Top 10 NHL Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)

By Brandon Macdonald
NHL Hot Stove Editor

It’s almost that time of year again, hockey fans. The spot on everyone’s calendar that reads “Free Agent Frenzy” also known as July 1st. It’s the time when teams assess their needs and attempt to replenish via free agency. There are always one or two headliners every year, but the depth of the 2011 free agent class is not quite comparable to past years. There is only one current superstar and a ton of depth players available for negotiations come Friday.

Here at NHLhotstove.com, we have many writers covering various teams around the League so for more in-depth analysis on your favorite team, continue to check the site for up-to-date news. Just for fun, let’s look over a list of what I believe are the Top-10 most coveted free agents of the 2011 free agent season. Feel free to leave your own top 10 list in the comment section or send me an email with your thoughts.

Honorable mentions: Tyler Kennedy, Fredrik Sjostrom, Shane O’Brien, Chris Higgins, Ray Emery and Mike Smith

Photo Credit: lindsay_rockstar.

 

#10 – Maxime Talbot, 27, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2010-11 cap hit $2.6 million

Last season statistics: 82 GP/8G/13A/60PIM/-3

Although Talbot is not going to wow you with his offensive prowess, he brings the kind of grit and hustle to the table that every team would welcome with open arms. Throughout the years he became a solid third line centre who has the ability to get under the opposing team’s skin and who has shown an ability to score some important goals (Don’t click Red Wing fans). Talbot would be a good fit with teams that are looking to round out their bottom six with role players.

Where he will land: Detroit Red Wings

#9 – Ville Leino, 27, Philadelphia Flyers, 2010-11 cap hit $800k

Last season statistics: 81GP/19G/34A/22PIM/+14

After being acquired by the Flyers for Ole-Kristian Tollefsen in 2009, Leino proved his worth with a fantastic post season and continued the solid play in 2010-11. He was an intricate part of the Flyers offence during both the regular season and post season. With dynamic speed and puck handling ability Leino will undoubtedly receive a large raise from his $800 k cap hit and a multi-year deal is in his future.

With the massive overhaul on the Philadelphia front line, one would assume it would be in GM Paul Holmgren‘s best interests to retain the 27-year-old Finn as he enters the prime of his career.

Where he will land: Philadelphia Flyers

Photo Credit: bridgetds.

#8 – Erik Cole, 32, Carolina Hurricanes, 2010-11 cap hit $2.9 million

Last season statistics: 82GP/26G/26A/49PIM/-1

The curious case of Erik Cole –the man that only seems to find his top game in Carolina. Even during the lockout season while playing with Berlin Polar Bears in Germany, Cole managed to score only six goals in 39 games. He was welcomed back to Carolina via a trade after signing with Edmonton in 2008. This past season was Cole’s best since 2007, he scored 26 times and played in all 82 games. This is a good sign for him, as it’s the first time in his NHL career he played the entire campaign.

It only makes sense that the Hurricanes keep Cole, especially considering shootout specialist Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose are both set to hit the open market. Cole would be a good fit with teams wanting that extra scoring depth on the wing, as he could log considerable minutes on the second line and even fill in on the top line pending injuries. The Canes are in desperate need for scoring depth as they saw what happened last year when they relied on Eric Staal and Calder trophy winner Jeff Skinner for the bulk of scoring.

Where he will land: Carolina Hurricanes

#7 – Tomas Kaberle, 33, Boston Bruins, 2010-11 cap hit $4.25 million

Last season statistics: 82GP/4G/43A/18PIM/+4

It’s yet to be seen if Kaberle will be back with the Bruins next season. After a less-than-stellar debut with the team, it seemed like he settled into his role throughout the playoffs, especially after seeing significantly less minutes than he was used to getting in Toronto. Fitting in on the second defensive pair with Adam McQuaid, his role changed. He wasn’t the power play saviour that the team expected, yet he did lead Bruins defenceman in scoring in the playoffs with 11 assists.

