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So much to choose from among UFAs

by Larry Wigge
It was All-Star weekend in Montreal, where hockey always is on the lips of Canadiens fans and the main topic of conversation -- even among players.

And here's a little anecdote that caught my attention in talking to three or four players while I was in Montreal: "There were three players sitting at a table in their coffee shop. One of the YoungStars wonders, 'What do you think is going to happen? You know ... with the trading deadline coming up?'"

The veteran at the table said, "This, my friend, is where you are going to hear trade rumors involving names that might really surprise you -- including a lot of players here in this room."

That said, the YoungStar looked around. Meanwhile, the veteran pointed to Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, St. Louis forward Keith Tkachuk, Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer, Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom and Montreal forward Alex Kovalev.

The YoungStar said, "He told me, 'I'm not saying they are going to be traded, but each one of those guys can become unrestricted free agents in July -- and if there is any doubt that their teams can re-sign them, they could be dealt.'"

Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg was one of the biggest names on that potential unrestricted free-agent list before he agreed to terms on a new 12-year deal. But there are plenty of potential UFAs left.

The March 4 NHL trade deadline is kind of like a crossroads of life in the present -- with teams looking to get better for a playoff run -- and future -- with other teams trying to grow with young players and draft choices to perhaps be in that position next season.

Even if teams are nudged right up against the $56.7-million salary cap, contenders usually can find some creative ways to make a deal they think will make them stronger for the stretch run and in the playoffs.

Last season, each of the teams in last season's conference semifinals -- Detroit (Brad Stuart), Colorado (Adam Foote, Ruslan Salei), Dallas (Brad Richards), San Jose (Brian Campbell, Jody Shelley, Brian Boucher), Philadelphia (Vinny Prospal), Montreal (traded Cristobal Huet to give the No. 1 goaltending job to Carey Price), Pittsburgh (Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill) and New York Rangers (Fredrik Sjostrom, Christian Backman) -- made a deal before the Feb. 28 deadline.

"Cap and team chemistry are the primary concerns a general manager faces when he looks to make a deal before the deadline," said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

"It's too early to figure out exactly who the sellers are going to be before the deadline," said Blues GM Larry Pleau. "We always know there are buyers."
The easiest way to determine sellers is take a look at the standings and see who's below the playoff cutoff line. The New York Islanders fit that seller category, being 20 points out of a playoff position. Next were Atlanta and Ottawa, 12 points back, followed by Toronto, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, each nine points out of the playoffs.

"In this business, you know what you want," said Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "But trying to acquire players to fill your needs doesn't always happen in the time frame you want or at the price you want to pay. But the bottom line is you have to be active. You can't stand still. You have to be proactive. You have to show the players in your locker room that you're trying to give them everything they need to be the best they can be. I think you owe them that."

In recent weeks, there have been rumors about star players like Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier and Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger being traded. The rumors about Minnesota's Marian Gaborik started early, although the potential free-agent-to-be now is injured and unlikely to be dealt. You can forget about the rumblings of Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk being traded a year before his contract expires with the Thrashers, but there is good reason to expect Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause.

So that brings us back to the potential unrestricted free-agent list and who might be available. For those still unconvinced about where most of these trades will come from, here is a list of UFAs already dealt this season -- Daryl Sydor went from Pittsburgh to Dallas for Philippe Boucher; Brad May went from Anaheim to Toronto; Jason LaBarbera went from Los Angeles to Vancouver; Jason Williams went from Atlanta to Columbus for Clay Wilson; Dany Sabourin went from Pittsburgh to Edmonton. Florida defenseman Cory Murphy went on waivers to Tampa Bay, and Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber, also a potential UFA, likely will wind up in another NHL city soon.

My YoungStar friend laughed when I asked him to play GM for the moment. He said, "Maybe it's like sitting in that coffee shop looking at the menu. Do you pick from Column A, Column B, or C or D? That's too tough for me to say."

