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The NHL's Most Interesting Free Agents

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Let’s put it this way. I don’t give a flying puck where LeBron is going on July 1st. I care about celebrating Canada Day and seeing where NHL free agents end up. As a fan, there are always players that are more fun to track than others, since they could have a big impact on your team’s fortunes.

In my mind, here are the 4 most intriguing free agents in this year’s crop, after the jump.

Ilya Kovalchuk, RW

Kovalchuk is the most obvious, so let’s talk about him first. While many have listed him as the best player available in free agency, I’m not quite as confident. Let’s call him the best shooter available. As Gabe at Behind The Net has so eloquently pointed out, he has value, but it will likely be overpriced.

Kovalchuk is definitely a point producer, as he had the 7th best Points per 60 Min rate in the NHL last year for forwards who played at least 50 games. He only trailed players with last names like Sedin, Crosby and Ovechkin.

Where Kovalchuk is severely over-rated, however, is his ability to help his team generate more shots on goal than against. Despite playing against sub-par competition (CorsiQoC= -0.4) and with decent teammates (CorsiQoT=0.577), he managed a meager Corsi of 0.85, which is acceptable at best.

Kovalchuk is a dynamic scorer, but will need to be played only in offensive situations and on the powerplay. For teams that are 1 offensive player from challenging for the cup, he’s worth a 1-3 year deal.

Sergei Gonchar, D

Despite his age, Gonchar can still have a big impact to a team’s offense. Gonchar had the 6th best point rate on the powerplay among all NHL defenseman who played 50 games and over a minute per 60 on the man advantage.

I have heard many people talk about Gonchar’s cushy minutes, but that’s not exactly the case. He faced the 3rd highest Quality of Competition on the Penguins, meaning he frequently matched up against the opposition’s second line. He also had only the 4th best Quality of Teammates on the Penguins defensive core. The only cushy part about Gonchar’s minutes is the fact that he started 56% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which was best on the team.

Gonchar carries a 11.9 GVT rating for the season, showing by yet one more measure that he is a top quality defenseman. $4-5M for a 1 year deal might not be out of the realm of what Gonchar will fetch.

Anton Volchenkov, D

The big question I hear of Volchenkov is whether or not he really is a "shutdown" defensemen. After making $2.5M last year (according to CapGeek.com), he would definitely be a steal.

Here are the facts. You tell me if he’s a shutdown player.

Volchenkov started only 46.9% of the time in the offensive zone. He had the second worst teammate ranking (CorsiQoT) on the Senators blueline. He faced the second hardest opposition (CorsiQoc) of all Senators defensemen.

Those are very tough minutes to play. Despite playing in his own end, with weak teammates and against the top line, he still had a positive shot ratio (Corsi=0.46) and his team had a better goal differential when he was on the ice (Rel +/- of 0.38).

Volchenkov can play on the top defensive pairing for almost any team in the league and hold his own. He’s not getting anywhere near the attention from the media that he should. At the age of 28, he’s still got some very good years ahead of him.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, LW

Ponikarovsky moved to the Penguins in a deal with the Maple Leafs to help their playoff run. Unless Pittsburgh come up with a last minute deal, a subtly valuable player will be hitting the open market. Although already 30 years old, he only had a cap hit of $2.1M last year and made a very interesting contribution.

With a GVT of 8.0 for the year, the former Maple Leaf appears to be a solid 2nd line player. I happen to think he could be a solid 1st-line player or excellent 2nd-line player on the right team.

While starting 54.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone is a definite advantage, that was a middle-of-the-pack number for the Penguins. What’s really impressive, however, is what he did with this starting position. A Corsi rating of 18.99 is simply fantastic, especially when considering that his Corsi Relative to his teammates was 13.1. Simply put, Ponikarovsky is a puck possession machine.

Possession and shots are fantastic, but sometimes the question arises as to whether it was effective. Scoring 2.27 points per 60 minutes at even strength is a fantastic rate while his Relative +/- of 0.43 is also impressive.

Ponikarovsky could be a reasonably-priced option to kick start a team’s 5-on-5 offense, which is what most teams are hoping to find.