There are approximately 60 players who are still unrestricted free agents who were NHL regulars for the past few seasons. Of these, 10 or 15 are likely to retire - their age is advanced and there probably won't be a contract out there for them. Others were somewhat capable players seemingly being squeezed by the fact that teams only have $100,000 more in cap room than they did last season.
We will be very interested to see what happens to these five players:
RW Rob Niedermayer
D Martin Skoula
D Christian Backman
C Mike Comrie
There was no hypothesis or test run to determine these five players - merely intuition. All five are at an interesting point in their career.
RWs Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer are quite similar - both played in the Pacific Division last season, and both are regarded as top penalty killers - Niedermayer was 16th among forwards, Grier 53rd in PK TOI per game. Both are 34 years old, born within a month of one another. Grier has received around 16 minutes of ice per game, Niedermayer 17, in the last three seasons. Both are on the cusp of being liabilities at that much usage - and both will likely have to settle for contracts in the $900,000 to $1,200,000 range.
Ds Martin Skoula and Christian Backman were drafted around the middle of the first round; Skoula played 20:41/G for the 2000-01 Cup-winning Avalanche at age 21, although his usage was scaled heavily back in the playoffs. Billed as an offensive D when he entered the league, Skoula has a decent number of goals and assists, but last year received almost no power play time for the Wild. He is a defenseman that does a lot of things okay, but nothing particularly well, and has not fulfilled the promise he once showed.
Christian Backman's ice time has dropped from 24:49/game with the horrid 2005-06 Blues to 15:39 with last season's Blue Jackets. He was used on the power play, but not much. He has skills, but a penchant for giveaways, and he managed only 7 points.
Both of these players are not old - they are each 29, to turn 30 during the season. There's enough time for them to presumably turn their careers around a bit. Normally, these guys would get contracts from a team who knows they're 1st round guys and see the talent they have, but again, they will likely have to settle for contracts at $1,000,000 or less and it's hard to imagine those deals will be multi-year.
Mike Comrie has been on 5 different teams, he's scored 30 goals twice, and he's represented Canada 3 times at the World Championships, and he'll be 29 when the season opens. He's still looking for work - his problems are his defensive commitment and toughness. Will he be willing to sign a $1 million contract with someone who hopes to harness his potential?
The old saying goes, a leopard cannot change its spots, but NHL free agency has always involved a lot of spot-changing and wishcasting. This year, there's an excess of players available - teams are warier of making long-term commitments and aren't just going to sign a guy because he's played 500 NHL games before. They're going to test out their younger players to see if they've got the mettle to survive in the NHL. It might take until October for the phone to ring with a contract offer for these players - are they willing to fend off offers from foreign leagues until then?