Stars can get their ownership situation straightened out, and whether he approves of the direction they have for the team.
If he becomes available, there will certainly be a number of teams interested. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers are the two teams that were widely thought to be pursuing him at the trade deadline, and little has changed to suggest they wouldn’t be just as, if not more, interested this summer. If I had to guess, I’d say Brad Richards joins the Leafs over the Rangers. They are a young, up and coming team who have missed the playoffs every year since the lockout. He would automatically assume the #1 center’s role, which in turn would bump everyone else down a notch. Since most of Toronto’s players are currently playing a role that is above their capabilities, that is a positive move for everyone concerned. As an elite playmaker, he would have a very good finisher to work with in Phil Kessel.
“Everything is speculation,” said Richards. “Until I get offered something in front of me, I’m not going to sit here and talk about it. I’m a Dallas Star. There’s no need to speculate on that. If you’re asking me and it’s the day before July 1 and I’m a free agent, maybe it could be answered. But I’m under contract with the Stars and that’s where I plan on being and if something changes, I’ll look at it.”
Mark it on your calendar: July 1st, 2011 Brad Richards signs a 5 year, $35M contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Next up are three goalies, who in a relatively thin goaltending market this summer, could command some huge dollars.
G Tomas Vokoun – Florida Panthers ($6.3M)
Vokoun is an NHL veteran, having played his first season in 1998 with the Nashville Predators. He was with the Predators franchise until 2007 when he signed a four year, $22.8M contract to move south to Florida.
Despite never having played on any elite teams, or behind any spectacular defensive corps, Vokoun’s statistically ranked among the best goalies in the league for years. His career GAA is comparable to Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Terry Sawchuk, Turk Broda and Roberto Luongo, some of the best goaltenders of the last few decades. The only thing that keeps him from getting any recognition is the fact that he plays for a small-market team that has had very little success.
Florida is in a complete rebuild, which will likely take several years to complete, so at 34 years of age, Vokoun may not be in their picture. They also have a young goaltending prospect in Jacob Markstrom who could be a good full-time, NHL goalie around the time Florida is ready to compete again.
If Florida allows him to hit free agency, he will be one of the two most coveted goalies of the summer. With a handful of teams in desperate need of goaltending help, they will compete against each other and drive his prices up and up and up.
These teams include the Edmonton Oilers, the Colorado Avalanche, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Philadelphia Flyers. Four more teams could become involved if their starters walk in free agency (Ottawa, Phoenix), or their #1 man retires (New Jersey), or can’t find a speedy return to health (Anaheim).
From the group above, if I had to put money on it, I’d say that Vokoun moves north (albeit just slightly) to Tampa to join a team that is on the cusp of becoming a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Steve Yzerman is building the Lightning using a blueprint he acquired through his apprenticeship with the Red Wings, and has been given the green light to do whatever he needs to make them successful. With a boat load of cap space at his disposal. I could easily see Yzerman being the team that acquires the services of the Czech goaltender.
Mark it on your calendar: July 7th, 2011 Tomas Vokoun signs a 3 year, $16M contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
G Ilya Bryzgalov – Phoenix Coyotes ($4.5M) & G Craig Anderson – Ottawa Senators ($2.125M)
I’ve lumped these two together, because they have relatively similar stories to both each other, and Tomas Vokoun.
Neither have played on an elite team but have put up fantastic numbers all the same. Oddly enough, it was Anderson joining the Panthers that made Vokoun expendable. Anderson then moved on to Colorado and was then traded to Ottawa at this year’s deadline for backup goalie Brian Elliott.
Anderson had spent time as a backup in Chicago before being traded to Florida, while Bryzgalov was in Anaheim’s system behind J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller. Anaheim exposed him to waivers, and he was snatched up by Phoenix. Since then, he has gone on to become one of the game’s elite goaltenders, while Giguere has battled injuries and inconsistency and Hiller has battled vertigo. Woopsy.
There would be a similar list of interested teams for these two goalies as there was for Vokoun, with the exception of Colorado being an unlikely landing place for Anderson after dealing him, and Anaheim out of the question after essentially cutting Bryzgalov.
Ottawa is in a total rebuild so it will be up to Anderson to decide if he wants to face 40+ shots a night for years until they are competitive again, and the Phoenix Coyotes could be the Winnipeg Jets before this time next year, so Bryzgalov must decide if he’s comfortable not knowing where he will be living on a month-to-month basis.
With that said…
Mark it on your calendar: On July 10th, 2011 Ilya Bryzgalov signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs for three years for $15M.
On July 12th, 2011 Craig Anderson signs a four year, $16M contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The final player for today is a defenseman who hasn’t garnered as much press as the players above, but could command some big bucks this summer if his current team isn’t able to pony up for his services.
D Christian Ehrhoff – Vancouver Canucks ($3.4M)
The Vancouver Canucks are undeniably the best team in the NHL right now, and a lot of that success has to do with their depth on defense. They’ve sustained numerous injuries to their blue line, losing Keith Ballard, Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler all for significant periods of time. The one constant through that period has been Ehrhoff, who leads their blue line in points by a wide margin (and is 6th in the NHL in defense scoring).
Despite that, he is the SIXTH highest paid defenseman on the team. Sixth. As in, five more defensemen on the Canucks make more than him. With the recently acquired Hamhuis and Ballard signed for over $4M a season each until 2016 and 2015 respectively, Edler making over $3M each of the next two seasons, and about $25M tied up between the Sedins, Kesler and Luongo, there may not be room on the payroll for Ehrhoff.
He has fantastic size, at 6’2″ and 203 pounds and is very mobile. He has over a decade of professional hockey experience going back to his early years in Germany, despite being only 28 years old. Though he is known as a primarily offensive defenseman, he is truly a complete player and has played the PK as well.
If he comes available, the number of teams that would be interested in acquiring the German puck mover are nearly endless. He is really one of the more unknown gems available this year.
To narrow it down to a handful of teams that will be vying for his services, he could end up in: Washington, Boston, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Montreal. If *gasp* Nicklas Lidstrom retires, expect the Red Wings to get into the mix as well.
I think Los Angeles would be a great fit for Ehrhoff, joining Doughty and Jack Johnson to form a solid trio of defenders, but Montreal will likely be the team to pony up the dough. With a whopping ELEVEN defensemen becoming either UFA or RFA for Montreal either this summer or next, there could be a lot of turnover on the Habs blue line this offseason. It is a position they need to shore up after being ravaged by injuries this year, and Ehrhoff would immediately step into their top four and produce with the abundance of talented forwards the Canadiens have.
Mark it down on your calendar: On July 5th, Christian Ehrhoff signs a 5 year, $24.5M contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
Notable UFA’s who will I will not be joining a new team this summer: D Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings), F Alexei Kovalev (Penguins), D Bryan McCabe (Rangers), F Teemu Selanne (Ducks), D Tomas Kaberle (Bruins)
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow when I give you my top 5 RFA’s who could be on the move this summer!