Sunday, June 21, 2009

Top 5 2009 Free Agent Forwards

Before we take a look at the top unrestricted free agents available this summer, I first want to congratulate the Bruins who were recognized last week for their great 2008-2009 season. Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in a walk and Claude Julien took the Jack Adams Award, but my favorite honor went to captain Zdeno Chara for winning the Norris Trophy.

He ended Nick Lidstrom's three-year stranglehold on the title of best defenseman in the league, and even though Lidstrom and Mike Green had strong claims, I believe the best man won. Chara was the anchor of the NHL's finest defense all year. It's a pleasure to watch him work and do things that only he can do because of his behemoth physicality. I look forward to Chara raising some more prestigious hardware next year, hopefully in the form of the Stanley Cup.

Puckin' Right now presents the notable 2009 summer free agents, starting with UFA forwards:

5. RW Martin Havlat - Chicago - 2009 stats: 81 GP, 29 G, 48 A, 77 PTS - 2009 salary: $6MM
This Czech dynamo picked no better year than this one to finally put together his first injury-free regular season. Havlat had never played more than 73 games in a year before this one, and he should be able to reap the benefits on the open market. He was excellent in the postseason before this completely legitimate hit by Nicklas Kronwall effectively ended his season despite a feeble attempt to play in the Blackhawks' series-losing Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.

There's no denying Havlat's incredible skill, especially when it comes to offense and speed. I believe that whenever he's on the ice he's usually the most talented and dangerous guy out there. The question with him has always been about health and a desire to be the best. Any team looking to sign him must ask whether this productive and healthy season came solely as a result of the contract that will await him in a few weeks. Havlat signed for three years when he came to Chicago, and is in line for something similar this summer at 28.

The Blackhawks have made re-signing Havlat their top summer priority, but they need to keep an eye towards 2010 when young meal tickets Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will be restricted free agents. I think Havlat will stay but only if it doesn't jeopardize their chances to keep their two young stars. Otherwise, there are plenty of teams that could take the chance on what Havlat has to offer.

4. C Mike Cammalleri - Calgary - 2009 stats: 81 GP, 39 G, 43 A, 82 PTS - 2009 salary: $3.35MM
Cammalleri, a University of Michigan product who played for the Manchester Monarchs after getting drafted, had spent his whole NHL career with the Los Angeles Kings before being traded to Calgary at last year's draft. Getting to play with the likes of Jarome Iginla paid massive dividends as Cammalleri established himself as an elite scorer in '08-'09. In the process, he made himself a ton of money, but the question remains where that money will come from.

Because he's only 27, Cammalleri should garner interest for many teams. It's not likely that he stays in Calgary since he's probably due to make around $6MM annually in his next deal, and they're facing some tough choices with defensemen Adrian Aucoin and Jordan Leopold also UFAs. Unless the Flames unload mid-season acqusition Olli Jokinen or someone else at next weekend's draft, Cammalleri will probably be changing addresses next season.

The Kings are going to be mentioned as a potential landing place for just about every major free agent or trade candidate this summer due to their preponderance of cap space, and a return engagement for Cammalleri in L.A. is not out of the question. Other teams I've heard in connection to Cammalleri include the Avs, Blue Jackets and Canadiens.

3. LW and C - Daniel and Henrik Sedin - Vancouver - 2009 stats: 164 GP, 53 G, 111 A, 164 PTS - 2009 salary: $7.15MM
No need to separate the Swedish Sedin twins for the purposes of this list. They are a package deal, as they have been since then-GM Brian Burke drafted them second and third for the Canucks in the 1999 draft. This isn't just because no team in their right mind would ever risk taking one without the other; it's clearly the best way for both to maximize their value. Good for a point per game each last year, anyone who signs the Sedins knows what they're getting: Daniel the sniper, Henrik the playmaker, excellence on the power play and incredibly awkward commericals. But these guys aren't going to come cheaply.

Reports surfaced last week that the Sedins are seeking identical 12-year, $63MM contracts from the Canucks during their exclusive negotiating period before July 1. No doubt the Sedins were influenced by the long contracts the Detroit Red Wings shelled out to their fellow countrymen Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg. While the Sedins have never led a team to a Stanley Cup like Franzen and Zetterberg, such contracts would count $5.25MM against the cap each year for each player. That's reasonable enough, but the question is whether Vancouver wants to commit that many years to two players.

