NHL Free Agency Watch: Top 10 Forwards

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Yesterday, I looked at the RFAs who were not qualified, so I am not going to rehash players like Latendresse, Wolski, Mueller, or Pouliot.  What I am going to do though is look at the players who are in my opinion the Top Group III UFA forwards who are scheduled to be available at noon on July 1st in the NHL’s annual Free Agent Frenzy.   With the cap rising to 70.2 million this summer, teams have money to spend and improving the offence is always an attractive option.


1) Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils, Left Wing/Right Wing
2011-12 Salary: $6,000,000
2011-12 Stats: 82 GP, 31 G, 38 A, 69 Pts, 32 PIMs

There really is no question about it, Parise is the gem of this year’s free agent forward class.  The New Jersey Devils winger really can do it all, be it creating goals, assists, or playing a solid two-way game.  Parise has five 30 goal seasons, only missing the mark once in the last 6 years.  That was in 2010-11 when he was injured for much of the year and only played 13 games.  Parise scored 45 goals and 94 points in 2008-09 and 38 goals and 82 points in 2009-10.  Parise is a complete player, equally adept at both ends of the rink.  He’s a fast skater who uses great stickhandling to beat defenders off the rush.  He is a pure sniper, with a hard accurate shot and quick release that can beat goalies even without traffic in front of them.  Parise is an intelligent playmaker with good vision and passing skills.  He is able to spot openings in the defence and feather crisp passes to teammates in prime scoring areas.  Despite Parise’s smaller size, he never shies away from traffic and goes into dangerous areas to make plays.  The only question mark with Parise is how many dollar signs he will see in free agency, and where he will play.  As the clear number one forward he’s looking at a gigantic payday.


2) Olli Jokinen, Calgary Flames, Centre
2011-12 Salary: $3,000,000
2011-12 Stats: 82 GP, 23 G, 38 A, 61 Pts, 54 PIMs

Jokinen had an impressive season for the Calgary Flames this year.  In contrast to when he was last a free agent in 2010 when Jokinen was coming off a disappointing campaign and took a large paycut to return to the Flames, I expect Jokinen to get a significant raise in this year’s free agent market.  Firstly, he is the best centre on the market and there are always teams looking for another top 6 center.  He also has the size and plays the two way game NHL teams covet.  Last season the Flames used Jokinen as their go to matchup centre, and he performed admirably in the role.  Jokinen is a power forward who uses his size and excellent skating to create space in the offensive zone.  He has a heavy wrist shot and a good release which have helped him to accumulate four 30 goal seasons.  Jokinen loves to work the puck down low and then uses his vision and passing ability to set up teammates in prime scoring areas.  At 33 years old Jokinen might be looking for his last truly big Free Agent pay day, asking for both a raise and a significant term on this deal.


3) Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes, Right Wing
2011-12 Salary: $4,550,000
2011-12 Stats: 79 GP, 22 G, 28 A, 50 Pts, 48 PIMs

Doan has been the face of the Phoenix Coyotes for over 15 years as the former 7th overall pick has spent his entire career with the franchise.  He even debuted when the team was still located in Winnipeg, as a rookie in the 1995-96 season.  Doan was the heart and soul leader of the club in their recent run to the Western C0nference Finals.  At 35, Doan is certainly getting older, but this season he scored at least 50 points for the 9th straight year.  He is a rugged winger, with a hard accurate shot and strong skating skills.  Doan is your typical power forward who wins a ton of board battles and drives the net hard.  With his age, the danger here is in the 35+ nature of the contract he will receive (should it be a multi year deal) and the question of exactly how many more years he has left in the tank given the physical toll his style of game places on his body.


4) Alex Semin, Washington Capitals, Right Wing/LeftWing
2011-12 Salary: $6,700,000
2011-12 Stats: 77 GP, 21 G, 33 A, 54 Pts, 56 PIMs

Semin is among the most naturally talented players in the entire NHL.  However his production does not always match the elite  talent level he possesses.  Semin has a rocket of a wrist shot, and a lightning quick release which he can use to score from anywhere in the offensive zone.  He is a great skater, with very quick acceleration and the ability to fool defenders with quick changes of speed.   Coupled with his fantastic stick handling skills he is extremely dangerous every time he touches the puck.  Semin does have his issues though, he struggles in his own zone as he does not always bring a consistent effort level.  He also can have a tendency to rely too much on his skill and attempt too many pretty plays offensively leading to turnovers and odd-man rushes against.  Semin is also prone to taking undisciplined penalties.  However for all his problems, there are still few players in the NHL that can match his elite skill set, and as such Semin will probably command another large contract.


5) P.A. Parenteau, New York Islanders, Right Wing
2011-12 Salary: $1,250,000
2011-12 Stats: 80 GP, 18 G, 49 A, 67 Pts, 89 PIMs

The long time AHLer finally cracked the NHL full time at the age of 27.  In his first full NHL campaign he scored 20 goals and 53 points for the New York Islanders in 2010-11.  Proving those numbers were no fluke, he would actually improve his point total this season putting up 67 points.  Parenteau is an excellent playmaker who has the ability to slow the game down in the offensive zone and control the puck for his team.  He uses his high level hockey IQ, great vision and outstanding passing ability to make crisp tape to tape passes, and create goal scoring chances.   His offensive arsenal is best used on the power play, but he has been able to score points at even strength as well.  Parenteau’s wrist shot is merely average in terms of velocity, but he has a good release and good accuracy which make it a dangerous weapon.  Parenteau’s weaknesses lie in his skating ability which is merely average, and in his defensive play.  Parenteau shows effort in his defensive zone work, however he is often on the losing end of board battles, and his lack of quick feet can sometimes leave him a step behind the play.


