With mere hours until the 2010 NHL free agent feeding frenzy begins I figured I’d take a last minute look at some of the biggest names still swimming in the free agent pool.
Some of the names that highlighted the list a few weeks ago have now been crossed off. Scott Niedermayer and Rob Blake have retired, while Nicklas Lidstrom and Patrick Marleau have been re-signed by the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks respectively.
This year’s crop of unrestricted free agents isn’t as glamorous as in years past. There is still plenty of talent available, though in today’s younger, faster NHL much of that talent may look a little long in the tooth to GMs looking to bolster their teams for the upcoming 2010-11 season. So which players are the most coveted this time around? Read on for my picks of the biggest UFAs still on the market:
#10 – Marty Turco
There is no shortage of goaltenders available this year, and NHL GMs looking to shore up at this crucial position have plenty of options to choose from. Though many of those names would be capable back-ups, few can boast the pedigree to step into a starter’s job. Marty Turco is one of the exceptions.
At age 34 Turco still has a few good years left, and though his best days may be behind him, a change of scenery may be all that is required to recharge him to the point where he is again among the game’s elite. Three times in his career Turco has posted a season GAA below 2.00, and his most recent campaign saw him post respectable numbers, with a 2.72 GAA, a .913 save percentage and 4 shutouts in 53 games.
Turco’s experience makes him a perfect fit for a team with a young goaltender that isn’t quite there yet. Turco would be a great teacher, and is more than capable of carrying the load until his protégé is ready.
#9 – Matthew Lombardi
At only 28 years of age, Matthew Lombardi is one of the youngest players in this year’s UFA class. Though he hasn’t put up the impressive stats that many others on the list have, his relative youth and his blazing speed will make him a much sought after commodity this off-season.
Last season with the Phoenix Coyotes Lombardi enjoyed his most statistically impressive season to date, netting 19 goals and adding 34 assists for 53 points. His performance and his potential should have teams willing to pay more than the $2.35 million the speedy winger earned last season.
#8 – Maxim Afinogenov
Few UFAs this year have as much pure talent as this slick Russian. With incredible acceleration and lightning quick hands, this guy can at times bear a striking resemblance to Pavel Bure. Unfortunately, while he is capable of looking like the Russian Rocket, his launches come far less frequently than Bure’s ever did.
From the beginning of the 2005 season to the end of the 2007 campaign Afinogenov averaged better than a point a game, and looked poised to become one of the game’s next superstars. However, in the following two seasons that production dwindled to less than half of what it had been. After the end of the 2009 season he was not re-signed by the Buffalo Sabres, and signed instead with the Atlanta Thrashers as an unrestricted free agent.
He enjoyed something of a renaissance last season in Atlanta, netting 61 points, but since he only signed a one year deal, he is once again testing the waters of free agency. With his incredible talent and after his bounceback year, Afinogenov will likely have no shortage of suitors when the bell rings at noon tomorrow.
#7 – Anton Volchenkov
Another class of player of which there is no shortage is the “shutdown defenseman”. When I set out to make this list there were a number of candidates for a spot. It can be argued that one or both of Willie Mitchell and Dan Hamhuis deserves a spot on this list, however, in my opinion the best shutdown d-man available this off-season is Anton Volchenkov.
Though older than both Mitchell and Hamhuis, Volchenkov trumps them both on the basis of his unparalleled shot-blocking ability. Fearless, with an uncanny ability to get in the shooting lane, Volchenkov makes nearly as many saves as his goaltender on many nights. In addition to his puck-blocking mastery, Volchenkov is also a punishing hitter that rarely makes mistakes in his own zone. Despite his offensive shortcomings he can be a huge impact player for whichever team lands him.
#6 – Ray Whitney
Almost criminally underrated throughout his career, Ray Whitney is one of the most offensively gifted players in this year’s free agent class. At age 38 he is certainly no spring chicken, yet he seems to have been able to stave off Father Time longer than the majority of his peers, and continues to put up impressive numbers year after year.
