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 West will likely be looking for on the open market. This blog entry will be continually updated between now and then, so check back. For Eastern Conference teams, click here.
Anaheim – If Teemu Selanne retires, GM Bob Murray will have one less top forward and a need to upgrade there. With questions about Jonas Hiller after a bout with vertigo cost him half of last season, the Ducks may go after a goalie. They have Dan Ellis, but Ray Emery, who played well, is a UFA, so Murray may seek some depth. Cutting Kyle Chipchura loose could mean they’ll also want some depth at center as well if Murray doesn’t think he has the solution in the Ducks’ system. UPDATE: Teemu Selanne underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Thursday and that could delay his decision on whether to return or retire.
Calgary – Moving Robin Regehr and Alex Kotalik to Buffalo gave the Flames some flexibility they previously lacked and they were able to keep Alex Tanguay, but they still have limited cap space of $7.56 million, the second smallest amount in the league. That’s more than they had a week ago, but GM Jay Feaster may have to make another trade if he wants to grab a major name. Brendan Morrison is a UFA who was one of the better bargains in the NHL last season and if he doesn’t come back, he will leave a hole in the middle of the Flames’ top line. Feaster has offered UFA offensive d-man Anton Babchuk a new deal, but he could still test the market. Losing both Babchuk and Regehr could force Feaster to look at free-agent defensemen, although rookie T.J. Brodie will probably get a shot at Babchuk’s role in the fall.
Chicago – Potentially an active team. Their trade of Brian Campbell to Florida (and, to a lesser extent, RFA Troy Brouwer to the Capitals) greatly eased their cap crunch and could help GM Stan Bowman reconstruct the depth lost after their Stanley Cup victory. Patrick Sharp will get some of the money saved as the Hawks will negotiate to extend his deal, but they also can now make a strong bid for Brad Richards, which would enable them to keep Sharp on a line with Jonathan Toews and move Dave Bolland back into the three hole at center. Bowman acquired the rights to defensive defenseman Steven Montador from Buffalo late Wednesday and still might shop for a more affordable puck-moving d-man to replace Campbell. Losing Brouwer and pending UFA Tomas Kopecky (traded to Florida) means the Hawks may also seek a rugged forward and/or a skilled winger. They’ve got some promising young forwards who could blend in (Jeremy Morin and playoff revelation Ben Smith), so Bowman doesn’t have to get this all done via free agency. Chicago may seek a backup goalie as well. UPDATE: The Hawks signed defenseman Steve Montador late Thursday.
Colorado – The Avalanche need a lot, and they have more cap space available than salary committed right now, so they’ll have to work hard to get to the floor. They have to start in goal where they need both a starter and a backup. In fact, they don’ t have any goalies signed for their AHL team, either. Tomas Vokoun is said to be a likely target and possible signing. On defense, they lost Adam Foote to retirement and traded John-Michael Liles to Toronto. That’s two spots — a shutdown guy and a puck mover — that need to be filled. Although they got an NHL-ready draft pick in Gabriel Landeskog, they still need help up front. Colorado suffered two big blows last season when Peter Mueller (20 points in 15 games) went down with a concussion and center/winger Tomas Fleischmann (21 points in 22 games after arriving from Washington) was lost to a blood clot. Fleischmann’s status, besides UFA, is a mystery. Can he continue his career? And do the Avs even want him? Does anyone? A year ago, this seemed like a team on the rise. Then came injuries, strange trades, poor goaltending and an awful second half. Quite a turnaround. Free agency can help reverse their slide.
Columbus – Making a bold move for Jeff Carter, the Blue Jackets answered one long-standing major need — a top-flight center — prior to free agency. If they can sign pending UFA James Wisniewski, whose rights they acquired from Montreal, it will fill another: a hard-shooting offensive defenseman who can quarterback their power play, something they need after cutting ties with Anton Stralman. Even if they sign Wiz, they’ll likely need more on the blueline with Craig Rivet cut loose and Sami Lepisto also a UFA after not receiving qualifying offers from GM Scott Howson, who will make an effort to keep UFA D-man Jan Hejda. The Jackets also have John Moore in their system. They could use a winger to replace Jakub Voracek, who went to Philly for Carter, and are also in the market for a backup goalie with Mathieu Garon a UFA.
Dallas – There’s no one remotely available in free agency, nor in Dallas’ development ranks, to replace Brad Richards, but still, the Stars obviously need a center who can produce offense and get the puck to Loui Eriksson. Another productive center would also ease the burden on Jamie Benn or Mike Ribiero, one of whom will now have to skate against opponents’ top defenders. With Jamie Langenbrunner also a pending UFA, the Stars will need at least one more forward and maybe more to offset the loss of Richards’ production. The defense corps has some good character, but could use more of an offensive dimension to support Alex Goligoski if they don’t think that prospect Philip Larsen is ready. And even if they do, with Jeff Woywitka a pending UFA and Karlis Skrastins off to the KHL, a veteran upgrade is probably needed. Dallas has over $25 million in cap space and ideally can answer these needs, but uncertainty in ownership could result in GM Joe Nieuwendyk having a rough go of it this summer.
Detroit – The Red Wings always start with defense, and while losing Brian Rafalski to retirement provided some cap space, it also created a need for a strong puck-moving blueliner. The Wings also have Jonathan Ericsson as a pending UFA, but there has been movement to sign him before he hits the market. UFA Ruslan Salei will not be brought back as Jakub Kindl will take his spot as the sixth defenseman. If GM Ken Holland thinks top defense prospect Brendan Smith still needs seasoning, he may seek veteran depth. The Wings are also trying to re-up UFA forwards Mike Eaves and Drew Miller and that means Kris Draper’s status won’t be known until after July 1. Detroit made a pitch for Jaromir Jagr, but if he signs with the Penguins, the Wings may still be in the market for veteran help up front. Like Draper, Chris Osgood’s future following his injury-filled season won’t be decided until after Holland scours the backup goalie market.
