On July 1st at 11 AM EST, free agency opens for the NHL. Many Senators fans approach this day with cynicism, realizing that the best available players will go to markets with larger budgets and higher likelihood of a Stanley Cup in the near future. However, this is not always a bad thing. Remember that just last year the Senators missed out on David Clarkson, a fact which Sens fans will rub in the face of Toronto Maple Leafs fans until Clarkson is bought out. Instead, the Senators got "consolation prize" Clarke MacArthur, who has quickly become a beloved player in the capital.
This breakdown focuses on the Sens' primary needs in free agency: up to four forwards to replace the departing Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Milan Michalek; and potentially a top-four defenseman. As an example, Ryan Miller will garner plenty of interest, but does not fit the Sens' current needs and as such will not be mentioned again.
The cream of the crop
From a defense point of view, two names are very clear: Matt Niskanen and the newly bought-out Christian Ehrhoff. Both will probably garner many suitors, and will be given too much money for too many years. As nice as they would look in Sens jerseys, they are likely beyond budget, and will not be worth their contracts in a few years.
Paul Stastny headlines the forward crew. Sens' management has given every indication that Mika Zibanejad will be given the opportunity to become the second-line centre, meaning that the Sens will not be dropping money on the best available centre. Expect the Sens to pursue cheaply-available wingers, à la MacArthur.
These players are the exciting ones to watch in free agency, even though they will most likely not end up in Ottawa. Additionally, the Stastny deal has an added level of relevance, as teams that lose out on him will likely circle back to Ottawa looking to trade for Spezza.
Forwards to watch for
Matt Moulson would likely be a good fit in the system, but is young enough and hyped enough that he will likely find another suitor. Some names that have been tossed around as more likely for the Sens include Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Radim Vrbata, and Mike Cammalleri. The Sens could also target someone who would likely come cheaper, such as Mason Raymond, Devin Setoguchi, or even Lee Stempniak. All of these players could slot in as second-liners, likely at contracts that would fit within the Sens' budget. Last year, MacArthur was signed to a $3.25-million 2-year contract. With Spezza's $7-million cap hit coming off the Sens books once he's traded, GM Bryan Murray will likely look to put that cap hit into free agent forwards.
Defensemen to watch for
It is worth noting that Sens management has not acknowledged the need for help on the back end through free agency (or through the Spezza trade). However, most others seem to acknowledge that last year's Sens blue line was not ready for NHL competition, and the introduction of Mark Borowiecki on a one-way contract is unlikely to fix that problem. After that "cream of the crop" defensemen, Anton Stralman looks to be a promising acquisition. Though, having reportedly turned down a $3-million-per-year, 3-year contract from the Rangers, he may be outside of Ottawa's plans for free agency spending on defense. After all, this is the team whose most recent UFA defense signings are Joe Corvo and Mike Lundin. After Ehrhoff, Niskanen, and Stralman, the drop-off is rapid. Brooks Orpik is the only other name at a young age who would be capable of holding down a top-four spot. If the Penguins miss out on keeping him, it is likely because he has been offered a contract well out of Ottawa's budget.
Options of potential interest
Dan Boyle's best years are behind him. However, as a powerplay specialist and mentor, he might still have something to offer at an affordable rate. The only worrying fact is that he recently turned down an offer from the Islanders, and the Senators are not likely to be a more attractive destination.
Jarome Iginla is coming off a fairly strong season with the Bruins. They would like to retain him, but the salary cap may stop them from doing so. Though the talent drop-off to Ottawa would likely lower his production, his contribution in terms of mentoring would not be quantifiable. Iginla would certainly be a better "grey-beard" on the team than Chris Neil or Chris Phillips, who have both aged to the point of often being liabilities. However, a good argument could be made that rather than having a veteran fill a spot for only one season, the Sens would be better served by giving that spot to a prospect for their development.
Thomas Vanek's stock has fallen significantly in the past couple few months. He will most likely not end up in Ottawa. Except, most people would have said that Vanek would not have been traded at the deadline for the low return he garnered. If cap-crunched teams don't want to take the gamble, the 30-year-old may just look great on Zibanejad's wing.
I think what Sens fans most want to see happen on July 1st is the inevitable Spezza trade to bring an end to the waiting. However, there are a lot of other things to look for and get excited about as a Sens fan. Who know? Maybe something outrageous will happen, and Daniel Alfredsson will end up back in a Sens jersey. Of course, on the topic of former Senators, UFAs Dany Heatley and Andrej Meszaros are also available to end up back in Sens jerseys. And whatever happens tomorrow, it has to be better than Heatley ending up back in a Sens jersey.