There may be the threat of a labour stoppage hanging over the NHL's summer of 2012, but teams still have to plan for the best case scenario as well as the worst.
The ranks of free agents have been thinned in recent years as teams have locked up young players to lengthy deals, and marathon pacts in some cases.
But where there's a will, there's a way, and the next few weeks could see some significant moves. Who would have thought that Jeff Carter and his 10-year baggage would get moved not once, but twice, in the last year?
The next three weeks will be rife with rumour and speculation, and finally, fact, as teams look to complete most of the major pieces of their 2012-13 puzzles.
Here is a list of 10 compelling teams this off-season after duly noting: The ability of the Penguins to keep all three talented centres, Montreal's negotiations with Carey Price, and Edmonton's selection of a new coach and, perhaps, a first overall pick.
All lists are debatable, but this one has an equitable split between conferences and countries. In order of their last game played:
The Kings have as good a shot as any team recently to repeat given the fact that their core group of talented players from ages 20 to 28 are by and large under foot for a couple more seasons yet.
The unrestricted free agent group is manageable but not insignificant due to the presence of forwards Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll.
But the big assignment for Dean Lombardi after July 1 will be working on a long-term deal for star goalie Jonathan Quick, who enters the final year of a deal that pays $1.8 million US. Given that Pekka Rinne has a seven-year deal worth $49 million without a Cup ring and Conn Smythe, it will be a challenge for the Kings general manager to add another big contract to a team that already has four players with cap hits over $5 million for at least the next four seasons — Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards.
Boston's example of injured blue-liners from this season might compel the Kings to bolster that group with a depth player. The most remarkable stat these playoffs had nothing to do with goals and assists, it was the fact that the Kings dressed six defencemen from April 12 to June 11. Not a single one missed a playoff game. That kind of good health run can't be counted on again.
For all the reasons mentioned above, could promising backup Jonathan Bernier finally be moved to pick up young pieces that can help the team absorb the pay raises that are coming in the next couple of years?
You know all those breathless sports cable network reports about "progress" being made in Player X's talks, or speculation that Team Y is prepared to trade a notable players? There will be none of that with the Devils, at least none that can be overly trusted. You will know when Lou Lamoriello wants you to know.
Zach Parise is certain to test free agency; would New Jersey trade his rights if it appears unlikely he'll return? Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur likely earned himself more money than otherwise expected with his stellar playoff run, and the Devils have to start implementing a succession plan in net. Strong playoff contributors Bryce Salvador and Ryan Carter are among the unrestricted types.
Looming over all of these hockey decisions is the fact that Jeff Vanderbeek needs an ownership partner and has had an uneasy relationship with the city of Newark.
New York Rangers
The man with the cigar is usually at the centre of NHL goings-on this time of year. General manager Glen Sather and the Rangers have made a splash with big signings of Wade Redden, Markus Naslund, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards over the last five years, while unloading Scott Gomez's big contract in a multi-player deal.
Their puny offensive showing over a healthy sample size in the playoffs, combined with the fact Marian Gaborik could be gone for several weeks to start the season, makes the Rangers the team most often linked to the pursuit of Columbus forward Rick Nash. With good reason, as they have a bevy of young players who have at least a season under their belts.
To read the reports coming out of Tennessee, unrestricted free agent defenceman Ryan Suter will determine how the rest of the club's dominoes fall.
It could be a risky strategy because even GM David Poile admitted last week that Suter will likely have a "peek" at free agency.
Remember, fellow blue-liner Shea Weber isn't a given to be back, either. He is a restricted free agent for the second straight year, but the team can't initiate arbitration after doing so in 2011. If the two sides are way far apart in their pitches, it makes little sense for either party to do another one-year pact. If a rebuild is inevitable, Weber would figure to fetch a bit more this summer.
It might not be a good idea to predict the next move concerning a player who seemingly wants to take a season off despite having precious few left on the odometer, and whose famous social network account features "now you see it" posts. But all hockey observers will be tuned into any new development that changes Tim Thomas's Facebook status from "Gone huntin'" to "Gone to another team."
