Every July 1, NHL General Managers fall over each other to shell out big-ticket deals to mid-ticket players. This has led to countless cap disasters, with recent buy-out victims like Brad Richards, Ed Jovonovski, and Ville Leino being perfect examples. (Though nothing beats the David Clarkson contract in terms of bad value). In general, the biggest overpays tend to be for defencemen and centres, because they’re generally in shortest supply.
What’s worse is that many of these mid-level players are also past their prime. In general, most players peak in their mid-to-late 20’s. But what you’ll find is that most of the free agents are well into their 30’s. In fact, if you like at the UFA list, you’ll see that among the top-20 previous salary earners, only 1 of them (Paul Stastny) is under 30. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any bargains further down the list, but it’s safe to say that there will be more bad contracts given out on Tuesday than good ones.
This year, there’s the normal dearth of quality defencemen, and only a few good centres to choose from. However, if you’re looking for help on the wing, or in goal, it’s actually a pretty decent crop. I’ve put together a list of the top-50 free agents, which includes 30 forwards, 15 defencemen, and 5 goalies. (This wasn’t totally by accident; each team’s starting lineup includes 12 forwards, 6 defencemen, and 2 goalies.) As I go through, I’ll note which players I think are good targets for the Jets.
TOP-50 FREE AGENTS
Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, Martin Brodeur, Tomas Greiss, Ilya Bryzgalov
The Class of the Crease – Ryan Miller
The 2010 Vezina winner’s reputation has really taken a beating in the past few years, as he suffered through two disappointing seasons on an undermanned Buffalo squad, and then struggled mightily after being dealt to St. Louis at the trade deadline. The Blues looked poised to win the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, but Miller went 10-8 down the stretch, and continued his disappointing play in the playoffs, as he lost four straight games to Chicago after the Blues took an early 2-0 series lead. All that said, he’s still clearly the best goaltender available. The market for Miller will be very interesting, as there aren’t many teams looking for a goalie. One might assume that a contending team like Pittsburgh or San Jose would be interested given their recent problems in goal, but Pittsburgh lacks cap space, and San Jose claimed they weren’t interested. Anaheim and St. Louis have also said they’re out on Miller, preferring instead to use a goalie tandem which includes a promising young goaltender. Based on all this, the logical choice for Miller would be Vancouver, as they’re crying for a starting goalie, and have opened up a lot of cap room by trading Kesler and Garrison. But even that isn’t a sure bet, as they might opt for Jonas Hiller, who’d come a lot cheaper. If I was a betting man, I’d say he ends up in Vancouver, Pittsburgh, San Jose, or Washington.
Editor’s note: Sounds like this may come down to San Jose and Vancouver
Best of the Rest
Jonas Hiller is the next-best option in goal. Some are speculating he ends up in Vancouver, as they’ve recently acquired his fellow Swiss countryman, Luca Sbisa, and already have Swiss defenceman, Yannick Weber. Calgary may also be an option, as Brian Burke is familiar with Hiller, having signed him in 2007 when he was GM in Anaheim. Martin Brodeur looks sure to take on a back-up role, and some are saying that he’d be a great fit behind Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh. (If I were Pittsburgh, I’d buy out Fleury’s last year and start fresh with Miller, Hiller, or almost anyone other than Fleury). Tomas Greiss will be a solid back-up for someone, while Ilya Bryzgalov may or may not get one more shot in the NHL; Bryz had a great end to the regular season in Minnesota (7-1-3), but was ordinary in the playoffs.
Regardless of what Jets fans may want, it looks like Cheveldayoff will not buy out Pavelec, and I can’t imagine that a trade is possible at this point. As a result, they won’t pursue any goaltender on July 1. Based on Hutchinson’s incredible play in the AHL this past year, he should play in the NHL this year, where he’ll push Pavelec for starts. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Hutchinson even takes the starting job at some point in 2015.
Left D-Christian Ehrhoff, Willie Mitchell, Kyle Quincey, Brooks Orpik, Clayton Stoner, Andrej Meszaros, Joni Pitkanen, Chris Butler
Right D-Dan Boyle, Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman , Mark Fayne, Derek Morris, Mike Weaver, Tom Gilbert
The Cream of the Crop
Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Boyle are the top defencemen available*. Ehrhoff is a stud on the powerplay, and can play in almost any team’s top-4. And at 32, he still has some good years left. Given a short enough term, you could say the same about Dan Boyle, but at 38 years of age, you’d like to get him on a one-year deal. Like Andrei Markov, he probably wants three; hopefully teams are smart enough to cap him at two.
