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Free Agency Primer: Up Front

by Glen Andresen & Carly Peters / Minnesota Wild

The NHL's free agency period kicks off on Thursday at 11:00 a.m. central time, with a little less hullabaloo than in previous years. While there are talented players available, there are few (with the exception of Ilya Kovalchuk) that might be considered "game-changers."
Yet, there will be very talented players shuttling around the League as teams, including the Wild, look to fill holes and needs. will look at some of the free agents available as of today. Keep in mind that some of these players may sign before Thursday hits, and some are likely of little or no interest to Wild management.

There are still names of interest to Wild fans, so today, we'll look at some of the wingers and centers that will become free agents on July 1.

The Wild Situation
: The Wild has one center (Andrew Ebbett) and three wingers (Owen Nolan, Derek Boogaard and Robbie Earl) set to hit unrestricted free agency. As it stands now, the front lines look like this:


Current Wild free agents
: Ebbett, Nolan, Boogaard and Earl.

Maxim Afinogenov - RW - 6-0, 190 - Age, 30 – Atlanta Thrashers

A three-time member of the Russian Olympic Team, including this past February in Vancouver, Afinogenov showcased he still has the goods in his first year in Atlanta. After spending nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Afinogenov notched a career-high 24 goals with the Thrashers, adding 37 assists and tying his second-best point total with 61.

The plus side: He’s a veteran with plenty of big-game experience and has totaled 395 points (158-237) in 651 regular-season games. It doesn't hurt to have a guy that’s averaged more than a point every two games in the league.

The negative: He reportedly turned down a one-year contract offer from the Thrashers in May and is looking for something larger. Does a player who put up just 20 points two years ago warrant a big deal?

Matt Cullen - C - 6-1, 200 - Age, 33 - Ottawa Senators

The Virginia, Minnesota native was rumored to be close to coming to his homeland back in the summer of 2006, when the Wild made it's first big splash in the free agency pool by signing Kim Johnsson, Keith Carney, Mark Parrish and Branko Radivojevic. Instead, he wound up with the New York Rangers, and he's played for three teams since.

The plus side: With speed and hands, Cullen can find the net, and his teammates. He's also responsible defensively.

The negative: The Senators want him back, so it may be tough to lure him away from a late (and big) contract offer in Canada's capital.

Alexander Frolov - LW - 6-2, 208 - Age, 28 – Los Angeles Kings

Frolov’s 51 points (19-32=51) last season were short of most of his previous seasons, but his output and his skill is nothing to scoff at. In seven seasons with the Kings, he’s averaged over 54 points per year and has twice topped the 30-goal mark.

The plus side: Offensive skill and the ability to put points on the board. After his 31-point rookie season, he’s never been short of 48 points in the year.

The negative: He’s not known for his all-around game, or his work ethic. But the real problem for most teams will be Frolov’s asking price. The value of his consistent offensive numbers has already created a problem with a Kings contract, and could very well be the problem for NHL teams that can’t match the dollars offered in the KHL.

Saku Koivu - C - 5-10, 182 - Age, 35 - Anaheim Ducks

Another center who was close to signing in Minnesota, although this one was more recent. Koivu nearly became a teammate of his brother, Mikko. Eventually, he decided not to infringe on Mikko's rising star, and opted for Anaheim. After a solid 52 point season there, he's back on the market in less than 24 hours.

The plus side: A great teammate, and a great playmaker. He was the most beloved Finnish player in the League for a reason.

The negative: Age (35) is somewhat of a factor, but he didn't show many signs of slowing last year.

Zenon Konopka - C/LW - 6-0, 211 - Age, 29 – Tampa Bay Lightning

After paying his dues for years in the minors, Konopka played his first full season in the NHL in 2009-10. This guy is grit with a capital G and he didn’t shy away from fighting in the big show. In fact, Konopka led the NHL with 265 PIM and 33 major penalties. He also totaled five points (2-3=5) in 74 games.

The plus side: Konopka clearly doesn’t mind being the guy with the most physical role on the team. Beyond the fisticuffs, he’s got a passion for the game, showing hustle and doing whatever it takes for his team to get on the board.