OK, pal. Here's the potential unrestricted free agent menu for you to peruse:

Column A (the appetizers, finger foods)

The hot wing scorers -- Buffalo's Maxim Afinogenov and Ales Kotalik; Calgary's Michael Cammalleri and David Moss; Chicago's Martin Havlat; Dallas' Jere Lehtinen, Joel Lundqvist and Mark Parrish; Detroit's Mikael Samuelsson; Minnesota's Marian Gaborik (injured); Montreal's Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay; Nashville's Steve Sullivan; New Jersey's Brian Gionta; Pittsburgh's Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan; Tampa Bay's Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts; Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski; Vancouver's Daniel Sedin.

The salad/fajita/chili energy players -- Anaheim's Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant and Travis Moen; Boston's P.J. Axelsson; Colorado's Ben Guite and Ian Laperriere; Florida's Radek Dvorak; Los Angeles' Derek Armstrong and Kyle Calder; Minnesota's Stephane Veilleux; Montreal's Mathieu Dandenault and Tom Kostopoulos; Nashville's Radek Bonk and Vernon Fiddler; the Rangers' Blair Betts; Ottawa's Dean McAmmond and Chris Neil; San Jose's Mike Grier; St. Louis' Dan Hinote; Toronto's Dominic Moore and Jeremy Williams; Vancouver's Alex Burrows.

The shakes/protein-filled beverages power-forward section -- Calgary's Todd Bertuzzi; Detroit's Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen; Edmonton's Erik Cole; New Jersey's Mike Rupp; the Islanders' Bill Guerin; Philadelphia's Mike Knuble; St. Louis' Keith Tkachuk and Brad Winchester; Vancouver's Taylor Pyatt; Washington's Viktor Kozlov.
"It's too early to figure out exactly who the sellers are going to be before the deadline. We always know there are buyers." -- Blues GM Larry Pleau

The sandwiches with something good in the middle -- Anaheim's Brendan Morrison; Atlanta's Marty Reasoner; Buffalo's Tim Connolly; Colorado's Joe Sakic; Columbus' Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca; Montreal's Saku Koivu and Robert Lang; New Jersey's John Madden; the Islanders' Mike Comrie, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger (injured); Phoenix's Steven Reinprecht; St. Louis' Andy McDonald; Toronto's Nik Antropov; Vancouver's Henrik Sedin; Washington's Sergei Fedorov.

Column B (main entrees: steaks, fish, chicken, pastas)

The meat and potato defensemen -- Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin (injured) and Kent Huskins; Atlanta's Mathieu Schneider and Niclas Havelid; Boston's Shane Hnidy; Buffalo's Jaroslav Spacek; Calgary's Adrian Aucoin; Carolina's Dennis Seidenberg; Colorado's Jordan Leopold; Columbus' Christian Backman; Dallas' Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov; Florida's Jay Bouwmeester and Nick Boynton; Los Angeles' Sean O'Donnell; Minnesota's Marc-Andre Bergeron, Eric Reitz and Martin Skoula; Montreal's Mike Komisarek; Nashville's Greg de Vries, Ville Koistinen and Greg Zanon; New Jersey's Johnny Oduya; the Rangers' Dmitri Kalinin and Paul Mara; Ottawa's Filip Kuba; Philadelphia's Andrew Alberts; Phoenix's Derek Morris; Pittsburgh's Philippe Boucher, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi; San Jose's Rob Blake and Kyle McLaren; Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund.

Column C (drinks)

Stirred yet not explosive goaltenders -- Boston's Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez; Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin; Colorado's Andrew Raycroft; Detroit's Ty Conklin; Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson; Los Angeles' Erik Ersberg; Minnesota's Nicklas Backstrom; New Jersey's Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes; Ottawa's Martin Gerber; Philadelphia's Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki; Phoenix's Mikael Tellqvist; San Jose's Brian Boucher; St. Louis' Manny Legace; Washington's Brent Johnson.

Column D (specials)

Players who rumors say are most likely to change teams by the deadline -- Mike Comrie; Nik Antropov; Brendan Morrison; Mathieu Schneider; Maxim Afinogenov; Greg de Vries; Kyle McLaren; Niclas Havelid; Michael Peca; Jay Bouwmeester; Manny Legace; Mark Recchi; Gary Roberts.

Bon appetit!

Then and now -- Seeing Joe Thornton at the All-Star Game and seeing San Jose atop the Western Conference, and Boston, which traded Thornton in November 2005, atop the East, underscores the job both teams have done since that blockbuster deal.

