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Best NHL free agents

Tomas Plekanec is scheduled to become a UFA after scoring 70 points for the Canadiens this season. (Photo by: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Tomas Plekanec is scheduled to become a UFA after scoring 70 points for the Canadiens this season. (Photo by: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As fun as the Stanley Cup final is, the summer season can be just as crazy. The NHL Awards are just two weeks away and the draft starts June 25. Before you know it July 1 will be here and we’ll be into free agent season; sports TV networks (in Canada at least) will offer all-day coverage with talking heads breaking down the minutia of even the most minute signings and fans around the league will be emboldened or disheartened by player movements between teams.

So we thought we’d get a jump on things with a THN.com Top 10 that looks forward at the best available unrestricted free agents.

Our formula is distinctly subjective, taking into account past and projected performance, age and bang for the buck. So it’s not necessarily about the biggest names or the ones who will command the most dollars; we’ve included a smattering of guys who have the potential to be better-than-average performers, but at lower-than-average prices – just what every successful GM needs to build a team.

Players are listed with the annual cap hit of their expiring deals.

10. Willie Mitchell, D, $3.5 million
Mitchell, 33, battled through an injury-plagued season at the worst possible time. Not sure he’ll be able to command $3 million again, but assuming he recovers from his concussion, he can still be a top shutdown guy.

9. Antero Niittymaki, G, $600,000
Another guy who comes relatively cheap. Niittymaki outplayed Tampa Bay No. 1 Mike Smith this season. He’d push for minutes in places like Philly (where’s he’s been before) and Washington, and be the perfect backup in places like Calgary and Buffalo.

8. Johnny Boychuk, D, $500,000
Boychuk, 26, rose well up the Boston depth chart by season’s end. He was second only to captain Zdeno Chara in minutes played in the post-season and was the team’s No. 2 scorer from the blueline. He’ll expect a raise, but nothing too taxing for a top-four blueliner.

7. Anton Volchenkov, D, $2.5 million
Volchenkov, 28, is one of the best shutdown/shot-blocking guys in the world. He’ll be looking to double his salary on a five- or six-year deal. If Mike Komisarek could sign for $22.5 million over five years last summer, Volchenkov will be looking for something in the $25-million area.

6. Dan Ellis, G, $1.75 million
Ellis may have lost the Nashville Predators starting job to Pekka Rinne, but the soon-to-be 29-year-old still had a better save percentage than Jonathan Quick, Marc-Andre Fleury and Niklas Backstrom. Ellis is another guy who will want to go some place he has a chance to steal minutes and even take over the No. 1 spot. But he won’t command many dollars to do so.

5. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, $6.39 million
The premier goal-scorer on the market – and maybe No. 2 in the world behind Alex Ovechkin – will hit free agency looking for mucho dineros for about a decade’s worth of work. And that’s why he’s so far down this list. He might net you 50 goals, but his all-around game is suspect and you can buy three 20-goal scorers for the same price as one Kovalchuk.

4. Paul Martin, D, $3.83 million
The most underrated defenseman in the league, Martin, 29, battled injuries much of the season. But he’s sneaky-good at both ends of the ice and will surprise the fans of whichever team signs him, unless it’s New Jersey.
 
3. Zbynek Michalek, D, $1.25 million
A poor man’s Volchenkov, the unheralded Michalek, 27, is a shot-blocking machine who’d be a bigger name if he wasn’t a Phoenix Coyote. The only question is who will earn more next season, Zbynek or his younger brother Milan, who makes $3.5 million with the Ottawa Senators?

2. Patrick Marleau, C/LW, $6.36 million
Like Kovalchuk, Marleau, 30, will be expensive: just not as expensive. He won’t command a long term like Kovalchuk and is also a more complete player who can line up at center or wing. Look for Marleau to net about $7 million a year for five years and average 35 goals and 80 points.

1. Tomas Plekanec, C, $2.75 million
Plekanec took a gamble last summer…and won. Coming off a paltry 39-point season in 2008-09, Plekanec was willing to sign a multi-year deal as an RFA, but ultimately accepted the Habs’ one-year offer. Then he went out and added 31 points to his previous season’s total to lead the Canadiens with 70 points this year. Now the 27-year-old is set to cash in big-time. He’s got No. 1-center potential, but would instantly be one of the best No. 2s in the league.

The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.

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