NHL free agency primer

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Unrestricted free agents can begin signing contracts at noon Sunday. Here’s a look at the top players available and the Capitals players going to market:

Cream of the crop

LW Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils: The free agent pool is the shallowest it has been in years, but Parise and Ryan Suter are the notable exceptions. The 27-year-old left wing is a deft scorer with some playmaking abilities as well. He put up 69 points this past season and helped New Jersey reach the Stanley Cup Final. Teams value his leadership, too, and he probably could be handed the captaincy in more than a few cities immediately after he signs. If the Devils don’t bring him back, the Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are considered favorites to land Parise.

D Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators: Far and away the top defenseman available, Suter was the offensive half of the Predators’ superhero pairing alongside Shea Weber. Responsible defensively but with excellent offensive instincts (46 points in 2011-12), Suter could get a contract in the $8 million-a-year range. He’s the prize on many teams’ lists, including all those interested in Parise, plus, of course, Nashville. The buzz is that Suter will take his time making a decision and not rush to be a July 1 signee.

RW Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals: The Caps’ top UFA also is the best backup plan for teams in need of scoring that don’t snap up Parise. The term “enigmatic” is thrown around too often in hockey, especially with Russians, but Semin is a mercurial person who doesn’t like to let many others see into his personality outside the game. That can be a turn-off, along with his propensity for stick penalties, but when on his game there are few pure scorers with Semin’s talent. He struggled last season to get going but proved he can be a 20-goal scorer in his sleep.

D Matt Carle, Philadelphia Flyers: With Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman off the market thanks to a trade to the Calgary Flames and a five-year, $26.25 million contract, Carle is the second-best offensive defenseman on the board and a viable option for those who miss out on Suter. The Flyers have made it known they want him back, as he’d be the final piece on a deep blue line, but the scuttlebutt is that Carle would like to play in the Western Conference, closer to where he played college hockey at the University of Denver.

RW P.A. Parenteau, New York Islanders: A late-bloomer of sorts, the 29-year-old didn’t earn a full-time NHL roster spot until 2010-11, but when he did he broke the 50-point barrier. Playing on a dreadful to middling Islanders team, Parenteau benefited by playing with John Tavares and put up 18 goals and 49 assists this past season. He could warrant a serious look from the Caps and Devils among teams needing a top-six talent on the wing.

Capitals free agents

RW Alexander Semin: After back-to-back one-year contracts with Washington, his time here likely is done. His agent, Mark Gandler, said Semin will be seeking term, and the 28-year-old shouldn’t have to take too much of a pay cut from the $6.7 million he made this past season.

RW Mike Knuble: It was evident to Knuble early on last season that he wouldn’t be back, but the big winger who turns 40 next week isn’t done playing. Expect the likes of the Bruins, Red Wings and Penguins to try to sign the respected veteran.

C Jeff Halpern: Halpern, who was captain during part of his first go-round with the Caps, didn’t seem to fit into Dale Hunter’s plans late in the season and acknowledged struggling with not being in the lineup. At 35 he wants to keep playing; the question is whether a team will give him a guaranteed one-year deal.

F Keith Aucoin: The undersized playmaker is a lock to be an American Hockey League Hall of Famer, and he was a key cog on the fourth line during the Caps’ playoff run. It will be a boon for Aucoin if he can turn that extended NHL stint into a one-way contract and a solid spot on a roster.

Minor league free agents: LW D.J. King, D Jordan Henry, LW Joel Rechlicz, D Zach Miskovic, F Jacob Micflickier (signed in Europe), C Christian Hanson, D Sean Collins, F Kyle Greentree

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