Cross Checks: Ryan Whitney



The free-agent class of 2013 might lack the star quality of last summer, when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise captivated the hockey world right through Independence Day -- spoiling picnic plans from coast to coast -- but what this year’s crop lacks in profile, it more than makes up for in motivation.

This year’s group of potential free agents is chock-a-block with players looking to make a statement, looking to prove a point and looking for one last chance at redemption.

Herein, then, Team Redemption:

GOAL

Tim Thomas
Easily the most intriguing character on the free agency landscape, Thomas is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a Conn Smythe winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He also allowed his personal political views to sour his relationship with the Boston Bruins. The 39-year-old hasn’t played a meaningful game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2012, having taken last season off to ruminate. So, of course, teams are chasing after him. With a suddenly very tight goaltending market, thanks to Vancouver’s trade of Cory Schneider to New Jersey and the signing of Mike Smith in Phoenix, Thomas’s value might be out of whack with reasonable on-ice expectations, but that’s the way of the NHL. Philadelphia is looking for goaltending help, as are the New York Islanders. It would be too much to expect the Canucks to sign Thomas just to reunite the tire-pumping society of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, but wherever he goes, Thomas is going to be a top-level story. Just not sure he’ll be a top-level goaltender.

Rick DiPietro
The longtime Islander netminder is the backup on our all-redemption team. Bought out of his ridiculous contract by the Isles this week, DiPietro will be looking for a place to prove that he’s not just the punch line to an oft-told joke. Hip injuries and other ailments have conspired to keep DiPietro off the ice for all but 50 games since the 2008-09 season. Hard to imagine a team would spend a one-way contract on the former first-overall draft pick who has never lived up to his billing or his monster contract to which owner Charles Wang signed him after the last lockout. But it’s not hard to see DiPietro signing a two-way deal somewhere and trying to work himself back into NHL shape at the American Hockey League level. Either way, it's a fascinating story should DiPietro find a team willing to open a door on a last chance at an NHL career.

Honorable mentions: Evgeni Nabokov, Ray Emery

DEFENSE

Mike Komisarek
The seventh-overall pick in the 2001 draft played just four games for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, was eventually banished to the AHL and finally bought out by the Leafs. But there was a time when the easy-going, well-spoken Komisarek was a bona fide front-line defenseman with a physical edge. Now, has time passed by the 31-year-old? No question, he handled the situation in Toronto with as much grace and professionalism as could be expected, and he’s highly motivated to prove he still has game left. It's hard to believe there wouldn’t be a fit with the always frugal New York Islanders, and given that Komisarek is from Long Island, it would seem a good place in which to begin the rebuilding process.

Ryan Whitney
It feels like it has been long time since Whitney was part of an emerging Pittsburgh team that advanced to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. The next season, though, he was gone to Anaheim in the deal that brought Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh. From there, he was moved to Edmonton, and after a couple of injury-plagued, unhappy seasons, Whitney is now an unrestricted free agent. Rumors had Whitney, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, headed to Boston at the trade deadline, but that never panned out. The Bruins have loads of depth on the back end and parted ways with veteran Andrew Ference for that reason. But if Whitney is healthy -- a big if, given his ongoing ankle issues -- he still has offensive up-side and is a big body. He chipped in 13 points in 34 games for the Oilers last season, and one would imagine that he would be highly motivated wherever he ended up this summer.

Honorable mentions: Tom Gilbert, Jonathan Blum

CENTER

Daniel Briere
While former Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier garnered most of the buyout attention in the days leading up to free agency -- before he signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers -- former flyer Briere might be the most intriguing center on the market. Briere was bought out by the Flyers, and after a disappointing final season in Philadelphia where he scored just six times, the skilled pivot is still commanding significant interest and might end up signing before July 5. While his durability will be an issue, Briere remains the kind of player who can assist on the power play and would fit in nicely in any dressing room. Most intriguing for teams like Nashville or Montreal is that he is one of the most productive playoff performers of his generation, with 109 points in 108 playoffs games.

Honorable mentions: Derek Roy, Scott Gomez

RIGHT WING

Brad Boyes
Seems like a lifetime ago that the touted Boyes was the subject of a documentary by Leafs TV during his first training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After being selected 24th overall in 2000, Boyes has struggled to find a permanent NHL home. It looked like Long Island might be that place after he signed there before last season and picked up 35 points in 48 games, playing often with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. But the team and Boyes couldn’t get together on a contract extension. Boyes hits the open market again and will be hoping that teams take notice of his recent production. Although he’s already had one tour of duty with the Bruins (he scored 26 goals there in 2005-06), their needs on the right side might make him an attractive option to slot in with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, given his success playing with top-end talent on the Islanders.

Honorable mentions: Michael Ryder, David Clarkson

LEFT WING

Matt Cooke
With Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero locking up key personnel Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz in recent weeks, the one incumbent who might be left out in the cold is Matt Cooke. Cooke was among the most consistent performers for the Penguins on their run to the Eastern Conference finals this spring, and in spite of his checkered past, has remade himself into a valuable player, who brought physicality and top-end penalty killing while chipping in offensively. The question remains, can he be that player somewhere else? Cooke remains such a polarizing figure outside of Pittsburgh (Boston broadcaster Jack Edwards compared Cooke to killer Sirhan Sirhan late in the regular season), one wonders how it might effect Cooke’s marketability.