It all comes down to the numbers in regards to GM Peter Chiarelli‘s decision to pursue the Czech native. If he can get Kaberle at his previous cap hit, it seems like he will remain in Boston. However, there are cheaper options for the Bruins out there— albeit not many — and they have a young puck moving defenceman in Steven Kampfer waiting in the wings for his chance. Some have speculated that Kaberle could end up back in Toronto, but that seems like a long shot.

Where he will end up: Boston Bruins

Now the next three picks are, in my opinion, interchangeable.

#6 – Simon Gagne, 31, Tampa Bay Lightning, 2010-11 cap hit $2.5 million

Last season statistics: 63GP/17G/23A/20PIM/-12

One of the biggest question marks when it comes to free agency is: What do you offer Gagne? He is an aging veteran with a history of injury issues, but managed to play in 63 games this past season. For the second straight year Gagne chipped in with 17 goals and there is nothing saying he isn’t capable of hitting the 20-25 mark again in his career. If he can stay healthy and play with a playmaking centre, that is almost a given.

The problem when it comes to Gagne is how much money would he accept. Nobody wants to lowball a veteran with success at the NHL level, but take into account his past. Gagne has nothing to prove except for playing 60-plus games per season. It’s likely that he will want to play with a Stanley Cup contender and there is a chance he could get that chance. A team like the Los Angeles Kings stick out to me as they could use a goal-scoring winger to compliment newly acquired — and former teammate — Mike Richards on the second line. The question for the Kings is whether or not they will have the cap space after locking up pending RFA Drew Doughty.

Where he will land: Los Angeles Kings

Photo Credit: bridgetds.

#5 - Michael Ryder, 31, Boston Bruins, 2010-11 cap hit $4 million

Last season statistics: 79GP/18G/23A/26PIM/-1

Entering the Stanley Cup playoffs anyone connected to Boston would have told you Ryder would be donning a new sweater come next season. However, times have changed and it’s likely that opinions have as well. Ryder stepped up his game in the Bruins’ quest for Lord Stanley scoring eight goals and finishing with 17 points, which likely has other teams chomping at the bit to acquire the Newfoundland native.

The oft-criticized 31-year-old has a game changing shot, but is often found floating while wearing his invisibility cloak. When he feels like it, Ryder can be a very dangerous player. The Bruins have four skaters headed to free agency (five if you count Mark Recchi) and the cap space to retain all of their services. Chiarelli has not made any public statements on the team’s intentions to re-up Ryder, so only time will tell if he is back with the Bruins on their quest for back-to-back titles.

Eclipsing 25 goals in six of his NHL seasons should have teams looking to sign Ryder. After winning a Cup, it’s likely he will continue to ask for $4 million per season and lengthy contract that will see him continue to be paid. It’s yet to be seen if the Bruins will continue to pay that salary to a guy playing on their third line.

Where he will land: Florida Panthers

#4 – Tim Connolly, 30, Buffalo Sabres, 2010-11 cap hit $4.5 million

Last season statistics: 68GP/13G/29/20PIM/-10

Always a question as to whether or not he can stay healthy, Connolly could see a plethora of contracts tossed his way come July 1st. Having played 65-plus games the past two seasons, he could almost argue for his ability to stay healthy as he would make any team he joins better. If need be, he could serve as a number one centre, but likely would serve better as a number two. With great hands and a quick shot, Connolly would serve well on a young team looking for depth.

It seems like Connolly could stay in Buffalo, as their options at centre appear sparse, but they may have injury concerns and Connolly is likely looking for long-term contract. Nevertheless, new Sabres owner Terry Pegula proves himself as willing to spend the money to make the team better and losing Connolly does not make them a better team. With shooters like Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis and Brad Boyes the team will need someone to pass them the puck.

Where he will land: Buffalo Sabres

Photo Credit: bridgetds.

