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Free agent pond remains stocked even without Stamkos

Forwards Lucic, Eriksson highlight talent available Friday

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The biggest fish got reeled back in by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, taking a bite out the unrestricted free agent Class of 2016.

The absence of Steven Stamkos, who signed an eight-year contract with the Lightning on Wednesday, eliminates some of the intrigue from the free-agent fishing frenzy that begins when the market opens at 12 p.m. ET on Friday.

Without Stamkos the market is leaner but well-stocked. There will be plenty of lines in the water to hook the big-name players still available.

Let's start with forward Milan Lucic, an intriguing player because of his ability to mesh his size (6-foot-3, 233 pounds) and physical play with his skill.

He had 20 goals and 55 points in 81 games with the Los Angeles Kings this season. His next contract likely will be polarizing because of questions about his ability to continue as a power forward for the duration of the long-term contract he likely will demand.

Lucic, 28, has been linked in reports with the Edmonton Oilers. It makes sense. He's a left wing and the Oilers traded their top left wing, Taylor Hall, to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli had Lucic in Boston and Lucic was a vital cog in the 2011 Stanley Cup victory with Boston. Chiarelli had moved on by the time Lucic was traded to Los Angeles in June 2015.

Now Chiarelli has a chance to get Lucic back and potentially put him on a line with center Connor McDavid, hoping Lucic finds the chemistry he used to have with David Krejci in Boston and with Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles.

Right wing Loui Eriksson, another player Chiarelli had in Boston, could be leaving there as an unrestricted free agent.

Video: The Best of the Free Agents Still Available

Eriksson is 30 and coming off a 30-goal, 63-point season. Eriksson is a versatile forward and would be a great catch for any team. 

What about center David Backes and his future? Will the long-time captain of the St. Louis Blues pull a Stamkos and return on a salary cap-friendly contract to the only NHL team he's known?

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has expressed a desire to have Backes return and eventually retire as a Blue, but he wants him back on terms palatable to the Blues. We still don't know Backes' terms and what kind of contract he would get on the open market. We'll likely find out Friday.

Then there's Kyle Okposo, the pending unrestricted free agent right wing from the New York Islanders. He's going to get a significant raise from the $2.8 million average annual value of his previous contract. But from which team?

How about the Minnesota Wild, who have the cap space to use, especially with the buyout of forward Thomas Vanek's contract June 24?

Okposo, 28, is from St. Paul, Minn., and Wild left wing Zach Parise is a close friend.

The Wild need scoring help, and if they're going to get it from a wing their preference could Okposo, who had 22 goals and 64 points in 79 games this season. Then again, the Wild's real need is a top-two center, but finding one in free agency is tough, if not impossible.

Or is it?

The answer depends on how Eric Staal is valued. Staal, 31, may still be seen as being worthy of top-six forward minutes. He has said he wants a defined role, not necessarily as the focal point at forward, and wants to play center.

Video: PIT@NYR: E. Staal nets his second goal of the game

Staal is looking to resurrect his career after he had 13 goals and 39 points this season, his worst totals since he was a rookie. That included three goals in 20 games with the New York Rangers after getting traded by the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 29. 

He struggled to adapt to a new team after playing the first 909 games of his NHL career with the Hurricanes. It didn't help that the Rangers toggled him between center and left wing in a third-line role. After not producing during the regular season, he had no points in five Stanley Cup Playoff games.

If Staal doesn't move the needle, maybe 32-year-old Frans Nielsen does. In 10 seasons with the Islanders, the underrated center won faceoffs and played strong in the defensive zone.

There's also forwards Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer, character players and experienced playoff performers. There's also Mikkel Boedker, a 26-year-old left wing who hasn't reached his full potential after being selected with the eighth pick of the 2008 NHL Draft.

And don't forget about the defensemen. There may not be a true No. 1 on the market, but Jason Demers, Kris Russell, Dan Hamhuis and Brian Campbell are among those that could play top-four roles.

The biggest fish might have been caught Wednesday, but there's still plenty of intrigue for the free-agent fishing derby that starts Friday.

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