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NHL free agent preview: Central Division

TheHockeyNews John Grigg
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CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Cap Space – $6.0 million

UFAsKim Johnsson, D; John Madden, C; Nick Boynton, D; Adam Burish, RW; Kyle Greentree, LW; Danny Richmond, D; Jassen Cullimore, D; Richard Petiot, D; Mark Cullen, C; Danny Bois, RW

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RFAsAndrew Ladd, LW; Jack Skille, RW; Nathan Davis, C, Evan Brophey, C; Antti Niemi, G; Mike Brennan, D; Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Jordan Hendry, D; Hannu Toivonen, G; Jean-Claude Sawyer, D; Adam Hobson, C; Peter MacArthur, LW; Bryan Bickell, LW

Needs – The Cup champs would love nothing more than to bring their entire team back, but that’s not happening. With only 13 players currently under NHL contracts – nine forwards, three defensemen and a goalie – and a shade less than $6 million to play with, the trades have already begun and cheap replacements are on the horizon.

The good news is the top two lines and the top three defensemen are signed. Goalie Cristobal Huet’s $5.6 million cap hit can come off the books if the team is willing to eat it in American League Rockford. But that’s a big if. So with Cup-winning goalie Niemi due for a big raise, there’s still much work to do for GM Stan Bowman. Expect more Hawks to join Dustin Byfuglien on their way out of town.

Ready for the big time – RFA Jack Skille, THN’s 47th-ranked prospect in Future Watch 2010, is the obvious choice here. But he didn’t play in 2009-10 because of his $1.3-million ticket and no longer projects as a top-six forward, so who’s to say the 23-year-old will be on the squad in ’10-11?

That leaves left winger Kyle Beach, 20, to fill a void in Chicago’s top nine. The 11th overall pick in 2008 was the Western League’s leading goal-scorer with the Spokane Chiefs this past season. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, fights and plays with a chip on his shoulder, but has soft hands and a great release; just the kind of guy the Hawks will need to step up and replace Byfuglien.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Cap Space – $12.3 million

UFAsNathan Paetsch, D; Brendan Bell, D; Greg Moore, RW; Derek MacKenzie, C; David Liffiton, D; Trevor Frischmon, C

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RFAsTom Sestito, LW; Jared Boll, RW; Mike Blunden, C; Anton Stralman, D; Grant Clitsome, D; Chad Kolarik, RW; Andrei Plekhanov, D; Kevin Lalande, G; Dan Lacosta, G; Jordan Smotherman, LW

Needs – With more than $12 million to spend, 18 players signed and Nikita Filatov expected to return to the fold, the Jackets are in an enviable position. The problem is they need a No. 1 center to get Rick Nash the puck and a No. 1 defenseman to get the puck to the forwards and quarterback the power play. If they can find players on the market or via trade to fill those holes they’ll cost $10 million or more, leaving little to sprinkle throughout the roster. And Filatov has a $2.2-million cap hit of his own, further pinching the purse strings.

Ready for the big time – Filatov, 20, will be expected to score goals on one of the two top lines. But Nick Holden will have a chance to be the puck-moving defenseman the Jackets need if one cannot be found by other means.

Holden, 23, got off to a slow start in 2009-10 after missing summer workouts, training camp and the beginning of the season battling mononucleosis. But the 2008 free agent signing out of Chilliwack in the Western League still managed six goals and 23 points with AHL Syracuse. He’s one of those guys who is good at everything, but isn’t great at anything.

DETROIT RED WINGS

Cap Space – $5.2 million

UFAsJason Williams, RW; Andreas Lilja, D; Kirk Maltby, RW; Brett Lebda, D; Jamie Tardif, RW; Riley Armstrong, RW; Brad May, LW; Ryan Oulahen, LW; Jeremy Williams, RW

RFAs – Daniel Larsson, G; Justin Abdelkader, C; Johan Ryno, LW; Ole-Kristian Tollesfsen, D; Darren Helm, C; Sergei Kolosov, D; Drew Miller, LW; Evan McGrath, C; Patrick Eaves, RW; Derek Meech, D

Needs – As per usual in Detroit there aren’t any huge holes to fill and GM Ken Holland will only be looking to plug a few with cheap role players and his RFAs will do a good job of it. Helm and Abdelkader are rounding into form as checkers with offensive upside in the Kris Draper mold.

