Richards will command much attention

As has been the case in recent years, the depth of star talent is rather thin but plenty of depth players are up for grabs when the NHL’s unrestricted free agency period begins Friday.

Brad Richards enters the market as the best player available and the only real superstar of the bunch. The 31-year-old center netted 77 points in 72 games for the Dallas Stars this past season, and had a 91-point performance in 80 games the season prior. He’s been linked to the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres in the rumor mill.

With the Philadelphia Flyers signing Ilya Bryzgalov last week, Florida’s Tomas Vokoun becomes the best available goaltender in this summer’s market. The Panthers have reportedly kept in touch with the 35-year-old Vokoun in hopes of getting him back under contract, but it’s possible he could test the market July 1, when the Colorado Avalanche, who need experienced netminders, could be waiting to bid for his services.

The best available defensemen are Christian Ehrhoff, Tomas Kaberle and James Wisniewski.

Ehrhoff, 28, had a career-best 50-point performance with a plus-minus of plus-19 last season with the Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks, who dealt his negotiating rights to the New York Islanders earlier this week. But he and the Isles were unable to reach an agreement on a contract, resulting in his rights again being shipped, this time to the Buffalo Sabres. It remains to be seen if the Sabres can retain him.

Kaberle, 33, netted 47 points in 82 games split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, with whom he won a Stanley Cup this year, though his performance in the playoffs came under criticism for his inability to bolster their power play. Still, there are bound to be teams that could be willing to gamble Kaberle was merely a bad fit with the Bruins and might regain his offensive form elsewhere.

Wisniewski, 27, netted a career-best 51 points in 75 games divided between the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. His big shot and physical play made him a fan favorite in Montreal, and attracted the eye of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who acquired his rights June 28 in hopes of re-signing him prior to July 1. The Detroit Red Wings could also be interested in “Wiz” if he hits the open market.

Several familiar names are also obtainable this summer, including Alex Kovalev, Ed Jovanovski, Marty Turco, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian McCabe, Cory Stillman, Steve Sullivan, John Madden and Andrew Brunette.

A few years ago, their availability would’ve enhanced the star power in this summer’s free-agent market. Sadly, however, all of them are now well past their playing prime, and some could end up either facing retirement or continuing their careers overseas if they fail to attract interest from NHL teams.

Several other notable free agents enter this summer’s market with lengthy injury histories, which could adversely affect their value.

Forwards Jason Arnott, Erik Cole, Tim Connolly, Tomas Fleischmann and Simon Gagne, along with defenseman Sami Salo and goaltender J.S. Giguere fall into this category.

Most, if not all, are likely to be signed, but they’ll probably have to accept considerably less money on shorter terms compared to their most recent contracts.

Although there is a lack of notable star talent this summer, there is also a significant number of players available who could augment the rosters of contending teams, or help rebuilding clubs improve into contenders.

Forwards Michael Ryder, Jussi Jokinen, Joel Ward, Sean Bergenheim, Raffi Torres and Max Talbot, defensemen Anton Babchuk, Ian White and Steve Montador, and goaltenders Jose Theodore, Mike Smith and Ty Conklin fall into that category.

All should have little difficulty landing with new teams, and some will undoubtedly secure contracts far richer than they otherwise would have received in deeper free-agent markets.