As we wrap up another fantastic NHL season with the Stanley Cup Final, teams will look ahead to next year. There can only be one team that wins the last game of the season, and everyone else will start building their rosters to play king of the NHL mountain in 2012-13.
There will certainly be plenty of buyers this offseason, as the era of the salary cap has created more parity in the NHL than ever before. The Stanley Cup Final has been a shining example of the competitive balance in the league. With a sixth seed playing an eighth seed, nobody questions whether either team deserves to be there.
Such balance gives every franchise hope that it can get over the hump to compete in the second season. Teams like Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton are rich in tradition and have hungry fanbases itching to return to the playoffs.
The salary-cap increase to $70.3 million is only a temporary guide to regulate offseason spending. That number could change, of course, with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15.
With the Penguins and Capitals making some noise already with the Tomas Vokoun trade, itchy trigger fingers could pull off the blockbuster deal that sends the dominoes falling. In the meantime, July 1 is the date that all general managers have circled on their calendars.
The free-agent sweepstakes are coming up fast. Let's see who is going where.
Teemu Selanne: No-brainer here. The "Finnish Flash" is still producing like an elite player, so he should be priority No. 1.
Tuukka Rask: With Tim Thomas being a drama queen in Beantown, the Bruins need to lock up their goalie of the future immediately.
Tyler Ennis: The speedy winger has proved to be one of the most productive players on the Sabres' roster. He's an RFA, so getting his contract taken care of should be a priority.
Olli Jokinen: The Finnish center was a bargain at $3 million last year and would probably be available for around the same price. He was the best player on the team for large parts of 2011-12.
Bryan Allen: Zach Parise is the sexy choice for Carolina, but re-signing the 6'5" Allen should be their first priority. Scoring was a rarity for the Hurricanes last year, but keeping pucks out of the net and helping Cam Ward should be their primary focus.
Goaltending: The Blackhawks need to find someone to push Corey Crawford. Crawford was erratic at best this season and postseason. If they can't find an answer in free agency, the Hawks may make a trade.
Ryan O'Reilly: The Avalanche have a pile of free agents to re-sign on their roster. Ryan O'Reilly was the Avs' leading scorer this season, more than doubling his points total from the year before. The third-year center is an RFA and should be a priority for Colorado.
Nikita Nikitin: The second-year Russian defenseman is an RFA and had a solid year with the Blue Jackets (finishing at only minus-five is a pretty impressive stat on Columbus). He should be a cornerstone of a young Blue Jackets team set to rebuild, again.
Jamie Benn: The Dallas winger's production got him a spot on the All-Star team this year. As he is an RFA, the Stars need to lock him up to show they are serious about getting back to the playoffs.
Ryan Suter: Obviously with the departure of all-world defenseman Nick Lidstrom, replacing his spot on the blue line takes precedence over anything else. The Wings are said to be interested in multiple free agents, so stay tuned.
Ryan Smyth: I was reluctant to include Smyth on here, but his veteran presence on the Oilers is crucial for the development of the young stars in Edmonton. He'll take a discount to stay near his home and will give the younger stars needed leadership.
Jason Garrison: The young Panthers defenseman was among the team leaders in hits, blocks and goals. He was instrumental in getting Florida back to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. The Panthers have other needs, too, but re-signing Garrison should take precedence.
Dustin Penner?!: I can't believe I might actually be suggesting this, but the Kings' chemistry has helped them get to within one home win of the Stanley Cup. Each player has played a role in Los Angeles getting this far, including the vilified Penner.
The question will be, how much money will huge underachievers Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll ask for when their contracts expire?
Personally, I'd throw a dump truck of money and extend Jonathan Quick before he hits free agency next year.
Zach Parise: The Wild are optimistic that they can lure Parise back home to Minnesota. It's hard to imagine Parise will re-sign with New Jersey, in spite of the Devils' unlikely run. I think it's fair to say that the biggest, best deal will win the Parise sweepstakes, and the Wild have the benefit of playing in his backyard.
Carey Price: Resigning RFA All-Star goalie Price has to be the focus in Montreal. While the Canadiens have a decent amount of cap room to play with, they have completely overhauled their front office and coaching staff, too.
Shea Weber: While conventional wisdom suggests that the Predators need to re-sign Ryan Suter, they have about eight other roster spots to fill. Keeping their team intact, minus Suter, should be their focus, and that means giving franchise player and captain Weber a blockbuster deal to keep the RFA in Music City.