*Many people hype up Matt Niskanen, but I think he’s the most overrated defenceman in the entire free agent class, and is due for an awful contract. Many defencemen can put up points in Pittsburgh, and with Letang hurt, he flourished statistically.
Best of the Rest
Willie Mitchell is my favourite defenceman available. Strong, intelligent, and widely respected, he was one of the best shut-down defencemen of his generation. At 37, he won’t be re-signed by LA, but somebody will get a solid player and potentially a great mentor for a young defenceman. (Florida could use him for Aaron Ekblad; Winnipeg for Trouba/Bogosian…). Brooks Orpik is past his prime, and will get way too big a contract simply based on his reputation; he isn’t nearly as tough as he once was, and offers nothing offensively. Kyle Quincey and Anton Stralman are decent two-way guys who can play top-4 minutes for an average team (though not for a contender). Mark Fayne and Clayton Stoner are underrated shut-down defencemen in their late 20’s. Joni Pitkanen was once a top-pairing guy, but injuries have ruined a once promising career, while Andrej Meszaros and Tom Gilbert are former $4M defencemen who will never see that money again. Derek Morris is a solid veteran who has a year or two left in him, and Mike Weaver continues his underdog career as an unheralded veteran who plays a simple, effective game. Chris Butler is a decent young defenceman who can do a bit of everything, but not a lot of anything in particular. If you need defence, shop wisely; since demand significantly exceeds supply, very average defencemen will be paid handsomely, and undeservingly.
As I noted above, I think Mitchell would be a great mentor for both Trouba and Bogosian. He would also solidify the #4 spot for the next year or two, giving Morrissey ample time to develop in junior and the AHL. If not Mitchell, I think Clayton Stoner would be a nice partner for Bogosian – a big, physical player who skates fairly well. (He basically does what Mark Stuart does, but better.) Quincey would also be a decent option, but not for the $3.8M salary he previously earned. If none of these three make their way to the Peg, we’ll need to bolster our D through trade, otherwise we’ll be depending on Clitsome/Stuart/a mystery d-man to play in the top-4.
Centre– Paul Stastny, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, David Legwand, Dave Bolland, Marcel Goc, Brian Boyle, Mikhail Grabovski, Derek Roy, Dominic Moore
Left Wing– Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Matt Moulson, Milan Michalek, Mason Raymond, Jussi Jokinen, Benoit Pouliot, Daniel Winnik, Steve Ott, Dany Heatley
Right Wing– Jarome Iginla, Ales Hemsky, Daniel Alfredsson, Radim Vrbata, Steve Downie, Lee Stempniak, Nikolai Kulemin, Martin Havlat, Brian Gionta, Mike Santorelli
Top-6 of the Top-6: Stastny, Vanek, Cammalleri, Hemsky, Ribeiro, and Moulson
Paul Stastny will be the most sought after free-agent on July 1. Not only is he the only first line centre available, but he’s not yet 29 years old. Colorado is trying to sign him, but it looks like if they offer him at least $6M, he’s going to market. Naturally, half the teams in the league are keenly interested to see how that plays out, including the Jets. If he leaves Colorado, my guess is he ends up in Chicago or St. Louis.
Thomas Vanek has been rumoured to the Minnesota Wild for nearly a year. He played in Minnesota in both college and junior, his wife is from the area, and they’re a team on the rise. Sure, he had a disappointing playoff for Montreal, but as long as he doesn’t want the moon, he still makes sense for the Wild. His size and finishing ability would be a great compliment to the small, shifty, and incredibly creative Mikael Granlund. If not Minnesota, I’m sure a number of other teams would be interested, including the cap-flexible Canucks.
Based on value, Mike Cammalleri is my top-forward available. He won’t get the mega-deal like Stastny or Vanek, but he’s a pure scorer who’s performed in the regular season and the playoffs and has a few good years left. He can play either wing, and if you pair him with a good playmaking centre, he’ll probably score 30 goals. The only question mark in recent years has been his health – he seems to miss about 15 games most years. He’d be an incredible fit in Anaheim next to Getzlaf and Perry, though they have quite a few young forwards they may opt to try in that spot instead. Pittsburgh would also be very interesting, but their cap situation may get in the way.
Ales Hemsky has long been one of the most talented players in the NHL. I watched him for years in Edmonton as he made good defencemen look foolish. It was interesting that he came to Ottawa because in many ways he’s similar to Jason Spezza – smooth skating, despicable hands, and a natural inclination to pass rather than to shoot, despite having an impressive shot. At 31, he has a lot of miles on his body, as he’s been in the league since 19, and suffered a lot of injuries along the way, particularly to the shoulders. However, he’d still be a great addition to any team’s top-6 given the right term. (Three years max). I could imagine him putting up monster point totals playing alongside Malkin or Crosby if he’s able to stay healthy.
