Free Agent Frenzy Primer
A look at the players available on July 1, and what to expect from the Sens.
The NHL free agency window opens tomorrow at 12 PM Eastern Time. The NHL offseason is often called The Silly Season, but July 1 is the day of peak silliness. Money gets thrown around to players who don't deserve it because of one good season, or sometimes even because they're the best available from a very weak remaining group. For a list of all free agents (sortable by position, handedness, UFA/RFA, and more), check out this handy list from General Fanager. To help guide you through all of this, here's a look at some of the "best available" players.
It is just a little bit frightening that one of the top names in available forwards is Matt Beleskey. Beleskey is coming off a career-high 22 goals in 65 games playing on the wing of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Keep in mind that David Clarkson had a career-high of 30 goals, and was even on pace for 26 in the lockout-shortened 20
12-13 season before the Maple Leafs signed him to a terrible contract. Whoever signs Beleskey (and reports show the Leafs are at least trying) could very well oust Clarkson for worst contract in the NHL.
Justin Williams is easily the best forward available, though his Conn Smythe win and big game reputation will definitely price him out of the Senators' window. After that, there are a few categories the players fall into. One is players who have aged way past their peak and won't be able to contribute to the level of the salaries they command. Guys like Martin St. Louis, Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff, Joel Ward, Brad Richards, and Brenden Morrow fall into this category. There's a second category of valuable players who will get overpaid because of the lack of options. Players like Antoine Vermette, Jiri Tlusty, and Michael Frolik fit here. Lastly, there are players who never really had much value, but their perceived value should give them big salaries. Players like Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, Jarret Stoll, or even possibly Chris Stewart could fall into here. The good news is that the Sens have no hope of competing for any of these players because Ottawa won't have the budget.
There are some good pickups available for cheap, bottom-six options. The Leafs had pretty good success last year with Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik, both traded for draft picks when Toronto fell out of the playoffs, and both likely to fly under the radar again this year. Sean Bergenheim, Shawn Matthias, and Marcel Goc are examples of players who won't command much salary, but could help drive a fourth line. However, Ottawa likely doesn't need another bottom-six player with all the youth looking to graduate. If Bryan Murray wants a top-six forward, free agency doesn't look very likely to pan out.
Who is the top defenceman available? Depends who you ask. Most would probably point to Cody Franson because of his age and production, Johnny Oduya because of his Cup rings, Andrej Sekera because of his great 2013-14 season, or Mike Green because... he scored 31 goals six years ago? Seriously, John Carlson usurped Green as the powerplay guy in Washington. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about Green, but he will get paid by someone.
Christian Ehrhoff is an intriguing option on defence. It's not entirely clear why he didn't work out with the Penguins, but he still could offer a couple more years of playing on a team's second pairing. Zbynek Michalek is another great option for a second pairing who should be available at a decent rate. After those two, it's slim pickings. A player like Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Francois Beauchemin, or Barret Jackman might be effective in limited minutes at a low salary. Players like Lubomir Visnovsky, Sergei Gonchar, Bryce Salvador, or Marek Zidlicky should probably all have retired by now, but will sign another contract if a team is willing to pay them an NHL salary. Reclamation projects abound, with Keith Ballard, Yannick Weber, Keith Aulie, John Moore, and Raphael Diaz all available.
There's a lot of money to be spent on defencemen who are likely to be 6th or 7th on a team's depth chart this year. I won't be surprised to Carlo Colaiacavo, Tim Gleason, Mark Fistric, Scott Hannan, Andrej Meszaros, or others signed to contracts that seem ridiculous.
With the signing of Antti Niemi, there's really not a lot to be had here. Goaltenders with the potential to be starters: Michal Neuvirth. That's it. Maybe Karri Ramo. Maybe. After that, you're looking at a lot of backups: Viktor Fasth, Peter Budaj, Jhonas Enroth, Thomas Greiss, Anders Lindback, Jonas Gustavsson, and Jason Labarbera are the next-best things. Mark Visentin is available as a 22-year-old because he was not qualified by the Coyotes, so another team may think he has the potential to still become a solid NHLer and take him on as a project. Any team looking for a backup should be able to get one dirt-cheap because of the oversupply in the market. Any team looking for a starter would be better off throwing an offer sheet at Jonathan Bernier, Braden Holtby, Jake Allen, or even Calvin Pickard, rather than digging through the scrap heap of UFAs.
In a really weak free agent class, all the nervous energy has been focused on the trade market. Lots of big names are expected to be traded this summer. Phil Kessel! Dion Phaneuf! Patrick Sharp! Bryan Bickell! Colin Greening! Chris Phillips! (Maybe I just added those last two...) I would bet good money on the biggest story of July 1 being a trade if any big news happens at all.
The Sens' outlook
The last couple years, Ottawa's made one big trade, and outside signing in free agency. In 2013, Daniel Alfredsson left for Detroit, Bobby Ryan was acquired from the Ducks in a mega-deal, and Clarke MacArthur got signed to what ended up being one of the steals of free agency. In 2014, the Sens traded Jason Spezza in another mega-deal, but only re-upped Milan Michalek, and then a couple days later grabbed David Legwand.
I expect the Sens to be quiet this year. There are the issues of RFAs Mike Hoffman, Alex Chiasson, and Shane Prince to deal with, along with the hopes of bringing back UFA Erik Condra. This team doesn't have excess money anyway, and especially not when they need to lock up the hometown players. If Ottawa does anything, it'll probably be a trade of unnecessary players for money savings.
But let's be honest - if the Sens sign Mike Hoffman to a reasonable one-year contract, re-sign Erik Condra for three years, and trade Colin Greening for a seventh-rounder, it'll be a very successful free agency period.