The Bear Cave

June 30, 2009 8:36 AM

Canadiens Lead Northeast in Total Free Agents

On Wednesday afternoon, the NHL Free Agent Market will open up, allowing teams to negotiate deals with potential future players. While most fans around New England are keeping a close eye on Phil Kessel, the Boston Bruins are in relatively good shape as the final hours tick away. On the other hand, the Montreal Canadiens have some serious work to do, as 28 players will become free agents on Wednesday. With 25 free agents, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the second highest total in the Northeast Division, followed by the Buffalo Sabres' 20, Boston's 17, and the Ottawa Senators' low total of 12. The Bruins will be looking for a second consecutive division title in 2009-10, so let's see how their competition stacks up in the free agent market.

While each of the above numbers does include players in the NHL, AHL, and Europe, the Montreal Canadiens will certainly be put to the test on Wednesday. 18 of their 28 free agents are unrestricted, with eight of those players coming off of contracts worth at least $1 million.

Beginning up front, Andrei Kostitsyn is the only player in Montreal's top five forward scorers under contract for next season. Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, and Robert Lang all fall under the category of unrestricted, combining for $18.625 million. Tom Kostopoulos is the lone unrestricted forward with a contract under $1 million (for now), while Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Chipchura, and Matt D'Agostini are all restricted free agents. The latter five should be attainable, as Latendresse, Chipchura, and D'Agostini are young, while Higgins and Plekanec are eligible for arbitration. Re-signing three of the other six might be looked at as a serious victory for Montreal.

The defense isn't much easier for the Canadiens, as five of their nine blueliners have the unrestricted tag. Patrice Brisebois is the lone free agent under $1 million, at $750,000, and should be a reasonable signing. Montreal has already begun negotiations with Mike Komisarek, but that still leaves Mathieu Schneider, Francis Bouillon, and Mathieu Dandenault without potential contracts in Quebec. A win at that position could be looked at as two or three defensemen re-signed.

Montreal's goaltending is in great shape for one more year, before Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak each see their contracts expire next summer. The remaining 13 free agents are at the minor league level, where fans in Hamilton should prepare to see quite a few new faces in the fall. One of those faces is Guy Boucher, who was hired on Monday as the club's head coach. Boucher was previously coaching the QMJHL Champion Drummondville Voltigeurs.

The next few weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs will be just about anybody's guess. Although they were competitive, the Maple Leafs did miss out on the playoffs in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. Now, Toronto has Brian Burke running the show, who isn't exactly fond of losing. The Maple Leafs enter July with 14 restricted free agents and 12 unrestricted free agents, combining for a grand total of 26.

Starting between the pipes, four of Toronto's 25 free agents are goaltenders. Martin Gerber, Curtis Joseph, and Olaf Kolzig are all unrestricted, while youngster Justin Pogge checks in as restricted. With Vesa Toskala under contract, and Pogge there as the supposed goalie of the future, the Maple Leafs could easily let the other three walk, dropping $4 million off of the payroll.

13 of the Maple Leafs' 21 free agent skaters spent time at the NHL level, which could lead some into believing that a lot of work will need to be done. However, Mikhail Grabovski and Brad May were the only two that played in at least 30 games. Grabovski is restricted, while also being eligible for arbitration, meaning he should expect a fairly significant increase to return to Toronto. May is unrestricted, but affordable, and tends to follow Burke around, so he will likely be back as well. Boyd Devereaux and Ryan Hollweg can be added to this list as forwards, as injuries kept them out of the lineup, while Jaime Sifers is a promising young defenseman. The Maple Leafs have been looking to move Tomas Kaberle, which could free up approximately $4.25 million, depending on who and what comes back.

In terms of free agency, the team that best resembles Boston's situation is the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have already lost Marek Zagrapan and Colin Murphy to Europe, leaving them with 18 free agents to deal with.

Jaroslav Spacek and Maxim Afinogenov represent the two biggest names on Buffalo's list, while eight other players spent significant time at the NHL level. Teppo Numminen joins Spacek and Afinogenov as the three players coming off of contracts worth over $1 million. All three are unrestricted free agents, along with Matt Ellis, Dominic Moore, and Andrew Peters in the NHL. Mathieu Darche and Colton Fretter are Buffalo's only two minor league unrestricted free agents.

On the restricted side, the Sabres' most important player will be Drew Stafford. After scoring 20 goals with a contract worth slightly under $1 million, Stafford will easily reach seven digits this season. Clarke MacArthur will also see his pay increase next year, but he should still be very affordable for Buffalo at age 24. Andrej Sekera and Patrick Kaleta are the other two restricted Sabres, while six members of the AHL's Portland Pirates also fit into that category. Mark Mancari and Adam Dennis are the two key names on that list. Mancari led Portland in scoring, while Dennis is one of the few goaltenders in the system.

In Ottawa, the biggest story is Dany Heatley, who requested a trade a few weeks ago. There's a good chance that a deal will happen, clearing around $8 million off of the Senators' books for next year. Other than the Heatley saga, Ottawa is in the best shape of all Northeast Division teams with only four unrestricted free agents and nine restricted free agents. Three of the 12 played with the big club last season.

Brian Elliott is the lone restricted free agent in the NHL group, as Mike Comrie and Chris Neil both fall into the unrestricted category. With 16 wins in 31 appearances, Elliott would be a wise signing, so that the Senators can have a stable force in goal for years to come. Comrie and Neil combined to bring in $5.2 million last season, which could theoretically make things tight for Ottawa. However, if Heatley gets dealt, those two should be able to fit in with relative ease. Brad Isbister is the oddball of the group, as he spent this past season playing in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the remaining eight players on the list all suited up in the AHL. Thanks to their late success under Cory Clouston last season, and a small crop of free agents, the Senators might not be near the bottom of the division for very long.

While these notes tend to favor the Boston Bruins, one thing to pay attention to will certainly be the big named players on the market. All four divisional opponents have cap room, which could lead to a splash in the Northeast. Next up, we'll find out who some of the higher-priced players will be this summer.

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