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The trading of Toronto's Phil Kessel likely to be of more interest on the first day of NHL free agency than actual signings (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The trading of Toronto's Phil Kessel likely to be of more interest on the first day of NHL free agency than actual signings (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Mirtle: The best NHL free agents in a very weak class Add to ...

There is not a lot of gold in these thar hills.

A lot of teams are going to struggle mining any copper or zinc.

Yes, the NHL’s free agency period opens on Wednesday at noon, but most of the hype and fanfare is around the possibility of big-name players like Phil Kessel potentially being involved in trades. There’s just not a lot available in this free agent class, and one agent went so far as to say last week that this could be the weakest July 1 crop he has ever seen.

(And player agents aren’t typically in the business of talking down a group of players they represent.)

But just because there aren’t big names doesn’t mean there won’t be big money thrown around. Throughout the free agent interview period, which began last Thursday in South Florida before the draft, there were plenty of rumours about five– and six-year deals for $4.5– to $6-million a season.

Yes, some in this group are going to get close to $40-million.

While some teams like the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Canucks are tight on cap space, others have plenty. The average team is still $14-million under the salary cap, and while some of that won’t be spent, and some is earmarked for restricted free agents, there’s roughly $150-million plus in AAV (annual average value) about to be blown on a cast of second liners, third and fourth defencemen and backup goalies.

Should be fun.

Forwards

We’ll give this group a D-minus. Lower if you’re looking for high-end scoring help, as no one below may hit 50 points next season.

Marty St. Louis, age 40, is available to a good home (preferably one near his off-season home in Connecticut). So are other aging types like Shawn Horcoff, Mike Richards (now mired in a crazy dispute with his former team over off-ice conduct), Danny Briere, Jarret Stoll (legal problems resolved), Matt Cooke (oy), Olli Jokinen (again, oy) and Mike Ribeiro (legal problems ongoing).

So there’s a lot of veterans who can likely be had at low cost and some baggage in there.

But here are a few gems that can help a team, for the right price.

1. Michael Frolik. Yes he only had 42 points in each of the last two seasons, but Frolik’s strong points are his versatility, his possession game and his age, as he only turned 27 in February. These younger UFAs should have more value given you’re getting prime years – or at least close to it. The only downside is so many teams are interested, Frolik could be in for a deal in the $5-million range with some term. A useful player though.

2. Shawn Matthias. Produced 18 goals despite little power play time and mediocre linemates in Vancouver. Big, young centre that has some potential and can even chip in on the penalty kill. Deserves more of a chance somewhere and probably won’t cost a fortune in term or dollars.

3. Justin Williams. Here’s a guy that won’t go under the radar. Williams is 34 in October so that’s obviously a factor, but if you can get him without going overboard on term, he is still a worthwhile addition to any team. And it’s worth keeping in mind his offensive totals may have been held back with a Kings team that doesn’t tend to score all that much in the regular season.

4. Jiri Tlusty. Amazingly tied for fifth in league scoring with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in 2012-13. Since then it’s been a bumpy road with a couple 30-point seasons, but Tlusty is only 27 and can complement good linemates if given the opportunity. Might come cheap after a quiet stint in Winnipeg, too.

5. Joel Ward. Good character contributor still has 25-goal potential in the right situation, but he does turn 35 in December so term is a concern.

Potential bargain buys: Dan Winnik worked out last year for Toronto. Brad Richards did the same for Chicago and can still help a team at the right price. Erik Condra. Tomas Fleischmann. Mike Santorelli.

Potential grenades: Matt Beleskey had 35 career NHL goals prior to last season and exploded with a huge shooting percentage burst. He’s seeking about $4.5-million a season with term.

Also available: Cody Hodgson, Antoine Vermette, Drew Stafford, Curtis Glencross and Chris Stewart.

Defencemen

The blueliners are the best of the bunch of the UFAs this year, but the issue is a lot of teams with money to burn are looking for top four options so there could be more overpays here than anywhere else.

Here are some recommended options, depending on how crazy the bidding gets.

1. Andrej Sekera. A minute eater for Carolina, Sekera could well be going back to the Kings as they try and pull themselves out of cap trouble. If not, he becomes an intriguing option for one of the many teams seeking a top four defenceman that can contribute on a power play.

2. Francois Beauchemin. Long expected to re-sign in Anaheim, Beauchemin is taking those talks down to the wire. On the chance he does become available, he’s the rare player in free agency this year that logged huge minutes (23 per game) for a reasonable price on a very good team. Just turned 35, so that’s a red flag, but he likely has good years left.

3. Paul Martin. Another d-man in his mid-30s and likely on the way down, Martin battled a lot of injuries in Pittsburgh but was effective in enormous minutes when healthy. Could be cheaper than some other options and deliver the same production. Former Prime Minister.

4. Johnny Oduya. May be overpriced given the recent Stanley Cup win, but Oduya showed he still has pretty good wheels for a 33-year-old in the postseason. A fitness freak, he could be one of those blueliners that’s an exception in that he may be able to play effectively until he’s close to 40. Only question: How much of his strong play was a good tandem with Niklas Hjalmarsson?

5. Mike Green. Fell into a third pairing role in Washington last season but proved very effective in it, racking up 45 points and driving play at even strength. Still only 29 years old, Green could surprise if he remains healthy and be a solid No. 4 with the right partner.

Potential bargain buys: John Moore. Christian Ehrhoff, if healthy. Lubomir Visnovsky, if healthy. Matt Donovan. Matt Irwin. Matt Bartkowski. Jan Hejda.

Potential grenades: Cody Franson can be a solid second pair guy that can quarterback a power play, but the rumoured asking price of $6-million a season over six years is mighty steep. That said, many teams doubt he’ll get it after his limited role in Nashville late last season.

Also available: Zbynek Michalek, Marek Zidlicky and Barret Jackman.

Goalies

With Devan Dubnyk re-signing in Minnesota and Antti Niemi landing (surprisingly) in Dallas, there ain’t much here. There aren’t many teams looking either, aside from the Sharks and Flames.

Most of the goalie drama played out with trades during draft weekend – i.e. Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack, Anton Khudobin etc. moving – but for those still searching for depth, these are the best options.

1. Michal Neuvirth. A career .912 save percentage in mostly backup duty, with a lot of those starts coming early in his career. Neuvirth played quite well at times for the Sabres last season and at 27 is still searching for a chance to play more games.

2. Thomas Greiss. Now 29, Greiss has only appeared in 89 NHL games, so his window to land a permanent spot in the NHL could be closing. Statistically, last season was a drop off, but he’s had two solid campaigns as a backup in the past and deserves another opportunity somewhere.

3. Jhonas Enroth. Small netminder in an era of giants, Enroth resurrected his career somewhat in Buffalo last year in not getting totally snowed under despite the nightly barrage. Only a career .909 goalie, he’s a fit only as a backup at this point.

4. Karri Ramo. Overpaid for what he was in Calgary, he nonetheless delivered some moments of brilliance mixed in with the mediocrity. Proved capable of delivering .910 goaltending in backup role.

5. Honestly there isn’t a lot here.

Potential bargain buys: Jeremy Smith, Josh Harding and Tom McCollum.

Potential grenades: Jonas Gustavsson and Anders Lindback.

Also available: Used shooter tutor.

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Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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