The free-agent class of 2013 might lack the star quality of last summer, when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise captivated the hockey world right through Independence Day -- spoiling picnic plans from coast to coast -- but what this year’s crop lacks in profile, it more than makes up for in motivation.
This year’s group of potential free agents is chock-a-block with players looking to make a statement, looking to prove a point and looking for one last chance at redemption.
Herein, then, Team Redemption:
Easily the most intriguing character on the free agency landscape, Thomas is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a Conn Smythe winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He also allowed his personal political views to sour his relationship with the Boston Bruins. The 39-year-old hasn’t played a meaningful game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2012, having taken last season off to ruminate. So, of course, teams are chasing after him. With a suddenly very tight goaltending market, thanks to Vancouver’s trade of Cory Schneider to New Jersey and the signing of Mike Smith in Phoenix, Thomas’s value might be out of whack with reasonable on-ice expectations, but that’s the way of the NHL. Philadelphia is looking for goaltending help, as are the New York Islanders. It would be too much to expect the Canucks to sign Thomas just to reunite the tire-pumping society of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, but wherever he goes, Thomas is going to be a top-level story. Just not sure he’ll be a top-level goaltender.
The longtime Islander netminder is the backup on our all-redemption team. Bought out of his ridiculous contract by the Isles this week, DiPietro will be looking for a place to prove that he’s not just the punch line to an oft-told joke. Hip injuries and other ailments have conspired to keep DiPietro off the ice for all but 50 games since the 2008-09 season. Hard to imagine a team would spend a one-way contract on the former first-overall draft pick who has never lived up to his billing or his monster contract to which owner Charles Wang signed him after the last lockout. But it’s not hard to see DiPietro signing a two-way deal somewhere and trying to work himself back into NHL shape at the American Hockey League level. Either way, it's a fascinating story should DiPietro find a team willing to open a door on a last chance at an NHL career.
The seventh-overall pick in the 2001 draft played just four games for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, was eventually banished to the AHL and finally bought out by the Leafs. But there was a time when the easy-going, well-spoken Komisarek was a bona fide front-line defenseman with a physical edge. Now, has time passed by the 31-year-old? No question, he handled the situation in Toronto with as much grace and professionalism as could be expected, and he’s highly motivated to prove he still has game left. It's hard to believe there wouldn’t be a fit with the always frugal New York Islanders, and given that Komisarek is from Long Island, it would seem a good place in which to begin the rebuilding process.
It feels like it has been long time since Whitney was part of an emerging Pittsburgh team that advanced to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. The next season, though, he was gone to Anaheim in the deal that brought Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh. From there, he was moved to Edmonton, and after a couple of injury-plagued, unhappy seasons, Whitney is now an unrestricted free agent. Rumors had Whitney, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, headed to Boston at the trade deadline, but that never panned out. The Bruins have loads of depth on the back end and parted ways with veteran Andrew Ference for that reason. But if Whitney is healthy -- a big if, given his ongoing ankle issues -- he still has offensive up-side and is a big body. He chipped in 13 points in 34 games for the Oilers last season, and one would imagine that he would be highly motivated wherever he ended up this summer.
Honorable mentions: Tom Gilbert, Jonathan Blum
While former Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier garnered most of the buyout attention in the days leading up to free agency -- before he signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers -- former flyer Briere might be the most intriguing center on the market. Briere was bought out by the Flyers, and after a disappointing final season in Philadelphia where he scored just six times, the skilled pivot is still commanding significant interest and might end up signing before July 5. While his durability will be an issue, Briere remains the kind of player who can assist on the power play and would fit in nicely in any dressing room. Most intriguing for teams like Nashville or Montreal is that he is one of the most productive playoff performers of his generation, with 109 points in 108 playoffs games.
Seems like a lifetime ago that the touted Boyes was the subject of a documentary by Leafs TV during his first training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After being selected 24th overall in 2000, Boyes has struggled to find a permanent NHL home. It looked like Long Island might be that place after he signed there before last season and picked up 35 points in 48 games, playing often with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. But the team and Boyes couldn’t get together on a contract extension. Boyes hits the open market again and will be hoping that teams take notice of his recent production. Although he’s already had one tour of duty with the Bruins (he scored 26 goals there in 2005-06), their needs on the right side might make him an attractive option to slot in with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, given his success playing with top-end talent on the Islanders.
With Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero locking up key personnel Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz in recent weeks, the one incumbent who might be left out in the cold is Matt Cooke. Cooke was among the most consistent performers for the Penguins on their run to the Eastern Conference finals this spring, and in spite of his checkered past, has remade himself into a valuable player, who brought physicality and top-end penalty killing while chipping in offensively. The question remains, can he be that player somewhere else? Cooke remains such a polarizing figure outside of Pittsburgh (Boston broadcaster Jack Edwards compared Cooke to killer Sirhan Sirhan late in the regular season), one wonders how it might effect Cooke’s marketability.