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EJ 10: Free-agent class will make for fun summer

by EJ Hradek /
With the trade deadline now past, we won't see any more significant player movement until the summer. Then, we should witness several fascinating deals after the Stanley Cup Final in June. Namely, I believe a fellow by the name of Rick Nash will end up in a North American city other than Columbus, Ohio, sometime before the NHL Draft.
For this week's edition of the EJ 10, however, I'm going to look past June, to the class of potential unrestricted free agents that could hit the market July 1.
Now, there are several old pros that'll need new deals if they're going to continue their spectacular careers. That UFA list includes Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur, Shane Doan and Ryan Smyth. I figure those guys will be staying with their current teams or hanging up their skates.
After that, there's some pretty interesting talent slated to hit the market July 1. Here are 10 guys -- not necessarily the best 10 on the market, although some clearly would fit in that category – that would be nice additions in a number of different places.
Ryan Suter, D, Predators
Ryan Suter
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 30 | PTS: 37
SOG: 108 | +/-: 13
The addition of an elite defenseman can change the fortunes of a franchise. That's why I believe Suter would be the most sought-after free agent in the summer class of 2012, if he were to test the market.
The 27-year-old Suter currently averages 26:36 minutes, the fourth highest per-game average in the League. He has 37 points and a plus-13 rating in 61 games. The numbers, though, only tell part of the story. Suter's sublime puck skills and defensive smarts round out his complete game.
At this point, the former University of Wisconsin star says he's focused on a Stanley Cup push in Nashville. At season's end, he'll consider his future. Suter isn't averse to staying in Music City; but he wants to be certain that the franchise has the financial wherewithal necessary to remain a Cup contender.
Zach Parise, LW, Devils
After a bum knee limited him to just 13 games during the 2010-11 campaign, Parise has returned to full-time duty this season, putting up 23 goals and 52 points in 62 games. A strong finish would push him into the 30-goal club for the fifth time in six seasons.
The Devils' bounce-back season gives the club a better chance to retain their captain, and GM Lou Lamoriello has indicated the club will do what it takes to keep him in Newark. If, however, Parise chose to go to market, he'd find many, many interested suitors.
Alex Semin, RW, Capitals
Alexander Semin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 24 | PTS: 41
SOG: 136 | +/-: 8
The wonderfully talented Semin has been an enigma to many fans. He can thrill with his speed and puck skills on one shift and frustrate with his seeming indifference on the next.
Semin, who turns 28 on Saturday, has three 30-goal seasons on his NHL resume. This year, in 59 games, he has 17 goals and 41 points. Even my math says those numbers are down.
If Semin were to land on the open market, I'd be curious to see how many teams would make a serious pitch to land him. My guess is more than you might think. While he might drive you a little crazy, Semin's kind of skill is pretty unique.
Dennis Wideman, D, Capitals
In a league where offensive-minded, puck-moving defensemen have become extremely valuable, Wideman would likely garner many calls July 1.
A first-time All-Star selection in January, he has been a saving grace in D.C. with the absence of top defender Mike Green, who has been sidelined by injury for long chunks of the season. Wideman, who'll turn 29 on March 20, has compiled 39 points, ranking him sixth among defensemen in scoring.
Potential suitors would be making the investment based on his offensive skills, rather than his ability to defend in his own zone. If available, there will be a market for him.
Brad Stuart, D, Wings
Brad Stuart
Defense - DET
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 15
SOG: 68 | +/-: 17
The No. 3 pick (Sharks) in the 1998 NHL Draft, Stuart began his career in San Jose during the 1999-2000 season as a defender who had more of an offensive component to his game.
A dozen years and four teams later, Stuart has settled into a more defensive-minded, physical role in Detroit, where he was part of a championship team in 2008.
For my money, the 32-year-old fits best where he currently resides. If he can't work out a new deal in Hockeytown, there will be teams seeking a veteran defender with Cup-winning experience. In other words, he'll have options.
Jason Garrison, D, Panthers
There aren't many defensemen that have a shot big enough to consistently bury the biscuit from the blue line.
Apparently, Garrison has become one of those guys.
In 113 career games prior to this season, the undrafted Florida defenseman scored just 7 goals. This year, in 57 games, the 27-year-old already has netted 14 goals.
While the Panthers are thrilled with his contribution, they're not quite sure if they want to give him a monster raise based on one breakout season. If Garrison likes life in South Florida, he might sacrifice a little money to stay with the rebuilding club.
If he can't work out a new deal with the Panthers, I would imagine there are a few teams with poor power-play units that might see Garrison (and his heavy shot) as a big upgrade for next season.
Brandon Prust, RW, Rangers
Brandon Prust
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 14
SOG: 48 | +/-: 4
While the stars get the big money, hockey remains a team game. There are many components that make up a successful group. That's why a tough, versatile bottom-six forward like Prust could be a valuable acquisition for the right team in the summer -- if he can't agree to a new deal in New York.
In 61 games, the Ontario native has just 3 goals and 14 points, but he's piled up 128 penalty minutes through his physical play and his willingness to fight, either to protect a teammate or to set a tempo in a particular game.
Prust, who turns 28 on March 16, is a respected teammate that understands his role within the group. And he's a good enough player that he doesn't hurt when he's on the ice against an opponent's top guns. If available, I imagine there'd be several teams interested in having a conversation with him.
Shawn Thornton, RW, Bruins
Along the same lines, the 34-year-old Thornton has been a valuable fourth-line tough guy for the Bruins. In last spring's Cup Final series against the Canucks, Thornton's physical presence helped turn the tide. He's among the reasons why nobody pushes around the Bruins.
Thornton has also improved his skills over the years to the point where he can occasionally chip in offensively.
While I imagine Thornton will stay in Boston, I know there would be several teams that would love to give him a stall in their dressing room.
Josh Harding, G, Wild
Josh Harding
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 9-9-3
GAA: 2.59 | SVP: 0.919
I have to admit, I was surprised that Harding wasn't moved at the NHL Trade Deadline. After all, he's playing behind Nicklas Backstrom, who still has another year on his contract at $6 million. Even if the Wild wanted to turn the job over to Harding, they'd have a tough time moving Backstrom's contract.
The 27-year-old Harding, who missed the 2010-11 season after suffering a knee injury during a preseason game, has played very well when used. In 24 appearances, Harding has a 9-9-3 record with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. Those numbers would be a big upgrade in several NHL cities.
PA Parenteau, RW, Islanders
After toiling in the American Hockey league for several seasons, the crafty playmaker got a full-time NHL opportunity with the rebuilding Islanders in 2010. He's taken advantage of that chance.
This season, Parenteau has dished out 44 assists, ranking fifth in the League in that statistical category. He currently stands ahead of guys by the names of Malkin, Datsyuk and Spezza. That's not too bad, eh? On the whole, he has 59 points in 63 games.
The fit on Long Island has been good for the Quebec native, who was selected in the ninth round (No. 264) of the 2001 Draft by Anaheim. That's why I suspect he'll likely do a new deal to stay. If he doesn't, however, he has opened enough eyes that he won't have too much of a problem finding another NHL job.

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