Playing free agent matchmaker
The Kings don't need offense, but L.A. is most likely stop for Ilya Kovalchuk
Evgeni Nabokov is tempting, yet Flyers should try to trade for Tim Thomas
The Capitals aren't planning much, but one blueliner could make the difference
This free agent class ranks as one of the weakest in history. It also hits the market at a time when many teams have pockets lined with lint balls or no inclination to overpay for anything less than premier talent. Still, it's hard not to get excited about the NHL's Silly Season, which officially gets underway on Thursday.
We might not see the frenzy of signings that has been the hallmark of July 1 in the past, but there are enough teams with money to spend that we should see some big names, or at least some important names, switching sweaters over the next 72 hours.
The easy thing to do at this point is just sit back and see who grabs which chair when the music stops, but where's the fun in that? With an eye on helping the right team hook up with the right player, here are my annual matchmaker recommendations.
Los Angeles Kings, meet Ilya Kovalchuk.
Coming off their first postseason appearance in seven seasons, the rapidly maturing Kings could use a little sizzle to go along with their playoff-ready steak. Kovalchuk would be the highest wattage bulb plugged into their lineup since the Great One came to town, a glitzy goal-scorer (338 in 621 career games) who, at 27, is just entering his prime. While LA might not seem to need much in the way of offense after finishing in the league's top 10 in goals, power play goals and five-on-five scoring, Kovalchuk would provide the team with a top-end presence to bookend the still-improving Anze Kopitar.
If this match makes sense for the Kings, it might be the only real option for Kovy. Remember: He turned down a $102 million midseason offer before being dealt by the Thrashers to the Devils. I doubt Kings GM Dean Lombardi is willing to go that high, but he has the cap space and desire to come closer to that number than any other team. Plus, Kovalchuk has expressed his preference for playing outside a hockey-centric market ... of course, that also could be interpreted as a desire to play almost anywhere in the KHL.
Washington Capitals, meet Anton Volchenkov.
GM George McPhee says he isn't planning to do a lot in free agency, and his primary goal appears to be a second-line center. But with just four NHL veterans signed to man the blueline, and with the Capitals committed to young netminders Sermyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, the addition of a defensive-minded warrior like Volchenkov makes sense.
There's an argument to be made for giving the ice time to youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner, but the Caps are a legit Cup contender, and Volchenkov brings the tools that make a difference come playoff time. It's hard not to notice his numbers: He led the Sens in hits despite missing 18 games, and he has ranked among the league's top shot blockers for years. But the key to his effectiveness is that he brings both of those elements while rarely taking himself out of the play. He's not chasing stats -- he's making good decisions.
That second-line center? He'll be available at the trade deadline. This is the chance to get the No. 1 defensive defender this team needs to put it over the top.
Vancouver Canucks, meet Matt Cullen and Colby Armstrong.
After striking top-six gold with Mikael Samuelsson last summer, GM Mike Gillis needs to address his lack of depth and feistiness up front. Armstrong's overall skill set won't push anyone off the top two lines, but you can rely on his willingness to battle along the boards and in front of the net. Doesn't seem like much to ask, but it's an element that was noticeably absent on too many nights last season.
Cullen would be an ideal replacement for the frustratingly inconsistent Kyle Wellwood on a third line that would be instantly more effective. Cullen keeps the tempo high and could be an excellent mentor to top prospect Cody Hodgson, who is expected to stick with the club this fall.
Minnesota Wild, meet Olli Jokinen and Matthew Lombardi.
The Wild have admitted a need for top-six help, preferably a center. Problem is, it's a lousy time to be in the market for a pivot. It's an illustration of how shallow the center crop is when Lombardi, a player who has topped 20 goals and 50 points just once, is the premier option at the position. That said, he's the sort of player you can rely on to keep the tempo high, which would seem to fit well within coach Todd Richards' system.
Jokinen is a different cat, the ultimate wild card. He's frustrated fans in each of his six NHL stops (Kings, Isles, Panthers, Coyotes, Flames, Rangers) with an effort level that isn't always consistent with his size or immense natural gifts. But because of that, the price to be paid for access to those gifts might make for a decent bargain. Playing in a supporting role to countryman Mikko Koivu could make for a more comfortable situation for Jokinen. That doesn't mean he'll come in with a whole new attitude, but he might get more out his talent ... and for a team counting pennies, that could make him one of the best values on the market.
Toronto Maple Leafs, meet Paul Martin.
GM Brian Burke is looking to buttress his blueline in preparation for the inevitable deal involving Tomas Kaberle, so a steady veteran like Martin makes perfect sense for the Buds. The American-born defender might have been an Olympian if not for a broken arm, so Burke should have a good idea of the reliable, two-way play that's been the hallmark of Martin's game for years. He's not flashy, but he makes a great first pass, has above-average hockey sense, and can make an impact on a power play. He's just as solid on the other side of the puck, and while he's not the physical presence that Burke craves, Martin learned how to take care of business playing in New Jersey. His positioning and ability to separate his man from the puck are exceptional. Best of all, he probably won't cost as much as another possible Leafs target: Dan Hamhuis.
Philadelphia Flyers, meet ... no one.
Look, we all know the Flyers are in the market for a No. 1 goalie again (in other news...). But are any of the options out there really the answer to that long-gaping hole? Evgeni Nabokov is intriguing, but the postseason failures of the Sharks lay partially at his feet. Marty Turco? A fresh start might rejuvenate his fading game, but it's a safer bet that, at 34, he's dangerously close to the sunset of his career. Chris Mason? Michael Leighton? Jose Theodore? More question marks than answers, each of them.
No, if the Flyers are going to find an answer between the pipes, it says here that they stand to gain more by bypassing the freebies and making a deal for the right guy. A player with both the talent and the personality to push them over the top. Imagine Battlin' Tim Thomas in black and orange...
Dallas Stars, meet Zbynek Michalek.
No, the cash-strapped Stars are not expected to be the heavy spenders they once were, but with an immediate need for an upgrade on the blueline, they might just be willing to extend themselves a bit for a player that Coyotes GM Don Maloney called, "the most important free agent."
Michalek is young (27), so even a lengthy contract won't take him into his dotage. He's durable, averaging 78 games-played over the past six seasons. He eats big minutes and while he's the consummate defensive defenseman, he can chip in on a second power play unit. Simply, he's a guy you can rely on, and that's a quantity that Dallas has clearly lacked as it went young -- too young -- on the blueline last season in the wake of the departures of Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher. For a team seeking defensive leadership, there's no better option than Michalek.
KHL, meet Maxim Afinogenov.
Reportedly close to returning home last summer, it's a good bet Afinogenov will give it an even closer look this time around after the Thrashers passed on retaining him. Max had a solid season in Atlanta, scoring 24 goals and 61 points in 82 games, and that might convince a few NHL teams to kick his tires in hopes of landing him at a bargain rate. Odds are that he'll find the KHL offering considerably more bait, though, and that he'll join the parade of fading Russian stars looking to cash in.
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