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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In the span of just two weeks the NHL crowned a new champion, handed out its annual awards and conducted this year's Entry Draft.
The final step into the offseason is not far behind with the league's free agent market set to open on Friday.
July 1st usually signals the start of a feeding frenzy, as NHL clubs scramble to improve their rosters through new signings, but this summer's free agent crop doesn't exactly have the makings of an opulent feast.
The lack of a deep and desirable field of unrestricted free agents is good news for centerman Brad Richards, who reportedly will be seeking an eight-year deal in the $50-55 million range on the open market.
After Richards, however, the marquee names will be in short supply. Still, that doesn't mean general managers won't race to quickly snatch up whatever talent is available come Friday, and by the time Monday rolls around it would be surprising if the best players haven't already found a new home.
The problem is that although Tampa Bay is facing some financial difficulties and already has loads of cash and years devoted to guys like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, attempting to sign Stamkos away from the Lightning still appears to be a pipe dream. The Lightning will have seven days to match any offer sheet for Stamkos and the smart money says they will not let him walk, no matter the price.
Not to say that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman won't have to make difficult decisions regarding the salary cap this year and in seasons to come, but letting go of Stamkos, who already has 119 goals in just 243 career NHL games, is not an option.
Even if Yzerman has to devote over half of his salary cap space for the 2011-12 season ($18 million-plus, according to capgeek.com) to bring back Stamkos and fill out the rest of his roster with spare parts, he, and the Lightning's billionaire owner Jeffrey Vinik, will make sure a deal gets done.
Back in the much simpler world of unrestricted free agency, where players come with no strings attached, there may not be a slew of recognizable names available but there are still plenty of ways for clubs to improve their rosters.
Here's a look at the best UFA available at every position. These are the guys who won't last long once free agency begins this evening at midnight.
The former Conn Smythe winner is one of the best playmaking centers in the league. He posted 67 assists and 91 points for Dallas in 2009-10 and added 49 helpers and 77 points in 72 games with the Stars last year. The New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs' names keep popping up in the days leading up to July 1. That makes sense, considering the Rangers and Leafs could both use a top-line center to pair with wingers Marian Gaborik and Phil Kessel, respectively. However, Richards is so far beyond the other UFAs available this year that there will be plenty of other suitors battling to land his skills.
LEFT WINGSIMON GAGNE
The former Philadelphia Flyer has had problems staying on the ice in recent years, but is still a productive two-way player when healthy. Gagne has averaged just over 56 games per regular season since 2007-08, but he has managed 172 points (75 goals, 97 assists) over 225 games in that span. He is also coming off consecutive strong postseasons with the Flyers in 2010 and this past spring with Tampa Bay. With his history of injuries the 31-year-old Gagne is a risky proposition, but he could potentially help a contender in a quest for a Stanley Cup.
RIGHT WINGMICHAEL RYDER
Having just won a Stanley Cup title with Boston, Ryder, who like Gagne is 31 years of age, made $4 million a year with the Bruins over the previous three seasons and it will be interesting to see if there are any teams out there willing to give him a pay raise. Ryder scored 30 goals twice during his days with the Montreal Canadiens (2005-08), but after tallying 27 markers in his first year with Boston, he managed just 18 goals in each of the past two campaigns. Still, he had to catch a few GMs eyes with a strong postseason that saw him contribute eight goals and nine assists towards Boston's championship cause. Ryder could wind up on a non-contending team looking to add some veteran scoring.
Ehrhoff, who was seen a few weeks back skating for Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Finals, has seen his rights traded twice since the Canucks lost to the Bruins in Game 7. The 28-year-old German was dealt to the New York Islanders for a fourth-round pick when Vancouver realized it wouldn't be able to keep him and the Isles in turn dealt him to Buffalo a few days later for the same price. The Sabres have a better chance than either of those teams of signing Ehrhoff before he hits the open market, but it seems more likely that he will test the waters. After all, Ehrhoff is coming a season where he matched his career-high in goals (14) and set a personal marks with 36 assists and 50 points. He is without a doubt the best two-way defenseman still available and would be wise to cash in on that status.
Wisniewski gets the slight nod over Tomas Kaberle at this spot. Sure, Kaberle is still a very capable power-play quarterback, but he is also six years Wisniewski's senior and at this point of his career is more or less a power- play specialist. Wisniewski, meanwhile, is just 27 years old and seems to be coming into his prime as an offensive blueliner. He played for both the Islanders and Canadiens in 2010-11 and notched 10 goals and 51 points in 75 combined games. Montreal dealt his rights to Columbus, but with clubs like the Detroit Red Wings interested in signing him, the Blue Jackets may find it difficult to keep Wisniewski from hitting the open market.
With Ilya Bryzgalov inking a nine-year deal in Philadelphia and Dwayne Roloson re-signing with Tampa Bay, Vokoun jumps to the head of this year's free agency goaltending class. Vokoun toiled for the last four years in Florida and at 34 years old he will need to get away from the Panthers and their long playoff drought if the prospect of winning a Stanley Cup appeals to him at all. He posted a goals-against average of 2.55 over 120 games with the Panthers in the last two years and would improve the goaltending situation at many NHL destinations. The Colorado Avalanche are rumored to be in interested in signing Vokoun, as they continue their quest to find a worthy replacement for the legendary Patrick Roy.
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