Canadiens, Canucks in best shape

July 1 is Canada Day – happy 143rd, big fella – but it’s also the first day that NHL teams can sign unrestricted free agents. To many Canadian hockey fans, this fact takes precedent over patriotic observances, and the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) or Sergei Gonchar(notes) would be cause for celebration more magnificent than a sky full of fireworks. Whether you’re gearing up for the national holiday or getting ready for the National Hockey League’s UFA-apalooza…have a good one, eh.

Here’s a glance at what Canada’s six NHL teams are looking to accomplish when free agency officially begins at noon ET on July 1:

Calgary Flames This should come as no surprise: The Flames need a No. 1 center to set up power winger Jarome Iginla(notes). Just like last season, the season before that and the season before that (and the season before that). Calgary’s current top centers, Matt Stajan(notes) and Daymond Langkow(notes), simply don’t cut it; Stajan is a second-liner at best, while Langkow turns 34 in September and is slowing down.

Problem is, the Flames have less than $7 million to spend, and need to re-sign defenseman Ian White(notes) as well as at least three other depth forwards. Not to mention, Calgary is banking on Swedish rookie Henrik Karlsson(notes) to back up Miikka Kiprusoff(notes). Karlsson, 26, is a 6-foot-6 specimen who starred in Sweden last year, but he hasn’t played a second in the NHL.

Another problem: Beyond ex-Flame Matthew Lombardi(notes), there’s not a lot out of there in the way of UFA centers. It’s not like Calgary is going to bring back Olli Jokinen(notes).

Edmonton Oilers Even with the addition of, ahem, Jim Vandermeer(notes) (in a trade with Phoenix for center Patrick O’Sullivan(notes)), the Oilers need to bolster their blue line. This reality becomes even more desperate if Sheldon Souray(notes) is traded – and perhaps even if he isn’t, given his propensity for injury. Not including Souray, the Oilers have four NHL-caliber defensemen in Ryan Whitney(notes), Tom Gilbert(notes), Ladislav Smid(notes) and, ahem, Vandermeer. An offensive and a defensive stud are required for the Oilers to have any hope of climbing out of the Western Conference basement.

A couple of offensively inclined forwards – a center and a winger – would also help, as would and some general depth up front. The good news is, Edmonton has nearly $20 million in salary cap space and a billionaire owner in Daryl Katz.

Montreal Canadiens Bob Gainey’s redemption continues. The ex-Habs GM, who stepped down in the middle of the 2009-10 regular season citing a lack of passion to continue for the long term, left the Canadiens in good shape. Montreal isn’t desperate at any position. The Habs could use another scoring winger and more size and grit on the third and fourth lines – but this is pretty much true for the NHL’s 29 other teams, too.

The big question in Montreal is goaltending, which the Canadiens attempted to address by obtaining UFA-eligible Dan Ellis(notes) from Nashville. A Carey Price(notes)-Ellis tandem isn’t exactly Ken Dryden-Bunny Larocque, but at least it’s two guys with starting credentials. In trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak(notes) to St. Louis, the Habs handed the keys to the crease to Price, but Montreal management also acknowledged that the soon-to-be 23-year-old hasn’t exactly proven he’s ready for prime time yet. A bridge goalie, such as Ellis, is needed in the meantime in case Price falters again. With $7 million in cap room, Montreal should be able to plug any holes.

Ottawa Senators The Jason Spezza(notes) trade speculation won’t go away, and the shaky status of the Sens’ No. 1 center obviously impacts their big-picture plans. If Spezza stays in Ottawa, the Senators will focus on the blue line, which was an area of strength not so long ago. Not anymore. The shot-blocking, body-rocking presence that is Anton Volchenkov(notes) will surely be lured away by big bucks, rendering Ottawa’s defense corps Oilers-thin. There’s not much after Chris Phillips(notes) and Filip Kuba(notes), although the team has high hopes for youngsters Brian Lee(notes) and Erik Karlsson(notes). Ottawa also needs more scoring punch on the wing – that Dany Heatley(notes) deal for Milan Michalek(notes) and (recently bought out) Jonathan Cheechoo(notes) didn’t work out as planned.

If Spezza is dealt, the Sens suddenly have Mike-Fisher-and-not-much-else down the middle. Chris Kelly(notes) is a decent depth pivot, but that’s all. Ottawa has a shade over $9 million; that’s probably not enough to add a couple top-four defensemen and some capable scorers…and we haven’t even discussed the (chronically injured) Pascal Leclaire(notes)-Brian Elliott duo in net.

Toronto Maple Leafs First, the good news: GM Brian Burke’s strategy of rebuilding from the back end has reached Stage 2. Assuming Tomas Kaberle(notes) sticks around – a leap of faith, but stick with us – Toronto doesn’t need to bolster its goaltending or defense.

The forwards? That’s another issue altogether. Basically, it’s Phil Kessel(notes), a couple undersized centers and a fistful of truculent belligerents. Nikolai Kulemin(notes) and Viktor Stahlberg should be ready for full-time duty on the top two lines, but the Leafs are desperate for a horse of a No. 1 center. Perhaps that’s what Burke is holding out for as the Kaberle trade speculation hits Year 3. The Leafs have about $12 million to play with, but need to sign two lines’ worth of worthwhile forwards (including RFAs Kulemin, John Mitchell(notes) and Christian Hanson(notes)).

Vancouver Canucks Last, but certainly not least, the Canucks can claim the title as Canada’s best team (although don’t expect Canadiens fans to agree). Once RFA Mason Raymond(notes) is re-signed, Vancouver’s top two lines are in good shape. Could they use another scorer to take the heat off of the Sedins? Of course, especially if they want to keep pace with the West’s best. But the Canucks are more likely to get help for the third and fourth lines, and maybe a defenseman capable of stepping into the top-four. Vancouver has nearly $10 million to spend, and look for GM Mike Gillis to do what he can to help his club get past the team’s playoff hurdle that is the Chicago Blackhawks.

What to Read Next