How much the Sedins are really worth will be one of the major questions of this summer. I think they'll stay with the Canucks, but should no agreements be reached this week, their negotiating rights could be dealt at the draft. Lots of teams with the cap space and willingness to take a chance could be in on the twins come July 1.

2. RW Marian Gaborik - Minnesota - 2009 stats - 17 GP, 13 G, 10 A, 23 PTS - 2009 salary: $6.33 MM
Wild fans and fantasy owners alike were beyond frustrated with the season turned in by Gaborik, the Slovak winger who, when healthy, can score seemingly at will. There are plenty of similarities to this situation and the one facing Havlat. Like Havlat, he's never been able to escape his reputation as an injury-prone nuisance who causes more headaches than actually helping on the ice. Gaborik underwent hip surgery in January and returned for the final playoff push, but the Wild went home before the postseason began.

Now, the Wild have a new GM and a new coach, and they will look to open up a bit compared to longtime coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive style. That could be enough for Gaborik to return to the only NHL franchise he's ever played for, but the 27-year-old scorer will likely be looking elsewhere for employment this summer and beyond. Gaborik might benefit from going to a team where he doesn't have to be "the guy," even though he'll probably look to be paid like one.

Gaborik's upside is higher than Havlat's at this point, but I suspect teams will be unwilling to give Gaborik more than three years in a deal. It's possible he could earn less annually in his next deal than his last one. Teams know what type of risk they'd be taking by signing Gaborik, but the rewards could be monumental. If I were a GM, I'd take the chance. Gaborik is that special.

1. RW Marian Hossa - Detroit - 2009 stats - 74 GP, 40 G, 31 A, 71 PTS - 2009 salary: $7.45MM
There is no more compelling story in sports than the last 12 months of Marian Hossa's career. After nearly tipping in a game-tying goal in Game 6 of the 2008 SCF for Pittsburgh, Hossa spurned several huge offers as a free agent (including over $80 million from Edmonton and a solid contract from the Penguins) to take a one-year deal with Detroit. His reasoning? Hossa wanted to win the Cup, and felt his best chance was with the defending champions. Hossa went out and scored 40 goals, proving to be a force in just about every aspect of the game for the Red Wings. His team made it back to the SCF, with the city he left behind coincidentally occupying the opposing bench.

Hossa then proceeded to not show up for the Final. He registered three assists, never made much of an effort to cut or drive to the net, didn't provide anything on the forecheck or power play, and just looked plain terrible every time he was on this ice. All along I suspected Hossa was dealing with an undisclosed injury. It had to be. There was no way he was dogging it; this series is what he gave up tens of millions of dollars to be a part of. There was no way it was the pressure; he's an NHL superstar who'd been an excellent playoff performer through his career. But once the Final was over, and after watching his former team hoist the Cup, there was no admission of an injury. Hossa just sucked absent any logical explanation. It's one of the most bewildering things I've seen in my years following sports.

So will any of that affect what type of contract Hossa gets this summer? Not likely. He's still one of the most valuable players in the NHL, with the ability to change a game all by myself at both ends of the ice. There had been rumblings just before the Final that Hossa had agreed to a seven-year contract with the Red Wings, but that does not appear to be true. Despite his playoff putridity, I believe the Wings would take him back. I didn't think it was possible the Wings could keep all three of Zetterberg, Franzen and Hossa, but if they're willing to jettison the likes of Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler, they could complete that ridiculous troika by retaining Hossa.

While a Hossa return to Pittsburgh is about as likely as a Manny Ramirez return to Boston this winter, plenty of other teams could break the bank for the Slovak. I highly doubt he'll take a one-year pact like last offseason. I'm not saying Hossa made the wrong decision last summer, quite the contrary. But I can't blame the guy for wanting to make back that money he could have gotten in 2008. And he should get it.

Next up, Puckin' Right will look at the UFA defensemen and goalies, with the top RFA's coming later in the week.

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