Honorable mentions: Brenden Morrow, Ryane Clowe
Three weeks from now the doors will open on NHL training camps with physicals and the first on-ice sessions. Will some of the game's biggest stars and emerging young players be ready to go? Here's a look at some names that may or may not be ready to begin that journey.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Every day there seems to be a new rumor about Crosby's status for training camp, his ability to be ready for the season opener on Oct. 6 or whether he should retire completely. Bottom line for all the speculators and diviners of the truth is that no one knows where Crosby will be in three weeks or beyond. General manager Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson Thursday Crosby is waiting for results from concussion specialists he saw in Georgia and Michigan, and they will make a plan moving forward. Shero did say Crosby has been on the ice this week in Nova Scotia and continues to work out. Crosby is expected to be in Pittsburgh when camp starts, Shero told the paper, but who knows if he will be on the ice. The only thing that is certain is that no one who's writing or speculating about Crosby has any real idea about the star center's future regardless of how definitive reports may have sounded.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago star's surgically repaired wrist may not be healing at exactly the rate that the team had hoped, as Kane told a Toronto radio station recently he wasn't sure about being ready for the start of camp. Kane did say he was optimistic he'd be ready when the season starts. The Blackhawks will be looking to avoid the tepid start to last season that saw them scrambling to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season then bowing out to top seed Vancouver in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Having a healthy Kane, who was second on the Hawks with 27 goals and 73 points this past season, will be crucial to getting the Hawks back to contender status.

Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers

The man who most folks expect to be named the captain of the Flyers is still recovering from offseason back surgery and a wrist injury that limited his effectiveness during the playoffs last spring. Pronger told reporters earlier in August that he was behind schedule in his rehab from both the back and hand injuries and wasn't sure about his availability for training camp. But GM Paul Holmgren, speaking to reporters Thursday after introducing new netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, remained confident that Pronger would be ready when the Flyers open the season against the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Oct. 6, even if he isn't ready for the start of camp.

[+] EnlargeDrew Doughty
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireDrew Doughty and his representatives haven't talked to the Kings in almost a month.

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

No, the former Norris Trophy nominee isn't injured, but his availability for the start of the Kings' training camp remains uncertain, thanks to a stalemate in contract talks. Doughty and his representatives haven't talked to the Kings in almost a month and the blue-chip defenseman will not attend camp until a contract is signed, agent Don Meehan told ESPN.com.

Ryan Whitney, Edmonton Oilers

Much of the offseason discussion about the Oilers has focused on winger Taylor Hall and his recovery from an ankle injury that cut short his rookie season. Hall appears to be fine and ready to roll. But the bigger issue for an Oilers team hoping to make a surprise jump into the Western Conference playoff fray is the rehabilitation of Ryan Whitney from an ankle injury that derailed a breakout year for the big defenseman. Whitney had 27 points in 35 games for the Oilers at the time of his injury, and head coach Tom Renney told ESPN.com this week Whitney is their best blueliner and emerging into an important leader for the young Oilers. Whitney said in an interview that he had a minor setback in his recovery a couple of weeks ago but has no doubt he can return to the level of play he delivered a year ago.

"I know I can be the type of player I was in the first half of last year," Whitney said.

Matt Taormina, New Jersey Devils

Lots of turnover in New Jersey, where new coach Pete DeBoer will be evaluating a handful of young defenders to make the Devils' opening-night roster. Among those candidates will be Taormina, who made the Devils out of camp a year ago but was lost to two non-displaced fractures to his ankle in mid-November. The former Providence College player whose puck-moving skills will be important to a rebuilding Devils team underwent surgery in January but took part in the team's prospect camp in July and should be ready to go when the Devils open camp.

Peter Mueller, Colorado Avalanche

Most observers give the Avs little chance of making the playoffs this season, but if they're going to surprise, it'll likely be with the help of a healthy Peter Mueller. Acquired from Phoenix at the 2010 trade deadline, Mueller made an immediate impact with 20 points in 15 games before missing the rest of the season with a concussion. He then missed all of the 2010-11 season after suffering another concussion in the team's first exhibition game. He told Adrian Dater of the Denver Post he's excited to put the concussion issues behind him. Mueller is expected to take team physicals on Sept. 16 and hit the ice the following day.

David Perron, St. Louis Blues

Speaking of the specter of concussions that continues to hover over the NHL, the Blues announced earlier this month that David Perron, who missed the rest of the season after being clipped by San Jose's Joe Thornton in early November, will not be ready for the start of training camp. Further, GM Doug Armstrong told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they were not counting on Perron for the start of the regular season, even though he was making some progress in his rehabilitation. Armstrong confirmed by email Friday that there has been no change to those plans.

Matthew Lombardi, Toronto Maple Leafs

The skilled center played in just two games for the Nashville Predators last season, and the risk that concussion issues would persist were enough for the dollar-conscious Preds to move Lombardi and his $3.5 million price tag for the next two seasons to the Leafs. GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com Friday it's too early to tell whether Lombardi will be ready for camp, although he said clearance to take part in camp workouts is a "distinct possibility." Likewise, the potential for Lombardi to join the Leafs for the start of the season is a distinct possibility, Burke wrote in an email.

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks' netminder was enjoying a breakout year before suffering vertigo after All-Star weekend last January. He told reporters recently that those symptoms have disappeared and he is expecting to be ready to go for the Ducks' training camp. His progress will be key to helping the Ducks return to the playoffs. Hiller won 26 games for the Ducks and boasted an impressive .924 save percentage in spite of the fact he appeared in just three games after the All-Star break.

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