Hockey

NHL free agency: Eastern Conference preview

A look at every Eastern Conference team's pending free agents, available cap space and key decisions leading up to the start of the NHL's free-agent signing period on July 1.
Will the Ottawa Senators send disgruntled sniper Dany Heatley packing? ((Claus Andersen/Getty Images))

General managers have dished out a number of lavish contracts during the NHL free agency over the years, seemingly forgetting that they preach financial self-control the rest of the time.

This year's crop hoping to cash in include Flames defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, Red Wings forward Marian Hossa, Wild sniper Marian Gaborik, the Canucks' playmaking twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Montreal forwards Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev.

The NHL's salary cap is set to increase by only $100,000 US, bringing the maximum a team can spend to $56.8 million next season. It's also the first time the cap has been minimally raised after ballooning by more than $17 million over the previous three years.

Teams have repeatedly stated they want restraint this time, with the cap expected to be significantly reduced in two seasons due to the troubled economy.

Will the GMs adhere to this philosophy or simply throw millions of dollars at free-agent players in the hope of winning the Stanley Cup?

Here's a look at every Eastern Conference team's pending unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA), estimated available cap space* and key decisions leading up to the big day on July 1.

*source: NHLnumbers.com

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Pittsburgh Penguins

UFA:  F Ruslan Fedotenko, F Miroslav Satan, F Petr Sykora, F Mike Zigomanis, D Philippe Boucher, D Hall Gill, D Rob Scuderi, G Mathieu Garon.

RFA: N/A

Estimated cap space: $5.8 million

Outlook: With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal secured long term, the Stanley Cup champions have the pieces in place to contend for several years. The Penguins could have looked for another top forward, but GM Ray Shero opted to retain Bill Guerin for $2 million, less than half of what the 38-year-old pocketed this past season.

New Jersey Devils

UFA: F Brian Gionta, F John Madden, F Bobby Holik, F Mike Rupp, F Brendan Shanahan, D Niclas Havelid, G Scott Clemmensen, G Kevin Weekes.

RFA: F Travis Zajac, F Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, D Andy Greene.

Estimated cap space: $13.4 million

Outlook: Losing Scott Clemmensen to free agency could be a big blow to the Devils, who relied on him heavily when veteran netminder Martin Brodeur missed a major portion of the season with an elbow injury. Finding a backup to the now 37-year-old Brodeur should be a big priority for New Jersey. The team did shore up a key spot on the blue-line with the re-signing of defenceman Johnny Oduya.

Philadelphia Flyers

UFA: F Mike Knuble, D Andrew Alberts, D Derian Hatcher, G Martin Biron, G Antero Niitymaki.

RFA: N/A

Estimated cap space: $4.2 million

Outlook: The Flyers gave up a tonne for defenceman Chris Pronger and would also love to rid themselves of the crippling contact of Daniel Briere, a centre owed $32 million over the next four years. Fighting cap space problems, Philadelphia must also address its goalie situation, with Martin Biron and Antero Niitymaki set to test the free-agent market. 

N.Y. Rangers

UFA: F Nik Antropov, F Blair Betts, F Colton Orr, D Paul Mara, D Derek Morris.

RFA: F Ryan Callahan, F Brad Dubinsky, F Lauri Korpikoski, F Fredrik Sjostrom, F Nikolai Zherdev. 

Estimated cap space: $18 million

Outlook: Don't let the cap space fool you: New York has several restricted and unrestricted free agents to contend with. Always looking to make a big splash, there are rumblings the team is interested in Ottawa's Dany Heatley, but Senators GM Bryan Murray insists there is little interest in his disgruntled sniper.   

N.Y. Islanders

UFA: F Andy Hilbert, F Dean McAmmond, F Mike Sillinger, D Tomas Pock, G Yan Danis, G Joey MacDonald.

RFA: F Blake Comeau, F Nate Thompson.

Estimated cap space: $26 million

Outlook:  Drafting John Tavares No. 1 overall was a good first step for the Islanders. The losing, however, should continue as the franchise finished in the basement of the Eastern Conference last year with a paltry 201-goal output.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

Boston Bruins

UFA: F P.J. Axelsson, F Mark Recchi, F Stephane Yelle, D Shane Hnidy, D Steve Montador, G Manny Fernandez.

RFA: F Byron Bitz, F Phil Kessel, D Matt Hunwick.

Estimated cap space: $8.4 million

Outlook: The Bruins tried to trade Phil Kessel, the team's only 30-goal scorer (36) last season, and may still try to do so. As Kessel's attempted trade to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle revealed, the Bruins want to bolster their blue-line. To that end, GM Peter Chiarelli has said he will match any offers made to restricted free agent Matt Hunwick.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are still interested in Vincent Lecavalier. ((Chris O'Meara/Associated Press))
UFA:
F Alex Tanguay, F Saku Koivu, F Alex Kovalev, F Robert Lang, F Tom Kostopoulos, D Francis Bouillon, D Mathieu Dandenault, D Mike Komisarek, D Mathieu Schnieder, D Patrice Brisebois.

RFA:  F Tomas Plekanec, F Guillaume Latendresse, F Matt D'Agostini.