Edmonton — With their best young players and prospects all forwards, the Oilers’ biggest need is an upgrade on defense after a season of making life miserable for their goaltenders. Many pundits suggested that Edmonton should take Adam Larsson with the first draft pick rather than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because the need on the backline is immediate. So GM Steve Tambellini will be hunting for a proven d-man or two starting Friday. If they look for a forward, it will likely be an experienced third- or fourth-liner to provide depth and add to the veteran leadership they acquired when they traded to bring Ryan Smyth back.
Los Angeles — Making their big move to snag Mike Richards last week gave the Kings a strong second center behind Anze Kopitar, but it came at a price of Wayne Simmonds. Plus GM Dean Lombardi also moved Ryan Smyth to the Oilers, so now L.A. could use more grit and scoring on the wings. They have some players in the system (Andrei Loktionov, Kyle Clifford and Scott Parse) who might slot in here, but it’s unlikely that any of them would outplay some of the proven free agent wingers available if the Kings want to make the most of their new depth down the middle. L.A. is pretty well set on D and in goal.
Minnesota — The Wild turned bold at the draft, moving Brent Burns to the Sharks for three good assets, but only one — winger Devin Setoguchi – is likely to play in St. Paul next season. So GM Chuck Fletcher has to fill Burns’ spot on the blueline, no easy task. He’s also trying to move overpriced Cam Barker, either via trade or buyout. So there are spots on the blueline to fill. For the moment, the Wild are thinking Marek Zidlicky can be their top puck-mover from the back end, but he’s not the physical or defensive force that Burns can be, so Fletcher may use free agency to improve those elements on his backline. He might be looking for a short-term solution as the Wild like their organizational depth of developing defenders (Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Tyler Cuma). Minny also needs a backup goalie with Jose Theodore and Josh Harding both UFAs.
Nashville — Predators GM David Poile could have a serious problem on his hands after the NHLPA’s grievance that was filed late Wednesday. It claims the team tendered qualifying offers to RFAs past the Monday deadline mandated by the CBA. If an arbitrator rules in favor of the union, Sergei Kostitsyn, Cal O’Reilly, Nick Spaling, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Andreas Thuresson and Linus Klasen could all be declared UFAs. (That same violation led to the Blackhawks being forced to overpay some of their RFAs in 2009, a situation that accelerated the Hawks’ cap problems.) We’ll have to wait for the ruling on this, but it could massively disrupt the Preds’ plans. They had been looking to upgrade at forward to address a chronic lack of offense. Kostitsyn was their leading scorer last season and overpaying or losing him will set that effort back, especially because the Preds need the funds to reach an agreement with star blueliner Shea Weber. They will probably also need to fill the spots that were held by UFAs Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward up front. Stay tuned.
Phoenix — Dealing Ilya Bryzgalov to the Flyers left a need for a starting goaltender, so GM Don Maloney will be in that hunt. They’ll also likely lose UFA veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski and need to improve their mobility on the blueline, so look for Maloney to seek a good skating, puck-moving defenseman or two. And it’s been a while since the Coyotes could claim they had a reliable scorer. They always seem to do offense by committee. There aren’t many (or any) truly consistent big-numbers guys available after Brad Richards, so that’s a need that may have to be addressed via trade if not development. Phoenix could have Brett MacLean ready for full-time NHL duty after his cameo last season and he, along with Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker, is the potential offensive future of the Coyotes.
St. Louis — There’s still a talented young core here, although injuries brought the Blues down last season. They addressed some needs and created cap space through trades, but there is the specter of a potential sale by ownership hanging over the club. So the combination of the talent already here and the need to control spending will likely make the Blues a modest participant in free agency. With the contract extension to T.J. Oshie, GM Doug Armstrong knocked down one of his most pressing needs heading into Friday. He’s also trying to get a deal with Matt D’Agostini, who the Blues didn’t qualify this week and could become a UFA. There is some thought they may seek a backup goalie. They have big Ben Bishop, an RFA, and may feel they can upgrade. In this free agency season with so few impact players available, the fiscally prudent Blues will have to make some signings to get to the cap floor, but they aren’t going to approach the ceiling, so they’ll likely be looking for bargains if they feel it will improve their depth.
San Jose – The Sharks don’t have much cap space ($7.87 million, third least in the league) and that could inhibit their action. Addressing their need to improve on the blueline, the Brent Burns deal was a major move by GM Doug Wilson, but the Sharks may still be seeking more depth on defense. They probably are more focused on getting a top six forward to replace Devin Setoguchi and highly regarded prospect Charlie Coyle, who went to the Wild for Burns. They also might be in the hunt for a depth forward who can win face-offs and help on the penalty kill the way Manny Malhotra did prior to his signing with the Canucks last summer.
Vancouver — Losing Christian Ehrhoff not only put a dent in the Canucks’ excellent defensive depth, it removed a top-four D-man from the picture. GM Mike Gillis did extend pending UFAs Kevin Bieksa and Andrew Alberts, and a deal with Sami Salo is reportedly close. Salo’s signing would return eight D-men next season and that may allow Gillis to go without replacing Ehrhoff. Gillis has organizational depth in goal if he wants to make a deal to shore up a weakness over the summer or early next season. The Canucks are set on their first two lines, and Maxim Lapierre is back in the fold, but there is some thought that their bottom six may change. Raffi Torres and Chris Higgins are UFAs, and while their agents are talking with Gillis, nothing is done yet. If the Canucks are active in free agency, this could be the area where they see some action.