The 2012 playoffs are nearing the home stretch – and for fans of most teams, that means it’s time to start looking ahead to off-season improvements. Which unrestricted free agents will be most attractive to help franchises in that regard? That’s the focus of this week’s THN.com Top 10. (Note: we didn’t include UFAs Nicklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne in the list, as it’s expected they’ll either re-sign with their current teams or retire.)
Honorable mentions: Dustin Penner, Ray Whitney, Filip Kuba.
10. Olli Jokinen
The Flames center had his best year on offense (23 goals, 61 points) since 2008-09. At age 33, he’s on the back nine of a decent career, but if he’s willing to keep his salary demands in check (he earned $3 million this year), he could be a valuable addition to a Stanley Cup contender.
9. Brad Stuart
Half this list is comprised of defensemen and Stuart is one of the more experienced veteran blueliners available. The 32-year-old has been a solid member of the Red Wings since 2008, but his family is based in California and it’s expected he’ll look to sign with one of three teams in that state before any other franchise.
8. Jaromir Jagr
The future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer faded in Philadelphia’s second-round playoff series loss to New Jersey, but prior to that, he was everything the Flyers hoped he would be, scoring 19 goals and 54 points in 73 regular season games. The 40-year-old wants to return to the NHL for another season and he will garner interest from many teams looking to benefit from his vision and experience.
7. Barret Jackman
The 2003 Calder Trophy winner and Blues key cog is now 31, but his stay-at-home defenseman skills will be highly valued by a team looking to improve in its own end. He’ll likely break the $4 million barrier after carrying a $3.6-million cap hit this season.
6. Jiri Hudler
The Czech center could be wooed by the Kontinental League this summer, but he’s coming off his best goal-production season in the NHL (with 25) and will get a healthy raise from his $2.9-million cap hit in 2011-12 in North America or elsewhere.
5. Matt Carle
The Flyers blueliner was non-committal about a return to Philadelphia when he was asked about it on The Hockey News Radio Show in February. With Philly already having more than $61 million in committed salary cap space for the 2012-13 season, an exit could be in the cards. Given his age (27) and ability to produce points (34 assists and 38 points in 2011-12), a raise on his $3.4-million cap hit is assured.
4. Alexander Semin
Yes, the Russian sniper’s reputation took a sizeable beating this season and there’s no way a team will pay him the $6.7 million he earned while producing just 21 goals. But there always are teams and GMs who believe they can salvage talent and it will be no exception with Semin, who is still just 28. The only real question is whether his contract demands will be met by an NHL team. If not, he’ll likely depart for the KHL.
3. Dennis Wideman
Washington’s top minute-muncher at an average of 23:54 per game, Wideman is still just 29 and has a lot of good hockey ahead. The Capitals can’t afford to let him go, but they’ve already got more than $45 million in utilized cap space next season and have to find money for restricted free agents Mike Green and John Carlson, leaving them vulnerable to being outbid for Wideman.
2. Zach Parise
Undoubtedly the top young forward available, Parise is going to face serious pressure from Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to stay with the organization. However, the franchise faces significant financial issues this summer that could lead to a bankruptcy announcement, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility they won’t be able to compete with other teams for the 27-year-old, who has scored at least 31 goals in each of his past five full seasons.
1. Ryan Suter
The Nashville blueliner’s combination of size, smarts and grit has 29 other teams drooling in anticipation of him hitting the open market. New Predators ownership investors have given the team’s GM David Poile more confidence he can re-sign the 27-year-old, but big-market franchises such as Philadelphia and Detroit can offer him the type of front-loaded contract Nashville likely can’t match. Regardless, if Suter doesn’t nearly double his $3.5 million salary, most hockey observers will be shocked.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.