I wrote earlier in the day on the number of unrestricted free agents (then at 84) looking for a home, and this afternoon we finally started to see some movement on that front. Alexander Frolov and Alexei Ponikarovsky both signed similar one-year deals, Frolov for $3-million with the Rangers and Ponikarovsky for $3.2-million with the Kings.
I had Frolov 14th and Ponikarovsky 28th on our big board of 100 UFAs from July 1, and they're two players who have been second-line, 25-goal types the past few seasons. In past years, we would have seen them sign earlier, but there just wasn't the term or dollars available to start that they were looking for.
The question now is if that will open the door for more free agents to finally sign.
Of the top 50 on my list, Willie Mitchell, Teemu Selanne, Marty Turco, Lee Stempniak, Maxim Afinogenov, Kim Johnsson, Eric Belanger, Paul Kariya, Bill Guerin, Brendan Morrison, Jose Theodore, Marek Svatos and Raffi Torres remain available.
We can exclude a few of those off the bat. Mitchell has been battling concussion issues and isn't quite ready to take a physical and sign. He'll get some significant interest once he is.
Johnsson is in a similar situation, but there's no timetable at all for his return. Johnsson's agent Rich Curran made it sound this week like he could be out for a while, battling the same concussion that caused him to miss the Blackhawks run to the Cup.
Selanne is the only player in that list of 13 who has said publicly he is contemplating retirement.
Further down the list, at No. 63, there was some minor news today with former Capitals defenceman Brian Pothier, who reports from Switzerland indicated had signed with Genève-Servette in that league. Pothier's agent Justin Duberman confirmed the deal but added that the contract has an NHL out clause until Aug. 15.
"If he doesn't take an offer from the NHL, he will play this season in Geneva," Duberman said.
Pothier's a pretty solid third-pairing defender, a guy who played about 18 minutes a night with the Capitals and would likely be a star overseas. A few agents have remarked to me how many calls they've been getting from European teams this year, as the vultures circle an NHL UFA crop that has been waiting four weeks and might be anxious to simply sign somewhere.
Belanger's agent Joe Tacopina, meanwhile, said they're closing in on a contract, but only narrowed it down to teams that have considerable cap space. "We've been going back and forth a few teams but really are winding down with a couple teams," Tacopina said. "We'll make a decision in a week or two."
My guess is Belanger would fit well with the Lightning, Avalanche and Islanders as a veteran third-line centre.
One major holdup for a lot of these remaining UFAs is the fact there are so many restricted free agents still out there. There are 11 arbitration cases still to come, and then another 55 RFAs of varying talents to be signed. Overall, I believe teams have only $60- to $100-million to spend, total, and that's with some real marquee young players without contracts.
The key ones to look out for are Blues defenceman Erik Johnson, Habs goalie Carey Price, Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, Rangers defenceman Marc Staal, Sharks winger Devin Setoguchi, Avs winger Chris Stewart, Preds winger Patric Hornqvist, Flames defenceman Ian White, Stars winger James Neal and Thrashers winger Bryan Little.
I'm getting the impression there could be a couple holdouts from that group, given things have gone on this long. There were a lot of breakout seasons in there and young RFAs have been getting big money (and term) under this CBA.
On the arbitration side of things, Antti Niemi's hearing with the Blackhawks on Thursday could be pretty interesting. If his award comes in too high, say at $3-million or more, there could be a tough decision there for Chicago, which remains very cash strapped even after shuttling out a ton of its Stanley Cup winning lineup.
With both Turco and Theodore available in free agency, maybe for cheap, it may make sense for the Blackhawks to go that route, save the cash and let Niemi try to find work as a free agent in what is the most cluttered goaltending market we've ever seen. Chicago's not a team that needs a star in goal to win games, given the way they play, and who really knows how good Niemi will be in the long term.