Think of what the Philadelphia Flyers did this week as getting in on the ground floor of a hot IPO.
|Scott Hartnell (left) gives the Flyers grit and skill. (US Presswire)|
Underrated veteran defenseman and captain Kimmo Timonen and 25-year-old forward Scott Hartnell had become too expensive for the Nashville Predators to re-sign, particularly in the team's current state of ownership flux, so the Flyers returned the first-round pick they got from Nashville for Peter Forsberg earlier this season and added two key pieces to a lineup to their rebuilding project as a result.
The Flyers also set an initial bar for the coming free agency period and likely are not done yet, although they'll have plenty of competition for the key free agents who become available July 1. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are adopting an NFL-type approach by making their critical personnel moves in the off-season, and many have already set the groundwork for what should be a frenzied few days early next month through salary cap space-clearing trades and buyouts.
Those kinds of moves, along with efforts by teams to hang on to players before they test the waters should intensify through this weekend. It will make the NHL Entry Draft more interesting than it might have been and continue until next Sunday when some 300 free agents could be available. Not all will spark bidding wars of course, but there are several potential impact players and many others suited for specific roles who will draw widespread interest and get nice bumps in pay if they hit the market. Here's a look at some of them.
The cream of this year's crop is at this position, starting with Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the co-captains the Buffalo Sabres would love to bring back but likely won't, and New Jersey's Scott Gomez.
A long line has already formed for Drury, so he'll hit the jackpot and probably more than double the $3 million he made last season. Briere, who made $5 million last season, will get a raise too, although his struggles in the postseason might keep it from being as much as Drury. The Sabres will be in the hunt for Briere especially if Drury bolts, but the Flyers are eying him as well and ready to spend big if necessary. Philadelphia is also among those looking at Gomez, who will get teams to bid his price up to the $7 million range as well.
One of the wild cards here is Forsberg, who hasn't indicated whether he wants to play in the NHL again after lingering foot problems plagued him all of last season. After the Predators were eliminated, Forsberg hinted he might retire or finish his career in his native Sweden. His health has always been an issue, but if he wants to play, he'll have his suitors and find someone to pay him $4 to $5 million per season. Michael Nylander of the Rangers, otherwise known as Jaromir Jagr's personal playmaker, won't get quite that much, but he'll be close if New York doesn't find a way to keep him because several teams are waiting for a shot at him.
More budget cautious teams will have choices as well. Chicago's Michal Handzus and Toronto's Michael Peca are coming off injury-riddled seasons and Dainius Zubrus who started in Washington and ended in Buffalo could get out there after making less than $2 million last season. Other notable potential free agents are Minnesota's Todd White and Wes Walz, Detroit's Robert Lang, Florida's Jozef Stumpel, Toronto's Yanic Perreault and Jeremy Roenick of the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Islanders have the two most interesting players at this position, but it's unlikely that Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake will both still be with the team after July 1. New York will try to re-sign them after clearing major cap room by buying out Alexei Yashin, but Smyth is thought to want to return to a Canadian team and will probably get one (hello Calgary or Toronto) to give him the lucrative $6 million-plus contract the Oilers wouldn't. Blake seems interested in staying, but he's a 40-goal scorer and those kinds of players draw lots of interest, so he could go too.
Nashville's Paul Kariya should be available as well because of that franchise's uncertainty, while one of the big bargains could be Florida's Martin Gelinas if the Panthers fail to re-sign him. Aging veteran Gary Roberts isn't ready to pack it in either, but if he doesn't stay in Pittsburgh, it will only be because Ottawa or Toronto had something better to offer him.
Other notables possible free agent left wingers are Atlanta's Keith Tkachuk, Tampa Bay's Ruslan Fedotenko, Dallas' Ladislav Nagy and Brendan Shanahan of the Rangers.
Some might be tempted to call this side of the line the over-the-hill-gang based on who might be available as a free agent. Assuming Teemu Selanne returns to Anaheim if he doesn't retire, the biggest names among available right wingers will probably be Bill Guerin and Todd Bertuzzi. Doesn't excite you, huh? How about Anson Carter, Tony Amonte or Petr Sykora? Peter Bondra? OK, there's not much to get worked up about at this position, but Chicago's Jeff Hamilton was a minimum-wage earner last season who could be a steal.
Everyone says the big prize here is Montreal's Sheldon Souray, whose booming slapshot makes him a real weapon on the power play. Souray can be a liability in his own end though, but with Timonen cashing in at $6.3 million per year, he should end up in the same ballpark probably with the Kings or Sharks. New Jersey's Brian Rafalski and Calgary's Roman Hamrlik won't find themselves in that tax bracket but both will do nicely if they go free, while teams looking for competent lower-profile defensemen might be able to get San Jose's Craig Rivet, Atlanta's Andy Sutton or Tampa Bay's Cory Sarich. Others who could become free agents are Detroit's Danny Markov and Mathieu Schneider, Minnesota's Martin Skoula and Ottawa's Tom Preissing.
The real action at this position in the next few days and weeks will come through trades with the Wild looking to dump Manny Fernandez, the Senators trying to move Martin Gerber and the Sharks interested in getting out from under Evgeni Nabokov's contract. As far as free agents, there won't be many goalies out there this summer other than a few backup types like Robert Esche of Philadelphia, Kevin Weekes of the Rangers and Montreal's David Aebischer. A few 40-somethings like Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and Sean Burke should be available as well. It's possible that Anaheim won't be able to keep Jean-Sebastien Giguere from testing the market, and if he gets there, teams like the Kings, Panthers and Bruins will be happy to pay him at the top of the goaltenders' pay scale. But Dominik Hasek will probably work out another deal with Detroit, and Ottawa isn't letting Ray Emery get away.