By Stu Hackel
With the NHL’s free agent signing period set to begin at noon on Friday, July 1, here’s what each team in the East will likely be looking for on the open market. This blog entry will be periodically updated as signings occur between now and then, so check back. For the Western Conference teams, click here.
Boston — Loaded in most positions, the Bruins still may seek some veteran depth after the retirement of Mark Recchi and if they lose Michael Ryder to free agency, although they certainly could slot Tyler Seguin into Recchi’s second line spot. And if Tomas Kaberle goes elsewhere – he’s also a UFA like Ryder — they may be looking for another puck-moving defenseman, although a healthy Steven Kampfer might be a better and more economical solution.
Buffalo – With owner Terry Pegula’ unleashing his resources, free agency will be a more pleasant experience for GM Darcy Regier, who lost a number of important players (Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Chris Drury, Daniel Briere) to the previous owner’s thrifty practices. Regier has spoken with the agents for two of his UFA’s – center Tim Connolly and gritty forward Cody McCormick – but if they can’t reach an agreeable number, they may not be back. And it appears that Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer won’t return, so there are spots up front to fill. Potential rookies Zack Kassian and Luke Adams will likely get shots in training camp and there are indications that Drury would like to return and he could be a bargain. Some speculate the Sabres will be a player in the Brad Richards hunt, but, failing that, getting a healthy Derek Roy back will be like a signing a major top line free agent for a team that played surprisingly well in his absence. UPDATE: The Sabres have now signed pending UFA defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a long-term deal after acquiring his rights from the Islanders for a fourth round pick; the Isles had earlier gotten Ehrhoff’s rights from the Canucks for a fourth round pick.
Carolina - Bringing back Joni Pitkanen alleviates some concerns about their defense, but GM Jim Rutherford’s shopping list may hinge on how many more of his own free agents he can sign. He’s inked Chad LaRose, but others, namely forwards Jussi Jokinen, Erik Cole, Troy Bodie and Jiri Tlusty, remain free. The ‘Canes do have some young forwards in their development pipeline (Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk), but they might also have to look elsewhere in free agency. UPDATE: Jokinen has been re-signed.
Florida – It’s possible that no team will be more active than the Panthers, as GM Dale Tallon seeks to reach the salary cap floor. He’s over $20 million short (and National Post editor Noah Love cleverly tweeted “The Panthers can get the cap floor really fast by signing Stamkos and Doughty to $11-million/year offer sheets.”). What do they need? Almost everything. Florida has a chunk of young talent stockpiled (defenseman Eric Gudbranson included), but they’ll want to add some vets to mix and get their cap number up. There are indications they’ll take a run at Brad Richards and could also be in the market for a goalie if they can’t bring back UFA Tomas Vokoun. They have Brian Campbell now as a top-end defenseman, but could use more depth on the blueline. Up front, they have holes to fill after cutting Niclas Bergfors and Steve Bernier loose and, Richards or not, will look to upgrade in any case. UPDATE: The Panthers acquired the rights of and signed Blackhawks pending UFA forward Tomas Kopecky.
Montreal — The Canadiens could have a need on defense. They’ve said goodbye to free agents James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel, Paul Mara and Alexandre Picard, and re-upped Andrei Markov and Hal Gill while tendering a one-year offer to keep Roman Hamrlik on their blueline. But Hamrlik rejected it, so they may shop for a veteran defenseman (although they do have Yannick Weber, who they re-signed as an RFA, and will give long looks to spring signings Alexsey Yemelin and Rafael Diaz). There’s a lot of public pressure to deal Scott Gomez to a team that needs to reach the floor, and that would free up huge cap space for the Habs to chase a more productive big-time center — although there really isn’t one available other than Brad Richards. In any case, they’ll be looking to fill spots up front, having not qualified Benoit Pouliot and Tom Pyatt. They also may be looking for a goalie to play backup to workhorse Carey Price, having yet to sign UFA Alex Auld.
New Jersey — The lack of a head coach will have some impact on free agents considering the Devils as their destination. And the massive Ilya Kovalchuk contract and need to get a deal done with Zach Parise may keep New Jersey relatively inactive and preferring the cheaper alternative of their own young prospects. They need a backup goalie and if they’re still not convinced about ’05 draftee Jeff Frazee, UFA Johan Hedberg has said he’d return. Some of their needs on the blueline – where they got inconsistent play from last year’s UFA signees Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov – may have been answered on draft day when Adam Larsson fell to Number 4. That’s if he’s actually NHL-ready and the potential star d-man he’s touted to be. The Devils could lose UFA Andy Greene — there’s no indication which way that will go, but regardless they have lots of depth on D in their organization. (Though they didn’t qualify Anssi Salmela to avoid the 10 percent raise or risk an arbitration contract, he could be brought back after July 1). However, most of that depth is young and no one is as promising as Larsson, so perhaps GM Lou Lamoriello will look for a veteran blueliner if Greene departs, preferably an inexpensive one. Similarly, they may find a bargain depth forward, but the Devs are more likely to promote from within (Adam Henrique could win a spot at center) to keep costs down.