The negative: A physical, hard-working presence is always important for a hockey team, but it's not exactly a sexy addition for teams looking to add scoring.

Ilya Kovalchuk - LW - 6-2, 230 - Age, 27 - New Jersey Devils

Kovalchuk is undoubtedly the player everyone in the hockey world will be looking at come July 1. Some media outlets have gone as far as to call him the biggest free agent ever. If you’ve watched him play, it’s clear why his skill is so sought after, and now everyone’s just waiting to see what team he chooses to showcase it. One possible - but seemingly doubtful - possibility has Kovalchuk leaving the NHL for the familiar land of his native Russia and what would have to be assumed as an extremely lucrative contract in the KHL.

The plus side: Kovalchuk can embarrass defensemen and goalies alike with his handling of the puck and his shot. At only 27, he has plenty of time to make a long and expensive contract worth the price tag.

The negative: There aren’t many teams that will be able to afford his expected contract without getting rid of some expensive players on their current rosters. In this free agent class, Kovalchuk is the cream of the crop and is going to demand big money for a looong time. Plus, there’s the whole “went to the Devils and didn’t get them out of the first round” thing.

Matthew Lombardi - C - 6-0, 198 - Age, 28 - Phoenix Coyotes

If Ilya Bryzgalov was the number one factor in the sudden rise of Phoenix, Lombardi may have been 1A. He had a career-year with the Yotes, putting up 19 goals and 34 assists.

The plus side: He's arguably the fastest center on the market, and maybe the League. He's also an asset on the power play.

The negative: Will his breakout season lead to overpayment? Lombardi has had one 20-goal season (with Calgary in 2006-07) since breaking into the League in 2003.

Brendan Morrison - C - 5-11, 181 - Age, 34 - Washington Capitals

Morrison's best year's may have been in Vancouver when he was playing alongside Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. But he's still a major contributor everywhere he goes. Of course, he was surrounded by some talent last year as well. As a Capital, he tallied 12 goals and 30 assists as well as a +23 rating.

The plus side: He's been around, and he can still play.

The negative: His production has been declining the past three seasons.

Miroslav Satan - RW - 6-3, 191 - Age, 35 – Boston Bruins

After signing with the Bruins as a free agent in January, Satan impressed and showcased his ability to be a threat to the opposition, even after 14 NHL seasons. He totaled 14 points (9-5=14) in 38 games with Boston, adding 10 points (5-5=10) in 13 playoff games. At his age, an expensive, long-term contract is pretty much out of the question, but a team might be willing to spend a few extra dollars on a short-term contract with a guy with his experience.

The plus side: He’s not just a veteran that can help lead your club, he’s a veteran that’s totaled 735 points (363-372=735) in 1,050 regular-season games. He’s not in 75-point form like 2002-03, but his half-season with the Bruins showcased he still has gas left in the tank.

The negative: With only so much contract money to give out, do you want to use that precious resource on a guy who is on the downhill slope? The salary his career is going to command might be better spent on a longer-term contact with a younger player.

Stephane Veilleux - LW - 6-1, 190 - Age, 28 – Tampa Bay Lightning

The former Wild winger signed with Tampa Bay last year as an unrestricted free agent after playing parts of six seasons in Minnesota. The man who can light up a ping-pong table saw his production slow on the ice with the Lightning, dropping from a career-high 23 points (13-10=23) in 2008-09 with Minnesota to nine points (3-6=9) last season with the Lightning. He did turn in a solid tennis performance against Andy Roddick.

The plus side: As was the case when he played in Minnesota, Veilleux still brings the energy in the lineup. He’s not afraid to get banged around and be a grinder for the good of the team. Plus, he’s always worked to give the crowd its moneys worth, including his Kiss Cam moment in Phoenix.

The negative: Veilleux certainly has a knack for playing a tough, physical role, but teams rarely have trouble finding players in their own systems to fill that role.

Former Wild free agents: Eric Belanger, Dominic Moore, Rickard Wallin, Richard Park, Mark Parrish, Petr Sykora, Pavol Demitra, Veilleux
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