The Avalanche are in the midst of yet another signing saga. At present they’ve spent the past eight months holding their leading faceoff man and leading scorer from last season by the choke chain known as “RFA status”. The other marks in O’Reilly’s favor are nothing to sneer at. He had two overtime tallies, led the team in assists, won 53% of his faceoffs, potted four powerplay goals, played in all situations and generally contributed to the teams success.

The level of the teams success sheds a different light on his accomplishments, so does the fact that it was his third season and one where he more than doubled his career  assist and points totals on a team that finished 20th in the NHL. Anyone who doesn’t see the potential for steady growth for the 22 year old 200lb center is probably convinced we’ve seen the best from Taylor Hall and John Tavares. I don’t think anyone puts the ceiling for O’Reilly quite that high, but the chance for growth is coupled with one regression as well. He could just as easily turn into a half hundred other forwards like Peter Schaefer who got some ice time, got lucky and then fell apart when he had to repeat it.

If the Avalanche are determined not to give into his teams demands, where else he could land is a matter of finding a GM who sees O’Reilly continuing to get better, and has the assets and the inclination to go after him. Kent Wilson of FlamesNation thinks the Calgary brass must make a play for him. While it is unarguable that the Flames are a bit cool at the pivot position, what they have to offer up isn’t much. The Flames farm system is rated 23rd best in the entire league. Would a package of Jankowski, Seiloff and a 2nd round pick do the trick? And would that package actually be good for either team?

The Florida Panthers are currently underwater on faceoff win percentage, 23rd in the NHL in goals, and almost as poorly off in the east as the Avalanche are in the west. It’s highly unlikely any talks around the Panthers actually include Jonathan Huberdeau since the rookie is currently leading the team in goals, but perhaps Kris Versteeg is due for his sixth jersey since draft day and draft pick or two could accompany him back to the western conference. O’Reilly and Huberdeau could arguably be the best 1-2 punch at center in the Southeast division in a couple years.

Assuming Washington wants to make a shakeup, and they probably should, Backstrom and O’Reilly as a the moving points of the offense for the Capitals could actually get the team out of the lottery even before the seasons end, like Backstrom who Ovechkin has played longest and best with, O’Reilly is a left handed shot. Going back could be any number of pieces, ideally Carlson, although that would prove what just about everyone should suspect about McPhee, but Yevgeni Kuznetsov is a very attractive piece, if they can woo him across the pond, in some combination with Tom Wilson, Filip Forsberg and or picks should seal the deal.

It’d be nice to include the Wild in this list but there problem isn’t talent on the ice. The system in Nashville prevents offensive stars, and I don’t see the new GM in Columbus looking to take on a big contract for someone who seems likely to want to wrangle over it ever time. There are other teams who might make a move to juice their line up, but the Panthers, Flames, and Washington top the list of teams O’Reilly, at the right price makes sense for.

After writing up the top defensemen, I looked at the forwards and wondered if all the General Managers had taken vacation or just leave of their senses. The amount of talent left dangling is more than enough to fill out the top six for any team in the league.  In no particular oder, here are the best RFA’s to keep an eye on, and think about for your fantasy team.

  •  Tyler Ennis missed about a third of the season with injuries. This was his second full season in the NHL. While his overall numbers were lower, his points per game and stats become eye popping when you break them down. He put up a respectable .59 points per game as a rookie. In 48 games last season he was a solid .71ppg. He managed 19 takeaways 15-19-34 and +11 as part of a disastrous campaign for the Sabres. In March he put up 19 points in 16 games. The scary part is that he averaged just 16:09 of total ice time and under two minutes of powerplay time.
  • All Star Jamie Benn is somehow unsigned. The Stars had time and money to sign the aging and infirm Jagr, trade for Derek Roy, and no doubt get in a couple rounds of golf. He’s only gotten better year after year. Last years totals were career highs in goals, assist and points. Many would call him the best player on the team, few would put him outside the top three. Somehow he’s still sitting in cold storage given all the respect of a dusty can of store-brand peas.
  • Evander Kane is also on the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot list of players left to grow mold and discontent. The fact that he is still unsigned in August does nothing to dispel the rumors from early this year that he didn’t want to sign in Winnipeg. 2o year old 30 goal scorers aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Yet the 4th pick of the 2009 draft who had 173 hits, 31 blocked shots, and just 18 giveaways to his 35 takeaways last year is unsigned with training camp closer than the end of last years regular season.
  • Ryan O’Reilly, his agent, his fans and family are probably a bit confused this summer. Granted they have a good reason. Apparently to the Colorado Avalanche more than doubling your career totals in one year, leading the team in scoring and leading all forwards in ice time while playing in all situations aren’t enough to warrant a timely contract. No, I can’t figure that out either.

