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10 NHL Free Agents to Watch

Free agency could be even worse than usual this year, because there’s a distinct lack of talent available. But teams have cap space and impatient GMs, so somebody is going to get paid.

NHL unrestricted free agency is awful. Let’s just put that out there to start. In the salary-cap era, good players rarely make it to the market, and the ones that do get ridiculous deals that almost always end up being viewed as mistakes. Meanwhile, miscellaneous depth guys somehow transform into stars for one day, get paid accordingly, and then go right back to being what they’ve always been. It’s a mess.

We’ve been doing this for a decade now, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. At some point, smart teams are going to start sitting out July 1 entirely and wait around for prices to come down and bargains to emerge. But the lure of getting a player for nothing — and the ability to ignore the fact that a cap-crippling contract is certainly not “nothing” — almost always seems to prove too powerful.

So here’s your free-agency preview: Your favorite team won’t do anything. You’ll complain. Then your favorite team will do something. You’ll feel vaguely uneasy about it. Months later, you’ll realize it made a horrible mistake, and you’ll vow never to get suckered in by July 1 ever again. You will break this vow.

This year could be even worse than usual, because there’s a distinct lack of talent available. Remember last year, when free agency featured reasonably big names like Ryan Miller, Paul Stastny, and Thomas Vanek? Good times. (Well, except for the teams that signed those guys.) This year’s list pales in comparison, with very few players who could be considered stars, or potential stars, or even former stars.1


1.

Note that we’re talking unrestricted free agents. The list of restricted free agents is pretty impressive: Vladimir Tarasenko, Derek Stepan, and Brandon Saad, to name a few. But RFAs rarely sign offer sheets, so it’s hard to get too excited about seeing those names hit the market.

But teams have cap space and impatient GMs, so somebody is going to get paid. Here are 10 players to watch as the action unfolds today.

Mike Green

Former team: Washington Capitals

2014-15 salary: $6.25 million ($6.08 million cap hit)2


2.

All salary info is from General Fanager.

He’d be great for: A team looking for a veteran blueliner and power-play quarterback. Green is the biggest name available among defensemen, and maybe the biggest at any position. He can eat minutes, and he’s a big right-handed shot in a league where that’s rare. And he has a résumé; he’s the only defenseman this century to score more than 30 goals in a season, and he’s twice been the runner-up for the Norris Trophy.

As long as you can ignore: Those big seasons were a long time ago. Green hasn’t been a star since 2010, and last year he spent most of the season playing on the Capitals’ third pairing. He’s not awful defensively, but it’s not a strength, and he’ll turn 30 in the season’s first week. If you sign him for anything close to last year’s money, you’re basically paying for the past instead of the present. Someone will.

Justin Williams

Former team: Los Angeles Kings

2014-15 salary: $3.05 million ($3.65 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A contender with its eye on the Stanley Cup. Williams would be a good fit just about anywhere — he’s always been an excellent possession player, so stats guys get little hearts in their eyes when they talk about him — but he’d be especially attractive to a team that considered itself a Cup favorite. That’s because of his track record in crunch time; he has a history of coming up big in Game 7s, and he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 2014. If you believe in “clutch,” Williams is your guy.

As long as you can ignore: For one, the Game 7 stuff is based on a grand total of seven career games, so all standard disclaimers about small sample size apply. More importantly, Williams will be 34 on opening night and has been a 40-point player in each of the last two seasons. That’s still worth paying for, but any team that goes longer than three years will probably regret it down the line.

Cody Franson

Former team: Nashville Predators

2014-15 salary: $3.3 million salary and cap hit

He’d be great for: Any team that needs a right-shooting defenseman who can generate offense. Franson has quietly been one of the league’s more productive blueliners over the last few years, most of which he spent as part of the tire fire that was the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a post-deadline disappointment in Nashville, but he’s still expected to cash in with what could rival Green as the biggest overall contract of any defenseman.

As long as you can ignore: Franson’s been just fine as a supporting guy — he’d look good on the second pair of most teams while getting some power-play time. But after years of being nickeled-and-dimed in Toronto, he’s looking to cash in now that he’s finally reached free agency. If some team makes him its highest-paid defenseman, it will be betting he can start being more than he’s been so far. He’s only 27, so that’s not out of the question, but it’s unlikely.

Alexander Semin

Former team: Carolina Hurricanes

2014-15 salary: $7 million salary and cap hit. No, that’s not a typo. Even worse, he had three more years left on his deal. The Hurricanes waived him yesterday to buy out his contract, which will make him a free agent today and cost them more than $2.3 million a year through 2021.

He’d be great for: A team looking for some offense. He’s nowhere near the same player who scored 84 points for the high-flying Capitals in 2010, but he’s probably also not the guy who managed just 19 in 57 games last year. When he’s motivated, he can still be an offensive threat.

As long as you can ignore: He’s almost never motivated. That was the knock against him in Washington, and it was only reinforced in Carolina. All of that said, he may be willing to take a short-term deal, especially now that he’ll be getting buyout money from the Hurricanes. On a one-year deal, he’d be worth a gamble. Anything long term, though, should be a firing offense.

Antoine Vermette

Former team: Chicago Blackhawks

2014-15 salary: $3.75 million salary and cap hit

He’d be great for: A team looking for a two-way center who can anchor the second or third line. Vermette has spent most of his career as a steady, somewhat underrated guy who could quietly do a good job at both ends of the ice. He found himself in the spotlight when the Blackhawks paid big to acquire him at the deadline, and he responded by scoring several big goals in the late stages of their Cup-winning playoff run.