Mike Ribeiro was signed by the “Arizona” Coyotes last summer to what seemed like a fairly reasonable deal for a point-producing centre; four years at $5.5M per year seemed about right for their de facto first line centre. Ribeiro produced less than expected with only 47 points, though it’s hard to condemn him entirely as the Coyotes are a very low scoring team. (Highest scorer on the team had 53 points). Perhaps Dave Tippett’s defence-first system wasn’t a fit for Ribeiro’s creative, free-flowing game. In any case, he’s on the market again, and any team that needs a boost on their powerplay should look his way. He could help a team given the right price. If Nashville isn’t able to land any of their targets (went after Spezza, and is said to be going after Stastny), he may find a place there next to James Neal.
Matt Moulson is overrated in my opinion. He’s the very definition of a complementary player – very good in a great situation (i.e with John Tavares), but not very effective if he doesn’t have good linemates. (To be fair, most players could be categorized this way). After leaving the Islanders, he was reasonably good in Buffalo, but struggled in Minnesota. He’s a 20-goal, 50 point type guy, unless he finds a particularly nurturing situation like Pittsburgh or Anaheim, where he can ride off the MVP coat tails of Crosby or Getzlaf.
Other Forward Options
Brad Richards is certainly not what he used to be, but in the right situation, and at the right price, he might still pass for a second line centre. Chicago might be a fit if they miss out on Stastny, as would St. Louis if they pass on Stastny and Spezza. Nashville would also make sense – given their apparent interest in Spezza at the draft, it appears they’ve realized that they can’t win by having 3rd line centres throughout their lineup. (Fisher, Legwand, Cullen last year – bizarre). Derek Roy and Mikhail Grabovski are former second line centres who have become increasingly unreliable in recent years. They will find a home somewhere, but not for the money they’re used to making.
If you’re looking for a two-way centre who may be more suited to a third line role, you can choose from Dave Bolland, David Legwand, Brian Boyle, Marcel Goc, and Dominic Moore. Out of forwards, Dave Bolland is poised to get the worst contract of anyone available on July 1st. He’s been a band-aid for years, missing 20 or more games in three of the past five seasons. Furthermore, there was talk that his agent was asking the Leafs for an 8-year deal worth $5M per season; production isn’t everything, but if true, those demands are s ludicrous considering he’s never scored 20 goals or reached 50 points. David Legwand has a great resume – he was a solid 2nd line centre for many years in Nashville – but his lack of production down the stretch in Detroit should be a concern to anyone looking to give him big money. Brian Boyle, Marcel Goc, and Dominic Moore are all useful penalty killers with decent hands who can help a team for the right price. Of the three, Boyle will get the biggest deal because he’s about 6’6 and played well for the Rangers on their run to the Finals.
If you’re looking for a big forward with a scoring touch, Milan Michalek and Dany Heatley are available. Michalek is clearly the better choice, though injuries have been a problem most of his career. Ironically, Heatley’s fall from grace started when he requested a trade from Ottawa, where he was promptly dealt for Milan Michalek. His production his fallen precipitously in recent years, and given his one-dimensional play, he probably won’t be cashing in this summer.
Two of the most underrated forwards available are Lee Stempniak and Mason Raymond. Stempniak has always been able to score 15-20 goals wherever he’s gone, and is a fairly reliable player in all zones. Meanwhile, Raymond was left out in the cold last summer, and ended up signing with the Leafs for one year at only $1M. After a bounce-back season, and as one of the best skaters in the league, I think he should take home ten times that amount on a three year deal, especially given that he’s only 29.
As for the rest, Radim Vrbata has been a productive sniper in Phoenix for years, but mostly unproductive elsewhere (just stay there!), while Martin Havlat and Brian Gionta are former snipers who are getting a bit long in the tooth. Jussi Jokinen has played well with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, and would fit well on quite a few teams at the right price. Steve Ott and Steve Downie are aggressive wingers who are most known for being hated by their opponents; Downie is younger and has better hands, but also has a bad reputation in the locker room. (He allegedly left Colorado because of a certain incident with a certain goaltender’s girlfriend…) Benoit Pouliot and Mike Santorelli seem to be looking for homes every year at this time, despite the fact that they’ve given teams good value on cheap, one-year contracts. Neither is consistent enough to play in the top-6, but they each provide nice scoring depth on the third line. Nikolai Kulemin scored 30 goals in ’10-’11 with Toronto, but hasn’t topped 9 goals since then. There’s talk of him signing a cap-friendly deal in Pittsburgh to play with fellow 28-year-old Russian, Evgeni Malkin. Finally, Daniel Winnik is big third line winger, who’s good in a checking role but won’t give you much offence.