6) Jiri Hudler, Detroit Red Wings, Left Wing
2011-12 Salary: $4,250,000
2011-12 Stats: 81 GP, 25 G, 25 A, 50 Pts, 42 PIMs

Hudler bounced back form a disappointing 2010-11 season and playoff, to again reach the 50 point mark.  Hudler is an extremely skilled offensive player.  His best attribute is probably his soft hands and great stickhandling ability.  He couples this with quick skating, good acceleration, and good edge work to be able to fool defenders off the rush.  Hudler’s soft hands allow him to capitalize quickly on scoring opportunities around the net.  He has good hockey sense and vision which help him to be an effective play maker off the wing.  At just 5’9″ Hudler’s biggest liability is his diminutive frame, as he can be overpowered along the boards in both ends of the ice.


7) Dustin Penner, Los Angeles Kings, Left Wing
2011-12 Salary: $4,250,000
2011-12 Stats: 65 GP, 7 G, 10 A, 17 Pts, 43 PIMs

After an disappointing season that included him missing games due to pancake related injuries, Penner really came on for the Kings during their playoff run, where his 11 points in 20 games rejuvenated his reputation, and helped the Kings win the Stanley Cup.  Now a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, Penner is a big bodied forward who has shown scoring touch around the net.  His best season came in 2009-10 when he scored 32 goals and 63 points for the Edmonton Oilers.  Penner is at his best when he gets to the front of the net and causes problems with his size and buries chances with his soft hands.  His effort level, consistency and fitness have all been questioned over the years and should remain a cause of concern for NHL GMs on July 1st.


8) Ray Whitney, Phoenix Coyotes, Left Wing
2011-12 Salary: $3,000,000
2011-12 Stats: 82 GP, 24 G, 53 A, 77 Pts, 28 PIMs

The ageless wonder put up 77 points at the age of 40.  While the higher profile members of the 1991 draft class in Eric Lindros and Pat Falloon are long since retired or busted out of the NHL, Whitney just keeps going strong reaching 1000 career points at the end of this season.  Whitney is a great puckhandler and playmaker capable of controlling the play in the offensive end of the ice.  His hockey sense and vision make him a dangerous threat both at even strength and the power play.  I’m not sure how many years Whitney has left, but with his performance this year he certainly will get at least one more contract in the NHL.


9) Jaromir Jagr, Philadelphia Flyers, Right Wing
2011-12 Salary: $3,300,000
2011-12 Stats: 73 GP, 19 G, 35 A, 54 Pts, 30 PIMs

Last summer, Jagr returned to the NHL signing with the Flyers after three seasons in the KHL.  The sure-fire first ballot hockey hall of famer may have lost a step or two, but he still has the amazing puck skills that have made him one of the best in NHL history.  Jagr showed that he can still be an effective offensive player, teaming with Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell on the Flyers top line and putting up 54 points last year.  At his age, and with all the hockey he’s played, his endurance and defensive play are question marks.  However Jagr has natural talent that few in the NHL can match and can still produce points when put in situations with high offensive zone starts and plenty of power play time.


10) Andrei Kostitsyn, Nashville Predators, Right Wing/Left Wing
2011-12 Salary: $3,250,000
2011-12 Stats: 72 GP, 16 G, 20 A, 36 Pts, 26 PIMs

It was a tumultous season for the Belorussian winger.  A three time 20 goal scorer, Kostitsyn’s production dipped to just 16 this season split between Montreal and Nashville.  On top of that his reputation suffered a major hit after he was suspended for an incident which occured before game 2 of the second round of the playoff series between Nashville and Phoenix.  Kostitsyn is a big bodied winger with impressive skills.  He has a fantastic wrist shot and release that can sizzle off his stick and find the back of the net.  He is also a willing forechecker who throws his body around in an attempt to get loose pucks for his team.  Kostitsyn is also a talented stickhandler who can beat defenders with his quick fakes.  However Kostitsyn’s production never does seem to live up to his skills.  He has poor hockey sense, and his effort level (especially defensively) can be questionable at times.  He can also be guilty of taking too many undisciplined penalties.  Kostitsyn can be a valuable secondary scoring option for a team, however GMs should be careful not to overrate him.


One thing that should be clear about this free agent class, after Parise it is weak in terms of prime forwards.  The rest of the group feels like a bunch of plan Bs, and Cs, and probably shouldn’t be relied upon as true elite first line talent for teams.  While there are some valuable additions who can be a third wheel on a top line (with other stars), or for 2nd and 3rd lines, and these player can  improve a team’s powerplay there are flaws with all of the remaining forwards in this free agent group.  Parise is the only true gamebreaker in the group.  However the rising cap and lack of other options may make teams go a little crazy with money and term on July 1st.

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