Zach Parise: The Devils have to at least attempt to keep their captain in place. The financial scene in New Jersey is dire, but Lou Lamoriello has been one of the top general managers in sports. If anyone can broker a deal to keep Parise with the Devils, Lou can do it.
P.A. Parenteau: The Islanders have an exciting, young roster, and Parenteau had a breakout season last year. Keeping him in the fold will be tough considering the premium put on scoring in the NHL. The Islanders should be careful not to break the bank to keep him on Long island. Harmony and chemistry will be keys to keeping the team headed in the right direction.
Alexander Semin: There is no reason to believe this could happen, other than my belief that John Tortorella could motivate the apathetic Russian winger. Semin could work well on a line with Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan, and might be able to rediscover his scoring touch under the angry, watchful eye of Torts.
Matt Carkner: Carkner a coveted free agent? In Ottawa, he fits well in the tough-guy defenseman role. The Senators have a lot of good shooting, puck-moving defensemen and need a tough guy to clear Craig Anderson's crease and punch Brian Boyle in the face.
Jaromir Jagr: Jagr was a pleasant surprise for the Flyers this year. He started the season on fire before cooling off after the All-Star break. A full season back in the NHL will remind Jagr about the grind of an 82-game season, and he might be able to finish stronger next year. He was worth the $3 million last year and could be worth the same amount next year.
Shane Doan: The Coyotes have a couple of free agents to get back into the pack, but it all starts with their leader, Shane Doan. The emotional Coyote captain will most certainly want to be back in Phoenix for year No. 17, and GM Don Maloney wants him back as well.
Steve Sullivan: With the trade for Tomas Vokoun, the Pens have addressed their goaltending depth issue. Now GM Ray Shero will want to fortify his skaters with veteran savvy and leadership by re-signing Steve Sullivan. Signing Alexander Semin would be a coup for the Penguins, but they would have to be creative with the salary cap to do so.
Brad Stuart: Stuart will most likely be returning to California this summer. In spite of all the domestic rumblings, the Wings have made no attempts to re-sign him. Stuart would provide an immediate upgrade to a lackluster Sharks defense. Though not the physical presence he used to be, Stuart would improve the blue line in San Jose.
Barret Jackman: Jackman is a physical defenseman who provides some grit and toughness for a young defensive corps in St. Louis. Jackman is an ideal fit for the tight checking style of Ken Hitchcock. Not the rough-and-tumble penalty-minute machine he used to be, Jackman can still mix it up when needed.
Josh Harding: He isn't the sexiest free-agent goalie pick-up, but Harding has been solid in Minnesota. At 27 years old, he would immediately lower the average age on the Tampa goaltending depth chart.
GM Steve Yzerman said he would address the Lightning's goaltending needs by exploring free agency and draft possibilities. Harding could be a nice fit at a reasonable price.
Goaltending: The giant, pink polka-dotted elephant in the Toronto Maple Leaf war room is the issue of goaltending. The Maple Leafs' annual spring collapse centered around their inability to keep pucks out of their own goal.
The quick fix is via blockbuster trade, with Roberto Luongo stewing angrily in Vancouver. Ben Scrivens has been playing well for the Toronto Marlies into their postseason, but the Leafs need an established No. 1 to anchor the team and end their playoff drought.
Cory Schneider: While other teams are looking for answers in goal, Vancouver is simply looking for the right answer. On paper, the team can't go wrong by dealing one of its Grade A backstops.
It makes the most sense for them to deal Luongo and sign RFA Schneider to a long-term deal. It would give the young apprentice the vote of confidence moving forward that he is the man in the Pacific Northwest, and would keep him from looking to the bench every time he gives up a goal.
Dennis Wideman: The scenario that seems to make the most sense in Washington is for the Capitals to re-sign Wideman and put former Norris candidate Mike Green out as trade bait.
Wideman may be three years older, but he is more defensively responsible with the puck and has been able to stay on the ice without injury the past couple of years. Green still may have value in a trade for a team hopeful he can recover his form of just three years ago.
Jiri Hudler: The Jets will probably be in the market for a winger that can score, and with a plethora of grinders on the roster, Hudler to the Jets actually makes sense. They can probably pluck him from Motown at a fair price, and he can potentially mesh with Winnipeg's top-six forwards.