Iginla and Alfredsson
I would expect Iginla to stay in Boston. If he does go anywhere, it’ll be to a contender to get that elusive cup. Won’t be Chicago or LA, as they’re both stacked on the wing, so that basically leaves St. Louis. As for Alfredsson, he’s probably staying in Detroit or retiring.
The Jets will go after Paul Stastny, and they will not get him. That’s nothing against the Jets – only one team will get Stastny, and I would put money on it being, Chicago, St. Louis, or Colorado. (On a side note, Paul’s Hall of Fame father, Peter, finished his career in St. Louis in 1994.) While Stastny would be a nice upgrade, I think the Jets are content to roll with Scheifele and Little as their top-two centres, and expect that, one day, Adam Lowry will be their third line pivot. In the meantime, if they can fill the third line spot with Marcel Goc or Dominic Moore, that would give their young guns more time to develop. Just as with the defence, trade may be another option to address depth at centre. If they strike out in free agency, and don’t find the right deal on the trade front, they could let O’Dell, Lowry, Albert, and Slater battle for the bottom-two centre roles.
If they don’t find the centre they like, they’ll certainly need to add depth on the wings. I think most Jets fans are eagerly anticipating the day when borderline NHLers like Thorburn, Wright, and Tangradi don’t have a spot in the every-day lineup. They’re fine call-up options, but if they’re playing regularly, your team is either injury-ravaged, or simply not good enough. I would expect the Jets to have interest in Raymond, Stempniak and Winnik. Raymond played in Winnipeg with the Moose, so he’s familiar with the city, and with Assistant GM Craig Heisinger. (Too bad we didn’t sign him last year – it would have saved us the Devin Setoguchi debacle, and a 2nd round pick.) Stempniak is a versatile player who can play the 3rd line, but also move up to the 2nd if needed. At 31, he’s a veteran who still has something left in the tank. Meanwhile Winnik is a big guy who skates well and is very good on the pk. Think of him as a really good version of Tanner Glass. (I know that sounds bad, but again, he’s a good player given the right contract.)
OTHER FREE AGENTS (not recommended!)
Not Much Left in the Tank
Not saying the following guys won’t get contracts, but if they do find employment, it better be for one year, and for a low salary. All of the players below were once productive forwards, played significant minutes on D, or backstopped their teams as starting goalies. But those days are gone. For those who don’t get NHL contracts, many of them will probably keep playing in Europe.
Olli Jokinen, Dustin Penner, Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mike Komisarek, Nick Schultz, Henrik Tallinder, Rostislav Klesla, Cory Sarich, Ray Emery, Scott Gomez
On Olli Jokinen…
In his prime, Olli’s calling cards were size, speed, and shot. Starting in 2002, Olli was able to score 30 goals in 4/5 seasons in Florida, and even topped 90 points once, which is quite a feat. Fast-forward to today: Olli still has a good shot, but doesn’t skate quite as well, and appears unwilling or unable to use his size. He’s become incredibly soft on the puck, and is beyond useless on the forecheck. Even in his better days, he never had the vision or passing ability of a 1st line centre, and that remains unchanged. He isn’t good on face-offs (46% last year), doesn’t kill penalties (averages 29 seconds per game), and generally isn’t a good defensive player. In fact, Jokinen had the worst +/- of all Jets in ’12-’13 at -19, and worst among forwards in ’13-’14 at -9. He did finish 5th in Jets’ scoring with 43 points, but that’s only 1 point ahead of Michael Frolik, who got half as much power-play time (1:49 vs :59.) And had Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele not missed 19 games a piece, Jokinen would have been well down the Jets’ scoring list. Regardless of his contract demands, Jokinen isn’t helping you unless he’s producing offence, and he doesn’t produce enough offence to be in the top-6 anymore. Turning 36 later this year, he’ll find a contract somewhere, but if he gets more than a one year deal, that team will regret it. In my opinion, the Jets are better off going with a young guy on the rise who plays his butt off than with Jokinen, who had a decent start, but was invisible for many games at a time down the stretch.
Ready for Retiremen?
Most of the following players are probably done playing in the NHL:
Ray Whitney, Todd Bertuzzi, Saku Koivu, Tomas Vokoun, Nikolai Khabibulin, Evgeni Nabokov, Ed Jovonovski, Sami Salo, Stephane Robidas, Michal Handzus, Dan Cleary
Officially Retiring: Teemu Selanne, J.S Giguere, Ryan Smyth