Friday, June 27, 2008

Free Agency Matchmaker

As we approach the last significant date on the hockey calendar before training camps open in mid-September, excitement and anticipation aren't exactly palpable. With July 1st and the start of free agency just around the corner, teams and their fanbases should be preparing for hockey's version of Christmas -- making their lists, checking them twice and hoping Santa leaves a Marian Hossa under the tree instead of a Marcel Hossa (aka lump of coal) in their stockings. Unfortunately, this year's free agent class pales in comparison to the one on display a year ago, a consortium of players that included Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Ryan Smyth and Brian Rafalski. Much of that is due to teams aggressively re-signing their impending unrestricted free agents. The likes of Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle could have hit the market Tuesday, but all five All-Stars were re-signed by their teams as much as a year in advance. Still, the list isn't entirely barren, so I've provided my largely subjective ranking of the top 20 free agents available and the teams to which I believe they're headed. I don't profess to have any sort of insider information (who am I, Eklund?), just a sense of where players have been linked in the past and which teams have the cap space and need to solicit their services. Unless I fail miserably, I'll check back on this in a week or two to see how I did.

1) Marian Hossa - Prediction: Boston. Hossa has been linked to the Bruins since the trade deadline and with good reason. He reportedly has a good friendship with countryman and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Hossa also enjoyed one of the more productive seasons of his NHL career flanking Boston center Marc Savard back when Hossa and Savard were Atlanta Thrashers. The Bruins are a team with a solid albeit youthful core up front and cap space to spend and will most certainly be willing to bid top dollar for the most enticing forward on the market.

2) Brian Campbell - Prediction: NY Rangers. Campbell has made it clear that he will return to the Eastern Conference, preferrably close to his hometown of Stathroy, ON, to attend to "family matters." That would suggest a signing with Ottawa, but Sens GM Bryan Murray has stated that the team has only $5 million in cap space to work with, ruling them out of the Soupy Sweepstakes. Among Eastern contenders with a potential interest in the ex-Sabre's services, that leaves the Rangers, who have the added benefit of employing Chris Drury, reportedly a close friend of Campbell. Throw in the Rangers' need for a puck-moving blueliner and their bountiful cap space courtesy of the imminent departures of Jagr, Straka, Shanahan and co. and you've got a match made in heaven.

3) Mats Sundin - Prediction: Montreal. Okay, so this one's a bit easier since reports have indicated that the Leafs have given Montreal permission to negotiate with the big center, but regardless, Sundin would be a terrific fit with the Canadiens. The Habs could have used a big, rangy center like Mats when they were being ousted by the punishing Flyers and the longtime Toronto captain's goal-scoring prowess meshes nicely with Montreal's other marquee offseason acquisition, Alex Tanguay. If Sundin does decide to return to the NHL next year, it will be in the bleu, blanc et rouge.

4) Brian Rolston - Prediction: Minnesota. Simply put, Rolston has more value to his current team, the Wild, than to any other NHL club. Make no mistake, Rolston is criminally underrated and undoubtedly the third-best forward potentially available once the floodgates upon at noon Tuesday, but his immaculate two-way play, his unique ability to excel in any situation and his ability to produce offense in Jacques Lemaire's stifling defensive system make it imperative for Minnesota to re-sign the American forward.

5) Wade Redden - Prediction: Columbus. The native of Red Deer, Alberta has been linked to Edmonton on numerous occassions, but with the Oilers already having puck-moving blueliners Joni Pitkanen and Sheldon Souray on their roster, it's doubtful they look to ink Redden. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, essentially have to make the playoffs to satisfy a dwindling fanbase with whom the honeymoon regarding hockey in Columbus is most certainly over. Redden is intriguing in that he's only two seasons removed from being a consensus top-5 defenseman, but his stock has been severely impacted by two sub-par campaigns in a row. Regardless, the Jackets are desperate for high-end talent and will be willing to shell out for the ex-Senator.

