Jul 1, 2011, 9:00 AM EDT
Free agency kicks off at noon ET and with the doors swinging open to the shopping mall that is the NHL free agent market, it’s not quite like hitting Saks Fifth Avenue but more like digging through the dollar store to find that perfect gem. While there you’ll see a lot of stuff in the impulse buy area that might seem like a really good idea at the time, but after you give that player a contract that crushes your salary cap for the next five years, the buyer’s remorse weighs heavily.
While there are a lot of potential gems to be found out there for teams to use for the coming seasons, there are duds too and some teams are going to be more interesting than others to watch during free agency season. With the madness set to begin this afternoon, here are the teams we think will be worth keeping a close eye on.
While the said they’re not going after Steve Stamkos, they’re going to be factors in free agency somehow. They’ve got a little money to play with and they’re looking for a little help along the wings and perhaps one more center. After all, banking on Brayden Schenn to step in instantly and be a big producer is asking a lot of a rookie. Perhaps a guy like Michal Handzus, who has played in Philly once before, would be ideal to fill in depth.
Along the wings, you could see the return of Simon Gagne to Philadelphia after a year away in Tampa Bay. He’s not likely to be back for the Lightning and he still loves Philly. He’d be a solid contributor there again if the Flyers had room for him. Another name to watch here is Erik Cole. The Hurricanes power forward scored 26 goals last year and his former coach in Carolina, Peter Laviolette, would be overly familiar with his game.
One other reason to watch Philly during all this? GM Paul Holmgren has proved himself to be totally nuts and will do anything. The Flyers could make a run at Brad Richards and Jaromir Jagr if they wanted to because Holmgren has shown he’s just that wacky to do it.
Seems crazy to want to keep an eye on the Panthers, doesn’t it? They could be the team that throws the free agent market into madness since, according to CapGeek, they’ve got nearly $22 million to spend to reach the salary floor. With that kind of cash needed to be spent and a free agent market ripe for the overpayment, the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon could be the foils for many teams looking to land players this year and looking to lock up their own players in the future.
A lot of markets have already been blown up thanks to deals made by Steve Montador, Christian Ehrhoff, and Florida’s own Tomas Kopecky and with the Panthers being forced to dig into their wallets they’ll either be making some crazy signings or end up involved in the trade market to acquire other fat contracts.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs GM Brian Burke is almost always worth keeping an eye on as it is, but during free agency it’s a fascinating case study. In previous free agency years we’ve seen him open the vault for defensemen like Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda. All right you win some and lose some. While the Leafs will be all in on trying to land Brad Richards, they’re a team that could use help at forward. They’re rumored to be hot for Maxime Talbot as well as Richards and they could stand to land another good defenseman as well.
Of course, if Burke gets a little spend crazy, they could wind up overpaying for both Richards and Talbot and even go crazy for a defenseman out of the blue. One way or another, the Leafs need to improve a bit and this free agency class might not be the best way to do it. Will fans in Toronto freak out if they stay quiet? We’ll see.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are another big market team with money to burn this offseason. They too will be all in after Brad Richards but should they not land him, we’re curious what their Plan B might be. After all, two years ago they came out of nowhere to deal Scott Gomez to Montreal and used that free cap space to sign Marian Gaborik. No one expected that to happen at all and Glen Sather will be under the gun to do something to help spark things in Manhattan.
The Rangers do still have to get RFAs Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan squared away but they need a little more than that to give Gaborik and others some help. Sadly for them there’s not too much to be found up the middle. Guys like Tim Connolly and Jason Arnott might not provide the answers the Rangers are looking to for production.
Richards or bust? It’s sort of looking that way.
Tampa Bay Lightning
They’ll be on Stamkos watch all day long, but they’ll be looking to fill ranks elsewhere. Sean Bergenheim appears destined for a new location and Simon Gagne won’t be coming back to Tampa. GM Steve Yzerman was able to push the right buttons last year to give Guy Boucher a team that he took to within a win of the Stanley Cup finals.
Who will the Lightning be looking for? You have to think they’ll be going with a similar attack plan this summer looking for diamonds in the rough. Guys like Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Pavel Kubina turned out to be great pickups that no one really thought much of at the time. All of them put together made the Lightning a very difficult team to deal with. With a free agent market filled with those sorts of players, the Lightning might do just fine casually shopping around.
Considering they’re a team without a starting or backup goalie at the moment, they’re going to be factoring in heavily in the market for any and all goalies available. The big prize is Tomas Vokoun but other names like Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Pascal Leclaire, Ray Emery, and Mike Smith are out there as starters. As far as backups go… Take your pick as there are plenty to choose from.
The Avs also have to get a little bit of money spent to get to the salary floor as CapGeek has them about $15 million below the floor. The Avs aren’t big spenders these days, but they’ll have to give some big money out to a few guys to get caught up.
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