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Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Now that the Entry Draft is over, focus in the NHL shifts to free-agency season, which is where the battle for the following year's Stanley Cup truly begins.
Draft days are always a good showcase for professional sports organizations, as they give leagues the ability to bring a great deal of future talent together for one night of hope and optimism. Those rosy feelings, however, often belie the poor success rate of draft picks in any sport, and that's why NHL general managers tend to justify their salaries in July.
The draft is still a great way to acquire talent, but most scouts say that for all the time spent studying young players, in the end a decision on a pick is usually made based on a gut feeling.
Free agency, on the other hand, routinely involves established players, who have more or less revealed their worth in previous NHL seasons. The task for the GM is then to decide which recognized talent would fit best on a team's present roster. This also comes down to a gut feeling, as I suppose most decisions do, but the signing of a free agent involves a much larger financial investment than a draft pick. That's why it is imperative that a GM makes the right decisions in free agency, a fact that has become even more pronounced since the arrival of the salary cap before the 2005-06 campaign.
What follows is an overview of the most coveted unrestricted free agents available on the market when the signing period officially begins on July 1.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
1. DANIEL BRIERE, C
Briere has spent parts of the last four seasons in Buffalo and his time with the Sabres has considerably increased his value. Now, at 29 years old, the Gatineau, Quebec native is ready to cash in on the free agent market. Last year, Briere put together his finest NHL campaign, as he notched a career-high 95 points on 32 goals and 63 assists. The 5-foot-9 Briere is not a physical specimen, but is a wizard in the offensive zone and would be a top-line center on just about any team in the league. The Sabres may still make a late push to re-sign him, but the Philadelphia Flyers are just one of the teams desperate to sign a premier center and Briere would be the ideal fit.
2. SCOTT GOMEZ, C
The Devils seem content to let Gomez walk after the native Alaskan had spent the first seven years of his career playing in the swamps of Jersey. Gomez saw his goal-scoring total plummet from 33 tallies in 2005-06 to just 13 last year, but he is still a superb playmaking center. It also helps that Gomez is still only 27 years old. While the Devils focus on signing defenseman Brian Rafalski, Gomez could wind up in Philadelphia or Washington, depending on where Briere chooses to sign.
3. CHRIS DRURY, C
This year's free agency class is strong at the center position and Drury is certainly part of that equation. The native of Trumbull, Connecticut posted a career-high 37 goals last season for the Sabres and is the best two-way center available in free agency this year. Drury will be 31 years old before the start of next season, but still has plenty left in the tank and would be an excellent addition to any club. It appears that he wants to head West and the San Jose Sharks are expected to make the biggest push, but don't rule out a return to the Colorado Avalanche, who Drury spent the first four years of his NHL career with.
4. SHELDON SOURAY, D
Since the Flyers landed the rights to Kimmo Timonen in a trade with Nashville, Souray is unquestionably the best defenseman left on the market. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Souray is an offensive force on the blueline and posted 26 goals and 64 points in 81 games with Montreal last season. Souray possesses a big slap shot and his 19 power-play goals in 2006-07 led all NHL defensemen. The Canadiens would still like to sign Souray, but it appears he will wind up testing the free agent market. A whole host of NHL teams will be interested come July 1, as Souray would be a welcome addition to just about every team's power-play unit.
5. RYAN SMYTH, LW
When the New York Islanders traded for Smyth at the deadline last year it was shocking because Edmonton, his previous club, had been trying to re-sign the face of its franchise up until the very last minute. When the Oilers couldn't lock up Smyth they decided to dump him for a lot less than the power forward was worth. Smyth is so valuable because he makes his living in front of the net and that style of play has helped him become a consistent scorer in the NHL. The Isles hope they can sign Smyth before the market opens, but if not teams such as Toronto, Colorado and the New York Rangers will give it their best shot.
BEST OF THE REST
1. JASON BLAKE, LW/RW
This speedy winger will be 34 by the time the 2007-08 season gets underway, but is coming off the best offensive season of his career. Blake played in all 82 games with the Islanders last year and notched career-highs in goals (40) and points (69). The Minnesota native is an energetic player who loves to forecheck and rattle the opposition. The Isles would prefer to ink Smyth, but re-signing Blake is not a bad back-up plan. Dallas, Toronto, Edmonton and the Rangers will also show interest if Blake isn't brought back to Long Island.
2. PAUL KARIYA, LW
Kariya was originally expected to re-sign with Nashville, but rumors of the franchise relocating have cast that into doubt. While the Predators have been busy dumping salary by trading away Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Tomas Vokoun, Kariya has considered taking his 366 career goals to another city. Kariya played in 82 contests in back-to-back seasons with Nashville and tallied 24 goals and 76 assists last season. The Leafs, Canadiens and Islanders will all be interested if Kariya tests the market.
3. MICHAEL NYLANDER, C
Nylander had a terrific year in 06-07 with the Rangers, as he registered 83 points (26 goals, 57 assists) in 79 games. Nylander's playmaking ability will be a much-coveted asset this summer, but the fact that the Swedish centerman will turn 35 on October 3 will keep him from landing truly big money on the open market. Also, the perception that Nylander has played the best hockey of his career in New York solely because he is on a line with Jaromir Jagr won't help his chances at breaking the bank either. Those things might make it easier for New York to re-sign Nylander, but if the Blueshirts are unable to pull it off there will be numerous suitors ready to pounce on Nylander.
WORTH THE RISK?
1. ALEXEI YASHIN, C
The fact that the Islanders bought out Yashin's contract to make him a free agent is proof of how this once mighty Russian's stock has fallen. But it was hardly a surprise considering Isles head coach Ted Nolan had demoted the underachieving centerman to the fourth line in New York's first-round playoff exit to Buffalo. Yashin got off to a great start last season, but wound up playing just 58 games and scoring 50 points. His desire to play is always in question and that lack of fire is what has made this former superstar drop from franchise player to free-agent afterthought. However, he may be a good bet for a contending team in search of a talented second-line center.
2. PETER FORSBERG, C
Unlike Yashin, Forsberg's passion for the game has rarely been questioned, but nagging foot injuries last season made him a shell of the player he once was. Forsberg was traded from Philadelphia to Nashville shortly before last year's deadline and scored 55 points in just 57 combined games with the Flyers and Preds. Retirement is still a likely possibility for this Swedish hero, but he will certainly find somebody to take a chance on him should he decide to keep on skating.
3. BRENDAN SHANAHAN, RW
Shanahan is one of the best power forwards of his generation and he wants to return for a 20th NHL season next year. He would rather return to the Big Apple than test the free-agent market and the Rangers will likely want him back considering the 38-year-old winger had 29 goals and 62 points in 67 games with the Blueshirts last year. However, if the Rangers are unable to re-sign the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Shanahan, he will become a prized commodity on the market.
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