1. Brad Richards, New York Rangers – Easily the No. 1 player on the market, Brad Richards finds himself moving from Dallas to Broadway this summer. As a member of the Rangers, Richards will be reunited with head coach John Tortorella, the man who led him and the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup championship in 2004. Richards played some of his best hockey while with the Stars, tallying 77 points in 2010-11 and a career-high 91 points the season before. He easily makes the Rangers a more dangerous team in the Eastern Conference and his superb passing skills (496 career assists) should help players like Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan find the back of the net more often.
2. Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres – In addition to trading for Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, the Sabres signed 27-year-old Ville Leino to a six-year deal worth more than $25 million on the first day of free agency. Leino is coming off of a 53-point season with the Philadelphia Flyers and appears to finally be striving in the NHL. 2011-12 will be Leino’s third season in the NHL and the Sabres’ offense, which ranked in the top 10 in the league last year in terms of goals per game, should benefit greatly the next couple of seasons thanks to this signing.
3. Simon Gagne, Los Angeles Kings – While there was some early speculation that Simon Gagne might be reuniting with the Flyers, he will, in fact, be joining former Flyers captain Mike Richards in Los Angeles. Gagne missed 19 games last year while dealing with a neck injury but still managed to pick up 40 points over the course of the season. “Gags” is a proven scorer with four seasons of 30+ goals and should be a regular contributor to the Kings’ already deep offense.
4. Tomas Fleischmann, Florida Panthers – One of six players signed by Florida on the first day of free agency, Tomas Fleischmann could prove to be an extremely valuable member of the Panther’s roster. While injuries cut his 2010-11 season short, Fleischmann is just 27 years old and has only recently seen a spike in his game. In 45 combined games with the Capitals and Avalanche last year, Fleischmann compiled 12 goals and 31 points and nearly averaged a point per game during his short stint with the Avs (21 points in 22 games). The Panthers are a rebuilding team and Fleischmann may be just what they need to boost their offense, provided that he clicks with his (many) new teammates.
5. Jonathan Cheechoo, St. Louis Blues – This last one may seem like a little bit of a surprise, but don’t forget that Jonathan Cheechoo scored an astonishing 56 goals in 2005-06 with the San Jose Sharks. The Blues also signed Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to help boost an offense that saw only one player (David Backes) score more than 22 goals, but I think Cheechoo was a great gamble by the Blues. He spent all of last season in the minors with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks and recorded 47 points in 55 games. Call me crazy, but I think Cheechoo can put up decent numbers in St. Louis this year if the Blues assign him to their NHL roster.