NHL Free Agency: Top forwards to watch

Thomas Vanek will be the top forward on the free-agent market. (USATSI)
Thomas Vanek will be the top forward on the free-agent market. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Updating rumor mill | 2014-15 preseason odds

The market for unrestricted free-agent forwards is an interesting one. There are two clear players that could be considered priority signings for many teams with the room to add them. The next group of players still have a lot to offer, but prices could thin out the market for each.

What makes this free agent period so interesting is the relative unpredictability of it all. There’s no clear destination for any one player and several very well could remain with the clubs they played with last season.

One thing is fairly clear: Thomas Vanek is the top forward available. Even after his sub-par postseason performance with the Montreal Canadiens, the former Buffalo Sabres star has been a productive player for all of his career and at 30 years old has plenty of great hockey left. He had 68 points in 78 games last season including 27 goals if there was any doubt he was losing a step. Vanek is likely going to be the first of many dominoes to fall when things open up Tuesday at noon ET.

The next major chip is likely Paul Stastny, who is the top center available. There's a good chance the Colorado Avalanche find a way to keep him in Denver, but he has a chance at a real payday similar to the $6.6 million making for each of the last five seasons. He would likely have to take a cut to stick with the Avs.

Those are only two of the many interesting forwards available soon.

To give a sense of what the top end of the free agent forward market looks like, here is a list of 10 players that are expected to be available when the free agent signing period opens.

