Posted by: mdegeorge | July 1, 2011

The NHL Free Agency Diagnosis: The Forwards

The Stanley Cup was lifted just over three weeks ago, signaling the end of another NHL season. Just a week ago, the annual entry draft was held, ushering a new generation of some 200 teens into the world of professional hockey.

The first occasion was cause for celebration for only one team (unless you dislike the Canucks that much). The second was reason to rejoice and hope for the future, but it’s a distant hope that will take for most a couple year to come to fruition, if at all.

The real recourse for hockey-starved fans comes Friday, the annual shuffling of the deck that allows every team to sit at the table and incur immediate losses or reap what it hopes will be benefits starting the next time the skates hit the ice.

It’s the opening of free agency, a type of manic multi-million dollar chess game that plays itself out across phone lines, television specials and fax machines the continent over.

This season’s version enjoys a special significance: While Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith take in a cuddle while each tries to get up the nerve to reach and lovingly take hold of the other’s hand, and the NBA Players Association and their lawyers decide the most legally sound way to publicly hand David Stern in effigy, the skaters have the rink to do some real business pertaining to a season we know will happen.

Hope springs eternal July 1 – though to a lesser degree than in past years, but there’s no need to discuss that yet. Because for a brief few moments after the clock strikes noon, when every free agent is thrown into the pool to start a Supermarket Sweep-like shopping frenzy, there’s no end to the dreams of what your favorite team may land in their cart. Thanks to the NBA labor unrest, a league which also opens the free agent market July 1, the stage belongs to the NHL alone.

And that beats talk of revenue sharing and decertification any day.

So without further ado, here’s a look at just who’s available out there on the open market. In parenthesis are the player’s age and their raw salary (not salary cap hit) in millions of dollars from last season. First the forwards:

Centers

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Brad Richards (31, 7.8), Jason Arnott (36, 4.5), Tim Connolly (30, 4.5), Michal Handzus (34, 4), Steve Sullivan (37, 3.75), Tomas Fleischmann (27, 2.6), Marty Reasoner (34, 1.2), Rob Neidermayer (36, 1.15), Vernon Fiddler (31, 1.1), Petr Prucha (28, 1.1), Maxime Talbot (27, 1.05), John Madden (38, 1), Vaclav Prospal (36, 1), Marcel Goc (27, .775), Scott Nichol (36, .76), Eric Belanger (33, .75), Brendan Morrison (35, .725), Kyle Wellwood (28, .65), Jeff Halpern (35, .6), Jamal Mayers (36, .6), Mark Parrish (34, .6), Mike Comrie (30, .5), Steve Begin (33, .55)

Analysis: I’m going to say that Richards is sleeping fairly well tonight. He may not yet know his destination for what is likely the bulk of the remainder of his career. But he knows that path there will be lined with money aplenty. The crown jewel of one of the weakest free agent classes in recent history, Richards will fetch something near $10 million next season in a front-loaded deal that will be nearly a decade long and pay him into his early 40s. He’s an excellent player and still has some good years ahead of him. Plus, he’s attractive to teams like the New York Rangers and Toronto, teams with deep pockets and restless fanbases. Cha-ching!

The crop of talent basically falls off a cliff after Richards. Only five other players had salaries between Richards’ already colossal $7.8 million and $1.2 million. There are basically three classes: Old guys that are former stars making too much money needing to take serious pay cuts, young role players who could cash in slightly on the scarcity of talent, and old role players who will basically shuffle teams. A guy like Fleischmann could find himself in the 5-year, $15 mi range, Connolly and Handzus will have suitors, though not at their prices (Handzus looks earmarked for a return to Philadelphia), and guys like Talbot, Wellwood and Goc could get raises for teams desperate for solid checking third-line centers. Everyone else on the list, more or less, is a role player nearing the end of the road that could still contribute, but for no more than one- or two-year deals at a time.

Wingers

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Simon Gagne (31, 5.25), Alexei Kovalev (38, 5), Michael Ryder (31, 4), Marco Sturm (32, 3.5), Cory Stillman (37, 3.5), Alexei Ponikarovsky (31, 3.2), Erik Cole (32, 3), Alexander Frolov (29, 3), Radim Vrbata (30, 3), Jamie Langenbrunner (35, 2.8), Sergei Samsonov (32, 2.8), Chris Clark (35, 2.5), Chuck Kobasew (29, 2.5), Antti Miettinen (31, 2.5), Scottie Upshall (27, 2.25), Nikolay Zherdev (26, 2), Andrew Burnette (37, 2), Radek Dvorak (34, 1.8), Christopher Higgins (28, 1.6), Joel Ward (30, 1.5), Mike Grier (36, 1.4), Jarkko Ruutu (35, 1.3), Ruslan Fedotenko (32, 1), Matt Bradley (33, 1), Raffi Torres (29, 1), Ben Eager (29, .95), Mike Rupp (31, .85), Marek Svatos (29, .8), Boyd Gordon (27, .8), Ville Leino (27, .825), Patrick Eaves (27, .75), Sean Bergenheim (27, .7), Wade Belak (35, .575), Cam Janssen (27, .6), Fernando Pisani (34, .5), Jeff Tambellini (27, .5)

Analysis: Ville Leino is widely considered the second best prize of this free agency period behind Richards. That statement should say volumes about this class. Despite the weaknesses, they do have the benefit of excellent timing. The paucity of talent puts those that have it at a premium, driving up their prices. The convergence of that with a surprisingly large increase in next season’s cap and a raising of the salary floor means teams can and must spend.

It means this crop of wingers has a bit more upward mobility than the ageing class of centers has. Leino’s in for a big pay day, the likes of which the Flyers can’t afford. I could see big time raises for guys like Bergenheim, Higgins, maybe even Upshall on the way. Cole will also be a coveted commodity, some of the older (Langenbrunner, Kovalev, Stillman, Gagne) or faltering (Ryder, Sturm, Ponikarovsky, Fedotenko) members of this group will have to wait or take cuts. Still though, given that Washington was willing to play $2 million for 38-year-old Mike Knuble and Colorado $2.6 for 36-year-old Milan Hejduk in extension for next season, someone will come calling.

There are great role players available. Grier still has plenty left in the tank as a penalty killer. Ward is an excellent energy guy, as is Bradley, Torres and Rupp. Plus veterans like Ryder or Sturm are worth a late flyer at low cost as camps approach if they haven’t found a home yet.

As long as teams realize early that the next great power forward or top-line winger isn’t in this crop, the more value they can get for their checking lines and role player openings. Those that are hoping to remedy offensive anemia, however, might very well be out of luck.

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Responses

  1. […] age and their raw salary (not salary cap hit) in millions of dollars from last season. I’ve done the forwards already, here are the defensemen and goalies. Courtesy of Creative […]


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