Monday, August 01, 2005

The cream of the crowded crop

Today at noon, the floodgates will open, and the 200 or so available unrestricted free agents will be able to sign with whatever teams they want. I'm sure you can hardly contain your excitement. Some may say it's like Christmas. Some other might also say those people are in need of help.

With so many options open to the clubs, narrowing down who is the best of the bunch, and how they fit into with their squad, will be a task that may overwhelm some NHL general managers.

To help our less qualified GM friends out, I have put together what I consider to be the top 10 UFAs, as well as a few additional names that should be on everyone’s watch list. Feel free to consult it when negotiating your deals, though I hold no responsibility should they come back to burn you. After all, why are you even listening to me, I just write a blog.

Oh, and for a comprehensive list of who’s available, see James Mirtle.

Barely missed the cut:

Andrew Brunette

I'm baffled as to why Doug Riseborough and the Minnesota Wild are letting him try the open market. While Marian Gaborik is the scorer, Brunette has been one of the most important parts of the Wild's rapid success since they came into the league. In addition to his superb defensive game, he's also underrated as a scorer, having amassed 69, 46, and 49 points the past three NHL seasons. Unless an unexpected bidding war erupts, I can't see his salary exceeding $1.5 million, if that, which, for his game, is more than fair.

Jason Allison

Coming off major concussion problems, this may be a roll of the dice. However, the former 90 point scorer will likely be able to be had for a modest (given his credentials) salary. It might be wise for a team to make his deal incentive based, similar to what the Rangers did with Eric Lindros, so that should the concussion issue creep up, they're not on the hook for a big paycheck in an already tight system. At only 30, he's also one of the younger free agents on the market this year.

Sergei Gonchar

In a time when a puck moving defenceman is considered to be one of the best assets a team can have, you would think Gonchar would crack my top 10, but there are just too many I’d put above him. His offensive abilties are well documented, and he may very well be the best in the league at his position as far as that goes, but his defensive game, though worlds better than it was 10 years ago when he broke in with Washington, still leaves much to be desired. The reports are he’s expected to ask for in the neighborhood of $5 million, meaning the penny pinchers in Boston will not keep him.

10. Pavol Demitra

As a Sens fan, it pains me deeply to even acknowledge how successful he's gone on to become since leaving the team. If a club has scoring needs, Demitra might be the most viable option available. In an NHL where scoring had plummeted, Demitra has been averaging nearly a point a game for the past seven seasons, twice scoring at least 30 goals. That said, he's usually had a lot to work with in St. Louis, and has benefited from rarely being the primary focus of attention of opponents. Whether or not he can be a team's top man remains a mystery, but I would sure be willing to find out if I were a GM.

9. Brian Rafalski

While everyone is talking about Scott Niedermayer (and with reason), very little has been made about Brian Rafalski's UFA status. Playing the shadow of Niedermayer and Devils' captain Scott Stevens, he's quietly become one of the better all around defenceman in the NHL. He's defensively responsible and yet can also contribute offensively if needed. Insiders believe he'll stay with New Jersey, filling the hole that Niedermayer departing creates, however, if I was a team in the Nieds sweepstakes and missed out on him (which, if you believe reports, will be a lot of teams because it seems like 20 organizations are involved), I'd look to Rafalski as the next best option. Some have put Bryan Berard, who just got UFA status last night when Chicago failed to qualify him, in that spot, but I feel as though Rafalski is the better choice of the two. His previous salary of $3 million might take a hit, but with Sergei Zubov getting $4 mil from Dallasyesterday, he also could be able to command such a price if the demand is where it should be.

8. Gary Roberts

At 37, it's not unfair to wonder how much gas is left in the tank. Factor in the neck injury that temporarily ended his career and on the surface there appear to be all the warning signs that would tell a team to stay away. However, I dare you to find a better conditioned athlete in the NHL. His physical regiment is notorious, and as a result, he's added years to his career. And the end doesn't appear to be on the immediate horizon. He and close friend Joe Nieuwendyk may be a package deal, as they'd like to finish their career together, but that wouldn't be the worst scenario either. For youngish teams looking for a veteran presence that can also score timely goals, and is among the best at elevating his game in the playoffs, he might be the best free agent available. If Toronto lets him go, I'll consider John Ferguson Jr. certifiable, especially if he ends up here in Ottawa, as the two teams will surely meet again the playoffs (they always do) and you just know he'll come back to bite them in the ass. What kind of contract he'll be able to get is unknown, but most expect in the $2 million range, which isn't an unreasonable number.

7. Adrian Aucoin

Being stuck on Long Island hasn't done wonders for Aucoin's profile, but since coming over from Tampa Bay in 2001, he's been a workhouse for the club, and who knows where they would've been without his steadiness. Previously known as an offensive defenceman, he's improved his overall have tremendously in recent years. Statistically, he's been on the rise since first becoming an Islander, finishing with a career-high 44 points in '03-'04, as well as impressive +29 on a team that wasn't always very good. In addition, Aucoin has been among the league leaders in ice-time logged for the past three seasons, averaging close to 30:00 per night. In the past, he's shown the ability to anchor a powerplay, largely due to his quick passes and strong shot from the point. The Islanders would be foolish to let him go, but because they don't have a ton of cap room, and are in desperate need of forward scoring, they may have no choice should his price tag exceed their budget. He previous contract paid him $3.25 million during the last year, and getting him at that price right now, $39 million salary cap and all, would be a bargain.

