JOHN WAWROW/AP Sports Writer
UPDATE: The Detroit Red Wings have signed Jonas Gufstasson to a 2-year $3 million free-agent deal to back up goalie Jimmy Howard.
Don’t blink, because you just might miss what few splashes are anticipated to take place in NHL free agency.
After Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter and potentially New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise, the list of marquee players expected to hit the market at noon Sunday thins quickly.
“It’s very thin,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said this week. “The quality is there, the quantity isn’t there.”
That’s good for the players available because of the potential of driving up their asking price, but bad for Regier and the general managers competing against each other to fill their needs.
As Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said this month: “It’s a good year to be a free agent.”
Suter is the current headliner after the player’s agent, Neil Sheehy, confirmed Saturday that his client will test the market.
“I don’t know where Ryan is going to sign,” Sheehy told The Associated Press. “I do know he’s keeping Nashville in the mix, but he will hit free agency.”
That news isn’t a surprise, given that Predators general manager David Poile was expecting that to happen. Poile still isn’t ruling out the possibility of re-signing the hard-hitting seven-year veteran.
“In all the conversations we’ve had, he’s made it very clear that he has nothing against Nashville,” Poile said before last weekend’s NHL draft. “But he’s gone this far, and the longer we talk, it appears he’s going to take a look at July 1.”
Parise might follow, though the Devils are expected to make one last push to sign him.
There are numerous teams expected to take runs at one or both players.
The Detroit Red Wings could use an established defenseman such as Suter after Nicklas Lidstrom retired. The Wild are considered a potential landing spot for Parise, who is from the area.
Los Angeles forward Dustin Penner and Washington’s Alexander Semin head a secondary list of mid-range free agents. It’s a group that also includes Florida defenseman Jason Garrison and Detroit’s Jiri Hudler.
Then there’s a mixed bag of aging stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan, Jason Arnott, Ray Whitney and Jamie Langenbrunner. And don’t forget the possibility of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who hired an agent on Friday in the event he doesn’t re-sign for a 20th season in New Jersey.
“We’re going to be active and very involved in free agency because we have cap space and holes we’d like to fill,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said.
Get in line.
Even with a looming labor dispute that has the potential to disrupt the start of next season, there’s expected to be plenty of competition for talent, particularly from a number of teams that have freed up considerable room under the salary cap.
According to NHL.com last week, there are 17 teams that are at least $18.5 million under the $70.2 million cap that’s been established for next season. And that includes four teams with more than $30 million of space, Nashville ($35.29 million), Phoenix ($32.2 million), Anaheim ($30.9 million) and Dallas ($30.6 million).
Not all teams spend to the cap, but they are required to meet a league minimum on salaries, which this season has been set at $54.2 million.
The New York Rangers, who won last year’s free-agent sweepstakes by signing Brad Richards, and Philadelphia Flyers are traditionally very active in free agency. And don’t count out the Penguins, who have already made a splash this offseason after trading Jordan Staal to Carolina on the first day of the NHL draft.
There could be more trades to follow involving high-profile players.
The Vancouver Canucks are shopping goalie Roberto Luongo. The Columbus Blue Jackets are still interested in trading forward Rick Nash. And there continues to be speculation that Anaheim forward Bobby Ryan and Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle can be had for the right price.
The Predators and Paul Gaustad agreed to a four-year, $13 million deal Saturday, keeping the 6-foot-5 American center from becoming a free agent. The 30-year-old Gaustad joined the Predators in February in a deal that sent a first-round pick this year to Buffalo. The Sabres also received a fourth-round pick in 2013.
Another player off the board is defenseman Justin Schultz, who signed a two-year contract with Edmonton on Saturday. The 21-year-old became available after leaving Wisconsin and failing to reach a deal with Anaheim, the team that originally drafted the two-time Hobey Baker finalist.
“Justin just felt Edmonton was the best fit for him – terrific opportunity with a young emerging group of players he can grow and enjoy future success,” the player’s agent, Wade Arnott, wrote in an email.
And the biggest signing that will take place on Sunday will involve a star player who’s not going anywhere. That would be Sidney Crosby, who is scheduled to formally sign the whopping 12-year, $104.4 million contract extension he agreed to last week to stay in Pittsburgh.
This year’s crop of free agents pales in comparison to the large number of high-profile players available in the summer of 2007. That’s when Daniel Briere, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Chris Drury, Jason Blake, Paul Kariya and Ryan Smyth all switched teams.
What’s different is how teams have changed their approach, becoming more proactive by signing their top players to long-term contracts.
“If you have good players, you’re trying to lock them up to insure you don’t have to go buying on the unrestricted market,” Regier said.
And that’s left him uncertain in gauging how successful the Sabres – or anyone else – might be in free agency this summer.
“Most teams are going to fail in unrestricted free agency,” Regier said. “Hopefully, we’re not one of them, but that’s a probability.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)