As long as you can ignore: He had a shaky start in Chicago, putting up just three points in 19 games during the regular season and finding himself a healthy scratch early in the playoffs. That slump probably cost him some money, although you’d figure he made most of it back once the conference finals started. He’s a solid player who’d be a good get for most teams, as long as the term doesn’t get crazy.

Andrej Sekera

Former team: Los Angeles Kings

2014-15 salary: $1.75 million ($2.75 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: Any team seeking defense. Sekera is part of a reasonably solid crop of defensemen that includes Johnny Oduya, Paul Martin, and Christian Ehrhoff. Like Vermette, he went from being an underrated player on a small-market team to being thrust into the spotlight as a big trade-deadline acquisition for a contender. Unlike Vermette, he didn’t get a chance to prove himself during the playoffs, because the Kings didn’t make it.

As long as you can ignore: There’s a good chance the Kings re-sign him, now that they’ve freed up cap space thanks to the utterly bizarre Mike Richards situation. But if not, he’s one of the few guys on this list who could end up providing decent value for the team that signs him.

Brad Richards

Former team: Chicago Blackhawks

2014-15 salary: $2 million salary and cap hit

He’d be great for: A contender looking for a veteran second-line center. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was the exact situation he went to last year, when he signed a discounted one-year deal with the Blackhawks in order to chase a Cup. That deal worked out just about perfectly for everyone involved. The question is whether Richards would take another short, cheap deal to try it again somewhere else (or back in Chicago), or whether he’ll be looking for something closer to market value.

As long as you can ignore: His regular season wasn’t all that great last year — he managed just 37 points while playing most of his minutes on a line with Patrick Kane. His playoffs were better, so he’s far from done, but it’s easy to imagine some GM seeing the playoff numbers and the Stanley Cup ring and forget that he’s not bidding on a 55-point guy anymore.

Martin St. Louis

Former team: New York Rangers

2014-15 salary: $5 million ($5.625 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A Cup contender looking for a veteran with a ring. The comparison to Richards, both last year and this year, is hard to ignore here, and St. Louis taking a discount to find a fit on an already stacked team would seem like the best possible outcome.

As long as you can ignore: As much as everyone loves St. Louis, he just turned 40 and is coming off a disappointing playoffs in which he didn’t look like he had much left. He’s a workout warrior, so it’s not like he’s going to suddenly hit a wall and lose all value, but the end is in sight (and might even be here already if he doesn’t get an offer he likes this week).

Mike Ribeiro

Former team: Nashville Predators

2014-15 salary: $1.05 million salary and cap hit

He’d be great for: A team looking for offense down the middle. Ribeiro’s been a consistent point producer throughout his career, and even at 35 he’s coming off an impressive 62-point season in Nashville.

As long as you can ignore: How much time do you have?

Ribeiro has always been a controversial figure in the NHL. On the ice, he has annoyed fans with his faking and diving. Off the ice, there have been rumors of problems. He didn’t always get along with teammates, once fighting Saku Koivu at practice. He’s spent the last few years bouncing around the league, and last summer he was bought out by the Coyotes. GM Don Maloney didn’t mince words, making it crystal clear that “behavioral issues” were behind the decision.

Some figured that would be it for Ribeiro’s NHL career, but the Predators gave him another shot on a cheap deal and it paid off. He behaved himself and seemed to have turned his life around, leading to various late-season redemption stories. But then came a sexual assault lawsuit from the family’s former nanny, one that contains disturbing allegations.

It’s a civil suit — there have been no criminal charges — and the allegations haven’t been proven in court. But in a league in which not talking to the media or posting dumb stuff on social media are considered unforgivable character flaws, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to bring Ribeiro into the mix. But it will be tempting, and maybe some GM manages to twist himself into enough of a moral pretzel to justify it.

UPDATE! Ribeiro’s re-signing with the Predators is pretty much a done deal, so here is a bonus player to watch …

Francois Beauchemin

Former team: Anaheim Ducks

2014-15 salary: $3.5 million salary and cap hit

He’d be great for: Anyone who needs a solid veteran defenseman and doesn’t mind giving term to a 35-year-old. Beauchemin feels like a late entry into the free-agency field because everyone assumed he’d re-sign with the Ducks. But according to Ducks GM Bob Murray, the team wasn’t willing to offer three years, so Beauchemin is headed to the open market.

As long as you can ignore: The track record of defensemen in their late thirties isn’t great. There are exceptions, of course, and it’s not like Beauchemin’s play has plunged lately, but it’s unlikely he’ll still be a solid top-four guy in three years. That could make him a good target for a team that’s in “win now” mode and is willing to eat a bad year down the line to put him into the lineup today.

Matt Beleskey

Former team: Anaheim Ducks

2014-15 salary: $1.4 million salary ($1.35 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: Just about anyone. He brings energy at both ends, can bang and crash, is defensively responsible, and can even score a little bit. He had 22 goals and 32 points last year, both career highs, and got hot in the playoffs. Any team could use a guy like Beleskey on the third line.

As long as you can ignore: But he’s not asking for third-line money. According to some reports, Beleskey could be positioned to get the biggest deal of any free agent. That’s madness. Yes, his 22 goals were the most of anyone on the market. They were also driven by a 15.2 percent shooting percentage, well over his career average, which just screams “regression is coming.” And while he’s young for a free agent, having recently turned 27, that’s still well past the point when forwards tend to peak, so the idea that he’s some sort of late-blooming star seems optimistic at best.

Beleskey is what he is: a useful player who can help the right team. The same was true of David Clarkson and Dave Bolland. If Beleskey gets north of $5 million a year on a long-term deal, he’ll be this year’s cautionary example of overpaying for third-line players and intangibles. You wouldn’t think NHL GMs would need any more of those, but here we are.