While the Stanley Cup playoffs are first and foremost on the minds of those in the hockey world right now, it won't be long before the focus shifts toward free agency.
Although the current crop of free agents won't necessarily be fully intact by the time the signing period begins, it looks like a fairly strong class on the surface.
There is some depth at every position, which will allow top teams to get even better and rising teams to potentially reach the next level.
Stanley Cups aren't necessarily won through free agency, since drafting and developing players is hugely important, but there is no question that smart free-agent signings can set a strong foundation.
Here is a look at some of the biggest names set to hit free agency along with predictions for where they will ultimately land.
Few forwards in the NHL over the past several years have produced points as consistently as Montreal Canadiens winger Thomas Vanek.
With Vanek in the final year of his contract, he has experienced a hectic season. After playing 13 games with the Buffalo Sabres, he was dealt to the New York Islanders before being shipped to the Habs at the NHL trade deadline.
Most expected the Isles to make a playoff run after a surprising 2012-13 campaign, but they fell flat. They made numerous attempts to re-sign him, but had no choice other than to trade him when no deal could be reached.
Vanek has been a point-per-game game player for Montreal and has an opportunity to do some damage in the playoffs. The Canadiens definitely seem like a good fit for Vanek over the long term, but former Sportsnet reporter Alyson Lozoff suggests that all signs point to him testing the open market:
Vanek "I think in the business we're in, some of us only will get to free agency once & I decided a year ago that's the route I'm going to."— Alyson Lozoff (@AlysonLozoff) March 17, 2014
Vanek has scored 30 or more goals in a season on four occasions and has an all-around game that would fit with essentially any team.
He is a very underrated passer, has a booming shot and especially thrives in front of the net on the power play.
Teams will line up in order to sign him this summer, but one stands out in particular. Vanek played at the University of Minnesota, and it stands to reason that the Austrian star might like to return to his home away from home.
The Minnesota Wild traded for Vanek's former Sabres teammate, Jason Pominville, last year, which means that Vanek has yet another connection. Minnesota also has a lot of salary coming off the books this summer in the form of Dany Heatley and Matt Moulson, so it'll have money to spend.
The Wild spent big on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter two offseasons ago, and they could very well do the same when it comes to Vanek.
Another former Sabre who has an opportunity to strike it rich in free agency this offseason is goalie Ryan Miller.
While there is seemingly less emphasis on goaltending in the NHL than in past years, Miller has consistently been one of the NHL's best. He is also extremely popular due to his success with Team USA at the Olympics four years ago, so signing him could energize any fanbase.
Miller was beloved in Buffalo, but with the Sabres rebuilding and Miller in the final year of his contract, they made the obvious decision to trade him at the deadline. Buffalo got a solid return from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Miller and all parties involved seemed to benefit.
Which potential free agent will garner the most interest?
The Blues were considered a Stanley Cup contender prior to Miller's arrival, but he definitely bolstered their chances.
With that said, it can be argued that his play has dropped off a bit since leaving Buffalo. His goals-against average is significantly better due to an improved supporting cast, but his save percentage has taken a hit.
Even so, Miller is a definite upgrade over the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. His true worth will be tested in the playoffs, but there is reason to believe that Miller and the Blues could reach an extension at some point.
Shortly after Miller made his debut with the Blues, Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he expressed potential interest in staying in the fold over the long term.
"I'm very open to [re-signing with the Blues]," Miller said. "But right now, it's more about the hockey. We're going to have a lot of time later on to feel that out. I think it's definitely a possibility."
Since the goaltender market probably won't be hot and heavy in free agency, Miller may find out that he doesn't have many other options. With that in mind, look for Miller to remain in the Show Me State for next season and beyond.
The Colorado Avalanche have been among the NHL's most surprising teams this season and the excellent play of center Paul Stastny has been a driving force behind it.
Stastny racked up 70 or more points in three of four seasons from 2006-07 through 2009-10, but he is a different type of player now.
He is still capable of contributing in a big way offensively, as evidenced by his 60 points this year, but he has also developed into a great two-way player. He is strong on faceoffs and more than capable of getting the job done against the opposition's top line.
With great, young talent like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon in the fold, it is entirely possible that the Avs will let Stastny walk.
He will garner plenty of interest and should have his pick of the litter for the most part.
It's tough to predict where he might land, but the Edmonton Oilers feel like an interesting fit. According to CapGeek.com, they have the sixth-most cap space in the NHL right now, and they could use a veteran presence at center.
Like Colorado, Edmonton has a lot of good, young talent at forward, but the Oilers don't really have someone like Stastny to pull it all together. He would be an excellent fit behind Taylor Hall and might finally galvanize the Oilers' move up the standings.
Earlier in the season, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal pointed to Stastny as a great fit for the Oil:
@mitchdul Paul Stastny is a free agent this summer. He'd be close to perfect.— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) January 7, 2014
Nothing has changed since then, so don't be surprised if Edmonton makes a run at him.
The Oilers have been unable to escape the NHL's basement in recent years. However, Stastny can change that provided some improvements are made defensively as well.
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