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Richards, Jagr, Stamkos could be players to watch

Friday, 07.01.2011 / 12:01 AM / NHL Free Agency 2011

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Richards, Jagr, Stamkos could be players to watch
At noon ET on Friday, the yearly free-agent market opens. Which teams could be the most active? Which players will be most in demand?

Hockey fans already are glued to their computers, smartphones and iPads awaiting word on the next breaking story in an offseason that already is burning up newswires late into the night and starting Twitter arguments.

Hopefully no one has any real plans Friday, either, because while it's Canada Day up north, it's a holiday throughout the hockey world.

NHL clubs can begin signing unrestricted free agents and sending offer sheets to restricted free agents at noon ET on Friday, meaning we'll likely soon find out where Brad Richards is going to continue his career, if Jaromir Jagr actually is coming back to the NHL and what teams like Florida, the Islanders, Colorado and others have in store so they can reach the salary-cap floor of $48.3 million.

The possibility still exists for young stars Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty to receive, and perhaps even sign, offer sheets, as both will become restricted free agents if their respective clubs don't sign them before then.

It's also possible that Stamkos and Doughty dominate the headlines Friday. However, fans should remember that this is not a one-day shopper's market. The free agency signing period only begins Friday; it's open all summer, so don't be shocked when some players go unsigned into the weekend and possibly beyond.

You may remember last year that Brendan Morrison didn't sign with the Flames until October, after he agreed to attend training camp on a professional tryout, and he wound up having a solid season as one of Calgary's top centers. And, of course, Ilya Kovalchuk's contract with the New Jersey Devils wasn't finalized until September, but that was due to extenuating circumstances.

Richards likely won't leave us in the dark for too long. He remains the biggest name on the unrestricted free agent market. Many have him targeted for the New York Rangers, who shed $3.3 million in salary by buying out the contract of former captain Chris Drury.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning also have been linked to Richards, but it's certain his camp will be fielding calls from numerous teams Friday.

Tomas Vokoun is the top goaltender available now that Ilya Bryzgalov has found a new home in Philadelphia on a nine-year contract and Dwayne Roloson is remaining in Tampa Bay. The Panthers want Vokoun back as their No. 1 goalie and have to spend money just to reach the salary-cap floor, but the Avalanche and Coyotes also are in the market for a top netminder and also must spend to get to the floor.

Vokoun could wind up driving up his asking price through a bidding war.

Christian Ehrhoff already has had his negotiating rights traded twice, and right now Buffalo has an exclusive window to sign him. That, of course, closes at noon ET Friday, when if still unsigned Ehrhoff will be among the top defensemen to hit the open market, along with veterans Tomas Kaberle, Ed Jovanovski, Sami Salo and Roman Hamrlik.

Kaberle will test the market, but Boston GM Peter Chiarelli said Thursday that he still has interest in bringing him back. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis has expressed interest in re-signing Salo, while Jovanovski and Hamrlik likely will wind up with new teams.

While Richards headlines the forwards expected to be available, there are others that should bring some bang for what could be a reasonable buck.

Most notable among them is Jagr, who has left the hockey world in the lurch over the last couple of days as he reportedly contemplates contract offers from the Penguins, Red Wings and perhaps the Canadiens as well.

Jagr has spent the last three seasons playing in Russia and is 39 years old, but appears willing to re-start his star-studded NHL career.

The only questions are where and for how much?

The Penguins have a reported offer of one year for $2 million on the table, but as of Thursday afternoon Jagr had not accepted it.

He can't sign until the market opens Friday.

Pittsburgh doesn't appear to have any plans on signing Maxime Talbot or Michael Rupp, so two former Stanley Cup winners should be available.

The fact that Erik Cole hasn't re-signed in Carolina yet suggests the Hurricanes could lose the 26-goal scorer. However, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford has, over the course of the last few days, re-signed Joni Pitkanen, Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen, so perhaps Cole could be next.

That said, Cole's agent told the Charlotte Observer earlier this week that his 32-year-old client wants to test the free-agent waters.

Tim Connolly will be one of the more intriguing players available only because of the potential he has shown when healthy. The issue for Connolly, who has played the last eight seasons in Buffalo, is staying healthy. He has played more than 70 games only once in the past six seasons, and played just 68 last season.

Buffalo still remains a viable option for Connolly, but he appears ready to test his value on the open market.

Ville Leino will be an interesting target for various teams considering he's been a marquee player for the Flyers since the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring 79 points over the course of 111 combined regular-season and playoff games.

The Flyers want to re-sign Leino, but they also have to get Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds under contract as both recent acquisitions in the trades for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, respectively, can become restricted free agents when the market opens Friday.

Let's also not forget about former Flyer Simon Gagne, whose one season in Tampa Bay was riddled with injuries. However, Gagne only is 31 years old and he's a two-time 40-goal scorer who has played in the Stanley Cup Final and made four appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Of the teams to watch, two most definitely are the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

Unlike last season, when the Hawks had to shed salary and lost a chunk of their Stanley Cup-winning roster, this year they've got some cash to spend. They started Thursday by signing defenseman Steve Montador to a four-year deal reportedly worth $11 million. The deal was struck one day after acquiring his negotiating rights from the Buffalo Sabres.

The Red Wings also have money to spend with Brian Rafalski's contract coming off the books with his retirement last month. Ehrhoff could be a replacement for Rafalski provided he's not signed by Buffalo, and Jagr also is considering coming to Detroit. Detroit has also reportedly re-signed defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.

Don't be shocked to see the Blackhawks and Red Wings get involved with some other names as well.

In fact, don't be shocked about anything that happens Friday and beyond.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie