The NHL lockout is coming down to the wire, with the stalemate between the league and the players' union getting closer and closer to the unspoken deadline by which hockey will either return, or officially be canceled for 2012-13.
The lockout does not merely affect hockey by preventing the sport from being played. Because of the labor dispute, owners cannot trade, sign or extend players, meaning that teams have no opportunity to bring on important restricted and unrestricted free agents, nor can they initiate negotiations to extend key players whose contracts will expire in July.
Should the season actually get underway, every team will have free agency concerns to deal with. Some franchises will scramble to add players immediately; other will use the duration of the season to reach new deals before the summer.
Here is one player on each squad who is either a current free agent or a soon-to-be free agent and will be getting some extra attention from the general managers.
All free agency and salary information from capgeek.com.
The Anaheim Ducks have a much more difficult slew of free agency questions to deal with than most teams, and it all begins with the first line.
The Ducks will be looking to extend both their captain, Ryan Getzlaf, and their leading goal-scorer, Corey Perry, and it is a virtual toss-up which of the two players is the most important to turn into a lifelong Duck.
There is no doubt whatsoever that both players will get big offers from their squad, but seeing as Getzlaf is the team's captain, he is oh-so-slightly more pivotal than Perry is, which means he gets his mug in this article.
Assuming that Tim Thomas's ridiculous little sabbatical leaves the Bruins without their Conn Smythe-winning netminder, Tuukka Rask is poised to take over the job of Boston goaltender for good.
Rask is certainly cut out for the job, and the only thing standing between the masked Finn and a long-term role in Beantown is his impending RFA status.
There seems to be little reason to believe that the Bruins won't be enthusiastic to offer Rask an extension, but until they do, Rask's long-term future in Boston will be on the minds of every Bs fan out there.
The Buffalo Sabres have an abundance of free agency questions to answer before July, but it all starts with one of their top centers, Cody Hodgson.
Hodgson racked up 43 points in his first full season, including eight points in 20 games after being traded from Vancouver to Buffalo. He'll need some time to develop into a big offensive player, but the Sabres must remain committed to Hodgson's progression.
As he grows, a top line featuring Hodgson between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville would become very dangerous.
The Jarome Iginla debate goes back and forth as to whether Iginla should be extended or traded, but Iginla is the heart and soul of this Calgary team and unless another club puts together an offer the Flames can't refuse, Calgary should commit themselves to keeping Iggy around for the remainder of his career.
He will likely take a pay cut from his current $7 million contract, and the Flames will not have a lot of wiggle room once the new, presumably lower salary cap comes into play, but the romantic in all of us wants to see Iginla retire a Flame.
Carolina may find themselves focusing on extending Alexander Semin if he is productive over the course of his one-year deal with the 'Canes, but for now, the team should concentrate on its role players, specifically Chad LaRose.
LaRose is yet to play a full season in his career, but if he can stay healthy, he can be a 20-goal scorer from the second or third line.
Chicago's biggest questions come in the goaltender position, but those are issues that will likely need to be addressed via trade or unrestricted free agency next summer.
The 'Hawks have a very solid offensive corps, and they'll want to extend one of their bigger bodies in Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg impressed with 43 points last season as a sophomore and fits nicely into the Chicago offense.
A contract extension will be in order if Stalberg keeps it up.
Ryan O'Reilly was one of a handful of restricted free agents who did not reach a deal with his team before the lockout began on Sept. 16.
O'Reilly broke out for 55 points last season just in time for his contract extension, as the Avalanche center proved he deserves more than the $900,000 he was making. There is little doubt that a deal will get done once the lockout ends, but it will have to happen fast to get him on the roster for the first game of a shortened season.
Where to start with the Columbus Blue Jackets?
The team will lose both goaltenders, Sergei Bobrovsky and Steve Mason, to free agency in July if they don't get extensions, but there isn't a whole lot of reason to believe they'll actually want to extend either player.
Instead, the most important player to extend is Artem Anisimov, who hasn't actually played a day in a Jackets' uniform yet. Nonetheless, the team has so few quality players to extend that it is Anisimov by default.
Playing on an entry-level contract valued at $875,000 per year, Jamie Benn put up 41, 56 and 63 points in his first three years with the Dallas Stars.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that Benn is due for a big payday.
