Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Monday, August 1, 2005
Updated: August 3, 1:55 PM ET
A look at the top free agents

By Jim Kelley
Special to ESPN.com

We are about to enter the National Hockey League's newest version of free-agent roulette, a high-stakes game in which better than 200 players Monday gain instant unrestricted free-agent status at a time when the market for unfettered players has been gutted by the new collective bargaining agreement.

It's a brave new world for those who have the heart and stomach for it, and we here at ESPN.com have decided to march decisively into the fray with a top 10 list of the who's who on the market:

Scott Niedermayer
Niedermayer
Scott Niedermayer
• Unrestricted free-agent defenseman
In the new NHL, sans a red line, Niedermayer is the most desirable free agent out there. Defensemen who are mobile, have exceptional skating and puck-handling ability, can make the long tape-to-tape pass to the streaking forward, who manage to get some 90 feet up ice and still be onside, are both rare and precious. Niedermayer is as good as it gets. Factor in that he's also smart, still young (31 is young for a defenseman in this league), but very experienced and extraordinarily accomplished in his own zone, and you have one of the few players likely to draw the new top salary in the restructured league. There is serious talk that Niedermayer will entertain offers from Calgary and Vancouver, the idea being that if the money is right he would like to play closer to home (he's a Western Canada boy). The New York Rangers, the Maple Leafs and even the historically tight-fisted Devils and the chronically poor Pittsburgh Penguins, are all in the mix.

Chris Pronger
Pronger
Chris Pronger
• Restricted free-agent defenseman
Though the Blues re-signed their stellar defenseman, there are rumors afoot that ownership wants to move him. There are also rumors Pronger is more than willing to go and that Florida general manager Mike Keenan, who once traded for Pronger when he was GM in St. Louis, wants to be at the head of the pack. Keenan had success with several teams and won a Cup in New York with Brian Leetch controlling the Rangers' offense from the blue line. He is a huge believer in having a game-controlling defenseman and still admires Pronger for both his offensive ability and his skating and puck-handling skills.

Peter Forsberg
Forsberg
Peter Forsberg
• Unrestricted free-agent center
When last we saw NHL Hockey, Forsberg was arguably the game's best player. He has a near-perfect blend of hockey skills and competitive grit, and is positively fearless in the attacking zone. He's not bad defensively, either. Age (32) and a penchant for collecting serious injuries (the direct result of his fearlessness in the attacking zone), along with a bloated payroll in Colorado, made Forsberg expendable there. Still, that likely won't close the door to his resuming premier status in the league should he choose to do so. That's the one extenuating circumstance regarding Forsberg: He played his entire NHL career in Colorado and may opt to stay in his native Sweden rather than start over in a new NHL city at a markedly reduced price. The thinking is that Avalanche will attempt to re-sign him at a much lower price, but expect several teams to at least make a bid, including Western Conference rivals Dallas and San Jose. The difficulty for any other interested teams will be convincing Forsberg they are serious about winning right now.

Markus Naslund
Naslund
Markus Naslund
• Unrestricted free-agent winger
Every bit as talented as Forsberg though a little bit less tenacious. Naslund is an offensive machine, and in recent seasons has added some dimension to his defensive play, making him a two-way force to be reckoned with in playoff competition. He is a tad less physical than some would like, but in the free-flowing West, no one ever complained and the betting is that the Western game will be more readily adopted in the East, a change of scene that should open the way for even more bidders. The Canucks are said to still be very interested in signing Naslund, and there's some rumbling that Brian Burke, the former Canucks GM and now the head man in Anaheim, might make a bid, but like Forsberg and Niedermayer, the decision is rooted in money, winning potential and family lifestyle. An interesting aside here, reports out of Sweden maintain that Naslund and Forsberg, best friends from their days growing up together in that country, are considering packaging themselves as a two-fer.

Adam Foote
Foote
Adam Foote
• Unrestricted free-agent defenseman
If this were the old NHL, near every team in the defensive-minded East would be chasing Foote, a player who's not exactly fleet of foot, but is outstanding in his own end, a decisive team leader, a physical presence and a winner. The motion game is not his forte, and he has had problems with injuries in his 13 NHL seasons. Still, he's a top-notch talent in his end of the ice and that won't be overlooked by the many teams that still believe defense counts in winning a championship. All things being equal, the betting is Foote will return to his native Toronto should the Leafs find the money to make it happen. Some say $5 million per will do it. In the wake of Dallas giving Sergei Zubov $4 million per year, the number seems about right.

