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A Flames Free Agency Primer: Gearing Up For July 1

Somebody is going to make Ilya Kovalchuk a very, very rich man tomorrow.
Somebody is going to make Ilya Kovalchuk a very, very rich man tomorrow.

With Ales Kotalik clearing waivers and today's news that Nigel Dawes has been waived by the Flames and Chris Higgins will likely hit the open market tomorrow, speculation that the Flames are gearing up for a trade or signing is ramping up. After signing Henrik Karlsson, likely to become Kiprusoff's new back-up, to a one-year contract yesterday and with few question marks on the blueline at the moment outside of Ian White's contract status, the Flames' needs are solely up front for the time being--specifically in their top six forward group, where holes became apparent last season as the team tumbled down the standings and failed to put pucks in the net, finishing second-last in the league in scoring. After Tomas Plekanec, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski all re-signed with their respective clubs, the UFA market was reduced to even slimmer pickings, and with limited cap space and no real chance at landing a star like Kovalchuk, the Flames will likely have to go the trade route if they hope to significantly improve their current roster. There are a few intriguing names and potential targets out there that shouldn't be discounted quite yet, but first here's a breakdown of the Flames' cap situation heading into July 1 after the jump.

Pending UFAs: Christopher Higgins, Craig Conroy, Jamal Mayers, Brian McGrattan, Vesa Toskala, Eric Nystrom, Carsen Germyn, Garth Murray, Brett Palin, David Van der Gulik , Andy Delmore, Colin Stuart, David Shantz

Pending RFAs: Ian White (qualified at $997,500), Kris Chucko, J.D. Watt, Gord Baldwin, Matt Pelech, Matt Keetley, Brett Sutter (all qualified), Brad Cole 

Cap Space/Current 2010-11 Cap Hit (all numbers courtesy of CapGeek): $52,608,333

Cap Space: $6,791,667

Projected Budget: $59.4M (Budget? What budget?) 

Key Needs: Top-six forward, one or two bottom-six forwards 

Potential Targets: Alex Tanguay,  Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ray Whitney, Alexander Frolov, Brendan Morrison, Lee Stempniak, Colby Armstrong, Raffi Torres,  Jere Lehtinen, Marek Svatos, Steve Begin, John Madden, Adam Burish, Manny Malhotra,  Maxim Afinogenov, Ryan Stone, Matthew Lombardi, Paul Kariya 

Eric Francis wrote about a possible return of Alex Tanguay in the Sun today and Ken King hinted that the winger could be part of the Flames' off-season plans at a discounted salary. Signing Alex Frolov seems like a pipe dream unless the Sutter brothers suddenly have a change of heart when it comes to Russians, and the same can be said of Maxim Afinogenov--but after scoring 24 goals and 61 points for only $800K in Atlanta last season, he will garner some attention should he choose to remain in North America. Alexei Ponikarovsky fizzled after being acquired by the Penguins at the trade deadline last season, but it shouldn't be hard for the 6'4", 229lb. winger with a nose for the net to find work. After lighting it up in Phoenix upon his arrival at the trade deadline, former Leaf Lee Stempniak will be looking for a new home as of tomorrow; dare I say he'd fit right in? 

Colby Armstrong has long been rumoured a Flames target as he played for Brent Sutter in Red Deer and his brother Riley was a part of the Flames organization up until this past season, and as a Western Canadian boy with a reputation for physical play, going to the net, and getting under the opposition's skin, he is as likely a target as any for the Flames. Raffi Torres, Adam Burish, and Brendan Morrison also fit into the "pest" category, but are probably considered less attractive options. If Sutter is going for "experience," there's plenty of older, established free agent forwards capable of filling holes in both the top and bottom six such as Ray Whitney, Jere Lehtinen, former Flame Steve Begin, John Madden, and Manny Malhotra, who was a steal for the Sharks last season when he scored 14 goals and 33 points for $700K. 

The Flames summer roster alterations are never complete without the addition of the patented Sutter "reclamation project," and for that there are several candidates, amongst whom I have singled out  28-year-old Marek Svatos and 35-year-old Paul Kariya; both have seen their numbers take a tumble and have missed significant amounts of time due to injury over the course of their careers and both should come with a reduced price tag this summer, if you're willing to take the risk. Former Canucks winger Pavol Demitra also fits this bill. Native Calgarian Ryan Stone, who spent 27 games with the Oilers last season, is available if the Flames find themselves searching for a centre at any time this summer, and the return of Matthew Lombardi remains a possibility, however distant. 

Rival's Wants & Needs: The Canucks are still in the hunt for a defenceman and Kevin Bieksa could be the odd man out in Vancouver as the 'Nucks wait on Willie Mitchell's recovery with names like Volchenkov, Hamhuis, Michalek, and Martin being bantered about, and are also looking to replace the contributions of forwards Steve Bernier, Ryan Johnson, and Kyle Wellwood. The Oilers are searching for cap-friendly forwards, a top-four defenceman, and some capable bottom-pairing guys to fill the gaps, and Avs fans are fixated on Kovalchuk much like the NHL's other 29 fan bases, but are realistically in the market for a fourth-line centre and a left-winger. Saku Koivu is said to be interested in joining his brother in Minnesota, and with $11.5M in cap space to play with, the Wild could also be in on some bigger names in the coming days.  

The Flames are a team that haven't been overly active in the free agent market in recent years, but with few trading chips and limited cap space to accommodate a hefty contract without sending a significant salary back in return, that could very well change tomorrow. What say you?