Sparse crop of free-agent forwards could spur teams to go trade route

If a team is looking for offensive help this summer, it might have better luck finding it through a trade than through free agency. Many teams are looking to shed payroll, and that’s why there likely will be several trades at the NHL draft in June.

But another reason is there doesn’t seem to be a deep pool of desirable unrestricted free agent forwards.

Despite the lack of depth in the unrestricted free agent , there will be considerable interest because every summer general managers feel pressure to be active in the marketplace.

In part II of my 2010 unrestricted free agent, we look at some potential unrestricted free agent at forward:

1. Ilya Kovalchuk: Affordability will reduce the number of suitors, but at least three of four teams likely will be willing to offer a lengthy, big number contract to bring his speed and goal scoring knack to their city. It’s difficult to imagine that any other NHL team will pay him the $101 million that he turned down from the Atlanta Thrashers before they dealt him to New Jersey. With the salary cap probably rising by only $100,000, I also can’t see anybody willing to give him the annual salary $10 million the Thrashers were willing to give him on a seven-year deal. He probably could get that, and maybe more, if he were willing to sign with a Kontinental Hockey League team. If he stays in the NHL, I’m guessing he would end up with closer to $8 million than $10 million.

2. Patrick Marleau: What happens during the playoffs will help determine his future in San Jose. If the Sharks play well in the playoffs, why wouldn’t the Sharks try to re-sign him? If they don’t, there could be pressure on GM Doug Wilson to make a dramatic move and allow Marleau to move on without a fight. Marleau’s skating ability and goal scoring potential makes him a good fit everywhere. He does have history with Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who once was his GM in San Jose.

3. Matthew Lombardi: The Coyotes would like to re-sign him, but if they don’t, there will be a large collection of teams calling his agent because he has speed, offensive ability and probably won’t tear up a team’s salary structure. He’s making $2.3 million now.

4. Alexei Ponikarovsky: Perhaps there is a way for the Penguins to keep Ponikarovsky, but if they don’t, there’s a waiting list for a 20-goal scorer with some size. He’s also know as being a good guy.

5. Matt Cullen : He seems most comfortable when he plays in Carolina, and presumably the Hurricanes would like him back. But several teams likely would be willing to give him three years at more than $3 million a season.

6. Ray Whitney: He’s about to turn 38, but some team is going to give him a two-year deal because he can still play at a high level.