Unfortunately, the Stars were unable to get Benn under contract before the lockout, so the team will have to work fast after the lockout to keep Benn in Dallas. He is a restricted free agent, so it's very unlikely he'll end up leaving town, but the pressure will be on the Stars to construct a fair deal and not be outbid by another enthusiastic club.
With Nicklas Lidstrom gone, the Detroit Red Wings are looking to the future to keep their blue line among the most feared in hockey.
One of the players that the Red Wings are especially high on is Brendan Smith, a smooth-skating, mid-sized defenseman from the University of Wisconsin. Smith will be a full-time NHLer if the season commences, and before free agency begins, there is little doubt that the Red Wings will have worked hard to extend him.
The spotlight in Edmonton shines bright on offensive stars like Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, but Ladislav Smid has quietly become one of Edmonton's most important players on the defensive side of the puck.
Smid finished seventh in the league in blocked shots and also managed 186 hits last season, major contributions for a team that is trying to establish its defensive identity. If they can start to build a defensive unit around Smid and Justin Schultz, the Oilers will finally get over the hump and back in playoff contention.
The Panthers have a few key players who will need to be extended before July 2013, including Peter Mueller and goaltender Jose Theodore, but Florida's most important player is Stephen Weiss.
Weiss isn't critical simply because he is the franchise's second-leading scorer of all time, but also because he is pivotal to Florida's identity. Through many tumultuous years in Sunrise, Weiss has been the one constant. Allowing Weiss to walk would likely cause the Panthers to lose whatever small presence they have in Florida sports.
Much of the core of the Stanley Cup champions is locked up beyond 2012-13, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
However, one of the key young players who could potentially play a major role on the team for years to come is Slava Voynov, who has six goals and eight assists in 27 AHL games this season. Should he continue to develop as a solid two-way defenseman, look for Voynov to be extended as a key part of LA's defense for years to come.
This offseason, the Minnesota Wild made huge steps toward structuring their offense around star Zach Parise and their defense around star Ryan Suter.
Outside of those two big signings, the team faces a number of free agency questions for next year, including defenseman Justin Falk and goaltender Nicklas Backstrom. But those questions begin with Marco Scandella, a big 22 year-old defenseman who could serve as the perfect complement to Suter's offensive style.
Look for Scandella to get a modest extension from the Wild, who will be interested in making Scandella a cheap, home-grown investment.
P.K. Subban was one of the big offseason free agency stories, as the Canadiens and their star defensemen were unable to come to an agreement on his value.
The end of the lockout will bring about an interesting situation, where Subban could see an offer sheet from a different team that would either cause him to leave Montreal, or at least force Montreal to pay more than they would like to keep Subban around. Of course, if the new CBA results in a much lower cap with bigger contract restrictions, Subban may not get the kind of offer he would have received in a different year.
In the last three seasons, Hornqvist has quietly scored 30, 21 and 27 goals for the Predators, making him a very crucial part of Nashville's offense. He is due to be a restricted free agent next summer, and with Nashville already poised to deal with the loss of Ryan Suter's 46 points, the team will do everything in its power to keep Hornqvist in the Music City.
However, money could be an issue for the Predators, who will owe Shea Weber a $13 million bonus next summer. The team will have their fingers crossed that Hornqvist is okay with a hometown discount.
Somehow, Adam Henrique managed to steal the spotlight from the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and even Martin Brodeur last season.
The rookie center put up 51 points in the regular season and 13 more in the playoffs, making a strong case to the New Jersey front office that he should become a long-term investment before his entry-level contract expires in the summer.
As the Islanders try to get back into the playoff hunt, the team is building around superstar forward John Tavares. However, Tavares needs depth around him to truly get the Isles out of the Atlantic Division basement, and that will start with center Josh Bailey.
Bailey has not panned out the way the Isles have hoped, but he has been making small strides toward becoming a key top-six player for the Islanders. Look for the team to extend him for a few more years at a low price as they try to build their offense.
Michael Del Zotto is an unsigned RFA as we speak, and conventional wisdom would suggest that the Rangers' first focus should be on MDZ.
But New York has one of hockey's best defenses, and Ryan McDonagh, who will be eligible for an extension when the new CBA is agreed upon, is one of the key parts of that defense. The Rangers should put less focus on how to keep Del Zotto in MSG and more on making sure that McDonagh will be playing alongside the likes of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal for years to come.