Over the past five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes Whitney has put up a very respectable 334 points in 372 games. He’s eclipsed the 20 goal mark in each of the past four campaigns, and can still be a very effective second or even first line player who will put up plenty of points on the powerplay.
Obviously at his age Whitney isn’t going to be signed to a long term contract. But for teams looking for a bit more offense to put them over the top in the next year or two, Whitney would be a great fit.
#5 - Evgeni Nabokov
Looking at this guy’s stats over the past several years one would think he would be higher up on the list of the biggest UFAs of 2010. However, there are a few caveats for any team about to open up the purse strings. First of all, he’s played for one of the NHL’s strongest teams over that stretch. The San Jose Sharks are laden with talent, and they rarely give up many quality chances in a given game, leading to many easy nights for whoever tends the pipes for them.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Nabokov has been unable to translate that regular season success into a deep playoff run. For whatever reason, at the most crucial time of year, Nabokov has consistently been unable to deliver, and this has been one of the main reasons the Sharks have failed to make a Stanley Cup Finals appearance despite being one of the top teams in the NHL standings year after year.
Despite those caveats, Nabby has shown he is capable of carrying a huge load every season while still putting up great numbers. He, like others on this list, may benefit from a change of scenery, and if this is the case, could be a steal for a team willing to take a chance on him.
#4 – Sergei Gonchar
Because of his age (36) and his recent injury troubles, some might have Gonchar lower on their lists. However, few defensemen in the league can quarterback a powerplay like this guy, and his booming slapshot is feared by goalies throughout the league. He is fantastic at making the first pass out of his zone, a skill hugely coveted by all 30 NHL teams, and though he is not a physical force, his positioning and his quick stick make him an effective shutdown man in his own zone.
Gonchar also has a Stanley Cup ring to go along with his talent, and he would be an excellent partner for a young defenseman.
#3 – Alexander Frolov
Much like countryman Maxim Afinogenov, this Russian star has yet to reach his full potential. He’s tortured his Los Angeles Kings’ coaches with tantalizing glimpses of his incredible skill-set. However, to date he hasn’t lived up to the massive potential that he has. However, the fact that he has twice eclipsed the 30 goal mark and is still relatively young, having just turned 28 years old will work in Frolov’s favor in his quest for a big payday this off-season. He has the look of a player just waiting to break out, and a move to a new venue may be all the catalyst he needs to reach his maximum potential in the near future.
#2 – Olli Jokinen
Based on recent history it is hard to justify giving Olli Jokinen the number two spot on this list. He has had little impact in his last three stops with the New York Rangers, Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes, and the last image Rangers fans have of their season is watching Jokinen fail on an uninspired penalty shot against Brian Boucher of the Flyers.
Despite his recent lack of success Jokinen isn’t that far removed from a time when he scored 111 goals and 251 points over a three season span with the Florida Panthers. With his size and his skill set it is certainly not impossible that he will regain the form he showed just two short seasons ago. Obviously any team signing Jokinen to big money is going to be taking a big risk, but if Jokinen can finally find another situation that fits his playing style the rewards could be huge.
#1 – Ilya Kovalchuk
Okay, this one was a landslide. Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk is in a class all by himself on this particular list. With size, speed, slick stickhandling, and arguably the deadliest release in the league Kovalchuk is the complete offensive package. With six straight 40+ goal seasons he ranks along with Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley and Jarome Iginla as one of the deadliest snipers of the decade.
As great as Kovalchuk is, the number of teams in the mix for his services will likely be relatively small. Last year, Kovalchuk reportedly turned down an offer of $100 million to remain with the Atlanta Thrashers, and he has also reportedly been offered a deal (or deals) to join the KHL in Russia, with numbers as high as $14 million a season being reported. With that in mind, one has to wonder just how much it will cost a team to procure Kovalchuk’s services, and whether or not he is capable of delivering enough bang to justify that amount of buck. With a questionable defensive game, almost no playoff experience under his belt, Kovalchuk might find teams are in no hurry to raise the bid for his services.