Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Top 5 RFA's; Countdown to Free Agency

With less than 24 hours to go until the official start of NHL free agency, let's wrap up our look at the cream of 2009's crop with the top five restricted free agents, regardless of position. Any team can sign these players to an offer sheet starting tomorrow, but have to be willing to yield draft picks should their current clubs not match those offers. Here we go:

5. G Kari Lehtonen - Atlanta - 2009 stats: 46 G, 19-22-3, .911 SV%, 3.06 GAA - 2009 salary: $3MM
I include Lehtonen on this list solely because he is the best RFA goalie this year, which should say something about the quality of netminders available this year. Playing for a lousy team, Lehtonen got the majority of starts this year for the Thrashers, but didn't really do much to establish himself as the #1 franchise goalie many would have expected from him at this point. He lost playing time to the likes of the immortal Ondrej Pavelec and the washed-up Johan Hedberg as the Thrashers missed the playoffs once again.

I don't have much doubt that Lehtonen will return to Atlanta this summer. There's not much of a market for goalies, and it's possible he's simply going to accept the Thrashers' qualifying offer. It's hard to believe any team would be willing to give up draft picks for Lehtonen's services. Still, he's only 25 and there could come a day when the Finnish goalie finally puts it together. The Thrashers aren't going anywhere, so why not see it through?

4. D James Wisniewski - Anaheim - 2009 stats: 48 GP, 3 G, 21 A, 24 PTS - 2009 salary: $900K
Wisniewski had played his entire career with Chicago before being traded at the deadline to Anaheim in the deal that sent Sami Pahlsson to the Blackhawks. The deal worked out for both teams as Pahlsson provided veteran leadership for a young Chicago team while Wisniewski played the best hockey of his life during the Ducks improbable playoff run. At 25, Wisniewski held his own against the big forwards for San Jose and Detroit and earned plenty of respect around the league as a top-four defensemen to be reckoned with.

Since I last wrote, the Ducks traded away Chris Pronger to the Flyers and Scott Niedermeyer announced his intention to play another season. Niedermeyer still needs to work out a deal with Anaheim, and the Ducks are likely to lose another defender, Francois Beauchemin, to free agency this week. So keeping Wisniewski around will be imperative for the Ducks and GM Bob Murray. Coming back in the Pronger deal was 19-year-old blueliner Luca Sbisa, and the hope is that Sbisa and Wisniewski will provide a young foundation for the Ducks to build on.

3. C Travis Zajac - New Jersey - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 20 G, 42 A, 62 PTS - 2009 salary: $984K
The first two seasons in the NHL for this former North Dakota star were nondescript, but he found some magic during his third. Centering a line with wingers Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, Zajac was the distributor for one of the most productive lines in the league in '08-'09, helping fellow Fighting Sioux alum Parise to a 45-goal season. GM Lou Lamoriello extended the 24-year-old center a qualifying offer, but I fully expect Zajac to see what's out there starting tomorrow.

The Devils would be crazy to let Zajac sign elsewhere. Keeping that line with Parise and Langenbrunner together is of vital importance for the club's offensive identity, especially if the rumors are true that Lamoriello will bring back former head coach Jacques Lemaire after getting ditched by Brent Sutter. Considering their youth, it's scary to think how good the tandem of Zajac and Parise can become.

2. LW Jiri Hudler - Detroit - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 23 G, 34 A, 57 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.15MM
This spry Czech is yet another testament to the incredible depth of the Red Wings and their organization. Hudler had the best year of his young career in '08-'09, potting 23 goals while playing mostly on the third line and making some significant hay during his time on the power play (22 of his 34 assists came on the man-advantage). He's also displayed quite a bit of toughness despite his size, as he's played almost every game during Detroit's last two seasons, both of which have included deep Cup runs. Unfortunately for Hudler and his team, he pretty much disappeared after the Anaheim series and found himself on the fourth line for much of the Final.

