Tuesday, June 10, 2008

NHL draft guide: free agency overview

By Rick Morris

As announced previously in this space, Sportsology and FantasyDrafthelp.com are joining up to produce HOCKEY DRAFTOLOGY, a comprehensive guide to the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and offseason as a whole. The issue will be released online, for free, at these two websites and SportsTalkNetwork.com this week (IMPORTANT NOTE: we had substantial bonus content come in at the last minute -- as such, the June 10 release date is null and void -- we apologize for that, but we assure you that the product will be more than worth the wait). Until then, the features to be contained in the guide will be released here individually in serialized form.

Today, we examine the state of the free agent market that will open for business in a few short weeks.

Nothing sums up the never-ending nature of the NHL circle of life like the annual launch of the free agency period on July 1. “Rental” players who helped their team to make deep runs in the just-concluded playoffs hit the market, as well as others who could well be viewed as the “one missing piece” for organizations who perceive themselves to be on the verge of a title.

Two key rentals who will be on the market did indeed reach the Stanley Cup Finals, one for the winning team and one for the losing one. Defenseman Brad Stuart was acquired by Detroit at the 2007-08 trading deadline in the hopes that his physical defensive style would augment the Red Wings’ burgeoning blue line identity. It did. Marian Hossa commanded a steep price from Atlanta at the trading deadline, but Pittsburgh was willing to pay the price to advance within two wins of their first Cup in 16 years.

For teams seeking validation of the principle of signing a big-ticket acquisition in free agency, they again need look no further than Detroit. Brian Rafalski fit in perfectly with the team’s philosophy of having puck-moving defensemen and his winning pedigree earned in the swamps of New Jersey manifested itself once again in Hockeytown. With that in mind, we examine the potential impact players in this year’s class (unrestricted free agents only).

The center position in 2008 is headlined by three Hall of Fame names, but the significance of this is highly misleading. Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin are highly unlikely to leave their present names if they continue to play at all — and there is more of a significant question about Sakic’s intentions than Sundin’s — and Sergei Fedorov has clearly seen better days. Given the way that he seemed to fit in with the new Russo-centric ethos in D.C., he would be advised to seek any deal the Caps are willing to throw his way. Bobby Holik, Brendan Morrison, Craig Conroy, Mike Peca, Doug Weight and Martin Straka are other names in a class that is underwhelming in terms of the potential impact on the 2009 Stanley Cup chase. Peter Forsberg still probably has the highest ceiling of any of the free agents at the position, but his reliability due to injury is now in grave doubt.

The left wing position isn’t much better, as Markus Naslund and Ladislav Nagy tower over a weak field. Naslund’s production has deteriorated over the past few years and Nagy is a huge injury risk. Brendan Shanahan and Gary Roberts are both as likely to hang up the skates as they are to ink new deals in the twilight of their careers. Cory Stillman is a proven winner with some gas left in the tank, though, and Kristian Huselius is a perfect example of a young player who never should have hit the market in the first place, so there is some talent here.

At right wing, the explosive Hossa is clearly the crown jewel, perhaps of the entire free agency crop. Jaromir Jagr isn’t far behind and Pavol Demitra also brings a history of excellent production, as does Brian Rolston. Miro Satan, Michael Ryder, David Vyborny and Owen Nolan could all offer minor help of some sort to a new team.

Wade Redden is a top-level defenseman available in his prime and should, like Rafalski last year, cash in nicely. He’ll be joined at the top end of the signing spectrum by rental Brian Campbell, who wasn’t able to single-handedly overcome San Jose’s record of playoff underachievement. John-Michael Liles, Ron Hainsey and Stuart won’t be far behind.

In net, talented Cristobal Huet will probably work out an extension with Washington, but Olaf Kolzig will not — but might perhaps retire and in any instance doesn’t project as a starter for an elite team. Jose Theodore’s deal is up, but since he makes Oliver Perez look consistent, a team would be foolish to wager a potential title on him. Patrick Lalime is another dubious option.

In terms of teams with some cap room to spend, the New York Rangers are likely to revive a Canada Day pre-lockout tradition by making a big splash when the market opens. Assuming they don’t sign their own marquee free agents, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and San Jose will be able to make a mark. Tampa Bay, Columbus, Phoenix, Nashville and Los Angeles will also have money to spend, albeit in a market with few real potential difference-makers.

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