Yesterday Justin Schultz chose the Edmonton Oilers. Today his contract will be registered with the league. For the Anaheim Ducks this is an ugly blight on their off season. But things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. He was drafted back in 2008 and has had time to observe the Ducks organization in action for all that time. They’ve gone changed coaches, a player has been publicly and repeatedly scapegoated. Collectively the players on the ice have taken the first half of the season off two years in a row.

Then there is a drafting and development record that doesn’t deserve mention. Justin Schultz is 21 years old, he’s an adult. He didn’t choose the team that drafted him. And a team that doesn’t. compete well and douses its stars in public scorn isn’t someplace many will want to play there. When one of the biggest stars in the league who isn’t know for piping up does so just days before the draft maybe this. should be a wake up call.

Some might see this as a reason to change the CBA. I see this as a way to keep players who don’t feel a team offers what they needm or who may be toxic to stay out of low growth situations. As we saw with Jeff Carter thisyear and others in years past; unhappy players don’t perform well. What team really believes a miserable player is good for their team? Let it go, growand learn from it and move on.

The most asked, least answered question in regards to the Boston Bruins moves in the last four months has to be: Why do we need another goalie? The answer to that may just be that the Bruins suits lack confidence in the twenty-five year old Finn.

Why would they lack confidence in what the constellation of Boston media luminaries line up in his camp describe in terms that make one wonder if Rask might not be the perfect goaltender? Well, three reasons. First is the question of health. A twenty something who has two seasons ended by injury in row does not speak to long term health. The knee issue was the warning shot. The groin hit center of mass.

Second in performance. The first year of his expiring contract was his best. He played 45 games. He had sub 2.00 goals against average. With five to ten more games his .931 save percentage might have earned him a Vezina. It was a solid season he stepped up when Thomas was injured and did a more than presentable job. The next season? Not so much. Yes he was outplayed by Thomas. That isn’t the problem. His save percentage dropped drastically. His GAA shot up. Last season, his save percentage rebounded slightly, but he still only managed a record of 11 -8-3. Worst, is his playoff numbers. In the playoffs his career sv% is two or three notches below his regular season numbers.

Last and most telling is his confidence is indisputably not what it once was. When you watch him in games he plays far deeper in the crease, often standing with his backside thrust over the goal line. When he’s interviewed he’s very, very quiet without the sorta quips that made him a media darling when he first landed. Most of all when things go poorly, where’s the rage? When he had that monumental moment of rage in Providence that ended in thrown milk crates, and equipment strewn everywhere he had confidence. You can’t getthat upset if you don’t believe you’ve been wronged (and he probably was) you have to believe your judgement and knowledge are superior to the other sides. He did. Tukka Rask had the same breed of transcendent, coolly confident swagger you see from Patrice Bergeron and other elite athletes from time to time. It’s gone.

That confidence is gone. Like Tiger Woods, he’s just not as effective after losing his brio. As with Woods, or other players who have suffered a setback, we don’t know if Rask will ever get that natural braggadocio back. Even aside from the health concerns, this is huge.

The chances that a goalie was signed in the Spring, Adam Morrison, another was added just a week or two ago in Svedberg, and then the drafting of Malcolm (@SubbZero30) Subban, and now the development camp invitation to Parker Milner of Boston College might not be aimed at a 38 year old who had one year on his contract exists. It not only exists, it is staring everyone in the face who can see past the end of their nose. Rask is unsigned at this point and I don’t see the Bruins blinking first. The goalie market shrank when the Penguins acquired and extended Vokoun. Bobrovsky being shipped to Columbus didn’t expand the market. It got smaller again when Pavelec was signed.

Unlike Price or Pavelec Tuukka Rask has never spent even one full season as the designated number one guy. The most regular season games he’s played is 45, and that same season accounts for more than half his career minutes played. Cory Schnieder is worth more money, he’s gotten an increased workload each season and responded well. In fact his numbers are better than Rask’s. It would be foolish for Rask and his camp to take much longer in getting him signed.

I noticed a curious trend in the last decade. Few of the young players, say twenty five and under who won the Cup seemed to be major impact players later on. At the same time, players who won a bit later were contributing again and again to at least deep runs. Take Rob Scuderi and Mark Recchi as players who won the Cup towards later, and we’ll look at a few of the players who won young below.

