LOS ANGELES — The annual unrestricted free agent frenzy begins on July 1 at 9:00 AM Pacific time, and while everyone knows the Los Angeles Kings have a couple of big holes to fill among their top six forwards, do not expect them to be in the running for the biggest fish of all, Dallas Stars center Brad Richards, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Richards, who earned $7.8 million per season on a five year contract, will command a premium price, likely to at least match that annual amount.
Unless something changes prior to the “opening whistle,” the Kings will go into the 9:00 AM start of the frenzy still in the midst of negotiations with defenseman Drew Doughty over a long-term deal that will likely pay him more than $6 million per season. Although the Kings currently have $16.08 million of salary cap space to work with, a good chunk of that will go to Doughty. Given that, along with the gobs of cash that Richards will demand, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi will not have the flexibility to compete with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, who are expected to lead the way among those bidding for his services.
Richards has strong connections to Rangers head coach John Tortorella, who coached Richards when they were with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Richards also has connections to the Maple Leafs. He is likely to be signed very, very quickly, probably within the first 24 hours of the frenzy.
Lombardi has already indicated that the Kings will not be in the running for the cream of this year’s unrestricted free agent crop.
“It’s safe to say that there’s a potential for a midrange move,” he said.
Knowing that, it’s time to take a realistic look at a handful of unrestricted free agents that Lombardi could be looking at:
SIMON GAGNE, Left Wing – 6-1 193 pounds, 31 years old
The oft-injured Gagne displays skill and hard work…when he can stay in the lineup. Last season, he scored 17 goals and added 23 assists for 40 points with a -12 plus/minus rating and 20 penalty minutes in 63 regular season games with the Lightning.
In the playoffs, Gagne was a solid contributor, scoring five goals and tallying seven assists for twelve points, a +6 rating and four penalty minutes in 15 games, helping lead the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Gagne has scored forty or more goals twice in his career, and thirty or more four times. His best season came in 2005-06 with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he scored 47 goals and added 32 assists for 79 points, with a +31 rating and 38 penalty minutes in 72 regular season games. His best playoff year was in 2009-10, when he helped lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals, with nine goals and three assists for twelve points in 19 playoff games.
ERIK COLE, Right Wing – 6-2, 205 pounds, 32 years old
Although the Carolina Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs in 2010-11, Cole had a solid season, scoring 26 goals and contributing 26 assists for 52 points with 49 penalty minutes in 82 games. His best year was in 2005-06, when he scored 29 goals and tallied 32 assists for 61 points with 76 penalty minutes in 71 games.
Cole also won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2005-06.
VILLE LEINO – Left Wing, 6-1, 190 pounds, 27 years old
Leino is certainly not a household name when it comes to NHL players, but he had a breakout season with the Flyers in 2010-11, scoring 19 goals and adding 34 assists for 53 points with a +14 rating and 22 penalty minutes in 81 regular season games, the best season of his NHL career, by a long shot.
Leino began to emerge during the 2009-10 playoffs, when his seven goals and 14 assists in 19 games helped lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals.
SCOTTIE UPSHALL – Right Wing, 6-0, 200 pounds, 27 years old
Upshall set career highs in goals and points in 2010-11, with 22 goals and twelve assists for 34 points with 52 penalty minutes in 82 regular season games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. His best season prior to last year came in 2009-10, when he scored 18 goals and tallied 14 assists for 32 points in 49 regular season games with the Phoenix Coyotes.
RADIM VRBATA – Right Wing, 6-1, 197 pounds, 30 years old
Vrbata has had an up and down NHL career, going from the Colorado Avalanche to the Hurricanes, to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Phoenix Coyotes, the Lightning, and then, finally, back to Phoenix, where he has played the last two seasons.
Last year, Vrbata scored 19 goals and added 29 assists for 48 points in 79 regular season games. He also contributed two goals and three assists in four playoff games.
Vrbata’s best year was in 2007-08, when he scored 27 goals and tallied 29 assists for 56 points in 76 regular season games with the Coyotes.
JOEL WARD – Right Wing, 6-1, 218 pounds, 29 years old
Ward is another one of those players who is not a household name. But his seven goals and six assists, along with some hard-nosed, gritty play in twelve playoffs games this past season with the Nashville Predators opened a lot of eyes.
He could be the player to fill the spot left by Wayne Simmonds heading to the Flyers in the Mike Richards deal.
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