Ilya Kovalchuk will be in high demand if he's still a UFA on July 1. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
As we get closer to the Olympic break, the chatter surrounding unrestricted free agents-to-be this summer is beginning to heat up. Don’t forget, the NHL resumes play post-Olympics March 1 and the trade deadline is March 3. So while many in the hockey world are focused on the Games, you can bet NHL GMs have other things on their minds.
This summer there will be a bumper crop of netminders available; 23 goalies who have played at least one NHL game this season are slated to be UFAs as well as a number of others with past NHL experience. For that reason, puckstoppers dominate our list this week.
But there are also some high-profile skaters who could be on the open market come July 1. This list takes into account production and age, but also intangibles such as style of play and career path.
Nicklas Lidstrom is a Hall of Famer who is still his team’s best blueliner. But he’ll turn 40 in April, is on the downside of his career and will not be leaving Detroit if he doesn’t retire. So Lidstrom doesn’t make our list, because although scheduled to become a UFA, he might as well have a contract for life with the Red Wings.
But these 10 players do make our list. Here are THN.com’s top 10 2010 UFAs-to-be:
10. Sergei Gonchar, D, Pittsburgh
Any team that signs the 35-year-old (36 in April) will be taking a chance. He’s still an elite scorer from the blueline, but has proven to be an injury liability in recent seasons. At his age, any contract he’s signed to can’t come off the cap even if he retires, so buyer beware.
9. Dan Ellis, G, Nashville
Ellis, 29, just won’t go away. It looked like the man who lost his job to Pekka Rinne was doomed to backup status, but he’s rebounded more than nicely. He became the No. 2 early in the season, but has forced himself into a platoon by outplaying Rinne. With a 2.52 GAA and .915 SP, Ellis will be a hot commodity come July.
8. Pavel Kubina, D, Atlanta
Kubina is big (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), skilled and looks to be getting better in his own end as he ages (he’s on pace for the best plus-minus of his career). At 32, this is likely Kubina’s last big contract, so expect him to go to the highest bidder.
7. Pekka Rinne, G, Nashville
The Finn has struggled somewhat this season after snatching the Predators’ No. 1 job in 2008-09. But at 27, he’s just entering what should be his prime and has the size (6-foot-5, 206 pounds) and skill level to be a starter for years to come.
6. Anton Volchenkov, D, Ottawa
Volchenkov, 27, eats pucks for dinner and opponents for dessert. He’s not a big point-producer, but Volchenkov is one of the league’s premier shot-blockers and one of its biggest hitters. At $2.5 million in salary, he’s probably paid pretty much what he deserves, but don’t be surprised if a bidding war takes him closer to $5 million.
5. Jonas Hiller, G, Anaheim
Hiller officially wrested the No. 1 job in Anaheim from former Conn Smythe Trophy winner J-S Giguere this season. Hiller will be 28 in February and has posted good numbers (2.85 GAA, .915 SP) for a team that currently has a winning percentage below .500. He is due for a huge raise from his $1.3-million salary, but if he’s to stay with Anaheim, the Ducks will have to find a taker for Giguere and his $6-million tab next season.
4. Tomas Plekanec, C, Montreal
After a brutal 2008-09 left him with just a one-year contract and had many believing he was a one-hit wonder, Plekanec, 27, rebounded. The center was tied for 14th in league scoring and sixth in assists prior to Wednesday’s games. Look for him to leave Montreal, after they refused to give him a multi-year contract last summer.
3. Patrick Marleau, LW/C, San Jose
Talk about rebounds. Marleau, 30, had the ‘C’ stripped from his jersey last summer and pundits and fans alike screamed for him to be traded. And what does he do? Oh, just go out and put up numbers that have him on pace for the best season of his career. He’ll play for Canada at the Olympics, is leading the league in goals, is 11th in scoring and is in the top 10 in plus-minus, game-winners and power play markers.
2. Evgeni Nabokov, G, San Jose
Nabokov is currently second overall in games played and wins with 44 and 28 and tied for fourth with a 2.20 GAA and .927 SP. Those are gaudy numbers, no matter what team you play for. Nabokov is durable and dependable, everything you need in a No. 1 goaltender. Between he and Marleau, San Jose has some hard decisions to make this summer.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Atlanta
The most prized player slated to be on the open market may not even land in North America; Kontinental League suitors are rumored to be offering salaries in the range of $20 million per season. Only Alex Ovechkin is a more feared sniper than Kovalchuk, who turns 27 in April. Despite playing fewer games than any of the other league leaders – except Ovechkin – Kovalchuk is seventh in points, tied for third in goals and power play goals and is second in average ice time among forwards. Expect him to be traded before March 3 and signed to a maximum deal, whether in the NHL or KHL during the summer.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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