Well, it’s that time of year again: The time when NHL General Managers lose their minds and open up their wallets, paying outrageous sums of money in an effort to outbid their peers for the services of coveted NHL veterans. It is an annual tradition that takes place every July 1st, and this year’s lunacy will commence less than 24 hours from now.
So which of this year’s free agent crop might actually make a significant impact for the team than lands them come the 2011-2012 season? Here are Hockey Hermit’s picks for the top 10 unrestricted free agents of 2011.
10 - Tomas Kaberle
Wow, it doesn’t take long for a guy’s stock to fall in this league. Going into the 2011 NHL trade deadline Kaberle was one of the most coveted players in the league. A skilled, puck-moving defenseman that can quarterback a powerplay is on every NHL coach’s wish list. Kaberle has these qualities on resume, and now has a Stanley Cup ring to boot.
However, most people who followed the Boston Bruins would argue that after the acquisition of Kaberle, the team’s powerplay actually got worse and that the Bruins won the cup in spite of having added him to their roster. After getting an up close look at the Czech blueliner Bruins management seems content to let him walk. However, Kaberle still has a great skill set and good be a good fit with the right team. Look for him to have no shortage of suitors on the open market.
9 - Bryan McCabe
If teams are looking to upgrade their blueline in a hurry they might look at picking up Kaberle and McCabe in a package deal. The two were Toronto’s best pairing for years, and were especially effective on the powerplay. Kaberle’s soft passing combined with McCabe’s wicked one-timer makes for a lethal combination.
Yes, McCabe and Kaberle might be able to rekindle their former magic, but McCabe certainly doesn’t need his old partner to be effective. He was one of the few bright spots for the lowly Florida Panthers during his time there, and though he is now getting long in the tooth at age 36 his combination of skill and physicality could be a great boon for an already strong team looking to contend next season.
8 - Alexander Frolov
Five years ago this Russian enigma looked poised to blossom into a true NHL superstar. In the 2006-07 season he scored 35 goals and notched 71 points, and there was every indication that at the age of 24 he would only improve on those totals.
Alas, it would seem that Frolov’s career peaked early. Every year since 06-07 he has seen his point total drop, and in an injury-plagued season with the New York Rangers in 2010-11 he managed a disappointing 16 points in just 43 games.
Still, at only 29 years of age he is one of the youngest skilled forwards available in this summer’s free agent class, and you can bet that more than one general manager will be seriously pondering making a bid for Frolov’s services in the hope he can turn back the clock five years.
7 – Ed Jovanovski
Some might be surprised to see this guy’s name on the list, but even at 35 years of age Jovo is still capable of making an impact. He is offensively gifted, has improved his defensive game immensely under the structure of Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, and is quite capable of doling out plenty of physical punishment. If he is willing to take significantly less than the $6.5 million he made last season Jovanovski should have a wide choice of NHL cities to take his talents to.
6 – Tomas Vokoun
There is definitely a dearth of A-caliber goaltenders in this year’s free agent class, and Tomas Vokoun is definitely the best of the few that are available. This Czech puckstopper hasn’t spent much time in the limelight in his NHL career, toiling in virtual obscurity in Nashville and Florida.
Though those two teams certainly haven’t enjoyed much success with Vokoun between the pipes, but that is far from his fault. In fact, statistically speaking, Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the league in recent years, and certainly one of the most underrated. Since the NHL lockout his save percentage has never been worse than .919 and he has recorded 32 shutouts. If he can actually land somewhere with a good team playing in front of him he could even have an outside shot at challenging for a Vezina.
5 - Teemu Selanne
Hard to believe a guy who is going to be 41 years old in a few days is showing up on the list, but it is impossible to ignore him when you consider what he did last season. In 2010-11 the Finnish Flash continued to defy Father Time, racking up 80 points in 73 games and finishing eighth in NHL scoring. His 16 power play goals ranked him second in that category as his quick hands and great accuracy make him a threat in tight.
Unlike most other players of his vintage Selanne still has the ability to fly in open ice, and in today’s faster NHL that has seen veterans give up their jobs to younger players in ever increasing numbers, Selanne is the exception. At this point in his career it is hard to imagine him signing anywhere but Anaheim, but if the right situation comes along you never know.
4 - Christian Ehrhoff
After signing Kevin Bieksa to a long term deal at $4.6 million a season it was apparent the Vancouver Canucks would have to let Christian Ehrhoff test the free agent market. Rather than let Ehrhoff go for nothing the Nucks traded his rights to the New York Islanders in exchange for a 4th round draft pick. Since then Ehrhoff has seen his rights traded again, this time to Buffalo. As of this writing the Sabres haven’t locked up Ehrhoff to a contract and if they can’t get a deal done in the next 24 hours Ehrhoff will hit the open market.
About to turn 29, Ehrhoff is just hitting his prime and he was arguably the best defenseman on the Canucks’ deep defensive roster this past season. Though not an overly physical threat, Ehrhoff is capable of putting up plenty of points from the back end (he had 94 in his two seasons with the Canucks). As I said before puck-moving defensemen are always in high demand and Ehrhoff’s ability in that regard should help him land a lucrative long-term deal this time around.
3 – Ville Leino
Unlike Selanne, who’s stock is based on what he has done in the past, Ville Leino’s high rank on this list has everything to do with what he may yet do. That’s not to say he has been silent so far in his NHL career – he had 53 points last season, and an impressive 21 points in just 19 games during the Flyers 2010 playoff run – just that there is every indication that this guy is only going to get better.
At 27 years of age he is the best young forward available. Don’t be surprised to see Leino land himself a long-term deal with a high dollar value.
2 - James Wisniewski
Though some others might have Ehrhoff as the top defenseman available in this summer’s free agent class I’ll give the nod to James Wisniewski. Like Ehrhoff, he is capable of making that great first pass, but he also has a bit more grit to his game, and his bullet shot from the point give him an additional weapon that Ehrhoff doesn’t have.
27 years old, Wisniewski should continue to improve over the next couple of seasons, and if he finds himself on a skilled offensive club he should be able to eclipse the career high 41 points he scored last season.
1 – Brad Richards
No big mystery here. The biggest fish in the free agent pond this year is former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards. Richards carved a name for himself as one of the “Big Three” during his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and didn’t miss a beat after being shipped to the Dallas Stars in 2008.
Over the past two seasons Richards has 168 points in 152 games and is recognized as one of the best playmakers in the game. As the only high profile offensive star available this year, Richards will likely be mulling over multiple sky-high offers, though rumblings are that Richards wants to go to a contender, so he may be willing to give a bit of a discount to a club that he feels will give him a chance to hoist another Stanley Cup. Whatever happens, don’t expect him to languish on the free agent market long.