As one NHL coach said after the draft, if you think signing free agents is going to save or fix your team, you can forget it. But if you're looking to fill a hole or add a final piece, then the free-agent market can be a boon.
Witness the successes of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, who both made significant offseason acquisitions last summer and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals and second round, respectively.
Too often, however, teams view the free-agent market as a panacea for poor drafting and/or development of players (see: the Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs) and end up in a cycle of mediocrity because free agents almost always represent a greater economic commitment.
This summer represents a conundrum for NHL GMs as the free-agent talent pool is especially thin compared to the past two summers. But with the salary cap rising to as much as $56 million, up from last season's $50 million, it's entirely likely that GMs will be forced to overpay for those free agents.
Here's a look at the top forwards who could be available July 1:
Contract talks have broken off with Hossa's adopted team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, after he declined to accept a multiyear deal that would have paid him north of $7 million annually. Guess the lure of playing with Sidney Crosby and winning a championship in Pittsburgh after recording 26 points in 20 postseason games wasn't enough. The Bruins are expected to be hot after Hossa, who has ties to GM Peter Chiarelli from their days in Ottawa. Phoenix has Hossa's younger brother, Marcel, but it would be a big salary bite to sign Marian Hossa for a Coyotes team that's trying to rebuild slowly and economically.
Vancouver GM Mike Gillis will be looking to bolster the Canucks' anemic offense with a winger that can play with the Sedin twins, and Hossa would be a nice fit there. But here's the thing with Hossa. Wherever Hossa ends up, the chances are good he will be that team's top-paid player; but his personality isn't necessarily one that jibes with those kinds of expectations, either on or off the ice. That's what makes his disinterest in Pittsburgh's offer so curious. He was a perfect complement to Crosby, yet he will be expected to be "the man" in most other markets, a role for which he is not ideally suited.
Leaf Nation went into collective shock when it was revealed at the draft that Montreal received permission to talk to Sundin's agent, J.P. Barry, about negotiating a deal before July 1. If Sundin decides he wants to try the market, the big center will have no shortage of suitors. Detroit, while stocked with talent, would almost certainly take a run at Sundin. Anaheim would like to add help down the middle, although GM Brian Burke will have cap issues if both Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer want to return to Anaheim. Vancouver needs offensive help and Sundin would give them a great one-two punch down the middle with Henrik Sedin. The New York Post has reported the Rangers have interest, too.
The Pittsburgh native will be looking to break the bank July 1 as one of a small group of talented, physical wingers on the market. Malone had a breakout season with the Stanley Cup finalist Penguins; he had 27 regular-season goals and 16 postseason points playing mostly with Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins won't be able to afford Malone, who will be hotly pursued by Columbus, a team desperate to get into the playoffs for the first time. Minnesota, Malone's adopted summer home, also will be in on the bidding. Vancouver could be interested, too. The New York Rangers will be looking for defensive help, but could use Malone's blend of physicality and scoring touch to help get more out of centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. While it might be a stretch to assume Malone consistently will be a 30-goal scorer, his fearlessness and ability to kill penalties make him a desirable asset.
It's an intriguing situation for the Vancouver captain, who, before the lockout, was considered a top-10 offensive player but is now a second-tier player. Naslund's numbers have tumbled from 104 points in 2002-03 season to 55 last season, and a change of scenery could do wonders for the talented Swede. If Hossa and Malone leave the Penguins, GM Ray Shero will be looking to add another talented winger and maybe two to flank centers Crosby and Malkin. Hard to imagine a better situation in which to revive Naslund's flagging career, especially given that he'll be looking at a lot less money than the $6 million he earned in 2007-08. Gillis has said he's still interested in Naslund remaining a Canuck, but both sides appear content to wait until after July 1 to see what the landscape looks like.
There's no doubting Demitra's skill, yet things never really came together for him in Minnesota after coming over from Los Angeles in a 2006 draft deal. Maybe it was coach Jacques Lemaire's stifling defensive style or maybe it was Demitra. Some GMs question Demitra's heart, but there will still be suitors, most notably Vancouver, where Demitra's former agent, Gillis, is now GM.
Speaking of the Wild, contract talks haven't gone as smoothly as either side would like in Minnesota, and there are rumblings Rolston will take his booming slap shot elsewhere come July 1. If that's the case, and Demitra moves on, that will put significant pressure on GM Doug Risebrough to fill those gaps in the Wild lineup. As for Rolston, it's easy to see him pounding home Crosby or Malkin passes in Pittsburgh or quarterbacking a New York Rangers power play that ranked 22nd in the league despite a bevy of talented players up front.
