July 1 is not only Canada’s birthday, but the opening day of free agency for the country’s favorite sport. Teams can talk to free agents for the first time on that day, and action is typically intense.
This year’s free agent class is an interesting one. Teams have been aggressive in securing their own players, or trading for rights of players and negotiating new deals, so there is very little depth in the class. At the top-end, though, there are some very good players that will be heavily in demand.
With so few sure things teams are going to be desperate, and some marginal players are going to be overpaid.
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Here’s a look at the top five NHL free agent storylines heading into this year’s free agent frenzy along with some predictions:
Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
Teams love having a truly elite defenseman holding down their blue line. Suter is not only the best defenseman in this class by a wide margin, but he is the best one to become available in free agency for years.
He’s an all round presence — a shut-down defender who can add assists regularly and eat minutes like they are popcorn. Any team would be happy to have him since he is one of the top three or four defenders in the league, and bidding will be intense.
He hasn’t ruled out a return to Nashville, but it is doubtful that they can compete with some of the other situations that will be presented to him.
Detroit looms as the favorite now that Nicklas Lidstrom, the top defender of the last 25 years, has retired. Minnesota is another team with a lot of money to spend and a lot to offer.
Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils
Suter is the defensive prize, and Parise is the coveted forward. It’s an interesting development that both of the top jewels in this class are Americans.
Parise is an elite scorer, and he is heavily in demand. He has said that staying in New Jersey would be his priority, but it remains to be seen if that can happen since the Devils are not the most free-spending team traditionally.
The Red Wings are likely to be aggressive here as well, and Minnesota is also a contender to bring Parise back to his home state to be a star. The Kings have been targeting him for months, and the Penguins are even reportedly interested.
My bet is that he’s in a new uniform next season, and I’d lean towards him spending time in the L.A. sun.
Jason Garrison, Florida Panthers
There is a whole lot more demand for top defenders than there is supply, so the market will be strong for guys with upside. And Garrison certainly has that.
He’s a little-known player who made just $700,000 last year. He was third in the league for defenseman goal scoring, though, and he’s a good two-way defender with a lot of room to develop since he is just 27.
He’s going to get rich, and early indications are that it will be a showdown between his Panthers — if they can find a way to afford him since they already have a lot invested in defense — and the Canucks.
He’s from suburban Vancouver, so the offer to play with a top contender at home could be tough to pass up.
Justin Schultz, Wisconsin Badgers
Schultz is an interesting story. He was drafted in the second round by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008. When he declared after this past season that he was not returning to school the Ducks had a 30-day window to sign him, and they couldn’t — even though the CBA stipulates what rookie salaries are so salary negotiations were not an issue.
Now he is a free agent, and his process has turned into a circus. Teams are tripping over each other to get him since he is potent both offensively and defensively and could step into a top-four role right away.
He’s very young (21) yet much more polished than most rookies, and for two years at least he will be very cheap. His upside is huge — he could be a perennial all-star type if he plays to his potential — so competition is intense.
Virtually every team has expressed interest, and he has cut his list down and will now listen to pitches. Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and the Rangers seem to be the most likely destinations.
With all the young talent they have in Edmonton, and their need for defensive help, Schultz would be a perfect fit.
Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals
Semin is an interesting case. His talent is truly elite — he has a natural goal scoring touch better than all but a small handful of players in the league. He’s a total mental case, though, and has been a huge frustration for the Capitals.
He disappears for long periods, and his play has declined significantly the last two years. There is a high possibility that he will be a total waste of money for his new squad, but he has 40- or 50-goal potential, so teams will certainly be interested in him.
The KHL is going to be interested in bringing him back to star at home, too, so anything could happen.