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NHL Free Agency: Picking the Best Available Player at Each Position

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Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals center Mike Ribeiro (9) skates with the puck in front of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Grant Clitsome (24) in the second period at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 5-3 and clinched the Southeast Division championship. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

NHL free agency officially begins on July 5th, but new rules allowed GM’s to begin contacting players and their agents on Wednesday. All 30 teams are now in the hunt for players that can help establish them as title contenders.

With the salary cap descending for the first time, compliance buyouts and limited budgets are sending an abnormally strong pool of talent into the open market. Here is a look at the top target at each position:

Center: Mike Ribeiro – 

13-year veteran Mike Ribeiro just enjoyed his best season since 2008, and he is about to get paid for it. Ribeiro posted 13 goals and 36 assists for a total of 49 points in just 48 games with the Washington Capitals. Ribeiro is the only free agent that averaged at least a point-per-game in 2013. He has long gone unrecognized as a legitimate NHL star, but he will certainly be rewarded for his unsung efforts with a fat contract this summer. Danny Briere, Derek Roy and Stephen Weiss are a few other options for teams looking for reinforcement down the middle.

Right Wing: Nathan Horton – 

With a history of concussion problems and weak regular season production, Nathan Horton looked set to leave Boston with a whimper after three seasons. However, Horton earned himself a fortune with a spectacular postseason. Horton nearly matched his regular season point total of 22 with 19 playoff points in just 22 games. Imposing his will with a rare combination of skill and power, the former-Bruin led the league with a plus-20 postseason rating. Horton’s inconsistent health and production will scare some teams away, but his undeniable upside will entice at least one bold GM to spend big. For team’s seeking right wingers, Horton is far from the only good option.  Former-superstars Jarome Iginla, Daniel Alfredsson, Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne are all in the twilight of their careers, but they can still help teams win games.

Left Wing: Vinny Prospal

The 2013 free agent class is shallow on the left hand side, but don’t sleep on Vinny Prospal. The 38-year-old scored 12 goals in the short season, finishing with a total of 30 points. The experienced veteran won’t put fans in the seats with his signature, but he could be a difference maker for a contending club. Prospal has never hoisted the Cup, but 2014 might finally be his year. After Prospal, the options at left wing drop off precipitously, but if GM’s are willing to overlook a bad year or two, value might be found in Simon Gagne, Ryan Clowe or Dustin Penner.

Defense: Rob Scuderi

The market is short on big-name defenseman, but there is plenty of value among the group of available blue-liners. Rob Scuderi is one player to keep an eye on. Scuderi has never scored more than two goals in a season, but his old-fashioned style has proved to be very effective. The stay-at-home defender helped Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to their only title in 2009, and he won another Cup with Los Angeles in 2012. If defense really wins championships,Rob Scuderi can help a team in a big way. Other options with championship experience include Andrew Ference and Michal Rozsival, while Ian White or Marek Zidlicky might offer more upside.

Goalie: Ray Emery – 

Behind Corey Crawford on the Blackhawks Cup-winning roster, Ray Emery produced arguably the best season by a backup goalie in the history of the NHL. He went 17-1 with a .922 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average as the Blackhawks cruised to the NHL’s best record. For all of his excellence, Emery was rewarded with nothing more than a seat on the bench while Crawford started every game of the postseason. Crawford was brilliant on the Hawks cup run, but Emery oftentimes seemed like the better goalie in the regular season. Had he simply started a few more games, he certainly would have earned Vezina Trophy consideration. In fact Emery won just four fewer tilts than Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who started 20 more games. Quite simply, Ray Emery belongs on the ice in the playoffs, and teams will line up to give him that chance. Riskier options include two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas who is considering a return to hockey after a year-long sabbatical and Ilya Bryzgalov who was bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers after two disappointing seasons.

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