Boston's defencemen wore down with injuries late in the season and playoffs, unsurprising given their long playoff run in 2011.
The Bruins have already said Joe Corvo won't be back, and they have CHL defenceman of the year Dougie Hamilton in the pipeline. But perhaps they'll want to add a bit more veteran depth.
General manager Peter Chiarelli also revealed recently that forward Nathan Horton has been cleared for exertion exercises. Horton is trying to get back to NHL readiness after suffering two concussions in eight months.
From the Sharks owners on May 1:
"Despite the fact that our team has experienced a tremendous amount of success over the past eight seasons, we are not satisfied with those results and neither is [general manager Doug Wilson]. The ownership group has confidence that Doug will make the necessary changes to ensure our club remains among the NHL's elite franchises."
It will be interesting to see what unfolds given that Wilson made big changes last year with the additions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat, and the subtraction of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
The likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau should rightly be under scrutiny, but the Sharks have also suffered by continually shuffling the deck chairs on their bottom two lines in recent years. Goalie Antti Niemi's stats always seem to end up looking better than what's viewed with the eyes, but he's under contract for the next three years.
There's two ways to look at it:
The Canucks have lost their last two playoff series.
The Canucks have lost their last two playoff series to the Stanley Cup champions. (The path to the Cup the last three years has run through Vancouver).
With Tampa Bay acquiring Anders Lindback and Martin Brodeur excelling in the playoffs for New Jersey, there would appear to be few teams left with major goaltending needs. And that's before presuming they would want to take on Roberto Luongo and his not insignificant contract.
June is a popular month for big name goalies to get moved, with Ilya Bryzgalov and Jaroslav Halak recent examples. Will Luongo be the next on that list? And if he isn't moved in the next two or three weeks, does that mean he's back in Vancouver in September?
On the back end, Sami Salo and Aaron Rome are unrestricted, and it can't have escaped notice that the team's depth forwards haven't shone in the two most recent playoff losses.
The last time Nicklas Lidstrom wasn't in Detroit's future plans, Jimmy Devellano was general manager and Jacques Demers was behind the bench as coach. So yeah, a long time.
The Wings also expectedly lost veteran blue-liner Brad Stuart, trading him for a late pick as he was destined for free agency with his family living in Northern California.
Up front, Jiri Hudler would be coveted should he test the market. As well, the Wings have to make a decision on 39-year-old Tomas Holmstrom.
Detroit has been good, not great, in the last couple of seasons in no small part due to an age schism on their roster; players born after 1985 have yet to make an impact other than in depth roles. We point out here that Ryan Suter was born in that year and Zach Parise is just a year older.
There is some guarded optimism, it seems, after Calgary hired a coach in Bob Hartley who's actually won an NHL playoff series this century, which couldn't be said of the previous three coaches.
Getting there's the hard part. It appears the Flames will have more room to make moves with respect to the salary cap, but that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a path beaten to Cowtown.
Calgary has a decision to make on 33-year-old Olli Jokinen, who is coming off his best statistical season in four years, while Jay Bouwmeester's name pops up regularly in trade rumours. The price tag for other clubs is prohibitive, but the term includes just two more seasons. If Bouwmeester is moved, the question for the Flames is how to fill up the 20-odd minutes the ironman could be marked down for without fail.
Brian Burke has angrily denied that defenceman Luke Schenn could be had for the right price, but there will still be plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the team under the GM, who would figure to be on his last chance to make something happen for the Leafs, owners of the league's longest playoff drought.
As impressive as Ben Scrivens was in the American Hockey League the past season, it sure would be bold for Toronto to once again ice a tandem of two young netminders, a tack which backfired the past season. Problem is, the pickings are pretty slim for experienced netminders, though Luongo's name looms.
Toronto also has seven forwards who are unrestricted free agents in 2013, so they'll have to start assessing who will be part of the future core in short order.
Finally, did you know the Leafs still have to pay Darcy Tucker a million over the next two seasons per his buyout?
Suggest a correction