#3 – Tomas Vokoun, 34, Florida Panthers, 2010-11 cap hit $5.7 million

Last season statistics: 22W/28L/.922SV%/2.55GAA

In recent years the market for goaltenders has not been busy, but then again, there hasn’t been many goaltenders available like Vokoun. On an unfortunate Florida Panthers team, Vokoun has managed to maintain respectable numbers and has the title of the “best goalie on a bad team” label. Vokoun’s high cap hit may scare some teams away from taking a chance on this guy, but if put in a good situation Vokoun could flourish.

It’s not likely that the Panthers will re-sign the Czech puck stopper, nor is it likely he plans on re-signing. Testing the free agent market seems like the best idea for the aging goalie and latching onto a Cup contending team missing that extra piece could be a match made in heaven. There are a few teams that come to mind like Washington, but the Capitals have had opportunities to snag veteran goalies before and seem keen on maintaining the youthful approach in goal. Colorado seems like another choice — a young team that seems to be a few pieces away from contending in the tough West. Vokoun could be just the guy they need.

Where he will land: Colorado Avalanche

#2 – Christian Ehrhoff, 28, New York Islanders, 2010-11 cap hit $3.1 million

Last season statistics: 79GP/14G/36A/52PIM/+19

With one of the deepest defensive units in the NHL, the Vancouver Canucks will have some decisions to make come July 1st. They have the likes of Andrew Alberts, Sami Salo and Ehrhoff to re-sign, as well as a handful of forwards. With youngsters Chris Tanev and Yann Sauve in the system, they also possess some youth that can fill holes. Clearly the Canucks have some options on the back end, but Ehrhoff is a dependable asset who provides both offensive and defensive stability.

It’s not too often that teams have the chance to acquire a puck-moving defenceman who can also play in his own zone. If Ehrhoff’s camp decides to test the open market, it’s likely he will not be there for too long. His defensive mate Kevin Bieksa recently signed a five-year contract that has him at a $4.6 million cap hit per season. Ehrhoff should receive a similar contract, but the fact that Bieksa had a better postseason likely had something to do with his raise. Regardless, expect Ehrhoff to earn at least $5 million per season as the best d-man available.

After their recent acquisition of Robyn Regehr the Buffalo Sabres are closer to having a solid blue line, but adding Ehrhoff would continue to solidify their spot in the tough North East division. Say what you like about his numbers getting inflated due to a high-powered offence. Ehrhoff can get it done when leaned on.

(Editor’s note: Ehrhoff has been traded to the New York Islanders in exchange for a 4th round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft)

Where he will land: Buffalo Sabres

Photo Credit: Resolute

#1 – Brad Richards, 31, Dallas Stars, 2010-11 cap hit $7.8 million

Although this years free agent class is a weak one, Richards would have reigned tall no matter who else was available. He is a legitimate number one centre and a superstar in the NHL. With soft hands and a nose for the net, Richards is the cover boy for playmaking centre any Cup contending team wants — see 2004 Lightning. He comes with the hardware, having the coveted Stanley Cup ring, as well as the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP.

What he brings to the table is the ability to make the players around him better with his passing although he can also score the big goal. There are going to be many suitors for his talent come July 1st and it’s expect that he will make the league maximum, or close to it, with a long-term contract. Most teams in the NHL will likely put in an offer for the Price Edward Island native, but he has made it known he wants to have a chance to contend. It seems that Richards has the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning on top of his list, but with the amount of money the Lightning have locked up — without a contract for Steven Stamkos it doesn’t seem likely for a return to Tampa.

No matter what team Richards winds up with, he will be the focal point of the team and instantly make them better. It’s going to take big money to bring him in, but in today’s NHL there are no surprises.

Where he will land: New York Rangers


This article is pure speculation from Brandon Macdonald. No sources have been used to determine potential landing zones for free agents.

Brandon Macdonald
NHLHS Editor
bmacdonald@nhlhotstove.com
Twitter @bMacdonald8