6) Cristobal Huet - Prediction: Washington. The Capitals were an entirely different team post-trade deadline and much of that is courtesy of Huet's exceptional play. The ex-Hab proved invaluable down the stretch for the Caps, hoisting them to a division title and helping push Philadelphia to overtime of Game 7 before the clock struck midnight on Washington's fairytale season. It is imperative that the Caps re-sign Huet, as a season with Brent Johnson as a starting netminder will likely make superstar Alex Ovechkin's 13-year contract seem like a life sentence.

7) Michal Rozsival - Prediction: San Jose. Rozsival has been linked to San Jose by virtue of having played under newly named head coach Todd McLellan in his days with Swift Current of the WHL. The Sharks will likely also be in the market for a high-end defenseman given the likelihood of Campbell's departure. Whether they decide to sign a free agent or fill that hole internally remains to be seen, but should Doug Wilson choose to dabble in free agency, Rozsival's two-way defensive prowess would prove enticing.

8) John-Michael Liles - Prediction: Ottawa. The Senators will be a team to watch next year. They have the high-end talent in place to seemingly make a run at a playoff spot, but their goaltending situation may preclude any postseason dreams from materializing. Regardless, Murray has $5 million to spend and with the departure of Redden, the team needs a power-play quarterback. While the aforementioned Campbell is too rich for the Sens' blood, Liles, coming off a sub-par season, will likely command no more than $3.5 million a year and would be a welcome addition to Ottawa's surprisingly thin defense corps.

9) Brooks Orpik - Prediction: Pittsburgh. Orpik has expressed his desire to remain in steeltown and with a general lack of defensive defensemen to complement puck-moving blueliners Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang, Penguins GM Ray Shero would be advised to bite the bullet on Orpik's contract. The Penguins will be the most fascinating team to observe this off-season as Shero attempts to keep together a talent-laden roster. Of course, as the adage goes, you can't win on talent alone, and it's gritty, lunchpail types like Orpik that prove to be the glue of a team, particularly in April and May.

10) Ryan Malone - Prediction: Columbus. The Blue Jackets were rumored to be close to striking a deal just a few weeks ago to acquire Malone's exclusive negotiating rights before the Penguins forward stated he would test the market no matter what. Even still, Columbus' purported offer of $5 million/year over a long-term deal would likely outbid the competition by a long shot anyway. As mentioned above, the Jackets are serious about making the playoffs next season and for some reason, believe Malone can get them there.

11) Markus Naslund - Prediction: Pittsburgh. With Marian Hossa waving goodbye, the Penguins can't expect Sidney Crosby to take them back to the Finals with the likes of Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy on his wings. While Naslund may not be perceived as much of an improvement over those two, the disgraced Canucks captain has explicitly stated that he would welcome the opportunity to play with Sid the Kid, making it likely that he returns to the team that drafted him.

12) Pavol Demitra - Prediction: Vancouver. Yes, Demitra has not been a potent offensive threat since 05-06 with the Kings, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. That much became clear when the Canucks picked Kyle Wellwood off the waiver wire. Demitra and the Canucks have a strong connection in that recently named Vancouver GM Mike Gillis served as Demitra's player agent before taking his current post. The Canucks are desperate for top-end talent to play with the Sedin twins and as a player who excels at right wing, Demitra could be a good fit.

13) Rob Blake - Prediction: Los Angeles. Rob Blake isn't ready to retire and with the amount of young talent the Kings are looking to break in at defense, it's doubtful Los Angeles wants to see him go. Blake served as a terrific mentor for Jack Johnson this past campaign and will probably be looked upon to do the same for No. 2 overall pick Drew Doughty this season if re-signed by LA.

