After the big names of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, there isn’t an obvious amount of free agent talent this year. Toronto’s general manager Brian Burke hypothesized on a Halifax radio station this week that free agency will never be the same, since teams are locking up their star talent to lifetime deals at younger ages.

I can buy that theory. In the pre-lockout era, it seemed that a “long term deal” was something like four or five seasons. There are at least 50 NHLers on deals 6 or more years, from Duncan Keith to Niklas Kronwall to James Wisniewski. This isn’t just a concept usually reserved for stars, but it’s a cheap way to secure second-tier talent for years.

Of free agents under the age of 40, descending by total points in 2011-12, you get Parise, then P-A Parenteau and Olli Jokinen. Not exactly the type of players who can singlehandedly turn a team’s fortunes around. Alexander Semin, Shane Doan and Jiri Hudler come up next, followed by Steve Sullivan, Kyle Wellwood, Ryan Smyth and Petr Sykora.

You have to think that Smyth is tied to the Edmonton Oilers, but Wellwood and Hudler are both interesting names for a couple of reasons. That said, there isn’t a lot of obvious talent in the list and if teams are generally looking to get better via free agency, they’ll have to get a bit creative.

On defence:

Matt Carle and Adrian Aucoin

Suter and Garrison are the two big names on ‘D’. Garrison had a very good underlying 2011 playing alongside Mike Weaver, and benefit from scoring 16 goals, easily a career-high, in his free agency year paired with Brian Campbell. He’s not a bad defenceman, but on the open market, he’ll be one of the high sought-after guys.

Matt Carle out of Philadelphia isn’t on the same level as Suter or Garrison, but he was a plus-possession player on very tough minutes in Philadelphia, with a .589 Corsi Rel QoC, the third hardest minutes among defencemen, and only Nik Grossman and Pavel Kubina, who were midseason additions, started more shifts in the defensive zone than Carle.

If a younger guy (Carle is 27) isn’t in your plan, then why not a look at Adrian Aucoin, who is ancient by NHL standards but he played over 20 minutes last season as a 38-year old in Phoenix. He also saw some tough minutes, a .483 Corsi Rel QoC, more defensive starts than offensive, and was still a plus-Corsi guy. There’s probably a little bit more in-depth information you can do about Aucoin, but he’s been a reliable top four guy his whole career and, at least on the surface, he’s still got it.

At forward:

Jay McClement, Kyle Wellwood, Daniel Winnik and Dominic Moore

Until last season, Jay McClement had played very tough competition. Last season, Joe Sacco in Colorado kept him generally out of harm’s way as far as opposition goes, but he still started just 35% of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice. He’s any coach’s dream, a centreman who plays the tough minutes and wins the key face-offs. One of the new trends in hockey is the tough centreman eating the heavy minutes and helping the scorers get put in easier situations, and McClement has been one of the best in recent years doing this, also a threat to score 10 goals or so. He’s on the market for the first time.

Kyle Wellwood, wherever he’s gone, has put up good possession numbers. In his last two seasons, with San Jose and Winnipeg, two good possession clubs, his Relative Corsi is over 15: 18.5 in San Jose and 15.8 in Winnipeg. He doesn’t play the tightest minutes and is definitely sheltered, he’s surprisingly effective in those situations: his 2.15 even strength points per 60 minutes in 2012 was the 63rd best in the NHL this past season.

The next two guys both went to San Jose midseason and had half-decent endings of the season. Winnik is the winger version of McClement, except offensively inept. He’s a very good checking line winger, keeping the play predominantly in the opposing end (his Corsi in the last two seasons was 3.6 and 4.8 per 60 minutes) but his offensive inability means he’s wasted in a larger role. There aren’t many guys like him on the market however, and if you’re going to get a one-way guy, a one-way defensive player is cheaper than a one-way offensive forward who will scored you 25 goals but give it right back on defence.

Moore is a lot like McClement in that he’s a tough minutes centreman who can take face-offs and play in the key situations. He’s jumped around from team-to-team in his career but he’s never seemed to stick anywhere despite being fairly good at what he does. If a team misses out on McClement, Moore is a good replacement if they’re looking for that tough competition, defensive zone face-off man.

[All data from this post came from Behind The Net . ca]