While injuries have played a big part in the recent history of the Pittsburgh Penguins, its hard to argue that Marc-Andre Fleury is not playing well below the level he did when they last hoisted a banner. Oddly, the Cup win represents only a mediocre set of numbers for Fluery. The year before in a loss he finished with a save percentage of .933. In winning the cup he dipped to a pedestrian .908sv% and that represents the last time he was above .900sv% in the post season the trend in games played in the post season and overall performance is not pretty either, this season his save percentage was .834 and that’s about as unlovely as it gets.

Eric Staal was in his second NHL season when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. In that season he crushed out 100 points. On special teams he was magic, 19 powerplay goals and 4 short handed goals are more goals than most players will total in a season, the rest of his 45 goals that year came at even strength. In the playoffs he had 28 points in 25 games. Since then he’s only been in the playoffs once more, and has never again been over a point per game.

Patrick Kane peaked in the year the Chicago BlackHawks ended their drought. He had 30 regular season goals and 88 points in the regular season. In the post season on his way to sending the Philadelphia Flyers home with heads hung low he had an eye popping 28 points in 22 games. In the two seasons since he too has trended downwards. He didn’t score a single goal in this years playoffs, this isn’t what was expected when the Blackhawks brain trust drafted him.

For the Los Angeles Kings, the players who entered this season under twenty five are, Anze Kopitar, Alec Martinez, Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan, Dwight King, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, Andrei Lokitinov, Kyle Clifford. New Jersey Devils fans may or may not want to be a bit more relaxed about the question, with just Mark Fayne, Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and Jacob Josefson having entered the season under twenty five.

Am I 100% convinced that winning the Cup at a young age is bad for players? No, but it does factor in. And you really have to ask yourself how could it not sap the motivation at least a little? You aren’t even old enough to rent a car in some states or get good car insurance rates, all your friends are still in high school or college or maybe working some entry level job and you’ve just taken home the hardest trophy to win in sports. Having won a cup you’re assured of getting multimillion dollar contracts until at least two years past the point anyone else would have been forced to retire, and you’ll have a nice piece of bling for your hand to remind you of how great you were once.

The Selke is probably the most under-appreciated award in hockey. It may just be the most under-appreciated award in sports. It goes to one of the most important players on a team, and possibly the league. A team with mediocre defensemen who are gifted with a Selke quality forward can probably expect that forward to save more than a handful of scoring chances and goals a month. Depending on the game, and the opponent it could happen several times a game.  In the case of all three of the players, in this post, and you can order them however you like, they are generally good for disrupting opposition offense once or twice a shift.

Jonathan Toews. Chicago BlackHawks

  • Of the three he’s the most physical. Like his two counterparts he’s good at faceoffs and capable of playing twenty plus minutes a night.  Solid in all three zones and remorselessly chases wins.

Mikko Koivu Minnesota Wild

  • The best skater of the three, and the one who has had the least offensive support in years past. Being stuck in flyover country on a team with little success and no wealth of talent many people haven’t noticed him. Hands down a player to watch and appreciate. I may have been the only person outside the twin cities who didn’t bat an eyelash over his contract.

Patrice Bergeron  Boston Bruins

  • Like the others, he’s good at just about everything. Not as good a goal scorer as Toews, but probably the best of the three defensively. Top notch penalty killer. As game 7 of the most recent Stanley Cup Finals illustrated he’s willing and able to turn defense into offense in the blink of an eye. Arguably the second best defensive player on his team behind the Norris winner Zdeno Chara.

There are several other forwards who play a savvy and effective defensive game, but none are in the same league as these three, no matter how many awards they have one in the past. The next best three are probably: Jordan Staal, Ryan Kesler, and Pavel Datsyuk.

Coming into the series much was made of the fact that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are likely to win the Hart Trophy back to back. A truly worthy accomplishment. This accomplishment is no doubt aided by a division that was almost certainly the weakest in the NHL last season, but still requires hard work. As the conference finals ended there was even talk of one or both of them being near the front of the pack for the Conn-SmythTrophy. The title up above is not in jest, it is a serious question. At a total cap hit of $12,200,000.00 they make up a larger concentration of salary than any two Bruins forwards. And yet of all the forwards who have been in the Bruins lineup for all five games this series they combine for as many points as Kelly, Lucic or Paille.