The players are listed in order by point total from last season

Top forwards
Thomas Vanek
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 30
Last cap hit: $7.14M
2013-14: 78GP, 27-41-68
46 PIM, 19:21 TOI/GP
Despite a lackluster playoff performance, Vanek remains the top forward available on the open market. As such, the race to sign him should include many teams which should drive the price up. If you're going to overspend, it doesn't hurt as badly when it's for a highly-productive player like Vanek. Vanek has long been connected with the Minnesota Wild as a destination, but that may not be the lock it once seemed. Any team could use a gifted offensive talent, but according to Pierre LeBrun eight to ten teams are seriously interested and that does include the Wild.
Jarome Iginla
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 36
Last cap hit: $1.8M*
2013-14: 78GP, 30-31-61
47 PIM, 18:12 TOI/GP
The leading goal scorer among UFAs, Iginla showed he can still perform in the league. His bonus-heavy contract took his $1.8 million base cap hit to $6 million after you tack on the bonus overage the Bruins are dealing with under the 2014-15 salary cap. Iginla as a veteran and future Hall of Famer could command big money in short-term deals still. The Wild and Red Wings have been noted among the teams that have kicked the tires on Iginla, though a return to the Bruins isn't technically out of the question (just highly, highly unlikely). He could have a number of suitors, yet, but Iginla probably will narrow his focus to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Paul Stastny
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 28
Last cap hit: $6.6M
2013-14: 71GP, 25-35-60
22 PIM, 18:23 TOI/GP
The top center among available free agents, Stastny is coming off of a highly productive season. Good at both ends of the ice and still with plenty of good hockey in him at 28 years old, Stastny should be one of the most sought-after UFAs on the open market. A return to the Avs is still a strong possibility, but Stastny would likely end up leaving money on the table to remain in Denver. The St. Louis Blues are among the teams linked to Stastny as a possible landing spot if he does indeed leave Colorado.
Jussi Jokinen
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 31
Last cap hit: $3M
2013-14: 75GP, 21-36-57
18 PIM, 15:42 TOI/GP
After a strong season and his excellent seven-goal postseason performance, Jokinen should be an intriguing option for several teams. He'll likely get a raise, but it's hard to see teams going much higher than $4 million annually for Jokinen, making him a good value option possibly. It sounds like Jokinen is getting some interest from the Jets. Without being a big-name draw like some other UFAs, Jokinen could fly under the radar, but his potential for a reasonable cap hit makes the market a tad bigger for his services.
Matt Moulson
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 30
Last cap hit: $3.13M
2013-14: 81GP, 23-28-51
34 PIM, 17:58 TOI/GP
As a three-time 30-goal scorer, Moulson should have his share of suitors on the open market. There is a stigma attached to Moulson that he is a product of John Tavares feeding him while he was with the Islanders, but he still has top-six abilities and is a proven finisher. Any team that needs scoring (and really, who doesn't?) with some cap space to spare should be taking a run at Moulson. Buffalo has reportedly been in touch to bring him back, but it's hard to see him returning to a rebuild. The options are wide open at this point.
Brad Richards
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 34
Last cap hit: $6.67M
2013-14: 82GP, 20-31-51
18 PIM, 18:41 TOI/GP
Richards was bought out, but that's because the Rangers had no choice with their cap situation. He will still bring a lot of value to any team as a possible No. 2 or No. 3 center. Teams may be willing to hand Richards a bigger contract with less term to provide some veteran scoring help. Richards has already said he'd consider a return to the Lightning and has apparently been contacted by the Islanders, but the number of teams courting Richards could grow. Would have to wonder if Dallas tries to bring him back to slot in behind Tyler Seguin. Just an idea.
Radim Vrbata
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 34
Last cap hit: $3M
2013-14: 82GP, 20-31-51
22 PIM, 17:57 TOI/GP
A natural goal scorer, Vrbata has an offensive tool set that could get plenty of teams interested. At 33 and likely available at a small raise from his $3 million could make him a good short-term Plan B for teams that strike out on Vanek or Moulson. Vrbata very well could return to the Coyotes, but Pierre LeBrun reports that seven to eight teams are interested in the Czech scorer. Competition could drive up his price and scare a few teams, including the Coyotes, off. Teams looking to stay above the cap floor could get in on the Vrbata sweepstakes as well.
Mike Cammalleri
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 32
Last cap hit: $6M
2013-14: 82GP, 26-19-45
26 PIM, 19:50 TOI/GP
When healthy, you can usually pencil Cammalleri in for at least 20 goals. Still a top-six forward for pretty much any team, there should be plenty of interest around the league. He'll remain on the expensive side, but if teams can get decent term on the contract, he'd be worth spending on. There's still a chance that Cammalleri remains in Calgary as the two sides have been talking for months about an extension. The term is reportedly a hang-up, however, which means Cammalleri likely gets better offers elsewhere. However, if he wants to go to a contender, a raise might be out of the question.
Ales Hemsky
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 30
Last cap hit: $5M
2013-14: 75GP, 13-30-43
24 PIM, 15:57 TOI/GP
There is a wide array of opinions on Hemsky, but one thing everyone agrees on is that he is supremely skilled. After getting dealt to Ottawa, Hemsky had 17 points in 20 games. Surround him with some good players and you've got potential for a breakout season. Teams with holes at right wing should be eyeing Hemsky, though it is hard to see him taking much less than the $5.5 million in actual value he got last year. A team like the Canadiens should be showing interest, though according to Mark Spector of Sportsnet 10 teams have already contacted Hemsky's agent.
Mikhail Grabovski
  Stats Breakdown Possible fits
Age: 30
Last cap hit: $3M
2013-14: 58GP, 13-22-35
26 PIM, 15:45 TOI/GP
After being bought out by the Maple Leafs last year, Grabovski enjoyed a bounce-back season with the Capitals. He had 35 points in 58 games, showing he still has some scoring touch. He could be a No. 2 center on some teams or a great No. 3 on deeper clubs. Grabovski's showing with the Caps last year should up the number of suitors during the next few weeks. It sounds unlikely that he'll re-sign with Washington, but if he wants big money, like the $5 million he made annually with the Maple Leafs, he may have to go to a team looking to get to the cap floor.

There are a number of free-agent forwards that could bring considerable value to teams with lighter cap hits as well. Here's a list of forwards that may not break the bank (or the salary cap) while bringing some serious value to their teams among the unrestricted free-agent forwards:

Mason Raymond, 28, LW: 82 GP, 19-26--45, 22 PIM

Nikolai Kulemin, 27, RW: 70 GP, 9-11--20, 24 PIM

Benoit Pouliot, 27, LW: 80 GP, 15-21--36, 56 PIM

David Booth, 29, LW, 66 GP, 9-10--19, 18 PIM

Daniel Winnik, 29, LW: 76 GP, 6-24--30, 23 PIM

Martin Havlat, 33, RW: 48 GP, 12-10--22, 10 PIM

Marcel Goc, 30, C: 74 GP, 11-14--25, 35 PIM 

Mike Santorelli, 28, C: 49 GP, 10-18--28, 6 PIM

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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