NHL free agency begins on July 1, the date when most of the league’s general managers leave sanity behind and spend ownership’s money faster than you can say “salary cap.”
Here’s a look at the top 50 players who are eligible for unrestricted free agency:
1. Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), LW, NJ – Goals, speed and superstar street cred. Kovalchuk is easily the most talented player on the open market and will be looking for a huge payday in the $8-million-per-season range. And someone will snooker their salary cap and give it to him.
2. Patrick Marleau(notes), C, SJ – Back-to-back seasons of 38 and 44 goals, plus another eight in 14 playoff games this spring, make Marleau the No. 2 UFA with a bullet. He can play center or the wing and is a veteran of 12 NHL seasons at the relatively young age of 30. The Sharks will try to keep him, but he’s looking for a mega-deal ($7 million per season) and will likely swim away.
3. Anton Volchenkov(notes), D, Ott – A shot-blocking, bodychecking, stay-at-home stud. No offense here, which brings his price down to $5-6 million, but few defensemen are more proficient in their own zone than Volchenkov.
4. Tomas Plekanec(notes), C, Mtl – The 27-year-old hit 70 points as Montreal’s No. 1 center and recorded his fourth consecutive 20-goal campaign. He’s pure finesse, an offensive talent with great playmaking skills as well as a laser shot. If you can’t get Marleau, Plekanec’s a good Plan B.
5. Evgeni Nabokov(notes), G, SJ – It’s not a banner summer for UFA goalies, but Nabokov still has something to offer. The longtime Sharks starter turns 35 in late July, but is coming off perhaps his finest postseason effort.
6. Scott Niedermayer(notes), D, Ana – He remains a game-changer even as he approaches age 37, but Niedermayer has weighed retirement the past few offseasons. If he does come back, it’ll likely be to re-sign with Anaheim…but don’t rule out a return to New Jersey.
7. Sergei Gonchar(notes), D, Pit – Like Niedermayer, Gonchar is a veteran D-man who probably wants to stay with his current team. The 36-year-old has battled injuries the past couple of seasons, but he’s an elite power-play quarterback in a good situation in Pittsburgh.
8. Chris Mason(notes), G, StL – Perennially underrated due to the fact he’s been a No. 1 in the lower-profile NHL towns of St. Louis and Nashville, the late-blooming Mason has quietly been a top-10 netminder since the lockout.
14. Dan Hamhuis(notes), D, Nsh – Nashville has a stockpile of talented young defensemen, which makes the versatile Hamhuis expendable. The durable 27-year-old already has played six full NHL seasons, missing just nine games.
15. Maxim Afinogenov(notes), LW, Atl – After crapping out in Buffalo, Afinogenov revived his career playing alongside Kovalchuk in Atlanta last season. A personal-best 24 goals are a testament that Afinogenov can still produce when given the opportunity.
16. Willie Mitchell(notes), D, Van – A heart-and-soul physical defenseman, Mitchell’s value will be mitigated by the fact he was limited to 48 games last season after sustaining a concussion and didn’t dress for a single contest after Jan. 16.
21. Marek Svatos(notes), RW, Col – Injuries are an issue as the undersized Svatos typically misses about 20 games per season. He’s got the hands of a 30-goal scorer, though, and he might come cheap given the fact he hasn’t done much in the past couple of years.
22. Marty Turco(notes), G, Dal – After several sparkling seasons in Dallas, Turco’s performance dropped off in the past couple of years and the Stars decided to cut ties with the soon-to-be 35-year-old. He might have to accept a backup role and try to work his way back into a starting position.
23. Antero Niittymaki, G, TB – Re-established his NHL credentials with a solid season in Tampa (which is no easy feat, especially for a goaltender). He’s not going to be handed a starter’s job, but is a reliable, long-term answer if the No. 1 guy goes down.
24. Olli Jokinen(notes), C, NYR – Less than two years ago, Jokinen was lauded as the center who would save Calgary by setting up Jarome Iginla(notes) and help drive a long playoff run. It didn’t work out, and Jokinen was shipped to the Rangers in a housecleaning move. His stock has fallen so much, there’s talk he might end up in the KHL.
25. Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes), LW, Pit – He joined the long line of Sidney Crosby’s(notes) failed wingers after being sent from Toronto to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, but that shouldn’t prevent a get-rich-quick contract offer this summer. Ponikarovsky is big and can play on the top two lines of most teams.
37. Vaclav Prospal, RW, NYR – Still capable of supporting a star player (like he did with Vincent Lecavalier(notes) in Tampa Bay and Marian Gaborik(notes) in New York), but Prospal isn’t doing much if he’s not scoring.