Joe Thornton
Thornton
Joe Thornton
• Restricted free-agent center
The B's made their superstar center a qualifying offer, but Thornton doesn't like it. That could set up a trade, due in part because Thornton could become an unrestricted free agent as early as next season. This bears watching. The Bruins are often accused of being tight with a buck, but they tend to spend to keep their gate attractions. They don't like being put in a loss situation however, and getting something for Thornton before he walks for free will be a priority for Boston GM Mike O'Connell. It's not outside the realm of possibility that if Dallas can't sign Mike Modano, the Bruins might.

Mark Messier
Messier
Mark Messier
• Unrestricted free-agent center
It's not that the Rangers don't want the ageless one back to finish his stated goal of tucking into second place behind Wayne Gretzky as the league's all-time leading scorer. It's just that, well, he's old, he's expensive and there are just so many younger, talented players on the market, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It would be sad for hockey fans and for the NHL if Messier doesn't get a gig somewhere. It might not be New York, but the Edmonton Oilers would love to bring him home to finish his stellar career and to mentor their kids. Messier also has affection for Keenan and Keenan for him (they won a Cup together in New York), and, well, Florida is a tax-free state and close to Messier's offseason home in Hilton Head. Hey, it's not the Ritz, but then Messier has tasted glamour. All he needs now is a good supporting cast to see him through to the end.

Miroslav Satan
Satan
Miroslav Satan
• Unrestricted free-agent winger
OK, he's not the player that comes to mind in terms of super-star persona, but Satan, has quietly compiled impressive numbers in Buffalo, leading the team in scoring in six of the past seven seasons. He's a pure sniper and a go-to-guy on the power play, and though he has defensive shortcomings and pretty much shies away from the physical play, he has scored 40 or more in seasons when the Sabres played defense at the expense of offense. A true sniper and the kind of player you certainly want in your shoot-out rotation, Satan could be in a tough spot having been cut loose with no agent to manage his affairs. But anything above $3.5 million is likely to get his name on a contract and there are a lot of teams that will come calling for a guy who can make a difference when the puck is on his stick (Satan had 224 goals and 232 assists for 456 points in his Sabres career).

Eric Lindros
Lindros
Eric Lindros
• Unrestricted free-agent center
Lindros' stock has plummeted in recent years, but he still has name value for teams that have none. He also has an almost desperate need to be recognized in his hometown, Toronto. There are a lot of hockey people who maintain that would be a mistake for the Leafs, but then the Leafs have been known to make them over the years, especially when it comes to bringing prodigal sons home at the tail end of their careers. Considering Lindros has already made his NHL fortune in Philadelphia and New York, it's likely he will sign for precious little in Toronto, making him all the more appealing to the powers that be there.

Nikolai Khabibulin
Khabibulin
Nikolai Khabibulin
• Unrestricted free-agent goaltender
There's no question the Lightning want to sign this guy, he was the keystone player in their run to the Stanley Cup the last time we saw the NHL in action. Problem is, everyone else would like to sign this guy as well, and given the Lightning have a plethora of young stars they need to get under contract and highly regarded goalie John Grahame waiting in the wings, Khabibulin just might be a tad too expensive for Tampa. If that's the case, look for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Detroit Red Wings and countless others to pony up the cash. Our bet is Toronto, but Phoenix had Khabibulin once and would dearly love to get him again. The Rangers could make an attractive offer and provide some Russian hospitality as well.

Curtis Joseph
Joseph
Curtis Joseph
• Unrestricted free-agent goaltender
The Red Wings spit all over this guy when they thought they had Dominik Hasek back and then had to backtrack in a big, big way when Hasek came up lame in yet another comeback attempt. Joseph likely won't forget that, and more than likely will look to move away from a Red Wings team that has salary cap problems, is on its third coach in four years and no longer looks like a Stanley Cup contender. That could open the door for a return to Toronto, but only if Khabibulin is not in the picture there. It's a relatively thin market for free-agent goalies, at least for the good ones, so even though Joseph is getting on in years, he's likely to still have plenty of suitors.

Jim Kelley is an award-winning hockey writer based in Buffalo, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.