In this edition of our Offseason Options series, a look at some restricted free agent forwards who might be on Scott Howson's radar going into July 1st.
Just to note: I would not assume any of them will be made offers. This is just my best guesses looking at how the Jackets have been working to build the team, and players who might fit those criteria. Offer sheets are the one tool in a GM's bag of tricks we haven't seen Columbus use, even in the MacLean era. It's a risky business, but with the right move it could pay off handsomely.
Possibly the franchise's most consistent weakness, Columbus has never had strong depth at center. While the team did draft Derick Brassard, the majority of its' pivots have been acquired through trades or free agency, with mixed results. (Antoine Vermette = success. Jiri Novotny? Not so much.) With the continued question of if Brassard can become a true #2 (or even #1) centerman, it may be time to start considering alternatives.
Peter Mueller, Colorado Avalanche
Traded from Phoenix to Colorado at the trade deadline, Mueller clearly needed a change of scenery. After putting up 36 points (13G, 23A) in his rookie season, he was struggling in new head coach Dave Tippet's system, putting up only 4 goals and 13 assists with a -5 rating before the trade. However, in the more wide open approach of Colorado's offense, Mueller blossomed, racking up 20 points in 15 games before a concussion forced an early end to his season.
Mueller is currently signed at cap hit of $1.7 million for his RFA season (the end of his Entry Level deal) on a Colorado team that does have cap space available, but is facing many gaps in their roster for the upcoming season that must be filled either by free agency or trade. An offer sheet would be unlikely in this case, as I don't see the Blue Jackets giving up their first rounder next year (or in subsequent years), but it's entirely possible that Colorado might consider a trade to fill some holes, particularly on defense.
Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
"Little Joe" has been one of the bigger stories of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the fact that the Blackhawks were able to neutralize him is a major reason why the Sharks were swept out of the Western Conference Finals.. Despite a leg injury that kept him off the lineup for almost a quarter of the season, Pavelski was good for 25 goals and 26 assists in the regular season before turning in 9 goals and another 7 assists in the playoffs with a +7 rating, helping take a lot of pressure off the Sharks' top line.
The Sharks are likely to face big changes in 2010-2011, with the team already at 36 million against the cap with only 12 players signed, and several big names up for new deals or free agency, including Rob Blake, Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, and Pavelski. Currently signed at $1.5 million, Little Joe has certainly earned himself a pay raise, and GM Doug Wilson may have to make some hard decisions on just what (or perhaps who) he can afford.
Erik Christensen - New York Rangers
There was likely a point in the last few years where Erik Christiansen might have wondered if he might be making a run at Mike Sillinger's record for most frequently traded player. Traded from Pittsburgh to Atlanta as part of the Marian Hossa deal, then to Anaheim, then rumored to be heading back to Pittsburgh, then finally landing in New York off of a waiver claim by the Rangers, he finally seemed to blossom in Broadway, putting up 26 points and a +14 rating in 48 games, a seeming return to his 2006-2008 form that saw him put up back to back 30+ point seasons in Pittsburgh compared to the disappearing act he pulled in Atlanta and his brief stay in Anaheim.
If this truly is a resurgence for the 26 year old forward, he might be an excellent fit for the Jackets. Signed at just over $750,000 on a team that is looking at serious cap trouble thanks to the bizarre ministrations of GM Glen Sather, the Rangers currently have 14 players signed for next season at $46 million, over half of which is divided between Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik, Wade Redden, and Chris Drury. Christenen plays an aggressive two way game and was considered one of the Rangers top players by the end of the season, sharing a line with Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.
Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals
Though Washington has done a better job of managing their cap than, say, Chicago, this is a team with a lot of young talent that needs to get paid. After locking up their top pairing of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have 14 players signed through next season and 43 million already committed to the cap after Backstrom's $6.7 million dollar per year deal.
Fleischmann, on the other hand, might be the very definition of "Bargain Bin." Drafted by Detroit in 2002 and later traded to the Red Wings for Robert Lang, the Czech forward was a big performer for Bruce Boudreau down in Hershey, and has continued his rise once he made it into the NHL, finishing the 2009-2010 regular season with a career high 23 goals and 28 assists. Shut down in the playoffs by Montreal's superhuman defensive effort, he was benched for the deciding game 7, a decision that likely will haunt the team this offseason. Fleischmann is signed at $725,000.
Though the team has some strong NHL calibre wingers (Juice, RJ, and perhaps Nikita Filatov) signed through the next few seasons, there's nothing wrong with making plans for the future - particularly if one or both of Filatov and Huselius could become tradable assets in the near future.
Nikolai Kulemin - Toronto Maple Leafs
Despite a bit of uncertainty on if the big winger would settle into the North American game when Toronto signed him in 2007, Kulemin has blossomed into a workhorse, routinely logging 20 minutes a night and registering 30+ point seasons in the NHL in both 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. With Toronto already at 56 million against the cap and Brian Burke promising playoffs to the TML fan base, it will be interesting to see if Kulemin is extended or floated as available in exchange for helping Burke push the Leafs over the hump in the East.