Estimated cap space: $27.5 million

Outlook: Despite a bevy of unrestricted free agents — the reason for Montreal's gaudy cap space — the Habs are intent on making a major push for Vincent Lecavalier. With a growing rift between Tampa Bay's co-owners, Montreal hopes it can take advantage of the dissension and land the Quebec native.

Buffalo Sabres

UFA: F Maxim Afinogenov, F Andrew Peters, F Matt Ellis, F Dominic Moore, D Jaroslav Spacek, D Teppo Numminen, G Mikael Tellqvist.

RFA: F Drew Stafford, F Clarke MacArthur, F Patrick Kaleta, D Andrej Sekera.

Estimated cap space: $10.5 million

Outlook: The Sabres, who have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, are never big players in the free-agent market. Ryan Miller, Tomas Vanek and Tim Connolly — when healthy — give Buffalo some productive pieces, but a lack of size and toughness up front remain a concern.

Ottawa Senators

UFA: F Mike Comrie, F Chris Neil.

RFA: D Brendan Bell, G Brian Elliott.

Estimated cap space: $5.7 million

Outlook: Dany Heatley wants out, which puts the Senators in a tough position. Even if Bryan Murray wanted to deal Healtey, Ottawa owes the sniper a $4 million roster bonus on July 1. So unless Healtey is dealt prior to the opening of free agency, it would seem highly unlikely that Murray would make such a move after paying out a large bonus.

Toronto Maple Leafs

UFA: F Brad May, D Erik Reitz, D Jamie Heward, D Jay Harrison, G Curtis Joseph, G Olaf Kolzig, G Martin Gerber.

RFA: F Mikhail Grabovski, F Ryan Hollweg, G Justin Pogge.

Estimated cap space: $16.8 million

Outlook: GM Brian Burke tried to trade Tomas Kaberle to Boston for Phil Kessel, but a miscommunication on trade day nixed the deal. One thing is certain: With the Flyers surrendering plenty for Chris Pronger, the price for Kaberle has also gone up significantly — just ask Burke.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Washington Capitals

UFA: F Sergei Fedorov (signed with Russian team), F Victor Kozlov, F Donald Brashear, G Brent Johnson.

RFA: F Eric Fehr, F Boyd Gordon, D Shaone Morrisonn, D Milan Jircina, D Jeff Schultz.

Estimated cap space: $12.5 million

Outlook: General manager George McPhee told the Washington Times recently that, "this team doesn't need radical changes." McPhee has reason to be optimistic after seeing his Capitals come within one game of the Eastern Conference final. However, more offence would greatly help star and league MVP Alex Ovechkin, who didn't receive much help against the Penguins.

Carolina Hurricanes

UFA: F Chad Larose, F Erik Cole, F Ryan Bayda, D Dennis Seidenberg.

RFA: F Tuomo Ruutu D Anton Babchuk.

Estimated cap space: $12.7 million

Outlook: The immediate priority for the Carolina is to re-sign both forwards Erik Cole and Chad LaRose, who played a major role in the Hurricanes advancing to the East final. But even with a decent cap number, the team will have a hard time signing restricted free agents Anton Babchuk and Tuomo Ruutu.

Florida Panthers

UFA: F Richard Zednik, F Radek Dvorak, F Ville Peltonen, D Jordan Leopold (rights acquired from Calgary), D Nick Boynton, D Karlis Skrastins, D Jassen Cullimore, G Craig Anderson.

RFA: F David Booth, F Anthony Stewart, D Steve Eminger.

Estimated cap space: $20.4 million

Outlook: The Panthers, who only missed the post-season by a point, traded Jay Bouwmeester for the rights to unrestricted free-agent defenceman Jordan Leopold and a third-round pick (winger Josh Birkholz) from Calgary. While losing the talented Bouwmeester is a blow, acting GM Randy Sexton thinks Leopold is a suitable replacement considering the circumstances. Of course, this is provided Florida is able to sign the 28-year-old blue-liner.

Atlanta Thrashers

UFA: F Eric Perrin, D Nathan Oystrick.

RFA: F Colby Armstrong, F Jim Slater, F Chris Thorburn, D Boris Valabik, G Kari Lehtonen.

Estimated cap space: $27.8 million

Outlook: Although he only has one more year on his contract, Ilya Kovalckuk will not be traded this summer, according to Don Waddell. The Atlanta GM did admit that with the depth at the goaltender spot, he could be looking to shop restricted free agent Kari Lehtonen in order to acquire a top-six forward.

Tampa Bay Lightning

UFA: F Matt Pettinger, F David Koci, D Marek Malik, D Josef Melichar, D Cory Murphy, D Richard Petiot, D Noah Welch.

RFA: F Martins Karsums, D Lukas Krajicek, D Matt Smaby, D Matt Lashoff, G Karri Ramo.

Estimated cap space: $21.2 million

Outlook: The Lightning potentially hit a home run by drafting Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman, a puck-moving giant who could log 25-30 minutes a game. The question becomes: will Tampa Bay's bickering owners agree trade star Vincent Lecavalier and his massive salary?

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