In a summer of tough decisions for GM/Magician Ken Holland, Hudler presents one of the most difficult for the cap-strapped hockey superpower. On one hand, Hudler is a 25-year-old scorer who is likely to only improve with more playing time. As a whole, the Wings are not a young team, and they could use a guy like him to provide that jump they may otherwise lack. It'd also be bad for the Wings to see Hudler develop into a 40-goal scorer somewhere else. On the other hand, it appears Holland wants to keep Marian Hossa, meaning the Wings will have absolutely no room to keep Hudler or UFA Mikael Samuelsson. Plus, based on what he saw in the postseason, Holland knows he can rely on young, cheap forwards like Ville Leino, Justin "Afrogator" Abdelkader and Darren "He Doesn't Sleep, He Waits" Helm and afford to let the more expensive guys go.

So if Hossa stays, I don't see how Hudler does, too. Another team can probably sign him for a relatively cheap figure and Holland won't be able to match. The Wings will take the draft picks and kiss Hudler goodbye. This all changes, of course, if Hossa signs elsewhere. In that case, they definitely can't allow Hudler to walk. And because they're the Red Wings, they won't.

1. RW Phil Kessel - Boston - 2009 stats: 70 GP, 36 G, 24 A, 60 PTS - 2009 salary: $2.2MM
The '08-'09 breakthrough for Kessel, the 21-year-old burner who dropped to 5th in the 2006 draft because of character issues and was diagnosed with testicular cancer later that year, was one of my favorite aspects of the Bruins' return to hockey relevancy. From the minute he was drafted, Kessel was bandied about as a franchise savior, someone with immense talent who would certainly realize it as long as he did some growing up. He beat cancer, and the growing process began. We saw flashes during his first two seasons, but like the other two forwards on this list, Kessel came alive in his third season.

Getting fed the puck by playmaker Marc Savard, Kessel came out blazing in '08 and for a time was on pace for a 50-goal season when he was striken by mono. He was expected to miss extended time, but came back quickly and with a hat trick in the final regular season game against the Islanders finished with 36 goals. Despite a debilitating shoulder injury that resulted in a torn labrum and rotator cuff, Kessel played brilliantly in the postseason, including two goals in Game 5 against Carolina. Surgery could keep Kessel from playing at the start of the season, but the sky appears to be the limit for him in terms of scoring ability. He was nearly dealt at the draft to Toronto for puck-moving All Star defender Tomas Kaberle, but a disagreement between Boston GM Peter Chiarelli and Leafs GM Brian Burke over draft picks nixed the deal.

I went over most of my feelings about Kessel in my Bruins offseason preview, and for the most part, they haven't changed. I want Kessel to stay, but only for what he deserves. He's a scorer who doesn't contribute anything on the ice in terms of toughness or ability on the defensive end. He does not deserve to be paid $5 million a season for that. Chiarelli needs to be willing to let Kessel go and collect the draft picks if another team deems him worth that much. Otherwise, I believe the Bruins will play the waiting game with Kessel. Eventually, he'll sign for at least one year at around $4 million. In the end, the B's just can't afford to let someone of his talent slip. I don't see the B's winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 without Kessel.

So that concludes our look at free agents heading into tomorrow. In the time since I began writing this blog, a major trade has gone down, with Scott Gomez heading to Montreal for Christopher Higgins in a deal involving four other players. If this trade is a sign for what direction the Canadiens' offseason is headed, I'm going to be pretty happy. One of the players going to New York is blueliner Ryan McDonagh, an excellent young prospect. It's pretty foolish to give up this guy in what is essentially a salary dump for the Rangers, as Gomez appears to be washed up and has a ridiculous cap hit of $8 million for the next two years. Good to see that Habs GM Bob Gainey is just as clueless as ever. It's now being heavily rumored that Dany Heatley should be on his way to Manhattan because of this trade.

There will be plenty of activity between now and the end of this week. Hold onto your wigs and keys. It's going to be a wild ride.

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