Ottawa's playoff goaltender, Craig Anderson, is still capable at age 31, but the Sens know what they're going to get with Anderson. The team acquired Ben Bishop from the St. Louis Blues last year, who has the potential to become a bona fide starting goalie at the NHL level.
The Sens should look to extend Bishop quickly at a reduced salary as he remains in the backup role, and hope that he breaks out and becomes one of hockey's better bang-for-your-buck netminders.
With Kimmo Timonen's contract ending and his health and age making the Flyers reticent to extend him, the team will be looking ahead for the future of their puck-moving defensemen, and that starts with Erik Gustafsson.
Gustafsson has jumped between the NHL and AHL but has some excellent potential to be a Timonen-esque player. Should the CBA be signed soon, the Flyers will likely use the last few months of Timonen's contract to have him mentor the blossoming Gustafsson.
Some like to argue that Mike Smith's stellar 2011-12 was just a flash in the pan, but if the Coyotes' netminder can put up similar numbers in a 2013 season (if it exists), then the franchise will spend what little money they have to make sure he remains in the desert.
Of course, if Smith replicates his .930 save percentage this season, his price tag might become too high for the league-owned desert dogs.
Having lost their third line centerman Jordan Staal in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Pens will be hoping that Tyler Kennedy can fill Staal's impressive two-way skates as a key player in the bottom six.
Kennedy is already a proficient pest and gutsy offensive zone contributor, and role players like these need to be kept around. The Pens lost Max Talbot to the Flyers when they lollygagged on an extension, so you had better believe they won't make the same mistake with Kennedy.
Currently, Antti Niemi is San Jose's starting netminder, but his struggles since winning the Stanley Cup in Chicago have the Sharks looking past Niemi to his backup, Thomas Greiss.
The German netminder played 19 games last season and posted a .915 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average, making him an intriguing player for San Jose. It is hard to pay two netminders the salary of a starter, but if the Sharks can move Niemi or get a discount on Greiss, he'll remain in the Shark Tank for quite some time.
The Blues are a team on the rise, and Alex Pietrangelo is a huge part of the team's outstanding defensive unit.
Besides fitting in with the club's defense-first philosophy, Pietrangelo is also a consistent offensive contributor. He finished fifth in the league among defensemen with 51 points last season, not far behind the team's leading scorers David Backes and TJ Oshie, who each had 54.
Pietrangelo is a key investment for the Blues if they want to end their Stanley Cup drought.
The Lightning acquired the Boston forward before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, so Pouliot has not actually played a game for the Bolts in his career. However, the team owned his rights before free agency and the team signed him to a one-year, $1.8 million deal.
Pouliot is a key big body on an otherwise flashy offense, and unless the investment turns out to go completely awry, the Lightning will want to keep him around for much more than just a year before the summer.
Phil Kessel's meteoric rise to the top of NHL scoring leader boards last season brought Joffrey Lupul with him.
Lupul had a career year playing alongside Kessel, and given the Maple Leafs struggles with almost every other facet of their team, they'll be happy to keep this scoring duo in check while they figure out how to get back to the playoffs.
The Vancouver Canucks have a number of impending free agency concerns and not a lot of cap space, so while keeping Alexander Edler on the team is a virtual must, it won't be so simple.
The Canucks already have four defensemen making over $4 million per season, and Edler is perhaps the most deserving of the group when it comes to getting a big paycheck. If the Canucks can move a contract, they'll certainly bring Edler on, but otherwise Mike Gillis is going to have to get creative to keep his star defenseman around.
Both Braden Holtby and fellow netminder Michael Neuvirth are due for extensions before July, and which one gets the big money probably depends on who has the more impressive regular season, if there is one.
For now, my money is on Holtby, who nearly carried the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Finals with his outstanding playoff performance last season. However, if he comes down off that cloud during 2013, then Neuvirth could be the one signing for big bucks in the early summer.
The Jets have big decisions to make on many key player, including Zach Bogosian, Nick Antropov and Alexander Burmistrov, but Blake Wheeler should be their No. 1 concern.
Wheeler busted out in a playmaking role for the Jets, putting up career highs in points and assists while playing alongside Evander Kane, and he could have Olli Jokinen as his center when the season commences. That is a unit the Jets could be interested in building around, but it will start by giving Wheeler his due.