New York Islanders — If they can persuade Christian Ehrhoff to sign before he hits the open market — and they’ll almost certainly overpay to do it — GM Garth Snow will have pulled off a big coup, bolstering his needy defense corps and helping the team reach the salary cap floor. If Ehrhoff doesn’t take the deal, which are the early indications, Snow will cast his line into the shallow pool of defenders. [UPDATE: The Islanders traded Ehrhoff's rights to Buffalo for a fourth round pick.] While there is great uncertainty in goal with the surgeon’s best friend, Rick DiPietro, unsigned Evegeni Nabokov, and last year’s surprise, Al Montoya, there’s no need to look elsewhere at the moment. The good young core up front returns although with the loss of Doug Weight to retirement, Snow may try — or be forced — to pick up an experienced UFA forward or two.
New York Rangers — Considered the leader in the Brad Richards sweepstakes, New York also lacks a big shot from the point on the power play with Bryan McCabe a UFA. So expect GM Glen Sather to also shop in that market. The buy-out of Chris Drury (which allows the Blueshirts to keep Sean Avery and Wojtek Wolski) makes affording Richards possible, but could also create a spot for a versatile veteran depth center if Richards goes elsewhere. They’ll have the cap space.
Ottawa – After a housecleaning last winter and a new coach in Paul MacLean, the Senators’ first priority is to produce offense. So it’s not impossible to envision them taking a run at forwards who have some history of putting up points. But that comes with a big caveat: GM Bryan Murray’s recent cracks at free agency — Alex Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar, for example – didn’t go well and most of this year’s crop of forwards have been inconsistent, so why go there again? There is some thought that Murray might rather rebuild with youth from the trade market (see: the recent deal for Nikita Filatov) and develop from within (Ryan Keller, Bobby Butler) as he’s done on the blueline. Except for Gonchar, Murray has made the defense corps younger, starting with Eric Karlsson and probably continuing with David Rundblad and Jared Cowen. So if ownership and management think the fans can hang in, patience will be the new mantra. Indications are, however, that they will hunt for a backup to Craig Anderson, but that could be it. They have a very strong AHL goalie prospect in Robin Lehner, but following his terrific Calder Cup playoff, they will probably keep him in Binghamton so he can get regular work rather than sit and watch Anderson, assuming Anderson doesn’t falter.
Philadelphia – After last week’s big deals, we no longer know just what to expect from those wacky Flyers.
Pittsburgh — The Pens have only $6.4 million in cap space remaining, the least in the league. After signing Pascal Dupuis and placing a $2 million offer to bring back Jaromir Jagr, their next order of business is seeing if they can reach a restructured deal with Tyler Kennedy, who they didn’t qualify and is now a UFA. Bidding farewell to Alex Kovalev, Eric Goddard and perhaps Mike Rupp and popular Stanley Cup hero Max Talbot opens the door to look for depth at forward, although — like the Devils — salary cap restrictions could mean they will be bargain hunting. If they sign Jaromir Jagr, it won’t be for big money.
Tampa Bay – There have been rumors that they are in the Brad Richards hunt, but keeping RFA Steve Stamkos has to be the priority (and you have to wonder how they would manage the ice time for centers Richards, Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier, any of whom could be top line guys). Like Stamkos, Teddy Purcell is also an RFA who was qualified by the Bolts and they would prefer to keep him, too. It appears that Simon Gagne is gone and if Sean Bergenheim’s excellent playoff performance propels him into a plump free agent contract elsewhere, GM Steve Yzerman will have some big spots to fill up front. UFA Adam Hall will return. Even though they signed UFA Eric Brewer and RFA Bruno Gervais (acquired from the Islanders during the draft), the Lightning would ideally like to upgrade on defense. Stevie Y doesn’t have to worry about goal: he re-upped potential UFA Dwayne Roloson for a year.
Toronto – The Leafs desperately need a top line center to go with Phil Kessel and they want to be in the Brad Richards hunt, but if Richards wants to play for a Stanley Cup contender, he’d be better off playing elsewhere. Qualified RFA Tyler Bozak had the Number 1 center role last season, but GM Brian Burke doesn’t see him there going forward. Toronto is short on reliable scoring elsewhere and Burke will likely focus on producing offense whether or not Richards is in the Leafs’ picture. Tim Brent, who played well as Toronto’s fourth-line center and penalty killer last season, is a UFA. He’d like to stick around, but will probably hit the market, so that’s a spot Burke may have to fill. He’s acquired Max Talbot’s rights from the Penguins, so perhaps that’s the direction things will go.
Washington — With five players from last season (forwards Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, and d-man Scott Hannan) apparently going UFA on Friday, GM George McPhee has some spots to fill, although draft day acquisition Troy Brouwer gives the Caps added toughness and Stanley Cup experience, something that’s not always easy to find in free agency. There are reports that RFA goalie Semyon Varlamov may bolt for the KHL, but Washington has depth in goal and they’ll still have his NHL rights. Capitals Nation exhaled when McPhee got potential UFA Brooks Laich to re-up on a six-year deal this week. The soft UFA market made him an attractive name in media speculation, but the versatile Laich, a leader on this team, wasn’t really considering going elsewhere. Some thought is being given to making Laich the Caps second line center next season, in which case there would be an opening on wing for a free agent signing.
Winnipeg – With a new hockey department and a need to impress the new fan base, will the Jets try to make a splash and chase some big names, the few that are out there, or adopt a patient approach by continuing to build with youth? GM Kevin Cheveldayoff indicated that the team’s philosophy was not to spend more money but spend it wisely, so perhaps the will lean toward the latter. The Jets may have some holes to fill up front after they didn’t qualify Robbie Schremp or Anthony Stewart, turning both loose on the free agent market.