6. Paul Kariya

After off of a disappointing year in Colorado, where he went with the intention of winning the Cup, you have to think a fire will be lit under Kariya to prove those who've said he's done as an elite player wrong. With the rule changes supposed to make the game faster, players of his variety are expected to excel, so I would think Kariya will be on a lot of team's radar as someone to acquire. He's one of the few players who will likely get a raise, as I can't see him taking less than $2 million, even with that last discouraging year in Colorado.

5. Peter Forsberg

If I were to make a list of the best players available to teams today at noon, Forsberg would likely top it. However, the other issues surrounding Forsberg bump him down, though #5 isn't exactly a bad place to be. His nagging injuries should be a legitimate concern of any team thinking of bringing him into their fold. He stayed relatively healthy when playing for Modo of the Swedish Elite League this past season, but the NHL game is, of course, much tougher physically, and whether or not Forsberg's banged and bruised body can hold up another year should at the very least be a question. As well, there has been talk that Forsberg will leave the NHL to play in his native Sweden for years now. If a team can get him to commit to a long-term deal then it might be another story, but that doesn't seem likely.

4. Markus Naslund

Where Forsberg goes, his old friend Naslund might not be far behind, which makes me wonder how their former linemate Nicklas Sundstrom feels about being the one left out of the party. Much of the issues that would worry me about Forsberg are prevalent with Naslund. His health hasn't been strong and he too has expressed an interest in returning to Sweden, claiming that's where he wants his children to grow up. Of course, all those things considered, I'd still bring him to my team if I could. Naslund's scoring touch is tremendous and his leadership is one of the reasons the Canucks went from pretenders to contenders, thus shattering the myth that Europeans can't be great captains. Like many on this list, the reformed NHL rules will likely benefit someone of his skill set, and his already impressive numbers should improve. What exactly he'll command on the market remains unknown, and with the negatives I talked about, I doubt he'll be able to get the league maximum.

3. Nikolai Khabibulin

Though there are plenty of alleged number one goaltenders on the market, few have Khabibulin's upside, and in truth, most of them have seen their better days come and go, and will be playing on borrowed time. The Bulin Wall was as important to the Lightning during their Cup march as anyone else, and it looks questionable that they'll be able to keep him in the fold, which doesn't fail to amaze me. With many teams in need of proven goaltending, you have to think he'll command top dollar, and many think that the way to build a team in the new NHL is to spend the necessary money to obtain a premier goalie and then build around that. I'm certain at least a few GMs feel the same way, and will do their damnedest to get him. He'll be 33 in January, so the question might be how much time he has left before he too hits the wall, but his play shows no indication of such a thing coming soon. I'd expect he'll sign for around $4-5 million, but I wouldn't be shocked if the market's demand for him drives the price up.

2. Adam Foote

Foote is, I believe, the darkhorse of this free agent crop, and the one that I would chase hardest. Though he doesn't get the same fanfare and press many of his defenceman contemporaries do, Adam Foote has been one the NHL's best blueliners for the past six or so years. He's been Colorado's old faithful for longer than I can remember, and is seen as the heart and soul of the line-up with captain Joe Sakic. Foote’s offensive game is somewhat underrated, having neted 30 points the previous two years (as well as 27 points in 55 games the year before that). Those numbers won’t wow you, but the rest of the things he brings to the table more than make-up it. And really, he’s no Michel Petit when it comes to offense and can play on the powerplay with ease. His age, 34, might scare some away, but he's well conditioned. One of the best attributes Foote brings to the table is his extensive big game experience. Having won two Cups in Colorado, as well as an Olympic gold medal, and tons of playoff adventures withthe Avs, he’s proven he’s capable of rising to the occasion when it matters. Previously making $4 million, you might assume he'll be taking a cut, but I expect his salary come October to be pretty close to that figure.

1. Scott Niedermayer

If you were looking for a contrary opinion, then you’re probably feeling disappointed. I apologize. But I have to agree with just about the entire world that Scott Niedermayer is the best UFA available, and the contract he eventually signs will likely confirm this. He’s an excellent skater, can pass tape-to-tape as well as anyone in the NHL (which, with no red line, is massive), has no glaring health issues, is strong in his own end, and can be a leader in the locker room. Basically, everything you want in a player. Throw in his two cup rings, an Olympic gold medal won in Salt Lake City, and a World Cup title, and you have someone who’s not only been in the big game once or twice, but knows how to win them. Every day, a new team is linked to him, so where he’ll end up remains anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll be making the league max next year, and will probably deserve every dollar.


At 11:27 AM, Blogger Phil said...

I agree. There is all this talk in NY about Naslund/Forsberg wanting to come in and I would welcome then with open arms. But Scott Niedermayer is someone I really want omy team. He can flat out play.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

And you don't have to wonder if Niedermayer will want to play in the league in two, three years the way you do with Forsberg and Naslund. At least I hope you don't.


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