By Jimmy Beans
Even though we still have a month of exciting playoff hockey left, it’s not too early to take a look at what could be a blockbuster summer of free agent signings in the NHL. The 2011 crop of UFAs is without a doubt one of the deepest in years. We could see several marquee names changing teams or staying put with new long term contracts; which is becoming the new standard in the NHL. This is the FantasyMortar.com list of the top 10 best available UFAs and the possible teams that may be pursuing their talents this summer. Yes, I know Nicklas Lidstrom should be on this list, but we all know where he is going to sign should he decide to keep playing.
10. Ville Leino – Leino has continued to improve over the last few years and has been extremely productive in the playoffs for the Flyers. Expect him to break the 20 goal plateau next season and be a solid top 6 forward. If the Flyers can’t hold on to him, and I expect they will try, don’t be surprised to see the Hurricanes, Rangers or even Blackhawks make him an offer.
9. Joni Pitkanen – Any team looking to patch up some defensive holes or add depth to their power play/penalty kill will be considering the talents of Pitkanen this off season. Don’t expect him to automatically return to the Hurricanes, he will receive a lot of attention and will probably weigh his options. The Bruins, Leafs and Canadiens will all be looking for some defensive help this summer.
8. Michael Ryder – Ryder may seem not deserving of this list, however his recent play in the postseason has teams weighing his value. Ryder has twice netted 30 goals and has always been around the 20 goal mark. Boston is likely to offer him a short term contract but other suitors could include the Predators and Red Wings.
7. Andrei Markov – Recent injuries have made Markov seem like a risky investment. However, when healthy he is a top tier defenseman and can quarterback any power play. He has a solid plus/minus throughout his career and can play over 25 minutes every night. Montreal will likely be his destination, meaning either Roman Hamrlik or Hall Gill will be on their way out.
6. Tomas Vokoun – Vokoun has been the face of consistency in the NHL for the past 5 years. At 34 Vokoun will want to play for a championship calibre team. Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Chicago will all be looking at their goalie options in the summer. Florida will try to keep their star goaltender but don’t be surprised to see Vokoun in the postseason next year in a different colored jersey.
5. Brooks Laich – Laich’s totals slipped this year due to Washington changing to a more defensive style of play. Brooks is a hard nosed forward who can use his size in front of the net and in the corners. He will certainly receive multiple offers but this is the exact type of player Brian Burke loves. Expect Toronto to pursue this talented forward and don’t be surprised if they over pay.
4. Kevin Bieska – In 66 games this year Bieska was +32 and the league is taking notice of this talented defensemen. Vancouver has eight players who are free agents and will not be able to sign them all. Bieska will be one of the most coveted of the group. Vancouver will desperately try to resign him and if they can work the numbers out, Bieska will probably stay. He won’t come cheap and the Canucks may have to part ways with Salo or Ehrhoff.
*edit Bieska signed a 5-year $23 million contract with Vancouver on June 27, 2011.
3. Ilya Bryzgalov – This is going to be one of the more interesting stories to watch this summer. Bryzgalov loves playing for the Coyotes and has no intention of leaving. However with the status of the team unknown and a possible relocation on the horizon, Bryzgalov could be tempted to sign elsewhere. He has already made it clear he will not play in Winnipeg, which many believe is the likely destination of the Coyotes. Don’t be surprised if he decides to play in Russia next year.
2. Christian Ehrhoff – If Vancouver resigns Bieska, Ehrhoff could be on the move. He may be the best all around free agent available this summer and with 50 points in 2010-11 and a respectable +19, he is about to enjoy a big pay increase. Not many teams will be able to afford this talented defensemen but one franchise that could show interest are the Bruins. They are one of the few teams with the cap space necessary to sign Ehrhoff.
1. Brad Richards – Once again Brad Richards is the biggest prize out there this off season. Even though his totals were down this season, he is still very much an asset to any team. Although many teams would love to add a 30 goal scorer, this one doesn’t come cheap. Richards will be looking for a big pay day. The Stars would love to keep him but their current ownership issues might kill any chance of resigning him. Once again the Rangers and Maple Leafs should be considered the favourites to land the biggest prize out there this summer.
*edit Richards signed a 9-year $60 million deal with the Rangers on July 2, 2011
So there you have it, the FantasyMortar.com top 10 unrestricted free agents for the 2011-12 season. If you feel that we’ve missed someone or disagree with our rankings, comment below. Let the debate begin.