14) Kristian Huselius - Prediction: Edmonton. Huselius is an enigma. Always has been, always will be. One game he'll look like Pavel Bure, the next he'll resemble Valeri Bure. To say his defensive abilities are suspect would be a gross understatement, but the guy can score and Kevin Lowe has talked at length about acquiring a "first-shot scorer" this off-season to round out the Oilers' top six. He could always tender Corey Perry an RFA offer sheet, but I'm assuming he doesn't want Brian Burke's hitmen after him, so he'll likely have to settle for the talented, but oft-invisible Swede.

15) Michael Ryder - Prediction: Tampa Bay. Despite their public intentions to go so far as to camp out in the backyards of top free agents in hopes of signing them, the recently instituted Tampa Bay ownership group of Oren Koules and Len Barrie will likely be shut out from signing the top dogs on the market. Ryder is coming off a dismal season in Montreal and as a result was reportedly the target of vandalism -- he'll likely be pleased to step out of the hockey spotlight. It's also easy to forget Ryder posted back-to-back thirty goal seasons just two years ago and he would likely look good playing on Steven Stamkos's wing.

16) Sean Avery - Prediction: Dallas. Avery would prefer to have his inevitable hi jinks documented in a major media market, but he's worn out his welcome in most of those locales anyway. Thus, the ex-Ranger will have to settle for the Lone Star State, where a strong leadership core that includes Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano will likely be able to keep him ins check to some extent. The Stars have shown interest in Avery and will need to fill the holes that will be created by impending UFAs Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen.

17) Cory Stillman - Prediction: Carolina. And the 2008 Doug Weight/Mark Recchi/Keith Tkachuk award goes to...Cory Stillman, for returning via free agency to the team he was dealt from at the trading deadline. The 'Canes love their forwards, and despite re-signing Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu, they'll be looking to add a bit more firepower to their lineup if only as an insurance policy should any of Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams or Matt Cullen endure lengthy injuries yet again.

18) Sergei Fedorov - Prediction: Washington. Once the best player in the NHL, Fedorov's fall from grace has been swift and painful, but he does have a chance to salvage the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. After being acquired from Columbus for a song, Fedorov looked downright invigorated in his stint with the Capitals, and would likely welcome the chance to play an entire season alongside the exciting young talent in the nation's capital.

19) Ladislav Nagy - Prediction: Minnesota. With Pavol Demitra gone, the Wild will be in desperate need to find someone to play with franchise winger (and potential UFA July 1st, 2009) Marian Gaborik. Who better than a Slovakian international teammate of Gaborik, Ladislav Nagy? Okay, so Nagy is coming off back-to-back disastrous seasons, but make no mistake -- he's still a tremendous talent and hasn't exactly been in optimal situations the past two years in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Perhaps playing alongside countryman Gaborik will reignite a spark. Regardless, at what should be a reasonably cheap cost, it's a risk the Wild can afford to take.

20) Brendan Morrison - Prediction: Atlanta. Plain and simple, the Thrashers are a mass. A brief perusal of their depth chart almost confirms that they will likely be better off spending the next season coming to a conclusion on whether John Tavares or Victor Hedman warrants the first overall draft pick in 2009 than any sort of playoff push. But they need to at least pretend that they're trying to win games, and will likely dip into the free agent market once again to find a center for poor, poor Ilya Kovalchuk. Morrison fits the bill given he does not re-sign with Vancouver.

Other notables: Gary Roberts to Calgary (Have you seen their second line?); Darcy Tucker to San Jose (Yes, he's older than dirt, but he's still an upgrade over Tomas Plihal); Mike Commodore to Los Angeles (I'll defer to Rudy Kelly on this one), Jose Theodore to Colorado (I realize Theo's playing hardball, but seriously, who the hell else is going to stop pucks in Denver? A 42-year-old Patrick Roy?); Doug Weight to St. Louis (Don't you love reunions? Actually, he'll probably retire); Jaromir Jagr to Avangard Omsk (Good riddance, Jaromir. Don't let the door hit your disproportionately large ass on the way out).

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