The surprise isn’t that there are so few names on that list, or even who they are just that there is a list. Not only are they not scoring, the other elements of they game they could bring are sorely lacking. At center Henrik has dismaying 40.78 faceoff win percentage to go with his zero points. Daniel Sedin at wing has two points, and four points. In comparison Patrice Bergeron has three points and a 54.04 win percentage in faceoffs. Michael Ryder who’s had to adjust to ever changing linemates has four points, and seven hits.

Unlike Ryan Kesler who is well known to be nursing a lower body injury, there has been no hint of an injury to either Sedin. True, a physical injury could well be something that happened in a practice or even while traveling or at home. I watched much of the San Jose Sharks series, and all of this one and I haven’t seen any sign of physical ailment despite their going up against several physical players and even one of them flying into the boards after charging Brad Marchand. I still have no idea why, other than facing the Bruins defense, the Sedin twins have so lacked in effectiveness in this series. If you eliminate a physical ailment, that leaves a vanishingly small number of possibilities.

Brad Marchand is the latest in a string of young men to come into the Bruins training camp and earn a place the hard way. A third round pick in the 2006 draft the Halifax Nova Scotia native has paid his dues. He spent his first pro season putting up 18 goals 41 assists 59 points and a +13 for Providence. His second pro season he made a 20 game cameo in Boston with just one assist he failed to gain the traction he needed to play for Boston in the playoffs.

And then camp broke. For those who had watched him in the past the differences were right there. The first was better balance and the ability to stick to the puck. The second was timing on his shot. They had improved vastly since his last sojourn in the spoked-B. He also had better focus and discipline, which took a little longer to become apparent. In twenty games last season he racked up 20 PIMS, in 77 this season just 51.

So what’s his game? Just about everything. He was one of a handful of rookies to score at least one goal shorthanded, on the powerplay and even strength. For most of the season he was leading the entire NHL in shorthanded goals. Having earned his way from fourth line energy guy to second line producer in all zones. He blocks shots, hits, scores and one more thing. He’s a pest. A really, really effective pest. Steve Ott who is another well known agitator took more than 130 more penalty minutes this season for the stars and racked up less points.

The commentators on NHL Network called Brad Marchand “a wolverine” during their post game breakdown. Fans of the Boston Bruins around the world call hims something a little bit shorter; ours.

The East Vancouver native is the most well known Canadian born star still playing this off season. Raised in the game, coming up the hard way through second tier teams before scoring, checking and yes fighting his way into a slot on the Vancouver Giants team he would eventually be captain of. Lucic would eventually be drafted into the NHL in the second round by the Boston Bruins.

Arriving at camp as a very young, raw prospect he can’t have been part of managements plans for year except as one more young man to watch in his post draft year in juniors. When he arrived nearly everything was against him. He skated like he had cement blocks on his feet. His shot while powerful, had a release as rapid as his stride. He was also one of the youngest players in camp. On a team with Glen Murray’s notoriously slow feet, and a lack of genuine star power nearly everything was against him. The one thing in his favor was his attitude.

Lucic came into camp and like other fan favorites in Boston over the last life of the Original Six team, he out worked everyone else. PJ Axelsson, Patrice Bergeron, Ray Bourque, and Cam Neely are just some of the other players who came into town and made themselves household names. Booming hits, ferocious punches and a willingness to sacrifice the body coupled with an unquestionable willingness to stick up for teammates as well as himself got him past the first ten games in the NHL, and typified his play over his first three seasons.

Last season was injury riddled and counting playoffs and regular season he was barely on the ice for half the year. Many wondered if the injuries would slow him down this year as well. Lucic’s 2010-11 fight total was half that of his rookie season he had improved other areas of his game. As last nights game breaking rush around Bieksa demonstrated Lucic’s skating has improved dramatically. His speed will never match that of the games fastest skaters, but the difference between his rookie year and now is enormous. That speed, and agility was used to bank a shot off linemate Rich Peverley and past Luongo.  Possibly even more dramatic has been the improvement in his shot release. His rookie season saw him light the lamp just eight times. Peter Chiarelli was roundly criticized for signing him to a new contract that saw him jump into the top three or four forwards on the team before the season. Lucic responded by learing the team in goal scoring.

While goals haven’t come easily this playoff run he’s hardly been dead weight. With 57 hits he leads the Boston Bruins in that stat. This post season he’s also currently tied his personal playoff high water mark for plus/minus. With a plus twelve he is second to only Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara in that category. Lucic is also second among Bruins forwards in blocked shots. Milan Lucic’s value is so high to this team because he is a complete player.