Free Agency Preview

With D-Day already a week behind us, it’s time to turn our attention to F-Day…the start of the free-agent signing period which begins in earnest tomorrow morning.

For the Philadelphia Flyers (playing the role of Napoleon Blownaparte), there are a couple key spots open that need attention, and can be filled by some bona-fide available unrestricted free-agent talent.

Of course, the brass ring is Brad Richards. Last seen publicly spurning the Dallas Stars in favor of testing the market after GM Joe Nieuwendyk was constantly non-committal on a contract offer, the 31-year-old former Cup winner made $7.8 million this past season.

Coming off a team-best 77 points which included 28 goals, the slick pivot is looking to commit robbery on an unsuspecting club, looking for a deal in the area of eight years and $50-55 million. Though his years of service (10) may suggest caution, his age (31) puts him in the “pay the man what he’s owed” category.

As far as the Flyers are concerned, from a roster standpoint, Richards could be a key to immediate success. Having Mike Knuble, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards swept out, the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner instantly provides that veteran touch with playmaking ability the club so badly needs.

From a salary-cap stance, any potential deal to accomodate him means that at least one more contract (probably a restricted free agent) has to come off the books. The Devil truly is in the details when you need to mess with the money so much that addition by subtraction is necessary. Obviously, the longer a deal goes, the lesser the cap hit each season, but if it’s at $7 million per, is it really worth it?

The rumor mill certainly spun out of control over the last few days when talk drifted back to restricted free-agent forward Steven Stamkos.

An Ontario native who only became legal to drink in the USA this past February continued to turn the NHL on its collective ear with a 45-goal, 91-point campaign for the resurgent Bolts.

As with all initial multi-year deals, the player becomes an RFA at the end, and the potential for signing Stamkos to an offer sheet must have looked like a carrot coated in chocolate-flavored crack. Looking at 119 goals in 243 games tends to do that to rational minds.

Reports earlier in the week indicated that any offer made to the fourth-year Golden Boy would be in the area of 12 years for at least $115 million, but hopes of the die-hards faded this evening when it was reported that no offer would be forthcoming from the Flyers front office.

Oh well…it’ll just end up like the old days, when little kids like me used to have dreams that the Flyers could sign Wayne Gretzky.

Under the “Price is Right” category, comes a player who shouldn’t really be considered second-tier as far as ability is concerned: UFA forward Erik Cole, late of the Carolina Hurricanes.

The 32-year-old winger posted 26 goals and 52 points in all 82 games a season ago, his second full year in his second stint in Raleigh. Though his stats don’t set the world on fire (one 30-goal year in nine seasons), his true impact to any team which signs him may come from the inside.

When Cole was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers on free-agent day 2008 in a move which was intended to move the franchise forward, the ‘Canes only treaded water and were out of the playoff hunt until Cole was reacquired in early March. What followed was a miracle run to the Eastern Conference finals.

All this, and he was paid $3 million in 2010-11 with a cap hit $100,000 less. Oh, and the size (6-foot-2, 210-pounds) fits the bill too.

If there’s any doubt about his health, rest assured, as long as that meathead Brooksie Orpik isn’t allowed to crush his spine with an illegal check from behind, Cole is a good candidate to play at least 78 games.  

If you’re insistent on the organ-eye-zation staging another edition of the Prodigal Son in order to fill out the second and third lines, then Scottie Upshall, Michal Handzus, and Simon Gagne are the blokes you should be looking at.

Upshall is 4/5s of the way back across the continent, so why shouldn’t he be let go by the restocked Blue Jackets and return to the city he never wanted to leave? Maybe this time, he’ll cry tears of joy. The 27-year-old is coming off a career-best 22 goals and 34 points between Phoenix and Columbus at $2.25 million. He’ll bring grit, guts, maturity and a pure love of this city that is badly needed. Frankly, he’d be the most convenient excuse for not bringing his trade-sake Dan Carcillo back.

Handzus (Zooooooooos!) is 33 and is coming off a 12-goal, 30-point year with the Kings and is most likely on the downside. That doesn’t mean he might not take a “hometown” discount from his $4 million tag last year if the Flyers want him. He’s got the size, hands and skill necessary to thrive in a low-impact role.

Gagne put up 17 goals and 40 points last year with Tampa Bay — exactly what he did in 2009-10 in Philly — but did it in five more games. He battled a neck injury and drags with him the stigma of “injury/concussion prone.” If Paul Holmgren wants to take a chance on another sentimental fan favorite, he’ll no doubt ask for a drastically reduced amount from the $5.25 million he made in TB.

For the fourth line, which bid adieu to stalwarts Arron Asham, Ian Laperriere and Darroll Powe since that memorable 2010 playoff run, Mike Grier certainly fits the bill.

The 36-year-old Boston University product stuck around with Buffalo last year on a $1.4 million deal and a $1.5 million cap hit and tallied five goals with 16 points. He’s a career-long penalty-killer and grinder who’s certainly worth one more shot.

In addition, 34-year-old Boston College product Marty Reasoner – clearly a dark horse despite a 12-year career — can be gotten at a price near the $1.15 million Florida gave him this past campaign. A former high-scoring center for the Eagles in the late 90s, Reasoner has carved out a reputation as a solid bottom-six talent with face-off and penalty killing acumen with the remainder of his old scoring touch. He tied a career-best with 14 goals and set a career high with 32 points in 82 games for the hapless Panthers.

On the defensive side, the Orange and Black don’t need much…maybe a sixth man and definitely someone who can take minutes away from the aging Kimmo Timonen and to fill in while Chris Pronger recovers from his multiple surgeries.

To that end, we might kiss Sean O’Donnell and Nick Boynton goodbye and welcome into the fold Brent Sopel and Shane O’Brien.

Never mind Sopel’s $2.33333333 million contract, he’s a Stanley Cup winner. At 34 years of age, he’s not going to demand multi-year deal and if he’s not willing to go far below $2 mil, he’s a good one-to-two-year stopgap. In 71 games last year, his 12th in the NHL, the Calgary native posted two goals and seven points with Atlanta and Montreal.

O’Brien is a rather non-descript defender. Solid but unspectacular, he nonetheless has remained viable on four NHL teams in the last five years (Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Nashville).  The last two seasons, he logged just over 17 minutes per game and put together a combined plus-16 rating. Not bad for $1.6 million.

A salary-cap casualty after the Blackhawks’ 2010 triumph, Sopel is nonetheless not ready for the glue factory yet. In both cities, he notched between 15 1/2 and 16 1/2 minutes per contest — perfect for a man who will be asked to log quite a few shifts when needed.

If the price tag concerns you, there’s always the possibility of retaining Danny Syvret. You might remember him from such TV shows as the “2010 Winter Classic” where he scored his first professional goal in the outdoors of Fenway Park. This human pinball was shipped off to Anaheim in the offseasonly only to come back in November and head straight to Adirondack. I think it’s time to stop messing him around and give him a chance to stick in the Big Show for $600,000.

Oh yeah, Randy Jones aka “The Human Pylon” is available for $1 million or so. Just thought I’d throw that out there…