Even though Ilya Kovalchuk’s lucrative contract has been rejected, it’s almost unanimous among people with knowledge of the situation that he’ll still be a New Jersey Devil. Now that the biggest fish on the market has finally come to a decision, we look at the five most ‘coveted’ free agents available as the dog days of summer hit us…
1. Alexander Frolov I think we all know what Frolov is capable of doing on the ice. Here’s a guy that has posted two 30-goal seasons since the lockout, including a career-high 35 in 2006/07. However, his production dipped as the Kings got better as a team. 19 goals in a contract year for someone with his talent is a bit surprising, and may be a reason why he’s still unsigned (along with his contract demands). I think he can make a difference on a team sitting on the playoff bubble – if he can get his mind right and return to scoring 30 goals. 2. Lee Stempniak The biggest question surrounding Stempniak is which player his new team will get: the one that underachieved in Toronto, the one that found his goal-scoring touch in Phoenix, or the one that disappeared come playoff time. Stempniak could be asking for too much at this time, yet could find a new home soon since Kovalchuk is off the board. Los Angeles seems like a logical destination for him, as they’d like to add a right winger that can pot 20-30 goals. I’d also keep an eye on the Islanders and Coyotes… 3. Maxim Afinogenov Afinogenov seems to be keeping all of his options open, including the KHL (as expected). Earlier this summer it looked likely that he’d head to Russia, and I still believe that will be his destination. Even after having a stellar bounce-back season with Atlanta (61 points in 82 games), teams still think of his horrid last two years in Buffalo, and are leery of his injury history. Two possible fits are Pittsburgh and Washington, as he could play alongside fellow Russians, but would have to take a pay cut. In the end, I see him bolting overseas. 4. Willie Mitchell When Mitchell went down to a concussion this January, you could definitely see the effect it had on the Canucks; Roberto Luongo’s GAA went up every month thereafter, and the team dearly missed his presence against Chicago in the second round. In the last two years, Mitchell has tallied a plus-42 rating, and has been on the right side of the plus/minus rating in nine of his ten seasons in the NHL. Assuming he’s able to recover from that concussion, the 33-year-old blueliner can be a nice steal this late in the summer. 5. Paul Kariya A lot of people state Kariya is washed up and can hardly be effective anymore. Pardon my language, but bullshit! ‘PK’ struggled last year with the Blues, but everyone else on the team had a hard time repeating their miracle finish to make in the playoffs in 2009. Is Kariya still the player he was back in Anaheim and even Nashville? No. Can he still be an effective player, especially in the right situation? No doubt. Vancouver and Los Angeles are two ideal fits for Kariya, where he’d have a chance to win his first Stanley Cup.
Honorable Mention: Eric Belanger Denis Grebeshkov Mike Modano Alexei Ponikarovsky Marty Turco
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.