Column: NHL teams likely to target specific needs during free agency with few big-name players available

Vancouver Canucks v Los Angeles Kings
Ryan Miller had a 2.80 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 54 games with Vancouver last season.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

The NHL’s annual exercise in overspending, also known as free agency, will begin at 9 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday. The list of unrestricted free agents available is led by Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, two of the NHL’s top 25 all-time scorers, but the trend toward youth and speed means they won’t skate off as the day’s biggest winners.

The modest bump in the salary cap from $73 million to $75 million for 2017-18 might restrain a market that tends to overpay when given a chance. The lack of premier players in their prime also might result in signings made for specific strategic needs.

One of those targeted moves likely will be made by the Ducks, who have shown interest in goaltender Ryan Miller to fill the backup spot behind John Gibson. His wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, is based in Southern California and Miller has wanted to join her here. Miller, who compiled a 2.80 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 54 games with Vancouver last season, could push and mentor Gibson and become a good fit with the Ducks.

Jagr, who ranks second to Wayne Gretzky with 1,914 points in the NHL, found so little interest in his services that he took to Twitter to remind folks he’s still eager to play at age 45. He had 16 goals and 46 points and played in all 82 games for Florida last season but his ice time fell to an average of 17 minutes. “Everywhere I look, I read: all FA getting calls from 10-12 teams. Me 0 calls,” he tweeted. “On the contrary, I’m trying to call them, and no one’s picking up.” The Panthers might make his phone ring and extend his remarkable career.


Thornton, 22nd in career scoring with 1,391 points and 13th in assists at 1,007, has drawn a lot of interest. The Kings were in the forefront during the pre-free agency negotiating period, and it’s easy to see why: The 6-foot-4, 220-pound center is still a clever playmaker and a major force in a Pacific Division full of big, strong centers.

The catch: he will be 38 on Sunday and reportedly wants a three-year contract. The Kings still have to sign restricted free agents Nick Shore, Kevin Gravel, Michael Mersch, Paul LaDue, and Jonny Brodzinski but have about $10 million in cap space, according to the website, so they have some flexibility. They’re not going to sign late-season addition Jarome Iginla, who contributed in the locker room but was only sporadically productive on the ice. Since Thornton is older than 35 he can sign a one-year deal for a minimal salary and attainable performance bonuses, if he’s willing to compromise on term.

Another possible obstacle to Thornton signing with the Kings is the notion he and San Jose teammate Patrick Marleau want to stay together, because few teams could afford to sign both. Marleau also reportedly wants a three-year deal but is nearly 38 and coming off a third straight season of declining production. He has spent his entire 19-season career with the Sharks; Thornton has been in San Jose since 2005 and might be reluctant to leave. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Friday the Sharks offered Marleau a two-year contract and NBC Sports California reported the Sharks made a two-year offer to Thornton.

Kevin Shattenkirk figures to be the biggest winner as teams seek puck-moving defensemen who can join the attack. Shattenkirk, 28, started last season with St. Louis and was traded to Washington, which couldn’t re-sign him after general manager Brian MacLellan gave forward T.J. Oshie an eight-year, $46-million contract. Washington’s lack of cap space also means rugged defenseman Karl Alzner will be available, and he’s sure to draw several offers.


Other defensemen will be on the move. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Trevor Daley is expected to leave the Penguins, perhaps for the Detroit Red Wings, and Dan Girardi reportedly will leave the New York Rangers for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Andrei Markov’s offensive talents could get him a big payday outside of Montreal.

The market for goalies is thin, and that could hurt the Kings’ search for depth after Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell. Brian Elliott, who struggled in Calgary, and Steve Mason appear to be the best of the bunch. Elliott reportedly is headed to Philadelphia and Mason to Winnipeg, but no announcement can be made until the signing period begins Saturday. The Ducks’ wish list might include a center if Nate Thompson leaves via free agency.

Right wings Alexander Radulov and Radim Vrbata will be in play, but it’s unclear whether there will be great demand for 40-year-old Shane Doan, whose 22-year tenure with the Coyotes has ended. Former Kings right wing Justin Williams drew interest from Dallas and the New York Islanders but might return to Carolina, where he first won the Cup in 2006. The Kings shouldn’t have let him leave as a free agent in 2015 but that’s old news. Free agency is about building for the future while trying to make history and only time will reveal who Saturday’s big winners will be.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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