The Sharks trail only Detroit in regular-season winning percentage since the trade, and have averaged more goals (3.16) than everyone except the Red Wings, Sabres and Senators since the deal.

"I'm not going to get ahead of myself here and predict who is where at the end of this season," Thornton said of a potential San Jose-Boston match in the Stanley Cup Final. "But it sure would be neat to meet in the finals."

The Sharks have built on Thornton as a cornerstone, along with Patrick Marleau; the pair just happened to go 1-2 in the 1997 Entry Draft. Meanwhile, Boston GM Peter Chiarelli has done a masterful job since coming from Ottawa, first signing free agents Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. He reshaped an old, immobile defense, starting with Chara and acquiring Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, Dennis Wideman and Shane Hnidy in trades, along with forward Chuck Kobasew, and brought in goaltender Manny Fernandez to share time with holdover Tim Thomas. But drafting and bringing along prospects like Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Milan Lucic was the biggest key to Boston's return to glory.

Living an Elite life -- Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg joked on the eve of his first Stanley Cup Final last June that what's next for him might be to win a championship in the Swedish Elite League. Now that he's re-signed with the Red Wings for 12 years, he'll have to settle for some more Cups, eh?

Other Red Wings players signed through at least 2012 include forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula, and defensemen Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart.

A comfortable hat size -- Michael Cammalleri didn't score in his first three games in January, but he has 11 goals in seven games since to give him 25 for the season -- just nine short of his career-high of 34 set in 2006-07.

Cammalleri's father, Leo, never said there was a goal too high for him to reach when he was younger. Size? It's never been a problem for the diminutive Cammalleri, who said, "I'll never forget my dad telling me, 'It's not basketball, where the rim is 10 feet high. It’s hockey, and the puck is on the ice.'"

Two of Cammalleri's three goals Jan. 28 against the Sabres came in the third period as the Flames continued to score goals when they count -- giving them at least one third-period goal in each of their last 14 games. It's the Flames' longest such streak since 1992, when they scored goals in the third period in 17 consecutive games (Oct. 31-Dec. 7).

Making the Oilers cry uncle -- During the 2004 Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers wanted to choose University of North Dakota forward Drew Stafford at No. 14. Buffalo beat them to him, picking him one spot earlier. On Jan. 27, Stafford played his first game in Edmonton, where his uncle, Barrie, is the team's long-time equipment manager.

It was a game the Oilers won't soon forget. Stafford scored 10 seconds into the contest and then added two more goals in the third period to boost Buffalo to a 10-2 victory.

Said Stafford: "This one was special for me. It was my first time here playing in front of my uncle, seeing me live. Growing up and hanging out with him and that team, it was pretty special, pretty unique."

Things that make you go hmm -- Yankee bashers? Well, yes. That was Detroit Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood's reaction to the NHL suspending Detroit players Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk for refusing to go to the All-Star Game in Montreal. Said Osgood, "In the new cap era, the League is built for different teams to win every year, so it wouldn't be good for the League if we won again, would it? I think we are probably the New York Yankees of the NHL. People dislike us."

On the rise -- One of the interesting stories to watch is how the players who skated in the YoungStars game might gain in confidence and increase production after rubbing shoulders with their veteran peers during All-Star weekend. First case: Florida's Michael Frolik, who a goal and 2 assists in a 3-2 triumph against Philadelphia on Jan. 27. It was Frolik's first career three-point game. ... Offense from the defense continues to drive the Panthers, who got a goal from Bryan McCabe in the win against Philadelphia. That gave Florida defensemen 31 goals this season -- most in the NHL. ... Brandon Dubinsky is one of those players whose production rose after the YoungStars game last season. This season, his goals haven't been plenty, but they've been big. On Jan. 27, he scored the game-winner in a 3-2 victory against Carolina. Six of his eight goals this season have been game-winners. ... Here's one of those getting better with age stories. New Jersey's Scott Clemmensen reached 20 wins (he had only eight career NHL wins coming into this season) at age 31 years, 188 days. Only three active goaltenders posted their first 20-win season at a more advanced age than Clemmensen -- Dwayne Roloson (age 33 for Minnesota in 2002-03), Tim Thomas (age 32 for Boston in 2006-07) and Cristobal Huet (age 32 for Montreal in 2007-08). ... Then and now with Dallas goalie Marty Turco: Before Nov. 30, Turco was 1-4-3 with a 4.37 goals-against average and woeful .829 save percentage at home. Since then, he has gone 10-2-1 with a 2.38 GAA and .910 save percentage, including his 2-0 shutout of Atlanta on Jan. 27. ... Anaheim's Bobby Ryan is the first rookie to score 11 goals in a calendar month since March 2006, when Alex Ovechkin turned the trick. He extended his five-game goal streak Jan. 28 against Chicago. ... Ottawa, which earned seven of eight points in a four-game stretch going into the break, was faced with playing its final 36 games in 75 days, including six back-to-back situations in which the Senators play the second game on the road five times. It also includes a five-game trip next month and a six-gamer in March. Ottawa was 5-14-3 away from home before they went to St. Louis for a Jan. 29 game. ... Here's a good 40-game comparison: Detroit's Johan Franzen had just 9 goals after 40 games last season. After finding his confidence in the second-half of last season and in the Red Wings' playoff run, he came back with 21 goals in his first 40 games this season.

