Free-agent pool disappointing

New Jersey Devils Zach Parise celebrates with teammate Travis Zajac after Parise scored a goal...

New Jersey Devils Zach Parise celebrates with teammate Travis Zajac after Parise scored a goal against the Los Angeles Kings during Game Five of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Prudential Center on June 9, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Paul Bereswill/Getty Images/AFP)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:53 PM ET

When asked about the quality of this year's free agent pool, one NHL pro scout was quite succinct.

After glitzy names like that of New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise and Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter, both of whom still belong to those teams until noon EDT Sunday, the falloff is pretty steep to the next level.

"Outside of Suter and Parise, is there a class?" texted the scout.

When asked to give the group a grade, he gave it a "D."

For disappointing?

Parise and Suter look like they are prepared to hit the mother lode. There will be a lot of teams with money to spend. The NHL announced Friday the salary cap will go up to $70.2 million for the purposes of this period of free agency but it will likely change under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. The floor will be $54.2 million and better than a fifth of the NHL's clubs were under that number last season, so they will have to spend some to get there.

So there's going to be money thrown around.

When the Calgary Flames signed Dennis Wideman, a decent defenceman who has his warts, to a deal that will pay him $5.25 million for each of the next five years, it signalled the lottery kiosk was open.

The pool of quality of free agents has eroded, for the most part, in the salary cap era because teams have been signing top talent to longer deals. There are simply fewer high-end players with expiring deals.

The timing is great for the players who become free agents Sunday.

Take a guy like Olli Jokinen.

Somebody will.

It looked like his career might have been expiring -- since 2006-07, his point totals have plunged from 91 to 50 -- but he bounced back with 61 last season with the Calgary Flames. Given the paucity of centres in this marketplace, suddenly Jokinen becomes a second-line option for a few teams.

Parise and Suter will have plenty of suitors.

It's expected the Pittsburgh Penguins will be in the running for both. Penguins general manager Ray Shero cleared about $6 million in cap space by dealing centre Jordan Staal and defenceman Zbynek Michalek. By having captain Sidney Crosby agree to keep his salary cap hit at $8.7 million for the next 12 years -- that's the terms of the contract extension he will sign Sunday -- Shero will have close to $15 million to play with today (with 18 players already signed).

It's no coincidence the news of Crosby's new deal, which has been circulating for the last three weeks, was officially announced Friday. There wasn't much in the way of doubt he would be with the Penguins, but it sends the message the foundation is stable and creates a positive vibe around the club when it comes to selling free agents on Pittsburgh as a destination.

Shero should be able to offer competitive money to both Parise and Suter, the opportunity to be surrounded by some of the best players in the game and the chance to be on a perennial Stanley Cup contender (As we saw this spring, there are no guarantees, but a player can play the odds).

Crosby could be the Penguins best salesman. He's shown his commitment to the franchise by not making this contract negotiation an arduous process, though you could argue it's a two-way street. The Penguins showed a lot of faith giving that deal to a player with Crosby's health issues. You would think the chance to play with a player who has shown he has that ability to make those around him better would be a great selling point to a guy like Parise.

But Parise, who had 31 goals and 69 points last season, said if he doesn't have a deal with the Devils by Sunday at noon, it doesn't mean he won't re-sign with the club.

"I'm sure a lot of people would think that, but that's very far from the case," Parise told the The Star-Ledger. "If it does happen to get to Sunday, that's by no means saying I don't want to go back to New Jersey.

"I know the perception would be, 'Oh, he wants out.' But that's not the case. I haven't been lying. I've said all along how much I like playing in New Jersey. So that wouldn't be me saying, 'I don't want to play there anymore.'"

As far as Suter goes, if he decides to move on from the Predators, where he played in the shadow of Shea Weber to a certain extent, he could set up with Penguins defenceman Kris Letang in the Penguins' first pair. The Detroit Red Wings would also figure to be a good fit for Suter as they are looking for a premier blueliner to fill the void created by the retirement of Nik Lidstrom.

There's an interesting twist to this year's free agent class with the addition of University of Wisconsin defenceman Justin Schultz. He became a free agent last Monday because he couldn't reach a deal with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him in the second round four years ago.

He's now regarded as perhaps the best player outside of the NHL by some scouts. He's attractive because his price is fixed, as per the NHL's entry-level system, meaning he would top out at about $3.7 million with maximum bonuses. He might be an unknown commodity, but at 21 years of age (he'll be 22 in July), teams certainly have a better handle on what he might become.

The track record for college free agents is spotty at best, but scouts insist Schultz has the makings of being a solid NHLer with the potential for stardom. A native of B.C., he had reportedly narrowed his choice of destination to Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa or the New York Rangers. With money out of the equation, quality of life and ice time would appear to be the prime considerations.

After the few top names, there are a number of options for teams looking to fill roles.

At forward, you're looking at guys like Mike Knuble, Daymond Langkow, Jiri Hudler, Dominic Moore, Jochen Hecht and Mikael Samuelsson. On defence, there's Sami Salo, Sheldon Souray, Adrian Aucoin, Aaron Rome, Bryce Salvador, Jaro Spacek and Michal Roszival, among others. The goaltending position is pretty thin though Martin Biron and Johan Hedberg are solid backups, though they might re-sign with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, respectively).

The implications of what happens Sunday will have a ripple effect, of course.

It could lead to a more active trading market when teams aren't able to satisfy their needs at the free-agent trough.

The teams that have had their sights set on a top talent like Parise, but lose out, might shift their focus to making a deal for Columbus Blue Jackets star Rick Nash. There has been plenty of speculation about where he might wind up. Teams like the New York Rangers or San Jose Sharks might be willing to come closer to meeting the Jackets' asking price if they don't get what they feel they need out of the free-agent market.

The same goes for the likes of Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks, who could become a more attractive option depending on what happens Sunday and the few days after that.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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