September 3, 2013

Great Debate: Free agents surprisingly still available


Every week, a rotating group of NEHJ staff members will share their take on one hot topic in the hockey world. Here’s the latest edition of The Great Debate.

The setup: After a rapid flurry of activity when free agency began on July 5, it didn't take long for things to come to a quick halt. What's followed is a dull two months on the news front, despite a high number of talented players remaining on the open market.

The question: Which unrestricted free agent are you most surprised is still without a deal?


I am a little surprised that Connecticut native and former UMass-Lowell Riverhawk Ron Hainsey is still out there looking for a contract.

With nearly 600 NHL games under his belt, he brings the kind of size, defensive acumen and experience that is normally in big demand. However, his offense has steadily gone south (no goals since the 2010-11 season) since his career-best 39 points in 2008-09 and his asking price of a rumored $1.5M is out of line with what clubs are willing to pay for a player on the wrong side of 30.

My guess is that when camps start up and the inevitable preseason injuries begin to happen, Mr. Hainsey's phone will start to ring. He may end up signing for closer to the league minimum than the alleged rate he's seeking, but he still brings valuable depth at a time when the league is more competitive than ever. 

Hainsey is not likely to appeal to the deeper, more established rosters with myriad defense options, but some teams are certainly thinner on the blue line than others. It's hard to imagine this is the end of the line for the former 13th overall selection of the Montreal Canadiens in 2000, but the lack of interest thus far is indicative of the large pool of shutdown defenders out there to be had at better bargains.



Statistically speaking, only 49 other NHLers had a better year than Brad Boyes. Seriously. This is why it's such a surprise to me that no one has taken a chance on the 31-year old who seemed to have a resurgent year with the New York Islanders. Although playing on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson certainly helped, Boyes had the type of bounce-back year that you would think would attract suitors looking to bring on a depth forward for a reasonably cheap salary. And yet on September 1, Boyes, whose 10 goals and 25 assists in 48 games put him in the top 50 in the NHL in points, remains a free agent.

Boyes has always been a consistent, top-six forward, aside from his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres where he spent the time he wasn't injured on the team's fourth line. There are plenty of teams still missing a spark in their offense that could benefit from signing Boyes to serve as a veteran playmaker. While one could speculate his next destination, it'd be quite the shock to think that Boyes goes unsigned before training camps open.



I might be playing to the crowd a bit, but color me surprised that we're a week away from training camps opening and Tim Thomas is no closer to being back between the pipes for an NHL club than he has been throughout his bizarre, much-maligned hockey hiatus.

It seemed clear from the get-go that the two-time Vezina Trophy winner's intentions to return and vie for a spot on Team USA's roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics were a bit delusional -- unless you thought a rusty, aging backstop could top any one of Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller or Jon Quick (Hamden, Conn.) on the depth chart. But now, it seems as though Thomas' one-year vacation has been a huge turnoff for most GMs throughout the league.

The 2011 Conn Smythe recipient missed out on plenty of quality landing spots that would've seemed to fit both sides early on in free agency, including Long Island (Evgeni Nabokov re-signed), Columbus (Sergei Bobrovsky re-signed) and Philadelphia (Ray Emery brought in). Nevertheless, there are plenty of clubs that could use a guy like Thomas to come in -- Florida and Tampa, for example -- and either be a 1B mentor-type backup or have the chance to fight for a starting role. But apparently either no GM wants to do so, or Thomas is stubbornly waiting for a chance to be a clear-cut No. 1 for an NHL club. If he truly intends to come back -- temporarily casting aside the notion of a mid-season signing as an injury replacement -- he's going to have to bite the bullet sooner rather than later.



Damien Brunner. Admittedly, some of this is just "feel," because Brunner's numbers aren't exactly anything to lose sleep about. But 12 goals and 14 assists in his first season in the NHL suggested to me that Brunner had a bright NHL future ahead of him. Now we're into September, and nobody wants to take a chance on a shifty young (27) winger with the ability to produce? Maybe there's a personality issue that isn't publicly known, maybe he's looking for more money than he's worth, but Brunner seems like the kind of guy most teams would like to have - a low-risk, potentially high-value forward that could slot easily into most second and third lines, and probably even fill in on a top line here and there.

My only thought to the contrary is that he comes from the notoriously low-impact Swiss League, so his overseas numbers are obviously inflated. Also, according to a tweet from Swiss reporter Nicola Berger, the Devils were "doing a lot of background work" on Brunner back in July. Maybe they didn't like what they found.

Now we turn the question over to you: