It's almost Thanksgiving in the United States, which I use as one of the unofficial tentpole markers for the NHL season. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is what I consider to be the make-or-break zone, the one-month stretch where a team needs to get its proverbial butt in gear in order to have a chance to make the playoffs. If they're more than just a handful of points under .500 by the time Santa Claus visits, then it's time to start thinking about next year.
That also means that it's around the time when teams evaluate their rosters -- the successful teams for the missing parts, and the unsuccessful teams for the biggest trade value. And that almost always leads to a player's free agent status. I've sifted through the UFA list and reviewed a player's age, stats, and other intangibles (such as the fact Nicklas Lidstrom will never, ever be traded), and I've compiled my list of top-five UFAs that may get moved by the deadline. Let the speculation begin.
1. Brad Richards (Dallas Stars): So many hockey fans had written off Richards as he slogged through a few mediocre seasons in Tampa Bay and Dallas that his 91-point campaign last year almost came out of nowhere. Richards hasn't let up, and is continuing a torrid pace for the Dallas Stars. That's good and bad for the Stars, as his scoring is obviously critical but it raises his contract value for his impending free agency. Richards has been very non-committal, taking a wait-and-see attitude towards his contract. The 30-year-old Richards has to know that he's only got one more big contract left in him, so he's firmly in control of his destiny.
Trade possibility: GM Joe Nieuwendyk has been capable of making tough decisions when money and future longevity. Unless the Dallas ownership situation finds some stability by late January, Nieuwendyk will have to be realistic about his budget for next year while factoring in the current team's status and James Neal's RFA status after next season. If the Stars bottom out, Richards will likely fetch a high return; if they're hovering around the lower playoff seeds, an Ilya Kovalchuk-style trade may still be a necessity -- if Richards will waive his no-trade clause.
2. Alexander Semin (Washington Capitals): Alex Ovechkin's best bud hits UFA at the age of 27, and he certainly has the numbers to garner a huge paycheck. However, his heart has constantly been questioned, and his disappearing acts have his critics marking him down as enigmatic, especially compared to the incomparable Ovechkin and the just-damn-good Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps only have six forwards signed for next year, which means that there's plenty of flexibility in regards to how GM George McPhee decides to move forward.
Trade possibility: Considering the Stanley Cup-or-bust mentality of the Caps, it's doubtful that Semin will be moved unless the return is for equal value, perhaps on defence. Plus, one has to consider just how much influence Ovechkin has on both sides of the negotiating table.
3. Tomas Kaberle (Toronto Maple Leafs): Yeah, we've heard this one before. Kaberle currently has 10 points (all assists) in 19 games with a fairly terrible roster in front of him. He's also a +1 on a team that doesn't have a very good +/- average; this is extra remarkable consideing that only two of his 10 points are at even strength. Kaberle still has a great outlet pass and isn't given enough credit for the defensive side of things; plenty of teams will line up for his services simply due to his power play skills.
Trade possibility: You can be sure that Brian Burke is trying to facilitate something, though that pesky no-trade clause keeps getting in the way. However, if January comes and Burke tells him that there's absolutely no way the Leafs are going to sign him, Kaberle may just finally give in and accept a deal.
4. Tomas Vokoun (Florida Panthers): Perhaps the league's most consistently underrated player, you can't argue with Vokoun's save percentage while facing a constant barrage of shots. Even though his goals-against hasn't been among the best in his Florida tenure (though it's never been bad), the sheer quantity of shots, high save percentage, and number of shutouts demonstrate his ability. Vokoun enters his contract year during a very strange period in the NHL, where goalie value is at an all-time low. Still, imagine if a contending team with no goaltending (which, on paper, is nearly all of them) decided to all-in and take Vokoun. Remember, the cap-space requirement is pro-rated, so teams only need to cover a fraction of the $5.7 million cap hit.
Trade possibility: You just don't know how new Florida GM Dale Tallon will act. Still, if a number of high-profile suitors appear -- say, Detroit, Washington, and San Jose -- the best long-term decision might be to ask Vokoun to waive his no-movement clause. Whether he wants to stay in Florida remains to be seen.
5. Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix Coyotes): If you're looking at the second group of desirable defensemen behind Kaberle, it'll probably come down to either Jovanovski or Bryan McCabe (sorry Andrei Markov, your shredded knees take you out of contention). McCabe is more of a power play specialist while Jovanovski brings a more well-rounded game. In fact, even though they have similar total ice time, they mirror each other in shorthanded and power play time, with Jovanovski getting more PK time while McCabe gets more PP time.
Trade possibility: Once again, here's a player with a no-trade clause. If that's satisfied, it's likely that Jovanovski will get moved simply because of a numbers game. Phoenix GM Don Maloney has to budget his numbers wisely, and with Keith Yandle due for a hefty raise -- along with high expectations for Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- this will be Jovanovski's final season in Phoenix.