Andrew Ladd, Chicago Blackhawks
Regarded as something of an underachiever in Carolina, where he was their first round pick in the 2004 entry draft, Ladd blossomed following a trade to the Blackhawks, leaping from a career high of 21 points with the Hurricanes to a 49 point season in his first full year with the Hawks, and following up with a respectable 17G, 21A as part of the Hawks' main checking line. Ladd's a perfect example of a player who can provide a constant threat on the ice, capable of taking the pressure off of the team's top line while still helping to shut down opponents.
Chicago, however, may find it difficult to hang on to Ladd, who is currently signed for $1.45 million, as they are already over the cap by $800,000 with only 14 players signed, though that does include their core of Toews, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook. Don't be surprised to see Ladd among the many players that GM Stan Bowman will be forced to part with this offseason in an effort to get his team's salary back under control.
Matt Moulson, New York Islanders
A player whose career seemed likely to be a bust just a year ago, Moulson was a late round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2003 draft who returned to the NCAA and could not come to terms with the Pens. Picked up by LA in 2007 after graduating from Cornell, Moulson played all of 22 games between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons, and scored all of 6 goals. Cut loose by the Kings, he washed up on Long Island, where he came out of nowhere to establish himself as the Islanders leading goal scorer this season with 30, and another 18 assists, good for 4th overall for the team. It's possible that Moulson might be a one-hit wonder, especially since he did benefit from playing with 2009 1st overall pick John Tavares, but Moulson's current salary of $575,000 makes him a good target for a potential poaching for a GM hoping to add more scoring at a low price.
James Neal, Dallas Stars
Possibly known more for being "That guy Brass jacked up his shoulder fighting" by Columbus fans than for his on ice performance, Neal has been a solid contributor for the Stars, delivering the mail for 27 goals and 28 assists this year and averaging over 22 minutes a night. In terms of both stats and his style of play, he's very comparable to R.J. Umberger, including a willingness to get dirty in front of the net and routinely standing up for his teammates. Neal also plays with a good bit of 'nasty' in his game, and could be part of a great agitator line with Derek Dorsett.
Dallas is currently at $41 million against the cap and looking at a major retooling with the departure of Mike Modano, Marty Turco, and Jere Lehtinen. This could be another situation where either a trade or an offer sheet could be effective if Howson decided to take a shot.
Though there are some interesting RFAs in this category, it's the least likely for the Jackets to be shopping in. The team's current depth chart for the RW position starts at Rick Nash, Jakub Voracek, and Derek Dorsett at the NHL level, and Cam Atkinson and Kyle Neuber waiting in the wings. Still, you never know what might happen...
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
CBJ fans should be more than familiar with Bobby Ryan. After starting his NHL career with the stigma of "The guy who got picked after Sidney Crosby", Ryan had some fairly massive expectations heaped onto him before he ever stepped onto an NHL rink. Despite that burden, he persisted in the AHL (including two seasons under current CBJ head coaching candidate Kevin Dineen) before breaking through in 2008-2009 where he tore through the leauge, leading rookie scoring with 31 goals and 26 assists before being eclipsed in the Calder Trophy voting by Steve Mason. After a slow start to the 2009-2010 season, many wondered if he would be heading for a similar sophomore slump before Ryan turned on his jets, beating both of his previous marks with 35G, 29A for 64 points, 48 of which were scored on the power play, and earning a spot on Team USA for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
With his current salary of $765,000 (and another $1 million in potential bonuses), Ryan is probably one of the best bang for his buck players in the NHL today, and likely to demand comparable pay to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf from the Ducks. Anaheim is likely to have cash to play with, particularly if Scott Neidermeyer and Teemu Selanne decide to officially retire, but on the other hand, the Ducks were burned with an offer sheet before, and it could certainly happen again.
Devin Setoguchi, San Jose Sharks
Another key part of San Jose's secondary scoring, Setoguchi came back down to Earth a bit this year after posting a 65 point rookie season, though 20 goals and 16 assists is nothing to be sneezed at. Delivering an additional 5 goals and 4 assists during the Sharks' playoff run, Setoguchi is signed at $765,000. The reasons San Jose may be forced to either pay up or move him go back to the same concerns as Pavelski, but if I had to guess, he's still likely to be wearing teal next year.
Brandon Yip, Colorado Avalanche
A bit of a sleeper in this year's rookie class, Yip only played in 30 regular season games after going pro this season, following his graduation from Boston University. However, in those 30 games he delivered a major impact, with 11 goals and 8 assists, of which 3 goals were game winners. Moving between the third and second lines, Yip would tally two more goals and a pair of assists in the playoffs before Colorado's exit in the first round. Not bad for leauge minimum. Yip is likely to be looking for a raise coming into 2010-2011, and he certainly fits the plan for speed, skill, and youth.
Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins
Originally drafted by the Coyotes, Wheeler and his agent couldn't come to an agreement with Phoenix and eventually landed in Boston, where he's put up two solid seasons as he transitioned from the NCAA to the NHL level. Expected to be a power forward, he's excellent at using his size and stick handling skills as he drives to the net, and has surprising speed for 6' 5", 205 lbs. Wheeler put up 18 goals and 20 assists in the regular season for the Bruins, and finished the playoffs with a goal and 5 assists.
Wheeler is signed at $875,000 with another $2 million in performance bonuses. If I had to guess, he's probably looking for a new deal in the $3-4 million range, something which Boston may find difficult to swallow given that they're already at $50 million against the cap for next year. A team willing to show him the money is likely to get quite a bit of attention.