Playoff debate -- Columbus was 0-3-1 coming out of the All-Star break last season. This season, the Blue Jackets posted a 3-2 overtime victory against Detroit in their first game back. Captain Rick Nash scored all three goals, becoming the first player to score at least three goals in one game and have them be his team's only scores, including one in overtime, since Alex Ovechkin did it for Washington at Atlanta on Dec. 15, 2006.

Welcome back -- Patrice Bergeron had not played since suffering his second concussion in a 14-month span Dec. 20 after colliding with Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. Playing on the wing rather than at center to see if that might help his safety, Bergeron played 17:38, had an assist, one takeaway and two blocked shots in Boston's 3-2 overtime victory against Washington on Jan. 27. ... Philadelphia's Simon Gagne reached the 20-goal mark Tuesday. Not bad for another victim of concussions who saw his season cut to just 25 games last season. ... The Anaheim Ducks won only five times in 16 games without sniper Teemu Selanne, recovering from having the quadriceps muscle in his left leg sliced by his own skate a little more than a month ago. Once he gets his timing back, that's another weapon the Ducks will need to cinch a playoff spot. ... Thomas Vanek netted goal No. 29 in Buffalo's first game after the break. Bet you didn't know that 19 of Vanek's 29 goals have come on the road this season. ... Low-scoring Wild? Following a 6-1 win against Toronto on Jan. 27, Minnesota had scored four or more goals four times in their last six games. ... Milan Michalek is starting to heat up for the Sharks. After a two-goal effort in Colorado on Jan. 27, he had 4 goals and 4 assists in his last five games. ... What do Jere Lehtinen and Steve Ott have in common with Mike Ribeiro? One thing is that the work by Lehtinen and Ott bring out the blue-collar worker in Ribeiro, who had a four-goal, three-assist four-game outburst. ... Looking for fantasy league points? Recently Colorado's Cody McLeod joined St. Louis' David Backes as the only players in the NHL with 10 or more goals and 100 or more penalty minutes. Backes has 16 goals and McLeod 11. ... Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith is back. To start an eight-game trip, Keith's steady play and ability to move from defense into the offense helped the Blackhawks win in Anaheim 3-2 on Jan. 28 -- after the team lost three of four without him. ... Power? When the Nashville Predators clicked for three power-play goals in a six-minute span at the end of the second period and beginning of the third, it represented the team's first three power-play goal game in 144 starts -- ending the longest such stretch in the NHL. The Preds' 29th-ranked power play got goals by Martin Erat, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont in the outburst. ... The Petr Principle: For Pittsburgh's Petr Sykora, that means light it up at home whenever possible. After scoring twice in the Penguins' 6-2 victory against the New York Rangers on Jan. 28, Sykora now has 15 of his 19 goals at Mellon Arena. ... Trying to intimidate Sidney Crosby? Apparently that's what the Rangers tried to do Jan. 28, sending Colton Orr on the ice to try to muscle up on Crosby. But even coming off an injury that caused him to miss the All-Star Game, Crosby led the Penguins with a goal and 3 assists in the victory.

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