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Kovalchuk leads list of remaining free agents

by John Kreiser /
So you spent the first day of free agency eagerly refreshing on your computer, anxious to see if your team had signed the player you "knew" it had to have to take that next step (maybe the final one) to winning the Cup.

If your team got "your" guy (or guys), great. But if not, don't be discouraged -- just because 30 or so free agents signed on Thursday doesn't mean the shelves are empty. There's still a lot of talent out there, waiting for the right offer.

That list includes the valedictorian of the Free Agent Class of 2010.

Day 1 of free agency came and went without Ilya Kovalchuk putting his name on the big-bucks contract he's sure to get. Kovalchuk, coming off his sixth consecutive 40-goal season, is by far the biggest sniper on the market. At 27, he's in his prime and figures to be among the NHL's top scorers for years to come.

New Jersey traded for Kovalchuk in January, and he had 10 goals and 27 points in 27 games for the Devils, who would like him to return. President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello committed a lot of money to defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder on Thursday, but told the media that "we're still in it" when asked about the possibility of finding a way to keep Kovalchuk. It's also believed Los Angeles is a favored destination for him to end up.

While there was a run on top-flight defensemen during Thursday's signing spree, the same couldn't be said for the two biggest-name goaltenders to hit the market. Neither Evgeni Nabokov nor Marty Turco found a new home on Thursday.

Nabokov, 34, is coming off three consecutive 40-win seasons with San Jose before the Sharks opted not to re-sign him. Turco, also 34, rebounded from a poor 2008-09 with a good season for a Dallas team that missed the playoffs again.

The problem for both goaltenders is that they're starters who hit the market in a year when most teams aren't looking for a big-ticket goaltender. On Thursday, San Jose replaced Nabokov with Antero Niittymaki, Atlanta signed Chris Mason and former Nashville backup Dan Ellis was snapped up by Tampa Bay, where he'll battle Mike Smith for the starting job.

All that activity -- and the fact that a lot of teams are increasingly close to the salary cap -- leaves veterans such as Nabokov, Turco and Jose Theodore, Washington's starter this past season, among the veterans who may have to settle for a backup role.

Defensemen were the big item on Thursday, with Ottawa (Sergei Gonchar), New Jersey (Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder) and Pittsburgh (Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin) among the teams ponying up big bucks for help on the blue line. But that doesn't mean there's nothing left on the shelf, though some of the talent still out there has a few miles on it.

Among the defensemen still out there are 33-year-old Pavel Kubina, 32-year-old Joe Corvo and 35-year-old Andy Sutton. Also available are solid veterans Willie Mitchell (33) and Kim Johnsson (34), both of whom are coming off concussion-shortened seasons. There are also numerous depth defensemen available, as well as power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron.

It's a thin year for centers, and the best one still on the market is speedy Matthew Lombardi, who won't be back with the Phoenix Coyotes. Phoenix GM Don Maloney said the two sides were "not on the same page whatsoever" and that the Coyotes will use Wojtek Wolski as a center next season to fill Lombardi's spot.

Other centers still out there include Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison, both of whom played for Washington, as well as future Hall of Famer Mike Modano, who will have to wear a jersey other than that of the Dallas Stars if he wants to continue his career. The Stars announced earlier this week that they won't offer the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history another contract at age 40.

The supply of wings is a little more ample. Teams that find Kovalchuk's price too rich for their wallet but still need offense might be attracted by the likes of Alexander Frolov, Lee Stempniak, Maxim Afinogenov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Former All-Stars Paul Kariya (now 36) and Bill Guerin (39) may also be able to help the right team in the right role, and the list of role players and energy forwards includes guys like Raffi Torres, Glen Metropolit, John Madden and Arron Asham.

So if your team didn't spend Thursday fulfilling your wish list -- don't despair. The shopping process figures to go on for a while longer.

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