Here's another interesting situation. Coming out of the lockout, the native of Bonavista, Newfoundland, tallied back-to-back 30-goal seasons in Montreal. Yet, last season, he fell out of favor with coach Guy Carbonneau, spending considerable time in the press box and slumping to 14 goals in 70 games. For a team looking for a big winger who's shown he can score at the NHL level, Ryder will certainly command much less money than others in this free-agent class. The new ownership group in Tampa has promised to bring in free agents, and Ryder will be looking for a new start. The Islanders will always struggle to land top-notch free agents and Ryder might benefit from playing under coach Ted Nolan, who's terrific at reclamation projects.
The agitating diva has apparently ended his run on Broadway and will now take his abrasive act on the road. There are few players like Avery, who has considerable offensive skills to go with his toughness and ability to get under the skin of opposing players. Witness his work on New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur during the Rangers' first-round victory over the Devils this past spring. The issue, as it always will be for teams considering employing Avery, is whether the toll on dressing-room chemistry is worth it. Dallas co-GM Brett Hull has connections with Avery dating back to their days as players in Detroit. Of course, there's always Toronto, where characters of all shapes and sizes have thrived over the years, or at least enjoyed the limelight. Avery is from the Toronto area, although he did once say he'd never play in Canada because they take their hockey too seriously. If there was ever a team looking for some character, or at least characters, it's the Florida Panthers, and wouldn't that be a nice surprise for rookie coach Pete DeBoer. And there's always L.A. (again), where the lifestyle seems to suit Avery's disposition.
The two seasons since Stillman was such a key part of the Carolina Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup run has been disastrous. He scored only five times over 43 games in 2006-07 after missing half the season recovering from shoulder surgery. Last season, he chipped in 19 points in 24 games but was a minus-8 after he was dealt to Ottawa at the trade deadline. The Senators likely will try to keep Stillman in the fold because he's low maintenance, comes relatively inexpensively and should still be able to deliver 70-plus points. But if the Sens can't lock him up, Stillman will make a nice addition to some team looking for power-play help and secondary scoring. His playmaking ability was a boon to Eric Staal and Erik Cole during Carolina's championship season and he could help young players like Nathan Horton and/or Stephen Weiss reach their potential in Florida.
The one-time Hart and Selke Trophy winner and three-time Stanley Cup champ fit nicely with Washington's dynamic Russians, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and it's hard to imagine that GM George McPhee won't work hard to keep Fedorov in the fold. Fedorov won't command anything near the $6 million he made last season, the last of a multiyear deal signed in Anaheim; but he still showed he's a productive NHLer. Teams looking for help down the middle include Atlanta and Montreal. Fedorov, along with killing penalties, chipped in 13 points in 18 regular-season games for the Caps and five more points in seven playoff contests.
The talented Slovak has slowly disintegrated from talented prospect to overpaid underachiever. He did not play after Jan. 18 with a neck injury last season in Los Angeles and will once again hit the free-agent market in search of a home to finally make good on his potential. Hard to imagine Nagy will see anything close to the $3.75 million he made last season, but someone will take a flier on him. Wonder if playing with countryman Demitra, perhaps in Vancouver, might jumpstart a stalled career? Word is Nagy has been working out diligently and will be ready to prove doubters wrong at training camp.
Here's another player whose reputation is not one of heart and soul. There were no takers at the 2008 trade deadline when the Isles were looking to move the Czech winger. Although he slumped to 16 goals last season, Satan has scored no fewer than 26 goals and as many as 40 in the past eight NHL campaigns. That's not chicken scratch, even if he drives coaches and teammates crazy. Would he fit with countryman Jaromir Jagr and the Rangers?
One of the few centers available this summer, he could well end up back in Vancouver. Still, he might be another player who could do well with a change of scenery after he was out between Dec. 10 and March 10 with a wrist injury before suffering a season-ending knee injury in late March. The likable B.C. native managed one goal after his return from the wrist injury and posted only nine on the season. Still, if healthy, he's a 20-goal man with decent skill and would be a welcome addition to any dressing room. Atlanta, playing with Ilya Kovalchuk, might be a nice landing place.
Other potential unrestricted free agents
Among those unrestricted free agents who will almost certainly re-sign with their current teams or retire are Colorado captain Joe Sakic and longtime teammate Peter Forsberg, who won't play if his foot issues aren't resolved by training camp; Anaheim forward Teemu Selanne; Rangers forward Brendan Shanahan; Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios. Jagr appears ready to re-sign with the Rangers or head to either the Czech Republic or Russia to close out his Hall of Fame career.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.