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Free-agent class 'horrendous'

Brad Richards is the most coveted free agent in a weak 2011 class. (RONALD MARTINEZ/Getty...

Brad Richards is the most coveted free agent in a weak 2011 class. (RONALD MARTINEZ/Getty Images/AFP)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:20 AM ET

OTTAWA - Will there be free-agent fireworks or will July 1 just turn out to be a dud of a day?

With the NHL free-agency period set to kick in on Friday and the current collective bargaining agreement due to expire in 2012, GMs will have to decide whether to throw big money at a lame list of available players.

Not only is the market thin for unrestricted free agents, there is concern about what the future of contract negotiations might hold, with no talks scheduled between the NHL and the players’ association.

“It’s a horrendous free-agent class,” Rogers Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean, a former GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, said recently. “If (Kevin) Bieksa and (Christian) Erhoff sign in Vancouver — which I anticipate they will — there’s not much left.

“I’ve been looking at the list, but it’s really bad. After four or five guys, it gets really thin.”

As MacLean predicted, the list got thinner Monday, when Bieksa signed a five-year extension with the Canucks.

At least one high-profile agent isn’t concerned.

“To me, it’s going to be as active as it always is because teams are going to do what they need to do,” said the agent. “Teams are going to be as active as they always are and we’re going to see deals that are going to surprise us.

“It’s really a supply-and-demand scenario in free agency. Every year, there are deals that people can’t believe. I don’t anticipate this one is going to be any different. (The CBA) might be a factor on whether (players) get longer-term deals, but not as much as it might next summer.”

The top free agent available is Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards, but he won’t be on the market long. He was offered a long-term deal by the Stars before the February trade deadline and wanted a nine-year contract in the $50-million range.

The Rangers will make a strong push for Richards so he can rejoin John Tortorella, his former coach in Tampa who is now the Rangers’ bench boss. There will be other bidders as well.

Beyond Richards, most of the players available are high-risk or just plain not that good. The class of blueliners isn’t bad, but one of the best potential free agents — Bieksa — is now off the market.

Aging goaltender Dwayne Roloson could also draw some interest.

“There’s just not a lot out there,” said a league executive. “If you’re trying to rebuild or remake your team through this free agency, you aren’t going to be able to do it with this class. A lot of these guys are past their prime. They aren’t going to be able to come in and make the kind of impact you want them to make. Some of the defencemen aren’t bad, but there’s not really a guy there who is going to blow you away to the point you say, ‘Geez, we really have to have this guy to put us over the top.’ ”

A Western Conference executive noted it might be more interesting to watch the restricted free-agent market, with several talented young players looking for new contracts and the prospect of offer sheets looming.

Knowing this was a possibility, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has focused on signing potential RFA Steven Stamkos and he’s close to a deal.

Many will also be watching New Jersey’s Zach Parise, who is one year away from being an unrestricted free agent. The Devils have filed for arbitration, and GM Lou Lamoriello would like to get a long-term deal done.

Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd and Kings defenceman Drew Doughty are also high on the list of looming RFAs.

“My belief is we’ll see an offer sheet or two,” said the Western executive. “Usually, there are one or two teams that are game to make that kind of move. The CBA allows for it and it’s the only way some teams might be able to get the kind of player they want.”

While this free-agent class doesn’t have the same pizzazz as some years, it’s still worth watching.


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