On the blueline Lilja and Lebda will not command much money, but Detroit may look to the market and solid veterans willing to take a pay cut to play for one of the league’s marquee franchises.

Ready for the big time – The cupboard is far from bare, but Detroit doesn’t have any young stars pushing established vets for playing time because the Wings are famous for not rushing prospects. Jakub Kindl, 23, has been developing in AHL Grand Rapids the past three seasons, gaining confidence and playing time each passing year. A finesse player, he will likely be used as a third-pair blueliner in 2010-11 with the ability to become a top-four D-man and power play fixture in the future.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Cap Space – $21.5 million

UFAs – Ben Eaves, C; Ben Guite, C; Dave Scatchard, C; Triston Grant, LW; Ryan Maki, RW; Nolan Yonkman, D; Hugh Jessiman, LW

RFAsDenis Grebeshkov, D; Ryan Parent, D; Teemu Laakso, D; Patric Hornqvist, RW; Cody Franson, D; Dustin Boyd, LW; Mike Santorelli, RW; Andreas Thuresson, LW; Robert Dietrich, D; Patrik Hersley, D; Marn Dekanich, G; Peter Olvecky, LW

Needs – With about $21 million to work with, Nashville is primed to be a big player come July. An entire first line would be a great place to start; RFA Hornqvist scored 30 goals in 2010-11, but would be a great second-liner. It’s unlikely UFA Ellis will return to the scene, so a backup netminder (preferably a veteran) is another need.

Nashville has four defensemen signed to NHL deals. RFA Franson is due for a raise, but contract talks with RFA Grebeshkov could reach an impasse. He’ll have to take a cut from the $3.1 million he earned in 2009-10 and won’t like it much. With that in mind, the Preds may have to target at least one second or third unit blueliner.

Ready for the big time – Defenseman Jonathon Blum, 21, will battle for a spot on the blueline. At 6-foot-1 and about 180 pounds, the Predators would like to see him spend another year bulking up in AHL Milwaukee, but the 2009 Canadian major junior defenseman of the year excelled in his first pro season and may be the Preds’ best option if Grebeshkov talks break down.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Cap Space – $32 million

UFAsPaul Kariya, LW; Chris Mason, G; Carlo Colaiacovo, D; Darryl Sydor, D; Mike Weaver, D; Brad Winchester, LW; Derek Armstrong, C; Pascal Pelletier, C; Barry Tallackson, LW; Justin Fletcher, D; Cam Paddock, RW; Bryce Lampman, D; Nate Guenin, D

RFAsErik Johnson, D; Alexander Steen, LW; David Perron, RW; Jonas Junland, D; T.J. Hensick, C; Jaroslav Halak, G; Joe Fallon, G; Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW; Tyson Strachan, D; Alexander Hellstrom, D; Ryan Reaves, RW; Nicholas Drazenovic, C; Cam Janssen, RW; D.J King, LW; Pierre-Cedric Labrie, LW

Needs – With just 12 players under contract, the Blues need a lot, but of all their free agents, just RFAs Johnson, Halak and Perron are must-signs. Each will be due a hefty raise, but the Blues are set to be movers and shakers come July 1.

And that’s a good thing because the Blues need veteran scorers at forward and more depth on the blueline. Expect St. Louis to be on the phone with any free agent who fits those molds. When Johnson re-signs, St. Louis will have four NHL defensemen under contract; an Anton Volchenkov-type would be a great addition.

Ready for the big time – THN’s No. 1 Future Watch prospect this year is defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. He’s already played 17 NHL games and was with the Blues soaking in everything NHL until December when he was sent to the World Junior Championship and, after, back to the Ontario League. The 20-year-old dominated both and should make the Blues out of camp in October.

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing Thursdays and the Wednesday Top 10.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

Tagged: Blackhawks, Red Wings, Blues, Predators, Blue Jackets, Andreas Lilja, John Madden, Brad May, Derek Armstrong, Rick Nash, Mike Weaver, Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Cullen, Denis Grebeshkov, Derek MacKenzie, Dan Ellis, Patrick Eaves, Cam Janssen, Cam Paddock, Dan LaCosta, Mike Blunden, Ryan Parent, Derek Meech, D.J. King, Jack Skille, Erik Johnson, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Santorelli, David Perron, Nick Holden, Justin Abdelkader, Nikita Filatov, Alex Pietrangelo, Ben Eaves, Ryan Reaves

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